Something strange happens when you get a diagnosis – everyone suddenly has advice about how you should take care of your health – as if they’ve ever walked in your shoes. From suggestions about alternative treatments to the new fad diet that worked for your cousin’s best friend’s sister, it can be overwhelming to weed through all the suggestions. One day everyone says to go vegan and the next day Keto is the answer to all your problems. While all this information can be overwhelming, to live well with chronic illness, it’s essential to get a handle on your nutrition.
Why does nutrition matter?
The Power of Your Gut
As outlined in the recent special issue of TIME Magazine, The Science of Stress, research conducted over the last few decades has shown that gut health plays a significant role in overall mental and physical health. The brain, gastrointestinal tract, and the central nervous system are all connected through the gut-brain-axis. Having a healthy gut microbiome is an essential component of your overall health. For example, did you know that part of your nervous system (the enteric nervous system) actually lines the intestinal tract? It’s there that important neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin (happy and calming hormones) are regulated. In short, gut health impacts your mindset along with physiological processes in your body. If you are facing chronic illness, it is crucial to pay attention to nutrition and ensure a healthy gut microbiome. The gut-brain-axis is a two way communication system which also means that psychological stress alters the gut microbiome. In turn, that further impacts the nervous system which, depending on your diagnosis, can aggravate illness. I cannot emphasize enough how much the health of your body and mind relies heavily on your nutrition.
In this blog, I am going to share the system I have used to navigate the topic of diet over the years. Let me start by saying that I am not a nutritionist or dietician and none of this is medical advice. My clients ask me all the time about food and nutrition so I will share with you what I teach them along with basic tenants of diet that are important for every human being to know.
Despite the challenge of figuring out what diet is best for you, it is important to wade through it all and master what is best for your body. Everything you eat is either creating health or disease. Knowing what is best for your body is the first step in living well despite disease. It should be seen as the first line response. What we eat can be even more powerful than medication in furthering wellness or aggravating illness. There is no one size fits all approach. Instead, here are some basic tips to guide you as you wade through the myriad diet options and find what’s best for you:
Our cells are always listening. What we tell ourselves actually matters and our beliefs about nutrition actually impact how our body processes food. After twenty years studying the impact of our thoughts and words on water molecules, Dr. Masaru Emoto found that positive words create beautiful and perfectly geometric molecules. Our bodies are over 60% water which means that our thoughts and words impact our cells. What does this have to do with nutrition? Let’s say for example that two people are sitting next to each other and eating a piece of chocolate cake. Person A eats the cake while thinking to himself “this is so bad for me but is sooo good I just can’t resist.” Person B mindfully cherishes each bite, fully enjoying the experience of this delicious cake. With their cells listening, it is going to be very hard for Person A’s body to digest the cake in a healthy or effective way. When you tell your body it can’t do something, it will listen to you. That doesn’t mean that Person B will suddenly turn the sugar from the cake into a healthy substance, but her body will be in a much better position to metabolize all the ingredients to the best of its ability. In short, if you are going to do something that might not be best for your body, beating yourself up for it is only going to make it worse. Instead, talk to your body about it. “I know that dairy doesn’t always agree with me but I’m on vacation and really want to enjoy this gelato. I know that you (yes, talk to your body) have everything you need to digest this optimally and I am so grateful to you for doing so.”
Learn Your Body
Each person is different. Some people thrive on fats and others need vegetables for fuel. In order to get disease under control, it is crucial to learn the needs of your individual body. Before jumping into the next fad diet, take some time to just learn what your body likes. We all know the basics of healthy food. There is no question that your body does not need potato chips, but it might take a little experimentation to see if it likes eggs or a fruit shake for breakfast, or no breakfast at all. Keeping a log or journal can help with this, especially if you are experiencing any cognitive deficits that might make it difficult to remember how you feel on specific days. I have clients who get really lethargic after eating red meat; I on the other hand can eat red meat for every single meal and feel amazing. I didn’t know that about myself until I experimented. I also love bread and pastries but experience extreme fatigue after. I don’t have any other symptoms of gluten intolerance and do not label it as such. I simply learned what my body likes and dislikes. That response is enough to know that gluten is not contributing to my wellness. My focus on wellness over the years has paid off given that I live completely symptom-free and have no evidence of disease in my body after 18 years of living with multiple sclerosis. Of course I splurge at times and when I do, I make sure to have a conversation with my body about it and let it know that I trust it to metabolize well and express my appreciation for it letting me splurge. And you better be sure I am going to enjoy every bite!
Rules Across the Board
Even with the right mindset, understanding the impact of gut health, and learning your specific body’s needs, it’s crucial to understand the tenants that apply to every human being and especially anyone living with chronic illness. Here are the basics that you might be surprised by!
- Question Nutritional “Facts”
- For decades Americans have made nutritional choices based on misconceptions that were propagated by different segments of the food industry rather than science and medicine. Below are some key misconceptions to be aware of. It’s important to educate yourself with the science behind nutrition and not be informed by advertising from a food company.
- Avoid Sugar
- Sugar causes inflammation which in short leads to disease or worse, aggravates current disease. This applies to everyone, regardless of blood type or how great your mindset is. Dr. Robert Lustig, from UCSF and president of the Institute for Responsible Nutrition, explains that “sugar is not dangerous because it’s calories; sugar is dangerous because it is toxic calories.” It’s toxic. Full stop. Do your best to reduce or avoid sugar. Your body is already malfunctioning, let’s not add insult to injury. If you have a serious sweet tooth, you can try alternatives like coconut sugar, just know that it will still have an insulin response and prevent weight loss, but at least it won’t be causing disease. One final note on sugar, do not replace it with sorbitol or aspartame both of which have been correlated to worsening symptoms in auto-immune disease.
- Milk Does the Body Good
- Sound familiar? The dairy industry did a fantastic job of marketing milk as crucial for bone density and many other health benefits. As it turns out, there is hardly any evidence that milk supports bone density or provides essential vitamin D for the body. In fact, evidence in the last decade suggests that increased milk consumption is correlated with higher rates of osteoporosis. This is not to say stop drinking milk, but don’t believe everything you hear. Be aware of marketing directly from the food industry and certainly don’t go guzzling milk thinking your body needs it.
- Fat is Bad
- The USDA food pyramid has attracted extensive controversy over the years as noted in a 2015 report by The BMJ that sheds light on the lack of sufficient sound scientific backing for much of the current nutritional advice. One reason for the controversy is that it suggests that fat is the cause of disease, especially heart disease. An article in TIME magazine by Alexandra Sifferlin provides a great summary of the report if you’d like to understand this better. What is important to know is that science has actually proven that carbohydrates, especially sugar, are more likely to lead to disease than fat. We all need fat, as long as it’s the healthy kind. Don’t be so quick to dismiss fat as unhealthy extra calories. Experiment with what works well for you instead of getting sucked into this myth.
- Salt is BAD
- Salt has gotten a pretty bad reputation. This dates back to the INTERSALT study in 1982 that studied levels of salt intake in over 30 countries correlated with high blood pressure. The problem with that study is that it’s not a very specific evaluation of individual salt intake and blood pressure since it evaluated entire populations. Meanwhile, there are cultures all over the world that consume far more salt than the average American without any blood pressure issues. In 2003, the Institute of Medicine found that restricting salt intake has no impact on risk for heart attack or death. So should we really be so scared of salt? The answer is a huge NO. In fact, we need salt, and plenty of it. Our blood is mostly salt, which makes it a crucial component for healthy blood volume and blood pressure. Of course you should consult your doctor and an expert nutritionist for your specific medical situation and symptoms. But, the important thing here is not to assume that eliminating salt from your diet will improve your health. In fact, reducing salt could be making your symptoms worse. To learn more about the importance of salt and how it optimizes your body’s functions, check out Dr. Jason Fung’s books or online articles.
- Watch Your Portions
- This seems obvious for weight control but that’s not why I mention it! According to genetic and biochemical expert Dr. Cate, overeating reduces the functioning of your mitochondria. Mitochondria are found in every single cell in your body and are likened to the battery of the cell, in other words, it’s what keeps each cell energized. You want your mitochondria to be functioning optimally, especially if you are living with chronic illness. Reduced mitochondrial function can cause fatigue along with a long list of symptoms that are common in almost all chronic diseases. You can take supplements to support mitochondrial health but as a first response to supporting your mitochondria, simply manage your portions and be mindful not to overeat. (Check out this article by Dr. Garth Nicholson where he suggests supplements to support mitochondrial health.)
There is so much to say about nutrition, but hopefully this was a good introduction to help you see that while there is no one-size-fits-all approach, learning the basics is essential to supporting your wellness and reducing illness. What you eat and how you eat is one of the most important ways to support your body as you ask it to better support you. For more in-depth guidance on nutrition, I always recommend a consultation with expert nutritionist Shaina Kamman (www.SuperSimpleNutrition.com or follow her on Facebook). As I explained above, a lot of nutrition is about your mindset and your relationship with your body. I regularly work on this with clients and you can feel free to reach out to me if this is something you’d like to work on. Wishing you lots of healthy and enjoyable eating in the meantime!