We often talk about balance and refer to the fact that ‘one size doesn’t fit all’. This point is key to our philosophy and we believe that the better we understand our individual selves, the better our physical and emotional health will be.
Whilst the internet is a wonderful resource, we can easily become overwhelmed with information and advice, much of it conflicting. With regard to health, people like to share their success stories on a regime that has worked for them to overcome their issues. This is well intentioned, however what worked for them may not work for others because one size does not fit all when it comes to diet. In fact many of the recommended regimes are completely at odds with each other, for example Raw Food versus Gaps Diet, Ferments versus FODMAPS (meaning avoidance of certain carbohydrates for those with functional gastrointestinal disorders, the acronym stands for Fermentable Oligo-saccharide, Di-saccharide, Mono-saccharide And Polyols). Find out more about some of the popular dietary regimes here.
Below is a brief explanation of just a few of the multiple systems in the body that, although fundamentally the same, can behave differently in different individuals. In some instances it becomes a little technical, however this is simply to illustrate the complexity of our bodies, potential for variances and obvious need for sufficient nutrients to function optimally.
We know that we are all different due to the unique gene composition we have, rendering us either more resilient or susceptible to certain health conditions. In addition, individual biochemistry is such that activation of certain vitamins or manufacture of enzymes may be impaired due to genetic or epigenetic factors. That means that a combination of our genes and environmental factors will influence the way our biochemistry works, the way we detoxify, metabolise and function generally.
Within the mitochondria in every cell in our bodies, energy in the form of adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP) is constantly being produced through the citric acid cycle. Amino acids (proteins) are particularly important for these processes. Any variance in the body’s ability to produce enzymes or substrates required for this cycle will impact energy levels and other processes.
Iron is a good example of an essential nutrient that is stored and utilised differently. Most of us require adequate intake of iron, one of the essential nutrients for healthy red blood cells amongst other functions. It can be difficult for those on vegetarian and vegan diets to obtain enough of this mineral. However, some people have a condition known as haemochromatosis, causing excess iron storage, meaning that dietary iron must be minimised. Absorption of iron is enhanced by the presence of certain other nutrients, most notably Vitamin C, whilst absorption is reduced by tannin contained in substances such as tea. Other minerals can also compete with iron. Again this is just one nutrient to illustrate our individual variances in biochemistry.
Mental and physical health is impacted by nutrition. The increasing incidence of depression, anxiety and suicide in western societies is devastating for their families and communities and the extra-ordinary prescription of anti-depressant and anxiolytic medication does not seem to be curbing this trend. Whilst these medications can be useful in certain circumstances, there are concerns that they may be over-prescribed. These medications usually influence the re-uptake of neurotransmitters and hormones, most notably serotonin and nor-adrenaline. If we take a step back and look at what specific nutrients are required for healthy neurotransmitter function, we may reduce the need for these medications. If we use serotonin as an example, this neurotransmitter is made from the amino acid (protein building block), tryptophan, and requires a number of other nutrients (iron, folate, Vitamin B3, calcium Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, zinc and magnesium) to complete the cascade of biochemical reactions to form Serotonin, some of which is then converted to Melatonin (both hormones related to sleep). Another critical factor in serotonin metabolism is the requirement for healthy gut bacteria, which is rare with the average western diet. Psychological support is also essential in addressing these concerns.
In addition to nutritional status, our biochemistry and neurochemistry are also influenced by our emotions and past experiences. Chronic stress or distress can evoke immune responses akin to those triggered by bacterial or viral invasion. Our nervous system influences all systems in the body. For example, we can all remember times when we have felt anxious and became aware of symptoms of racing heart, sweating etc. Fortunately, through the process of neuroplasticity, we can change our neurological pathways to an extent, which in turn has the propensity to change our biochemistry. Relationships and social interaction also play an important part in our mental and physical wellbeing.
This finely tuned system has an enormous impact on our health. We all know when we are run down and our immune system is not working as it should, we suffer with repeated infections.
Equally, many of us are suffering from auto-immune mediated illnesses, whereby the body mistakes its own tissue for something foreign, mounting an unrelenting immune response with severe health consequences. Examples are Diabetes Type 1, Thyroid disorders such as Hashimotos and Graves, inflammatory disorders such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus, to name a few.
Another increasingly prevalent example of immune system dysfunction is food allergy and intolerance. This is where the body mistakes a protein in a particular food as unfriendly, again mounting a sudden immune response of severe inflammation blocking airways. This is what is known as an anaphylactic response, with common implicated foods being peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish. Celiac Disease is also becoming more common place. This is also a severe but chronic food allergy to proteins in wheat and a number of other grains, that is gluten and gliadin. This allergy triggers an auto-immune response which is more insidious in its symptomology. That is, tiny villi within the small intestine are destroyed, leading to severe malabsorption of nutrients with a number of consequences. New studies are suggesting proteins in other grains may have the propensity to also trigger this response. We will shortly write a post dedicated to grains.
This system is another worthy of a dedicated post. The function of so many systems in our bodies is dependent on the balance of bacteria in the gut. Modern diets contribute to an imbalance in this system, leading to a multitude of disorders. Immune and nervous system function is also inextricably linked to the biome.
The intention of this article was to provide a glimpse into our bodies’ complexity and the innumerable variables that can occur within individuals to convey that ‘one size does not fit all’. In summary, whilst we all need nutrients, the way we digest, absorb and utilise these nutrients varies and there is extra demand when we are stressed, ill, consume alcohol, too much sugar, smoke, are pregnant, and/or experience inflammation. The variables are endless and every system will impact another.
Within all this confusion and complex cascading pathways, what can we do to understand our own biochemical needs better and optimise our health?
- As much as possible choose whole, fresh foods, ideally organic and locally sourced. This is the best way to know what you are eating and optimise nutrition
- Drink plenty of filtered water for optimal hydration and to support detoxification
- Ensure enough rest, relaxation and good quality sleep. This is repair time.
- Find a form of exercise that works for you (one that you don’t consider a burden or cannot maintain)
- Allow time for reflection (not rumination) to calm the nervous system
- Eat consciously, paying attention to the way food makes you feel
- Eat for enjoyment and nourishment
- Try not to eat when stressed, this will reduce absorption and potentially cause digestion to be impaired
- Make a conscious effort to reduce intake of added sugar
- Read labels
- Keep a diet diary to increase awareness around foods and the way your body responds
- Make small, achievable and sustainable changes
- Seek guidance from professionals (eg doctor, naturopath, nutritionist, psychologist, psychotherapist) who can assess your individual needs and help you devise a programme for you and help keep you on track