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How my heart condition was the wake-up call I needed to change diet

Fast food and a love of alcohol are now out for Paul Hopkins in favour of tap water, porridge and baby kale

Published 12/09/2016

Fast food and a love of alcohol are now out for Paul Hopkins in favour of tap water, porridge and baby kale
Fast food and a love of alcohol are now out for Paul Hopkins in favour of tap water, porridge and baby kale
Paul with his daughter Niamh before his run-in with illness
Paul after changing his ways

Early June and I was driving across country towards Slane in Co Meath when I felt the life drain out of me. I am having a heart attack, I thought, with all the attendant symptoms I associate with such - pain, strangely down my right arm as opposed to my left, shortness of breath, sweating and, most frightening of all, my right hand, on the steering wheel, locked into a contorted, twisted shape one associates with stroke.

I panicked, thinking, oddly, if my hand is fecked I may never be able to write again. Or maybe I didn't quite panic, for I had the presence of mind to realise I was not far from Our Lady's Hospital in Navan. With beads of sweat trickling down my face and the nape of my neck I carried on driving with difficulty, thinking that if I stopped that would be it - my final resting place the side of a quiet country road.

"I think I'm having a heart attack," I said quietly but urgently to the young woman at reception, not wishing to seem alarmist to her or the 20-plus people awaiting attention in Navan A&E.

Within two minutes flat they had me hooked up to a myriad machines, monitoring heartbeat, blood and brain function. Staff kept coming to me to take blood samples, urine samples; anything I was capable of giving, they were taking. They looked concerned; I was concerned, for the pain, dizziness, sweats were not abating. So, this could be it, I thought.

To cut a long story short, and not to prolong your agony of having to endure my agony, after all the tests, scans, X-rays and ultra-sound what it boiled down to was this: I did not have a heart attack, as we strictly understand it, but I was suffering from cardiac arrhythmia.

Arrhythmia can produce a broad range of symptoms, from barely perceptible to cardiovascular collapse. When it is severe or long-lasting the heart may not be able to pump enough blood to the body, as in my case.

The risk of such a heart condition increases as we age. And given that I am now, sad to relate, the other side of 60, I was a ripe candidate for cardiac arrhythmia.

There had been symptoms I had ignored for almost a year, most noticeably tingling like pins and needles in my fingers, that right hand locking occasionally into spasm, general tiredness and lack of energy, and bad sleeping patterns.

But, as the doctors informed me on my discharge after four days in hospital, my obese state of being overweight, my diet of fast and processed food, and my over-fondness for alcohol had landed me where I was.

New figures released on Thursday last by Cancer Research UK show that three out of four people in Northern Ireland are unaware of the link between obesity and cancer. Around 25% of adults in Northern Ireland are obese, which impacts on their risk of developing cancer. There are also proven links between obesity, alcohol excess and heart failure.

My kidneys were operating at, literally, only 50% function and I was effectively devoid of electrolytes in my body. Electrolytes in our bodies are essential for normal function of our cells and organs.

Common electrolytes include sodium, potassium, chloride, and bicarbonate. In my case I had no potassium or magnesium in my body and little sodium.

Decreased potassium can arise due to kidney diseases, hence my renal activity being only 50%. Excessive losses are due to excess sweating and diarrhoea - common symptoms of heavy drinking and hangover.

Magnesium is necessary for the formation of bone and teeth and for, as again was my case, normal nerve and muscle function. Decreased sodium occurs with some diseases of the liver and kidney, and in patients with congestive heart failure, and indeed numerous other conditions.

Electrolytes important to body and brain function can be found in everyday fruit and veg - and in nuts, seeds and cereals. The 'five-a-day' recommended for so long by doctors and nutritionists is no mere flippant mantra - it is vital to staying healthy.

I was, up to my admission to A&E, no dedicated follower of 'five-a-day'. Leave such to the monks on rabbit food, was my thinking on the matter. And what little electrolytes my body was getting from the occasional banana or apple, and I mean occasional, were being totally depleted by my drinking.

Let me explain. You and I go out tonight to the pub; I have, say, five pints and you have five standard glasses of wine or five small Bush with water. The thinking - particularly among men who like to imagine their drinking is not as bad as the other fella's - that, if you must drink, stick with the pints doesn't really add up, at least not in my case.

All alcoholic drinks, like coffee in excess, are diuretics. They make you want to pee a lot. How many of us men have said of a Saturday night standing against a urinal: "Ah, sure you're only renting the stuff… the middle-man"?

My five pints, though, contain much more diuretic liquid than your wine or Bushmills, and in their rush to exit my body, such is the volume, that in exiting they swoosh up any electrolytes in my body and pee them away.

One of my attendant symptoms was dehydration. Alcohol, particularly pints, despite being liquid, dehydrate you, being diuretic and through sweating and diarrhoea. Water does the opposite, it not being a diuretic. Whiskey may be the 'uisce beatha' to the hardened or regular drinker, but water is the real stuff of life.

On my discharge from hospital in June I decided to clean up my act. I had been given a second chance. My body is a temple for my soul, it deserved to be treated better. So I have turned my diet and way of life around, not to any great excess, for it doesn't have to be like that. When we think of diet we imagine starvation and denial. Not so. It is all about eating the right things and in balance and all about moderation in all things.

I eat my five veg and fruit a day: an orange, an apple, a banana, avocado and kiwi (the latter two are super-foods). Grapes and strawberries and super prunes. I munch on a stick of celery or a carrot; dine on mixed leaves and cherry tomatoes and am having a love affair with baby kale (another super-food).

I eat fish four days a week, the oily ones like mackerel, salmon, tuna and sardines on toast for breakfast, if I am not having a boiled egg (eggs are so good for you!) after porridge with seeds like flax and sunflower and a handful of chia, the super-food of the Aztecs and available in most supermarkets, and topped off with super duper blueberries.

Yes, I eat bread, meat (chicken) and pasta once a week maybe, for we need our carbs. To top it off, I drink four to five pints of tap water daily, the first one warm, with half a lemon squeezed in, which is good for digestion, detox and hydration and is not as difficult as I once thought, And if I nibble, it is on a few almonds or cashew nuts, or that stick of celery. I have virtually cut out processed food altogether, my new mantra being that if doesn't grow in the ground or on a tree or I cannot catch it in the sea, then I avoid.

I take regular exercise when I can. Twenty minutes of a good walk daily will suffice, at least at my age! I try to avoid alcohol during the week and try to stick to the recommended limits at the weekend. I say I try, because I am no fanatic and I have, just once or twice since June, fallen among thieves, but I am not about to beat myself up over it. That's no fun. If I fall down, I pick myself up and start again the next day. And anyway we need the odd self-indulgency, to love ourselves a wee bit.

And, yes, I have had a Big Mac or two since and the odd Chinese takeaway. Big deal.

The thing is, my new way of balanced and proper eating and sensible drinking has me feeling better, brighter, more creative, sleeping better and 21lbs lighter. Honest-to-goodness food never tasted so good. And, dare I say it, my skin positively glows.

It's easier than you think to be healthier. But please, do not take my word for it. If you know deep down you need to get your act together, whatever your age, sex or weight, have a word with a qualified nutritionist - and always consult your GP.

Deep down, it could well be your inner self telling you the old temple needs more than a lick of paint or two…

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