“Never discourage anyone who to make progress, no matter how slow”
Welcome to my blog, I’m really pleased that you’ve taken the time to have a look.
Before you start reading, lets establish if this is the right blog for you?
Well if you’re someone who suffers from anxiety, depression, mental health problems, chronic pain, extreme fatigue, digestive disorders, autoimmune conditions or just simply you go downhill during the Autumn and Winter months then you have come to the right place and I would encourage you to read on.
This is my first blog and I hope my first of many.
I had not planned on this being my first topic but it dawned on me the other day that as I’m preparing myself for winter to prevent my own flare ups and setbacks then maybe you too would like to know how to do the same.
My nutritional journey began over a decade ago. I had been suffering with quite significant mental health issues since I was at school, but by my late 20’s my body was really starting to feel the effects too as my mental ill health precipitated out effecting my physical wellbeing as well. It’s true what they say about the cells in your body having memory to past trauma and events in your life that can rear its head as you age, in the form of physical illness if you don’t allow the trauma and emotions the space to process, which many of us do not. This is also doctors will say that certain conditions are to do with your mental wellbeing and you’re thinking ‘NO I have back ache or stomach problems’. This is the power of the mind body connection.
By the time I was 22 I had been diagnosed with a whole malady of mental health problems including generalised anxiety disorder, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, body dysmorphia and PTSD.
Aged 27 I was struck with Fibromyalgia and then aged 30 I hit rock bottom when diagnosed with M.E, a spondylolithesis and degenerative disc disease in my lower spine.
I was either in constant pain, fatigued to the point that I didn’t even have the strength in my arms to spread butter on bread and my mind was a complete mess. My only real treatment options left were lithium, morphine and antidepressants.
So, I changed my tactics. I had already graduated with an honours degree in Biochemistry and believed strongly that I could change the health of each and every cell in my body. I knew it would take time but I believed it was possible.
I studied further to gain a diploma in Nutritional Therapy and started creating meals and implementing lifestyle changes which encouraged recovery.
One of my worst times for relapse both mentally and physically is Winter. This is the reason why I created the following plan to begin working on now to prepare your body for winter.
It would be great if you could join me on this journey so you can achieve the same benefits that I do.
By undertaking these changes and sticking to them a majority of the time I have found that symptoms of pain, anxiety and depression reduces significantly, you have increased energy, your hormones feel more balanced with less PMT, your sleep patterns are better and you feel healthier in general.
It changes your life in a way that you may not think is possible, enabling you to enjoy life again with your family and friends, something that you may have thought you had lost forever.
I’m not saying that you won’t have potential setbacks, no one can promise that, but you will most definitely be stronger, healthier and more able to manage them if they happen and have the knowledge to bring yourself back into balance if things go wrong.
So here goes, I hope you find this useful.
Winter relapse and flare up prevention guide
Do you find that during the summer your mood is better, your aches and pains go down and your stress levels are often more manageable? Your body and mind just tend to flow a little more smoothly and your body and mind are more in harmony.
THEN, along comes Autumn, the temperature drops, the clocks change, the days become darker and shorter and everything goes to pot. Your mood drops, you start picking up viruses, pains appear here, there and everywhere and where you were in the summer seems nothing but a distant memory. You’re doing nothing differently but everything seems to have changed.
This was me for many years, due to suffering chronic illness I picked up every virus going, my condition seemed permanently flared. Then when other members of my family started suffering too with increased ANXIETY, DEPRESSION, SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER, MUSCLE AND JOINT PAIN AND SLEEP PROBLEMS, I felt that I needed to create a prevention and rescue plan to support our household, which is what I’m sharing with you here as it’s proven to be very effective with not just my family but other people too.
The following changes are not intended to be undertaken all in one go. You may find that you are doing some of them already which is great. The key to my plan working is to start small and build up gradually. Rather than it being a quick fix, treat it as a long term lifestyle change so that you gain the benefits all year round. You will find however that the effects are more noticeable in the winter, the time when you often feel at your worst.
It really is important that you do not take on too much in one go if you want to achieve the best results you can. Little and often is the key and being able to maintain each small change before you bring the next one in is the best way to reach your goal of feeling better.
What is the reason behind the flare ups and setbacks?
The main reason behind the flare ups is inflammation in the body. Inflammation in the body makes these conditions worse. During the summer month’s our immune systems are stronger, which in turn leads to less inflammation in the body.
Inflammation is the cause and trigger for many health conditions from mental health problems to arthritis, autoimmune diseases and digestive disorders to name a few, the list is endless.
Chronic inflammation can sit in our bodies for quite a long time before it manifests into something obvious. Where ever your inflammation is in your body, gut, joints or organs it is caused by an immune system in defence mode.
What can you do to avoid and reduce inflammation?
- CHANGE YOUR DIET
Your diet has a massive influence over the level of inflammation you experience in your body. The western diet that many of us eat comprising mainly of lots of bread, pasta, saturated fats, processed foods, refined sugar, additives and alcohol and very little fruit and vegetables only serves to make inflammation worse.
This type of food disrupts hormones in the body such as insulin which can trigger inflammation due to the rapid release of sugar within the body.
When our bodies are disrupted in this way our immune system goes down and we are more susceptible to illness and relapse.
Following a more Mediterranean diet of fresh fruit and vegetables, salads, olive oil, fish and lean white meat can really improve the symptoms of inflammation.
Eat more Omega 3 from foods such as oily fish, anchovies, sardines, tuna, salmon, mackerel, flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds and walnuts as this helps to reduce inflammation in the body as the omega 3 fatty acids they contain are naturally anti-inflammatory.
Aim to eat oily fish 3 times a week and slot seeds and nuts into salads and porridge.
The omega 3 aids the formation of more healthier and more fluid membranes. Healthy cell membranes have been shown to be important in the prevention of conditions such as depression and other mental health conditions.
Healthy cell membranes mean that nutrients can flow more easily to their required destination which creates a healthier you 😉.
Eat plenty of fresh vegetables and some fruit. Aim to have 7- 9 portions of fresh vegetables and fruit a day, 5-7 portions of vegetables and 2-3 portions of fruit.
If you are an anxiety or pain sufferer then really stock up on the green stuff, such as kale, watercress, spinach, lettuce and broccoli. Greens are full of magnesium which helps to calm you and relax your muscles and helps with energy production. I’ve found that on a bad day my best friends are watercress, cucumber and celery. I often make celery and cucumber into a juice to drink throughout the day. They don’t take much preparing and for reducing pain and anxiety they are for me the best. Cherries, pineapple and sweet potatoes also have a very effective natural anti-inflammatory effect.
Adding Turmeric and Ginger to foods and drinks can also help due to their natural anti-inflammatory properties. Add turmeric and ginger to teas, curries, humous and dressings to give yourself a boost.
I actually take a turmeric supplement because I found it so effective for the pain relief of fibromyalgia, I have found the Pukka range to be the most effective but you can shop around and find one for yourself. Avoid ones that don’t contain pepper as this is required to activate the active components in the turmeric.
- UP YOUR VITAMIN B LEVELS
B vitamins are vital for a healthy nervous, muscular and cardiovascular system. B vitamins also help reduce inflammation. They can be found in wholemeal bread, whole wheat pasta, quinoa, spelt and rye products as well as beans and pulses.
Personally, I chose to stay away from gluten altogether as it causes me more inflammation, more pain and fatigue, so I avoid any bread and pasta. This is something that you can test and experiment with for yourself as we are not all the same. I would advise eating more quinoa, spelt, rye, beans and pulses and using brown rice pasta instead of whole wheat.
There is also another problem with some packaged whole wheat products, you don’t always know what’s gone into them. Sometimes the ingredients list is massive and this is where inflammatory ingredients can often be lurking. I always try to go for the natural product and the one with the least ingredients.
- EAT MORE HEALTHY FATS
We’ve already mentioned eating more omega 3. Another area to focus on is eating less saturated fats found in high fat cheeses, intensely farmed and processed meat as these all contribute to increasing inflammation. If possible eat free range products, organic meat and foods such as oily fish, avocados, nuts and seeds.
- REDUCE YOUR SUGAR INTAKE DRAMATICALLY
The biggest tip I can give is eat LESS sugar. Dramatically reduce your intake or better still give it up altogether.
It is deemed acceptable in our society to fill the foods we buy with extra sugar that we don’t even need, this I believe is more to do with keeping you addicted to the product more than anything else as sugar is highly addictive.
READ the labels on the foods that you buy, see how high up the ingredients list sugar is located. Ideally you don’t want any sugar in the ingredients list at all, but if it’s higher up the list it’s a definite no no!!!!
Refined sugar is in cakes, biscuits, sweets, fizzy drinks, yogurts, ready meals and processed foods. They provide the perfect recipe for inflammation, so if you can avoid these foods completely you will feel much better.
Also try to avoid buying jars of sauces as they contain a lot of hidden sugar, especially tomato based ones. If possible make curry, pasta sauces and salad dressings yourself. If you haven’t already noticed it, you will be very shocked to see how much sugar is in the manufactured ones.
You may find that when you cut down these food types that you crave them a lot. This is the manufactures intentions. If its proving difficult and triggering emotions which can happen if food has been used to support you emotionally, which is often the case, with draw them from your diet slowly over time.
- FEED THE GOOD BACTERIA IN YOUR GUT
Having a healthy gut microbiome can significantly improve your general health and wellbeing. A lot of work is being done in this area and it thought that imbalances gut bacteria are responsible for many health problems in the modern world. A healthy gut microbiome decreases levels of inflammation in the body and boosts immunity.
This is an area I focused on greatly with my own wellbeing. So many things occur in the gut, B vitamins are made, a large percentage of our ‘feel good’ hormone serotonin is situated there. Nutrients are transported from there to other areas of the body so it is crucial that we look after it well.
To achieve a healthy gut avoid foods that disrupt it such as sugar, wheat and processed foods. Include probiotic foods such as sauerkraut, Miso and Kefir. Also Include prebiotic foods that support the probiotic bacteria in doing their job such as green leafy vegetables, potato skins, garlic, asparagus, chicory, onions and leaks.
Plus, and this is something I do every day without fail, take a probiotic supplement to top up your microbiome.
- REDUCE YOUR CONSUMPTION OF DAIRY PRODUCTS
Firstly, over the next two weeks find the time to work out if dairy is a problem for you as you wouldn’t want to remove it unnecessarily. For me dairy creates a massive problem, it triggers joint and muscle pain, chest problems and causes negative changes to my mental wellbeing. Also, if you or a family member suffer with any behavioural conditions then intolerance to dairy is an area worth investigating.
As I’ve already said remove dairy products completely for two weeks, then gradually introduce them in small amounts to see how your body reacts. If you do feel that you are better off without them make sure you boost your calcium intake by eating green leafy vegetables, broccoli and almonds and a calcium supplement if needs be.
This same process can be used to see how your body reacts to wheat and gluten, just don’t eliminate both wheat and dairy at the same time.
- DRINK A LOT MORE WATER
Most of us don’t drink enough water anyway but central heating in the winter can really play havoc with our internal hydration and this can have a real impact on our health and energy levels.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to avoid caffeinated tea, coffee and cola, and replace them with herbal teas, water, and decaffeinated drinks. Make sure you avoid fizzy drinks that contain sugar and artificial sweeteners.
Another reason to reduce your intake of caffeinated drink is you remove one of the triggers that can begin and maintain an anxiety cycle. Breaking the anxiety cycle can also break any pain cycle that you may be stuck in as anxiety and pain often come as a package.
- RAISE YOUR VITAMIN D
This is an important point. Various conditions such as psychiatric disorders, autoimmune disorders, hormonal problems, arthritic and cardiovascular conditions show seasonal variation. This is because we have seasonal genes which are switched on during different times of the year. What we also know is that the metabolism of Vitamin D also varies throughout the year and is lower in the winter.
Vitamin D is important because it triggers the immune system and this reduces inflammation, therefore we feel better. However, during the autumn and winter months the levels of vitamin D are lower in our bodies.
It is therefore a good idea from April-October that we go outside for at least 15-20 minutes a day without sunscreen to top up our vitamin D levels. Although this summer I don’t think we will get much benefit as it’s been more like winter so a vitamin D supplement would be a good idea. Having a good level of Vitamin D can reduce the risk of us picking up viruses, experiencing instability in our mental well being and also reduce the chance of other pre-existing conditions flaring up because our immune system will be more robust.
Exercise regularly to increase the blood flow to the periphery of the body. When its cold blood tends to travel to the centre of the body to protect the organs but this can cause pain and discomfort elsewhere, you become stiff and inflexible as lactic acid builds up in your muscles causing pain that can sometimes be unbearable.
Also, when we exercise we produce proteins that turn off the inflammatory response.
So, whatever you do this winter KEEP MOVING, even if you’re going through a period of being laid up in bed move your arms and legs, rotate your neck. JUST KEEP MOVING.
Yoga, Pilates, walking and bike rides are all good gentle forms of exercise, but if you prefer something more vigorous GO FOR IT!
Note: working out too hard for too long increases inflammation, so remember it’s all about balance.
I have to exercise 6 out of 7 days a week to support my health but this did not happen overnight. Frustratingly I had to start at very low level (1 minute on the exercise bike!) and increased what I was doing by about 20% a week. At times it drove me completely and utterly, nuts but I suffered very few setbacks doing it this way.
The most important thing to do here is listen to your body. If your body is saying no, don’t do it. Sometimes there is a big element of fear when it comes to exercise because you don’t want to get worse. If you have access to a physiotherapist, work with them to create a plan on how to tackle it safely.
Also, just because you maybe can’t run or do aerobics it doesn’t mean you can’t do something. Keep Moving!!!!!
- MEDITIATE OR DO SOME RELAXATION DAILY
It’s very important to take some time out for you, even if it’s just ten minutes here and there. This allows the muscles to relax, the mind to unwind and your nervous system to calm down all of which lowers stress hormones, raises immune defences and promotes healing within the body and moves the body away from the inflammatory state.
An extremely simple technique that you can do any time is to sit, stand or lie down, it doesn’t really matter and focus on your breath. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, don’t pause in between breaths. Then in your mind on the in breath just say to yourself “in” and on the out breath say “out”. Continue breathing like this for a few minutes.
Try to maintain a regular sleep pattern. Going to sleep and waking up at roughly the same time each day.
The temptation in winter is to stay in bed longer but this messes up your sleep wake cycles.
There are certain foods that you can eat to improve your sleep quality such as turkey, avocado, kiwi’s, bananas, oats, walnuts and cherries.
Also, the use of a light box first thing in the morning can be highly beneficial. If you suffer from more extreme winter depression then a light box could prove invaluable.
Personally, I have found light boxes are great for relieving pain and low mood that is triggered during the winter. They enable you to feel more relaxed, experience less pain and really improve your mood. If you do purchase one aim for one of at least 10,000 lux.
- MY FINAL POINT (points) and probably in a way some of the more important points to help avoid step backs in the winter is:
Don’t feel guilty for things that you feel you haven’t achieved or haven’t done. Guilt will drive you down.
Praise yourself for each positive step you make and let go of any criticism you are carrying.
Every change you make is benefiting your well being even if at times you can’t feel It, so keep going.
Do not compare yourself to others. This is your journey no one else’s.
Do what your body and mind need in this moment. No need to project to the future or look back at the past. Just focus on the present moment and what you need to do right here right now. Now is all we really have.
Stop wasting valuable energy on things you have no control over.
You are not a failure for having to take it slowly, you are creating positive sustainable, lifelong change that will benefit you and your family.
Accept where you are at the moment. Accepting is not giving in, it gives you a platform to work from. It’s natural to feel upset if you are unable to do the things you want to do, allow those feelings to be there and flow. You can’t move forward without excepting where you are right now.
Finally try your best to connect. Connecting with other people will help to prevent isolation and set backs. Try and connect with friends or family or join a group where people have the same interests as you. I joined a choir, the combination of the music mixed with being part of a supportive community really helped me feel good and improved my health.
The information given in this blog does not take into account any individual’s health conditions and you should speak to your medically trained professional before making any changes to your nutrition routine.
I also recommend that you seek advice from a medically trained professional immediately should you have any health concerns.
Should you wish to undertake any of the changes outlined and use this document as a tool, you do so at your own risk, and that you hold Kate Birch-Scanlan free of any liability relating to changes in your physiological or mental health, whether it be positive or negative.