There are many factors today that affect our health, many more than our ancestors would have faced. We are ever-evolving and adapting to our increasingly toxic world, but sadly not without a price.
Our vegetables are grown with toxins, the standards of our meat industry are questionable (at best) and our grains are overly processed, almost unrecognisable by our gut which has to work tirelessly to process and protect us from everything we ingest.
We put toxins on our bodies with the promise of looking younger and more beautiful, and we put chemicals on our skin to block out the sun, missing out on much-needed vitamin D.
We forgo sleep, maybe because we are too busy or too stressed, then we rely on coffee during the day to keep us going. We forget to drink water, or if we do, we drink it out of plastic bottles and then drink alcohol at night to relax, only to wake up feeling exhausted and do it all again.
Maybe we follow fad diets and extreme weight loss programs that appear to work for those posting perfect bikin-body photos but end up making us feel ill or gain even more weight.
Does any of this sound familiar? (And depressing?!). Thankfully, even when stuck in a health rut our bodies are amazing at adapting and recovering, and it really doesn’t take much to get ourselves back into balance, feel well, live well and look well.
When we focus on proper nutrition, hydration, exercise, sleep, and managing environmental toxins, we can get ourselves back onto the path towards optimal health.
Lets start with Nutrition.
I can’t stress enough the importance of good nutrition, we can so easily get into a bad rut with our diet and it can seem easier to keep doing what we’re doing than to break the cycle.
Many issues with our health these days result from poor diet, our food can be saturated with hidden fats, sugars and salt, it can be really challenging to eat well and nourish your body. Our global obesity epidemic isn’t reducing, in fact it’s only growing. In the West we rely too heavily on convenience foods, perhaps because we are too busy to cook, too tired or just don’t know where to start. A good way of looking at your food intake is to think, if it didn’t fly, walk, swim or grow from the ground then don’t eat it!
Let’s look at the basics:
* Cut the C.R.A.P – Carbonated Drinks & (excess) Caffeine, Refined Sugar, Alcohol & Processed Food
Carbonated Drinks – This means no soda; Coke, Pepsi, Sprite etc. There is no goodness or hydration in these drinks and they should not make up any portion of your hydration requirements for the day.
I’m not a happy mama if I don’t get my coffee in the morning but it’s not because I need it to wake me up, I actually find the juice from half a lemon with hot water much more energising. I just love the ritual of having a steaming hot cup of coffee and I love the smell and taste. I drink organic decaf. Organic coffee is obviously more expensive but so worth it as coffee can contain a whole range of different toxins in the processing period, which can upset our stomach. I hear a lot of people say coffee upsets their stomach but then find this eases when switching to organic coffee. Waitrose (UK) have a wonderful selection that isn’t too pricey. Caffeine should ideally be limited to two cups per day, otherwise it can affect sleep. Herbal tea is not included in this, herbal teas are a great alternative to black tea and has numerous health benefits.
Refined Sugar – Sugar is not just limited to the obvious list of cakes, pastries, sweets and sugary breakfast cereals, it can also be hidden in things like peanut butter and tomato ketchup. Read the labels on your food; the terms sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose dextrose, lactose, high fructose corn syrup all indicate the presence of refined sugars. Check out my list of sweet swaps to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Alcohol – This is an interesting one, as I love a glass of wine and happen to be quite a dab-hand at making cocktails. So I’m not going to say I think we should all abstain from drinking alcohol, life is too short not to enjoy wine! But I think it’s important to stick to the recommended guidelines and to take regular days off from drinking. However in pregnancy, avoid alcohol altogether.
Processed Food – I have a really simplistic view on this; cook fresh, real food. Even gluten free packaged foods are still just processed foods. I try to think about the process of what I’m about to eat, how did it get on my plate? Meat from my butchers with vegetables from my local farmers market that I cooked on my stove? Or a plastic tray containing meat and vegetables, with a host of other ingredients I can’t pronounce that I heated in the microwave? You get the picture.
* Eat fish at least twice a week.
* Eat the rainbow – eat from all colours of the spectrum, think of beautiful red raspberries, delicious crunchy green peas, succulent blueberries, ripe red tomatoes, zesty yellow lemons, oranges and brightly coloured purple beets. There are so many beautiful plant food choices out there, I think there is nothing more satisfying than having a lovely array of colourful vegetables and fruits on your plate.
* Grow your own. This is time consuming and may take some effort but it’s a wonderful thing to get children involved in and can be simple and cheap (you can buy rocket as an example for pennies and it grows really easily in pots)
* Eat local – visit your farmers market if your town has one, they are a wonderful source of local food and it’s great to support local farmers and businesses. Or look to see if your region has an organic vegetable box business.
* Eat organic (whenever possible)
A Note About Gut Health and Mental Performance
We tend to think the brain is in charge when it comes to your mental health, your behavior, and even your mood, but in reality, your gut has more influence on your brain than you might think.
In addition to the brain in your head, embedded in the wall of your gut is your enteric nervous system (ENS), which works both independently of and in conjunction with your brain. Scientists are increasingly convinced that the vast assemblage of microfauna in our intestines may have a major impact on our state of mind, (and I can attest to this. I always feel really down when I have a stomach ache, and not just because it aches, it seems to make me feel really irritable.)
Your ENS contains 500 million neurons and is thought to be largely responsible for your “gut instincts”, responding to environmental threats and sending information to your brain that affects your well-being.
This communication between your “two brains” runs both ways and is the pathway for how foods affect your mood.
This can also suggest that positive gut health can lead to a better state of mind and encourage mental performance.
I am a firm and passionate believer in probiotic and prebiotic foods, it’s one of the first things I do to support gut and immune health and I’ve seen great results in my GI issues with the use of pro and pre-biotics.
While pro-biotics are the good bacteria that live in our system, pre-biotics are the plant fibers that nourish these good bacteria that are already in the large bowl or colon.
Prebiotics, such as garlic, onions, leeks, artichoke, and bananas help these good bacteria grow, improving the good-to-bad bacteria ratio.
When buying over-the-counter probiotics, generally the higher the number of billions of bacteria, the more expensive the product. However I don’t think they are always necessary if you can manage it in your diet. It’s proving to be more beneficial to eat fermented foods, for example yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi. A recent look at the number of probiotics in sauerkraut showed it to be in the trillions! When buying sauerkraut it’s important to buy it from the refrigerator section as the bacteria don’t tend to have a good shelf life at room temperature. Even better, make your own!