Sometimes we can feel fine one minute, then the next be shouting at our kids, partners or other drivers. Does this ever happen to you just after you have eaten a meal? Suddenly you are overcome by a dramatic change of mood, a drop in concentration levels and energy, a sickly feeling, or maybe feeling teary for no apparent reason.
The foods we eat play a huge part in our mood and energy levels. The effects of certain food can linger in our system for three to four days, particularly if we are going through a stressful time. I learnt this the hard way.
Throughout my 30s and 40s, I was a busy working mum with two jobs, working in a hectic law office in the morning and then from home in the afternoon. My son was in school and had sports activities almost every evening as well as weekends. My husband worked late so I was ‘Taxi Mom’.
We sat down to our main meal at 8pm or later. I was always conscious to prepare healthy meals and tried to ensure we had plenty of fruit and vegetables in our diet. Regardless, I would lie awake almost every night with a painful, bloated stomach. When I did fall asleep, I would wake up an hour or two later.
Thinking back to my childhood, the women in our family suffered with bloated stomachs, particularly in the evenings after our main meal. It was regularly an after-dinner talking point between my Mum and sisters. We assumed it was simply part of our genetic disposition (Ah! The good old pre-internet days where we ‘assumed’ a lot of things!) Many years later, one of my sisters was diagnosed with coeliac disease.
‘If a person with coeliac disease eats gluten, their intestine becomes damaged. This reduces their ability to absorb nutrients from food. This can lead to various symptoms and complications, if undiagnosed.
Some people with coeliac disease are also sensitive to the protein found in oats. Even a grain of gluten can cause harm such as diarrhoea, or other symptoms which can last for several days.’ www.coeliac.ie
I had lived with anxiety issues since my early 20s and now my body was manifesting physical symptoms, which I now believe were a result of constantly feeling stressed. Along with stomach pain, I suffered with joint aches, in particular swollen knees, recurring UTIs, sinus and chest infections.
I spent every other week taking time out of work to sit in a busy GP’s office. My doctor was a very kind and empathetic listener, but she ran a busy practice and we had few conversations about getting to the bottom of it, simply that I needed to slow down. I just wanted to feel better and knew my chances were slim if I was constantly on antibiotics.
Blood tests, an endoscopy and colonoscopy confirmed that I was not a coeliac. My gastroenterologist suggested I add more fibre to my diet (which actually made my symptoms worse).
The UTIs became a big deal around then too. As well as making silly mistakes in my job, I was mortified at work at having to rush to the toilet so often when a UTI suddenly came on.
I was referred to an Urologist and following more in-depth invasive examinations, everything came back clear. He told me, I am one of those unfortunates who will suffer with this for the rest of my life and came away laden with prescriptions for ridiculously expensive patches and a variety of other pharmaceuticals that can lead to horrible side-effects. As I was walking out the door, he said: ‘Oh, by the way, stay away from acidic foods such as tomatoes, spices, fruit juices, sugary drinks and alcohol.’ Okay that’s interesting, I thought. Food is being mentioned again but this doctor didn’t appear to put much weight on it if he is only mentioning it in passing.
I began trying to connect the dots. I took on board what the Urologist said about acidic and spicy foods, tried it out and I started to notice an improvement. Then the shitshow of hot flushes and night sweats showed up. Yes, finally one test that came back positive!
So what did I do? I thought it would be a good idea to increase my exercise regime so I took up running. Makes sense, huh? Well, I did great for a while until I injured my knee, but this is where everything got really interesting.
I went to a physiotherapist who also practiced acupuncture. I didn’t know anything about acupuncture, except for that it is one of the oldest forms of medicine in existence. Chinese medicine takes into account your overall health and wellbeing, a ‘holistic’ approach. As my physiotherapist treated my knee injury, she simultaneously treated my sinus, UTI and menopausal symptoms.
I live in awe of many aspects of modern medicine, the amazing scientific breakthroughs etc. life-changing operations, transplants and medications but with health services as busy as they are, there isn’t always enough time allocated for medical practitioners to dig deep and investigate what lies beneath a patient’s wellbeing.
When I told my physio of my family history and coeliac disease, she suggested that maybe I should consider speaking with a nutritionist.
‘No, I’m not a coeliac. My symptoms are different and I eat really healthily.’
We spoke about emotional, mental and physical health and through her meticulous record-keeping, we noticed a pattern of illness that manifested when I was going through a particularly stressful time. During those times, my diet would take a dive. I would snack more and consume a lot more alcohol.
The ‘what-if’ scenario came to mind:
‘What if my experience is both food and stress related?’
Perhaps my diet was exacerbating my health issues.
Divine Intervention has its way of putting glaring signs in front of you that can’t be ignored. I passed by my local pharmacy every day and they had a sign in their window promoting food allergy testing. I went home and researched what’s involved and thought: ‘OK! It’s a start and it seems doable’.
My test was a simple finger-prick test and examines up to 80 food types. I was surprised to see that almost every vegetable I ate was on the list – carrots, peas, mushrooms. It was recommended that I take a complete break from them and try to re-introduce them one at a time in a month or two.
I was both gluten and lactose intolerant. Being intolerant as opposed to allergic (i.e. coeliac) means I have a reaction to that food by perhaps feeling unwell for a couple of days as it struggles to (often painfully) pass through my digestive system.
‘What am I going to eat now?’
I was so tired every night and lacked imagination or creativity for new meals. My sister gave me sage advice:
‘Focus on what you can eat, not on what you can’t.’
I stayed away from mushrooms, peas, carrots and peanuts for a couple of months, then gradually re-introduced them one at a time. I took note of how I felt from eating them over the next few days and it worked out OK but I still don’t eat them that often anymore.
Gluten and lactose are still an issue for me. I still have moments of madness where I find myself saying ‘You only live once’ and scoff down that giant slice of chocolate cake before you can say Bob’s your auntie and yes, I pay the price for the next few days. Also, sauces can be a hidden culprit. For example, soy sauce contains gluten so it’s always worth checking the ingredients.
My lactose intolerance relates to cow, sheep and goat products, milk and soft cheese in particular. I don’t take any chances with lactose products as they have an instant effect (I’ll spare you the details but you don’t want to be caught out especially if you’re at a party!) I find it hard to comprehend despite having drunk milk almost every day of my life prior to this that I now have an instant dramatic reaction if I inadvertently consume it.
Have I mentioned that I now live in France and not eating dairy or bread when you go out for a meal is a big deal? It can be quite the challenge when they present your meal elegantly dressed with a creamy sauce (that they regularly omit to mention on the menu) all across your beautifully cooked salmon.
If any of these issues ring a bell with you, try some of my suggestions below before you spend money on tests.
If you’re thinking of trying this out, it’s worth having both a food diary and a personal journal. When you record how you feel in your journal, take note and check if what you ate has any bearing on your emotions that day.
It requires patience and perseverance but in a month or two, you will begin to notice a difference.
- Begin with two journals:
- food journal (a simple spreadsheet or Google calendar on your phone)
- a journal to record your physical, mental or emotional issues (simple bullet points or even one sentence if that’s all you feel you can manage at the end of your day)
- Be honest and take note of every little morsel that passes into your mouth (don’t forget to include any sauces and snacks, milk, sugar in your tea, coffee etc.)
- When writing about your day, notice whether it was a good day or not so good day:
– Did something upset you or trigger an out-of-character reaction?
– Did you suddenly feel sleepy, lethargic or lose concentration?
– What had you eaten?
– How did you feel 10 minutes after you had eaten, an hour later or a day later?
– Were you particularly hungry and reached out for a quick fix and grab whatever was handy?
Have you heard of ‘hanger’? A feeling when you are so hungry, you get angry (This might sound funny to some but if you are near anyone who is close to that ‘danger zone’, get them a snack ASAP! On your head be it!)
Look back and compare what was different about today to yesterday, to the day before, a week ago and notice if there’s a connection with your food intake.
Make time to relax and reflect:
‘What if I am no longer a slave to old eating habits that don’t serve me well? How would that feel?’
Living your best life is a conscious practice but it’s not easy (or fun) doing it on your own. Ask for support from your friends or family, even your kids. You may be pleasantly surprised by their reaction.
Recently, myself and two pals had another one of our many conversations about taking a break from alcohol. This time, we finally took action. Within a few of days, we set up our little WhatsApp group and decided to try 30 days alcohol-free. By day 25, we were rocking it and feeling so good that we charged ahead and did 90 days (also through a second lockdown). We shared our wobbles, cheered our amazing resilience and welcomed hangover-free Sunday mornings. Now, we have an extended little tribe preparing to tackle dry January. Wish us luck (although I don’t think we’ll need it!)
We all have days or weeks where there will be setbacks. When you are suffering from overwhelm stress or nervous exhaustion, acknowledge that what you’re feeling is real.
Be kind to yourself and go at a pace that feels right for you and know that you are taking steps to making a change for a healthier you.
My blog is to inspire, support and encourage you to question and look within yourself for the answer. I am not a nutritionist or a medical practitioner. I am sharing what worked for me having exhausted all other medical avenues.
If you experience physical ailments that are impacting your daily life, please do not ignore your symptoms and be sure to get them medically checked out.