The disconnect between eating well and being nourished...
In many people, there is a huge discrepancy between what they eat and their nutritional status. In my clinical practice, I often see nutritional testing reveal severe malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies in people eating very clean, whole food diets. One obvious reason for this is malabsorption of food, but there is much more that happens between putting food into your mouth and it getting into the cell, where it is needed. Furthermore, there are many things that affect the food we eat, even before we consume it.
Over the last 50-60 years, the amount of nutrients, including protein, B vitamins, calcium, iron and magnesium have decreased dramatically in our crops. In some of these, the amounts have decreased as much as 300-400%! Crops are larger, which decreases the richness of soil micronutrients and organic matter. Fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides deplete nutrients and block our ability to absorb them well. Fruits and vegetables are grown far away from where they are sold, making it necessary to pick them when they are not fully ripe and therefore lower in phytonutrients.
Malabsorption is a common issue for many reasons. Firstly, we live in a stressed society, with sympathetic nervous system dominance being the norm. Our gut does not function well under stress and stomach acid and enzymes are underproduced. Food goes through partially digested and cannot be absorbed well. Imbalances in the gut microbiome may result, further impairing absorption. Excesses of sugar, caffeine, and alcohol all add to the poor absorption. Anti-nutrients, on foods like grains and nuts can further block absorption of vital nutrients,
The drastic increase in pharmaceutical drug use causes countless depletions in nutrients. They may decrease nutrient absorption, block their use or increase their excretion. Common nutrient drainers are NSAIDs (aspirin and tylenol), acid blocking drugs (Pantoprazole, Rameprazole, Tums) and statins (Lipitor, Crestor). Antibiotics have also had a huge impact on nutrients through direct effects and effects on the gut microbiome.
Toxicity opposes nutrients. We are exposed to environmental toxins on a daily basis and non-organic fruits and vegetables are covered in proven harmful toxins. Organic foods are higher in many nutrients, such as antioxidants, lycopene, vitamin C, trace minerals, iron and magnesium. Studies done on children eating organic diets showed 600% less organophosphates (a form of pesticide) than those eating conventional diets. An analysis by the Environmental working group showed that > 20 million children consume more than 8 pesticides daily. Eating non-organic food can pose a great risk to the neurological, endocrine, hepatic, and metabolic health of both children and adults.
Once absorbed, nutrients need to get to the cell, which requires good circulation, healthy cell membranes, and receptor integrity. This can be affected by toxicity (heavy metals and chemicals) and inflammation. The energy requirements of the cell can affect how quickly nutrients are used up. It is a supply and demand issue. An inflamed or stressed cell has unhealthy cell membranes, blocked receptors and a large energy demand. Nutrients cannot integrate and when they do, they are used up as quickly as they come in.
So... what can we do about all this?
1. Choose organic foods where possible - eat only the 'clean fifteen' of conventional foods, or at very least, avoid the 'dirty dozen', found at ewg.org
2. Clean up your environment to avoid toxins. This means clean water, clean air, clean cosmetics and cleaning products. Filter water with a table top filter or reverse osmosis unit. A fridge filter or plastic water filter is not sufficient. A HEPA and VOC air filter will remove particulate matter from the air, which is responsible for much of the toxins we accumulate. ewg.org has clean products guide too.
3. Avoid acid suppressant medications, unless specifically indicated. There are few long term indications for these medications. If you are already using these medications, wean off them slowly with guidance of a knowledgeable physician to avoid rebound symptoms.
4. Support stomach acid and digestive enzyme function, either by supplementation or increasing acidic and fermented foods, as tolerated.
5. Eat a diet high in phytonutrients (plant nutrients), including lots of nutrient dense herbs and spices.
6. Limit foods that affect absorption of nutrients, which include sugar, coffee and grains.
7. Avoid spikes in glucose and insulin by consuming a lower glycemic index diet to avoid magnesium and chromium depletion.
8. Support cell membranes with a good quality fish oil and/or phospholipid supplement. Dosing and type are guided by your health care professional. Fish oils need to be of high quality, due tot potential for mercury contamination.
9. Stress management and calming the sympathetic nervous system improves gut health and decreases nutrient demand. This can be done through meditation, relaxation, exercise, socializing and acupuncture, among other things.
10. Find sources of inflammation and toxicity, which deplete nutrients. This can be done through functional medicine testing, which helps to individualize your care. Food sensitivity testing, gastrointestinal/ stool testing, nutrient testing, heavy metal and chemical testing and immune system testing will help you get to the root of why you may be undernourished when you feel like you are doing everything else right, helping you regain your energy and vitality.
Dr. Michelle van der Westhuizen