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The Nuances of Nourishment

Prior to channeling my work towards the direction of trauma healing, I had a love affair with nutritional medicine. After enduring several years of dry, stressful and challenging experiences in the hospital system, it was a breath of fresh air when I landed in the world of general practice and discovered far more freedom to explore different dimensions of medicine which had until then remained hidden.

It was love at first sight when someone loaned me a book on Functional Medicine by one of the US leaders in this field, Dr Mark Hyman, and I then embarked on courses and outreach trainings run by ACNEM, the Australian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine. My thirst for knowledge at this time was insatiable, as I felt that all the unanswered questions I had in my traditional medical training could at last be addressed here.

This love affair ended, however, when I came face to face with the brutal reality that many folks simply can't afford the testing or treatment needed to do this style of medicine thoroughly, many lacked the motivation or confidence to go down this track in the first place, and many had unhealed trauma that was really at the core of their ill health. I came to the conclusion that emotional nourishment was much more important than physical nourishment, that toxic emotions were much more of an issue than environmental toxins. This was also a conclusion that I came to in my own life, so I assumed it applied equally to everyone.

Yet I now need to confess that at times I have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. I had dismissed the power and absolute necessity of the nutritional or functional medicine approach for many people who either do not have the capacity or motivation to do effective emotional healing work, or who simply remain overwhelmed with symptoms and genuine complaints no matter how much trauma they heal (although this work can help immensely in coping with such symptoms).

So for the first time in several years, I signed up last month for an ACNEM conference, which turned out to be an amazing think tank on nutrition and mental health - a smorgasbord of perspectives from doctors and other health professionals all across Australia. I was so grateful to re-visit themes I had fallen in love with years ago such as how different microbes that turn up on gut testing are linked to different emotional states, how brain inflammation and microglia activation is a key target in mental illness, and how diving into the perplexing subtleties of biochemical pathways can help us come back to balance. I enjoyed hearing stories of mystery imbalances being revealed through in-depth gut testing, amino acid profiling and genetic testing.

Yet ever conscious of the need to keep things simple and cost effective, I posed a question to a conference panel: what are the key things we can all do if we don't have access to 'Royals Royce' testing or treatment?

One of the presenters Dr Sanjeev Sharma, a brilliant integrative psychiatrist from WA, responded by saying that for many people it was as simple as topping up on three key nutrients that many of us are deficient in - zinc, magnesium and B vitamins (especially B6). These, I learnt, were especially effective at addressing the glutamate - GABA neurotransmitter balance. Most of us live in a state of low grade or anxiety or excitation because our body and brain produce too much glutamate, so supporting the calming GABA pathway in this simple way - both with diet changes and supplements in good doses - can be nothing short of life changing. If this alone doesn't help, then saffron and NAC (N-acetyl cysteine) are our next amazing allies in restoring this crucial balance.

Dr Sharma also shared his experiences with some of his really tough patients, who often would respond to the magical trifecta of omega-3 oils, vitamin D (if low) and an alkaline diet when nothing else would work. He mentioned how our pH (acid-alkaline balance) was tightly regulated, and when it leans to the acid extreme then getting biochemical processes to work in the brain is like cooking a meal without a stove of any other way to generate heat!

Rather than saving an alkaline diet as a last resort, I wondered if this is something that anyone would stand to benefit from.

I since learnt that an overly acid environment in our body is bad news if we are fighting just about any pathogen - be it mould toxins, candida or bacteria. Furthermore, avoiding acid is crucial for maintaining lean body weight - as we literally lose muscle mass to buffer acidity - and that acidity can even effect muscle stiffness and pain sensitivity which occurs in chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia. Though there is not a great deal of research on an alkaline diet for general health, it is certainly a winner for athletes and there is a ton of research on plant based diets limiting acid-forming foods such as meat, eggs and cheese which point to a variety of health benefits. As to the how of the alkaline diet, it is basically about aiming for 70 to 80 per cent of the foods we eat to be veggies and fruits, and perhaps adding some alkaline minerals such as potassium citrate for a period of time. There are several user friendly books that walk one through this process and discuss testing, and there is a helpful table of acid-alkali foods.

Personally, I suspect that the main limitations of this diet is that some people do need more protein than this way of eating can sustain, and that plant foods can sometimes be a source of intolerance or inflammation - especially if they are loaded with histamines, lectins or oxalates... unless our guts are in really good shape or we live in an exceptionally non-toxic environment. So for these folks it may need to be complemented with some high quality protein supplementation. Or perhaps a few simple gut healing measures such as high dose glutamine powder to heal the intestinal lining, cod liver oil for an immune boost and pre-biotics such as GOS, FOS and PHGG along with lots of dietary fibre. By using this approach or getting help from someone with expertise in this area, in time it may be possible to reintroduce problem foods later on down the track.

Curiously, a few of my patients have had remarkable healing success with a completely different approach known as the carnivore diet, which is basically comprised of all the things we are meant to be avoiding on the alkaline diet - meat, eggs and dairy! This echoes the experience of some of the doctors at the ACNEM conference. I am amazed when I witness the flexibility of the human body to thrive in this state, and it drives home to me how utterly unique we all are in our dietary needs. Yet I do suspect that many of the benefits derive from avoiding those plant foods we are intolerant to, along with increasing protein intake dramatically. I am somewhat cautious about endorsing this diet for a variety of reasons, especially as we simply don't know how it might affect our long term health.

Yet I do wonder... could we perhaps use this carnivore approach as a temporary measure for some people - in much the same way as an elimination diet - and then do some gut healing as we re-introduce alkaline foods and move towards diet choices that are perhaps more healthy and sustainable in the long term?

As I write this blog I can literally feel myself being sucked into a rabbit hole of conjecture and creative possibility as we attempt to understand these subtleties of the nutrition world. Yet now I feel I must leave these intricacies and debates to those who are more qualified than myself in this area... and balance out this left brain rampage with a more holistic perspective.

On this note, one of the most helpful ideas I have ever come across is that we all have 'three bodies':

- our physical body, which receives nourishment through food,

- our 'energy body', which receives nourishment through our breath, as a vehicle to pick up energetic currents, emotions or sensations that course throughout our bodies; and

- our mental body, which receives nourishment through ideas and conversation.

There is never any separation between these three bodies, as the physical, emotional and mental dimensions are in constant dialogue or conversation with one another.

This is where I love the traditions of Eastern medicine which speak of emotional or energetic imbalances crystalizing as specific symptoms in our physical body. For example, fear is associated with dampness in Chinese medicine, which is linked to loose bowels, brain fog, phlegm build up and vulnerability to infections. And then anger or frustration is related to inflammation, headaches, liver dysfunction and perhaps a more acidic or 'hot' internal environment.

Just as these energy imbalances can be remedied with herbs, acupuncture, yoga exercises and wise food and lifestyle choices, I have also learnt to appreciate the power of trauma healing to restore our flow of energy to that of a smooth flowing, balanced river rather than being blocked or stuck on the banks of rigidity, repression or chaos. On this theme, I was privileged to witness my principle mentor in trauma healing Lisa Schwarz take us through some powerful visualisations, for instance calling in the sacred geometry and colour that will help us restore the flow in an injured artery, or a pancreas which is struggling with sugar cravings due to missing the sweetness of life.

I share this example as I believe that if the dimension of our emotions and beliefs are not addressed, then healing of any physical ailments can only go so far. Only then can we bring the power of pure love into the equation, which is undoubtedly offers the deepest and most complete level of healing. Yet as we have mentioned in this blog, it can also be a constant uphill battle to recover from emotional or mental wounding if we fail to give due attention to the health and vibrancy of our physical bodies.

So in summary, then, I hope you have enjoyed this brief foray into the nuances of nourishment. It is my sincere wish that these words - and the references I have pointed to - will help spark off some new insights, and perhaps even support some new lifestyle choices if they resonate with your own self-healing intuition. And that these words will help you arrive at a balanced view of the dynamic and intricate journey which we orchestrate in healing our physical, emotional and mental bodies as they dance together in this dance we call life.


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