Food, Nutrition, and the Highly Sensitive System

mcAn interview with Mary Cotter of Stellar Health

This is the forth in a series of posts exploring Sensory Processing Sensitivity. This post is about our sense of taste, which I will explore through interview and will focus on nutrition. Human relationships to food and eating are complex and intimate in ways that our relationship to, say, sound may not be (or might be). So in today’s post, I talk with Mary Cotter, registered Nutritional Therapist at Stellar Health, about how we can use food to support our wellbeing. I hope it answers some questions you have had, or touches on some new things to think about.

What pieces of key advice would you give to a HSP in terms of their diet?
“Eat natural wholefoods whenever possible.
Wholefoods include brown rice, quinoa, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds and dark green leafy vegetables. These foods contain B vitamins and magnesium. Lean meat and fish contain B12. These vitamins and minerals support our nervous systems and help us cope with the demands of life. When we are stressed, our bodies require even more B vitamins, as they are required for thousands of different processes in the body and are easily depleted.

Cook from scratch whenever possible.
This gives you total control over what is in your food: no hidden nasties or artificial surprises. It may take a bit of forward planning and getting used to initially, but you’ll soon get the hang of it. Put some time in your diary and batch cook, freezing portions for the week ahead, or simply double up on portions when you cook dinner and bring half to work with you the following day.

Make sure you eat some protein with each meal.
This supports your blood sugar balance and has a knock on effect on your energy, your ability to concentrate, your mood, and your cravings. Examples include, adding nuts or chia seeds to your breakfast, adding lentils to your soup or chicken or fish to your salad. Don’t forget about your snacks. Sugar free nut butter on oatcakes is a good example of a protein rich snack.

Love your gut (your stomach and intestines).
This is your second brain. It communicates with your actual brain and in order for the two to communicate effectively your gut needs balanced levels of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria, live micro-organisms that support your digestion and immune system. This balance becomes out of harmony easily through too much alcohol, caffeine, stress and antibiotics. We can nourish our ‘good’ bacteria by regularly eating fermented foods such as raw sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir (homemade is best), organic tofu, tempeh and plain, natural yoghurt. We can help reduce the ‘bad’ bacteria by cooking with herbs like oregano, cinnamon, fennel and garlic.

Can you see why a diet of predominantly sweet, white and fluffy foods won’t do?”

What about helpful supplements?

“It is recommended to seek professional guidance from a registered nutritional therapist or GP before supplementing in case of any adverse interactions with medication. In general, supplements that could be helpful include:

B complex. B vitamins support our nervous system, hormones and neurotransmitters. It is recommended to supplement these vitamins as a complex as they tend to work in harmony together. They can be energising, so take them in the morning with food.
Magnesium. Magnesium has a calming effect on our muscles and our nervous system. It helps our muscles to relax and can be used to support digestion if constipation is an issue. Try a magnesium oil spray with lavender before bed.
Fish oil. If you are not a fan of oily fish or are not reaching the recommended intake of 2-3 servings a week, consider a good quality fish oil supplement from a sustainable, pure and environmentally friendly source. Fish oil supports our brain, neurotransmitters and nerve health.
Vitamin D. Also known as the sunshine vitamin. Vitamin D deficiency is extremely common in the UK due to our northern location. It is impossible to get sufficient levels of vitamin D from food alone. I would recommend getting tested and then supplementing with an oral spray or drops. Vitamin D plays an important role in our mental wellbeing.
Rhodiola and ginseng are ‘adaptagenic’ herbs. This means they help the body better cope during stressful periods. They support the adrenal glands, which is where we produce our stress hormones.

Combination supplements are available that combine with B vitamins and magnesium. Ask your nutritional therapist.”

HSPs often seem to have issues with their digestion, and I know this is a speciality of yours, so I wondered what could be done to support a sensitive digestive system?
“If you tolerate dairy eat plain, natural, full fat yoghurt (ideally organic).

Increase prebiotics. These are plant fibres that encourage the growth of probiotics. Probiotics are live microorganisms contained in the food we eat and keep your digestive system and immune system healthy. Examples of prebiotics include onions, spring onion, garlic, leeks and apple.

Experiment with making your own fermented foods such as sauerkraut and water kefir. Fermented foods are rich in probiotics. There are some helpful YouTube videos online and many are really easy to make.

Eat more anti-inflammatory herbs such as ginger, turmeric and cinnamon. Drink ginger tea or add it to a vegetable smoothie. Add turmeric to curries and smoothies. Cinnamon is great dusted over porridge, yoghurt or drunk as a tea.

Try and identify possible food intolerances and eliminate them. Seek professional help from a nutritional therapist if possible so you know exactly what you are doing. Trigger foods will promote an inflammatory response in the body. Inflammation has a negative effect on your gut.

If you experience diarrhoea or constipation, ground flaxseeds can be helpful. Eat daily, starting with 1 tsp. and gradually increase to 1 tbsp. per day. Sprinkle on porridge or over your salad.

Avoid caffeine completely. It puts the body on ‘high alert’ and produces stress hormones. This has a negative effect on your nervous system. Switch to herbal tea such as ginger, cinnamon or chamomile. If you still want an energy boost minus the ‘stress effect’ try maca.”

The gut seems to play an important role in how we experience many of our feelings, and I know often we can ‘hold’ difficult feeling in this area of our body. Is this understood by nutritional science, this interaction between our physical response and our emotional self? If so, do you have any guidance on how to support ourselves in difficult times?

“Yes, this is an area that interests me greatly and there are more and more exciting scientific studies coming out all the time in this area.

It is known as the gut-brain axis, which basically means our gut and our brains communicate with each other. “Butterflies” in our stomach is one example. It is important to look after both gut and brain.

For instance, our brain is 60% fat, so it makes sense to feed our brains the right kind of fat. Fat free diets are not necessarily a healthy choice. You see, not all fats are bad. Eating raw nuts, seeds and their oils and oily fish like wild salmon, trout and mackerel are essential to our health, as are avocados and coconut.

As mentioned previously, the lining of our gut is easily damaged by too much stress, caffeine, alcohol, refined foods and processed foods. Over time the lining becomes more permeable, creating inflammation and increasing the risk of food intolerances and digestive symptoms. This is called gut dysbiosis. In order to support our gut-brain axis, we really need to take better care of our digestive system. Follow the healthy digestion advice above, cook with alkalising, plant-based foods and reduce your intake of sugar and acidic foods and drinks.”

If someone were to come to see you what would you explore? What support could a client expect?

“We would look at their current diet and lifestyle habits and identify areas to improve. They would begin making simple and realistic changes, gradually cleaning-up and optimising the nutrient content of their food intake. The most important thing is that we make it realistic, achievable and enjoyable, establishing manageable goals that adapt to their lifestyle.

Before the initial consultation, they would be required to complete a health appraisal questionnaire and food diary. During the consultation, we would go through this in more detail. Our aim is to get to the root cause of symptoms, so we ask questions about digestion, energy, stress and sleep to get an understanding of what’s going on. We then evaluate their individual needs and use the extensive evidence base for nutritional science to develop a personalised, safe and effective nutrition and lifestyle programme.

Quite often, digestion is a good place to start. If we are not absorbing vitamins and minerals from our foods, this has a knock on effect on how we feel emotionally and physically. After all, we are what we absorb, not what we eat.

Testing such as food intolerance testing and stool testing is also available, if required. Shorter follow-up consultations are recommended every two to three weeks, or as needed to assess changes.

Why would you like to work with HSPs?
“The food we eat has a huge impact on how we feel. Getting the balance right is so important. There is a whole variety of calming and nourishing foods available to us, and helping people tap into what nature provides is very rewarding.

The digestive system is sensitive to our emotions, which is why a gentle, planned approach is essential. Going it alone can lead to frustration and confusion. Nutritional therapists are uniquely trained to understand how nutrients and other food components influence the function of the body, protect against disease and restore health.”

For more information contact Mary Cotter here.