Often when we refer to new eating habits we refer to it as our “diet” or that we’ve made “dietary changes.” The problem with this language (and I’ll admit that it’s language I’ve often used myself) is that it equates these changes as “going on a diet” such as for weight loss. While some people with chronic pain or illness may want to lose weight, for many others that is not the goal. So I think calling these changes a diet is a big problematic. It’s also problematic for anyone who is struggling with body image or has (or has had) an eating disorder. Basically the word diet is the worst. Instead it can be way better to think of these as lifestyle changes. Maybe specifically nutritional lifestyle changes (since lifestyle changes can also include exercise, meditation, etc.).
I did not need to “diet” nor is it something I wanted to do. I struggled with body image when I was younger and honestly have not owned a scale in over 10 years. I don’t need it or want it. And yet, I wanted to make some nutritional lifestyle changes because I had heard from many people – healthcare professionals and just other Spoonies – that it can help with pain, inflammation, gut issues, etc. I struggled in the past to go on a “paleo diet” or really anything with the word diet in it. When I was hosting my podcast I talked to a few people who looked at lifestyle changes in regards to what we eat instead of diets (link to the podcast – there’s a number of episodes on this subject). I began to think, what if I tried some of these lifestyle changes, implementing them at a pace that feels comfortable and non-restrictive? That’s how I figured out what makes me feel good when I eat it, versus what makes me feel bad.
Lifestyle changes with food/nutrition can totally vary from person to person. I was listening to a podcast that I like this morning and they were also talking about chronic pain and diet, and how one person will advocate for this diet and another will advocate for that diet, and the whole wellness industry is silly. I would say that it really comes down to individual differences. No one person is the same (body or mind) and there are a lot of factors that influence health. Keeping that in mind, lifestyle changes that you make are best done if they are ones that work for you. There’s no guarantee that all of your symptoms will go away, or that you’ll go into remission. That was never my goal personally. I just wanted to see what might help. Taking that attitude and approach (and being flexible with “cheat days” when I need them) makes it much, much easier. At the end of the day, these lifestyle changes are just one way we can keep making the most of it!
Okay, this might seem simple, but sometimes I forget to hydrate enough. Last year I was on an app that had us do a 30 day challenge, part of which was drinking 8 glasses of water a day. I honestly felt so great that whole punch (despite having to pee all the time). Unfortunately, I have not been able to keep up the habit. It’s not that I don’t want to or think it’s important, it’s that for some reason it’s a little harder than I thought it would be (this reminds me that I might do a post on habit forming in the future). What I have noticed for myself is that when I’m working, especially from home, I drink a lot of water. One glass per client, plus probably 2 extra on top of that. So on days where I have 4 clients, that ends up being at least 6 glasses of water. In the office, it’s close to the same, but perhaps a little less. The less I work, the less I drink water…
Except for when I go for a hike, walk, or to the beach. The summer is my favourite time of year. Yes there are some downsides to the weather being hot, but I do love outdoor activities. And I normally do pretty well at staying hydrated. I always bring a water bottle, though I’ll admit sometimes I should probably bring 2, and it’s always empty by the time I’ve returned home. I’m also always happy to get a glass of water at a restaurant, or buy a bottled water at a convenience store if I’ve run out and need more.
While water is 100% important for every human, I think it’s additionally important for Chronic Pain/Illness Warriors. Research suggests that staying hydrated can improve our joint health and functioning by increasing flexibility and lubrication within the joints (could’ve helped the Tin Man). It also has been shown to remove toxins in the body, and toxins are often the source of inflammation. Less inflammation = less pain. Added benefits are improved mood (because being dehydrated can make us angry, depressed and tense – I’ve definitely experience this before, have you?); and it can aid in weight loss, if you have that goal. We know that the mind and body are connected, so when we feel emotions like sadness, anger, and anxiety we tend to feel more pain. When we feel more pain we get into these states easier (so imagine being dehydrated as well).
Here are some ways I make sure I’m staying hydrated:
I always have a full glass of water within arms reach. As soon as the glass is empty (or low) I fill it up, with some ice cubes and just carry it from room to room with me throughout the day.
I bring a water bottle with me as often as possible. I take it to work, on walks, etc. Again, having it near means I’m more likely to drink it.
I order a glass of water at the restaurant. Even if I’m also ordering another drink. Nothing else really hydrates us, so while I’m happy to have a beer or a soda or coffee, etc. that is really for the flavour, socializing experience, etc. I need to have water for the hydration.
Also, side note PSA, if you have a dog and you’re taking him or her for a walk, please, please bring one of those doggy water bottles for them. If you need to be hydrated, they do too!
Enjoy the rest of your summer and keep making the most of it!
I was reading an industry magazine put out by my association (British Columbia Association of Clinical Counsellors) and this issue was heavily focused on mental health for chronic illness, which I was obviously excited about. In it there was a 1 page article/ad for a book about BRAIN Foods, or which foods are specifically good for mental health. I noticed some overlap with foods that are good for autoimmune disease as well, so I decided to do a little more research and try to figure out which foods would be good for both. While having this knowledge can definitely help my clients, it is also helpful for myself.
Before I get into what I’ve found as overlap (not everything does overlap to be clear, there are a lot of foods that came up for one or the other), I want to state that a lot of this depends on what kind of diet you follow. Someone who does AIP vs. Paleo vs. Keto, etc. will all look at this list and find things they can or cannot eat. What I’ve found works for me is to just cut out foods when I notice they don’t make me feel well. So I don’t eat gluten or dairy or meat (except fish) because those are the main things that bother me. However, knowing what can have more benefits from the list of things I do eat is helpful to know. I also want to say, that I am not perfect, nor do I try to be. I went to my brother’s wedding in another city, and while I did try to eat from my go-to list as often as possible, there were times (like at the wedding itself) where I did indulge in dairy, meat and gluten (I surprisingly didn’t hurt too badly after). I personally find it easier to stick to my diet (or rather, way of eating) if I don’t put pressure on myself to be perfect all the time (when I cook for myself I really do stick to it though).
All that being said, here are the overlap mental health and autoimmune foods I found from several lists and articles:
Fruits, such as blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, etc. (basically all the berries) – I love berries
Vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, and cauliflower – broccoli is often a staple for me
Fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines – all of which are high in omega-3s and salmon is my fave
Nuts and seeds – sunflower seeds specifically came up on a list and I was like ooh reminds me of playing softball as a kid.
Sweet potatoes – literally another staple for me
Healthy fats, such as avocados, olive oil and coconut oil – I usually cook with avocado oil and I love avocados
Turmeric – my former naturopath recommended turmeric tea, which I find to be a lovely way to have more of it.
Green tea – I go through periods where I drink a lot of green tea
Dark chocolate – pretty much the only “snack” food on the lists and honestly, I got used to the taste (though I still prefer milk chocolate)
Whole grains – again, not something I eat anymore, but it’s definitely a better option than “white bread,” etc.
Coffee – I was surprised by this one, and I do love me my morning coffee. I do recommend no coffee after 2pm though as it can drastically affect sleep.
So, while you don’t have to eat everything from this list, it is probably helpful to try to include some of these foods regularly to improve brain functioning, decrease depression (depression is linked to inflammation in the brain much like AI is linked to inflammation in the body), and decrease illness symptoms. It can also be really helpful to practice mindful eating – check out my guided version here.
I love food, so hopefully this also helps you to make the most of it!
I love writing (hello, this is a blog after all) and I’ve always found it to be helpful for me in my own life (and health) journeys (that and music). I came across some research on the mental and PHYSICAL health benefits of expressive writing, so I did a bit more digging and damn, we should all be doing more of it! And hopefully, this post will inspire you to do some. Hearing that there are mental health benefits is probably less shocking than that there are physical health benefits to expressive writing, so we’ll start there, but before we get into that, let’s quickly establish what expressive writing is. Expressive writing is simply writing about our deepest thoughts and feelings about an event or situation, without holding back. When people do this, it is often through journaling, and is often free-writing, without too much thinking about it. It can be done on the computer or by hand, really whatever you prefer. The leading pioneer in this research is Pennebaker (too many articles to site them all), but I’ll site some of the other research on the subject (which also references him) at the end of the post.
Okay, so the mental health benefits:
reduces symptoms of depression
reduces post-traumatic symptoms
improves focus and concentration – including in people with ADHD
improves working memroy
improves emotion regulation (which is our ability to control the quality, frequency, intensity and duration of our emotional responses to situations)
and it increases our self-awareness
If these aren’t good enough reasons to do some expressive writing, then maybe the physical health benefits will convince you:
decreases the number of doctor’s visits you’ll have
reduces the number of days spent in the hospital
reduces the overall number of hospitalizations – i.e., people with cystic fibrosis
reduces blood pressure
reduces chronic pain – i.e., cancer and chronic pain conditions
reduces the severity of inflammatory conditions – i.e., rheumatoid arthritis, lupus (SLE)
improves immune functioning – i.e., cancer, HIV
improves lung functioning – asthma
improves liver functioning
improves and speeds up post-operative recovery
improves overall physical well-being
And then, if that’s still not enough for you, there are some other general benefits:
reduced number of “sick” days from work plus faster return to work if you were layed off
increased GPA in university students
improved sporting performance in athletes
Okay, so how does this all work? I mean, I understand how it can improve some of the mental health problems we may experience, because we’re writing about our thoughts and feelings. But how does it improve our physical health? Well, actually the two are related. Remember that stress has a HUGE impact on our physical health, and the mind and body are connecting, meaning that anxiety and depression can also feed into (and trauma can cause) physical health problems. The processes of expressive writing are as follows:
it allows for cognitive processing and restructuring of painful events and situations – cognitive restructuring changes how we perceive emotional stressors (both internal and external)
it allows for repeated exposure – which is controlled re-experiencing of events and situations so that they have less influence over our minds and behaviours
Improving our bodies, improves our minds and vice versa. Here’s the podcast episode on it.
How do we engage in expressive writing? According to the experts we need to write about our deepest thoughts and feelings, without holding back, about situations or events or really anything relevant to us at this moment that are painful. This could be anything from having cancer, to spending time in the hospital to going through a traumatic event. When we sit down to write, it should be for 15-20 minutes at time, without stopping, and be done on 4 consecutive days. Just doing that is enough to lead to all the benefits I listed earlier. It’s possible that more consistent writing could have more improvements, but I honestly didn’t find much on that. So, I’m curious, who’s going to try out some of this expressive writing to see if it helps?
I want to remind everyone that in addition to this blog, if you’re looking for more information to improve your health, I have a podcast: Chronically Living and how to make the most of it, which is available on Apple, Spotify and everywhere else you get podcasts, including this web link. I also have a YouTube channel for those of you looking to incorporate more mindfulness as it has a number of benefits for your physical and mental health as well: Kelsey L Harris Meditations. Until next week, keep making the most of it!
Baikie, K.A., & Wilhelm, . (2018). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338-346. https://doi.org/10.1192/apt.11.5.338 Lepore, S-J., Greenberg, M.A., Bruno, A., Smyth, J.M. (2002). Expressive writing and health: Self-regulation of emotion-related experience, physiology and behaviour. In S.J. Lepore & J.M. Smyth (Eds), The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being (p. 99-117). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10451-005 Stanton, A.L., Danoff-burg, S., & Huggins, M.E. (2002). The first year after breast cancer diagnosis: Hope and coping strategies as predictors of adjustment. Psycho-Oncology, 11(2), 93-102. https://doi.org/10.1002/pon.574
I know most of us are probably familiar with the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and I definitely think that is true. Not just because I’m a writer (I love to write everything – this blog, self-help books, fiction novels and short stories, poetry, screenplays/teleplays) but because there is research that shows that writing (and very specifically journaling) is good not only for our mental health, but our physical health as well. This is one reason Chronic Illness Warriors might want to jump on the journaling bandwagon.
So the whole reason I wanted to write about this is because I was re-reading a textbook for my practicum (basic counselling skills, etc) and one of the interesting things that I read was that a researcher named Pennebaker found that people who record “troubling experiences in diaries showed better immune system responses and significantly better health than those who did not.” Now, I’m not saying I think that any kind of writing is going to suddenly magically cure any of us and we’ll just feel 100% better by doing so. The research though is super interesting. I think that most people can acknowledge the mental health is helped by sharing our story – through therapy, support groups, and writing/journaling. I personally find it just good for my mental health to do any kind of writing, including creative writing, whether or not it directly has to do with my struggles (let’s face it, every writer has a character who is more like them). It can feel good to journal because it can allow you to process, be reflective, and just get something off your chest, and it’s particularly effective if you are struggling with your mental health on top of your physical health.
In terms of physical health, researchers have found journaling to help with viral infections such as Hepatitis (so yes, potentially even Covid-19 as well). There was also a study that looked at gratitude journaling by those with heart failure, and found that morbidity was decreased and inflammation was reduced in the majority of patients. Now obviously more research always needs to be done but it is an interesting and promising start. How exactly does it all work? Well, that’s not 100% clear but journaling can lessen overall stress (for those reasons I stated for mental health) and stress and immune functioning are related, so it kind of makes sense that like some other mindfulness activities, journaling (or perhaps other forms of writing) can be helpful. I’m all about the “even if I just feel better today” (or for a few hours) attitude. Why not help ourselves in the present moment? All we really have is this moment, because the next one doesn’t exist yet, and the last one has passed. In this moment, if journaling helps me feel better and potentially helps my body and mind function better, than maybe that’s a good reason to make today the day you start a journal.
Have a good week and keep on making the most of it!