Getting all the right nutrients is vital for health, but can be problematic for people with M.E. Nutritional therapist Olivia Smart tackles the issue.
I became ill with M.E. as a teenager. This was in the 80s, when it wasn’t yet officially recognised and was nicknamed ‘yuppie flu’. Only my mother believed I was ill; the doctors said they couldn’t find anything wrong with me. Fortunately, my mother found an amazing GP- turned-homeopath who diagnosed
M.E. But the news that there was no treatment or cure was devastating.
I learned to adapt my life to the constraints of my condition, while trying to live it as fully as I could. Then a few years ago came a huge breakthrough: I discovered nutritional therapy. I was shown how to make better choices about food generally, as well as ones that were aimed directly at my symptoms.
With changes to my diet, I could proactively help myself. My curiosity led me to study for a degree in Nutritional Therapy at the College of Naturopathic Medicine. I never expected to completely fall in love with what has since become my career. It is incredibly rewarding being able to help others feel better.
Nutrition and M.E.
Nutritional therapy takes a holistic approach. Your mind, body and all the systems within it are interconnected. When they are working as they should, everything is considered in ‘balance’; when things get out of balance, symptoms or disease arise. Nutritional therapy tries to find the imbalances and, if possible, to rectify them.
This approach lends itself well to M.E., which is a multi factorial, complex condition affecting many systems of the body. We will each have our own unique set of imbalances, which may partly explain why M.E. manifests differently between us. But there are many common imbalances too, which help to define the condition. These may include deficiencies of the B vitamins, magnesium, Omega-3 and tryptophan. Magnesium has many important functions in the body, including energy production and muscle relaxation. When magnesium is low, we become prone to fatigue, muscle pain and anxiety. Insufficient B vitamins may also cause fatigue and pain, as well as low mood and disturbed sleep.
Inside our bodies’ cells are mitochondria – these are the ‘battery packs’ which make energy.
Unfortunately, they are typically damaged and dysfunctional in people with M.E, causing reduced energy synthesis. This may be improved with adequate Omega-3 and anti-oxidants.
One of the hottest areas of current scientific research is the important role our gut plays in our overall health. Around 70% of our immune system is located in the gut and 95% of our serotonin is made there.
Serotonin has many important functions including regulating our sleep, memory, pain perception and making us feel happy; and it has been found to be low in people with M.E. (and Fibromyalgia).
Dysbiosis (or ‘leaky gut’) is when there is an imbalance in the gut bacteria. People with M.E. are often found to have dysbiosis. Symptoms associated with dysbiosis include brain fog, fatigue and low mood, as well as of course digestive ones like bloating. It may also mean that food is not being broken down and absorbed properly, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies.
Stress can not only cause, but also perpetuate, M.E. ‘Stress’ doesn’t just mean emotional stress, but also things like viral infections, physical/ mental trauma, inflammation or environmental toxins. The body responds to these with its stress response (‘fight or flight’). Some people can get into a state of chronic stress, which has lots of physical effects: your ability to digest is reduced, and your immunity is affected – you become less able to fight off infections, you may experience swollen glands and there is an increased risk of developing allergies, intolerances, hypersensitivities or autoimmune disease. It alters your hormones and neurotransmitters, leading to symptoms such as poor memory and concentration, ‘brainfog’, depression and anxiety. Stress also reduces your liver function and hence your ability to cope with toxins.
Making the right adjustments to your diet can help counteract these stressors and imbalances. For me, getting the right nutrition has made all the difference to how I feel. Hopefully the following tips will help you too.
My top 10
- Eat a rainbow’. ‘5-a-day’ is great, 8-10 portions of fruit and vegetables daily is even better. Incorporate as many colours as you can, especially the green and orange ones. They are an amazing source of antioxidants to fight the free radical damage in your body, especially within the mitochondria. They are also rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre.
- Leafy greens, such as spinach and coriander, provide magnesium, which may improve muscle pain and energy. Dark chocolate is another good source of magnesium.
- Salmon, sardines and mackerel are high in Omega-3. Plant sources of Omega-3 include walnuts, chia and flaxseeds.
- Oats should be called a ‘superfood’. They are fabulous for breakfast. Whether you soak them into ‘overnight oats’ or cook them up into porridge, they are a wonderful source of soluble fibre, which helps reduce energy fluctuations and improves bowel motility. Whole oats are also rich in the B-vitamins as well as being a prebiotic, which means they improve the balance of your gut bacteria.
- Plain live yogurt is a source of probiotics, which also support your gut bacteria; other sources include fermented foods, like sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha.
- Turkey (and chicken) are relatively easy-to-digest sources of protein, which are especially high in tryptophan, which is used to make serotonin.
- Nuts are plant sources of tryptophan. Together with seeds, nuts also contain healthy fats, protein and fibre. They are rich in vitamins, such as Vitamin E, and minerals, such as magnesium.
- Complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, lentils, chick peas and beans are plant protein sources, also providing fibre, essential minerals and B-vitamins. When rice is processed to become white, up to 90% of its nutrients are lost. Eating complex carbohydrates in their wholefood form not only maximises their nutritional value but it also reduces fluctuations in your energy, by improving your blood sugar balance.
- Keep hydrated – drink 8 large glasses of water each day. Add fresh lemon, cucumber, mint or try other fruits/herbs to give flavour. Alternatively drink herbal teas – there are so many delicious options. My favourites include combinations of licorice, peppermint, cinnamon, lemon balm, chamomile, lemon and ginger (avoid liquorice if you have high blood pressure).
- Eat in season and buy organic if you can. Pesticides, antibiotics and hormones may be found in non-organic foods.