WHAT IS NUTRITIONAL MEDICINE
The science of nutrients in food and their effect on the body
Nutrients are made up of macro nutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, enzymes and phytonutrients). Nutritional medicine is an evidence-based study of nutrients, as found in natural food sources and artificial supplements, and their action on all aspects of the biochemistry of the body. It is the study and practice of how nutrients (and therefore foods) promote health, and affect the onset, progression, management and prevention of disease. Nutrition affects all stages of life – from the time of conception to our old age, and different stages of life have different nutritional requirements and challenges.
While nutritional medicine looks at a detailed level at the action of nutrients in the body, it is also based on naturopathic principles and takes a holistic view of health and wellbeing, examining the relationship between diet, lifestyle and health. It is an approach that recognises that no one part of the human body or mind operates in isolation. It is also an approach that recognises that everybody is different, and each individual body responds to nutrients in different ways. It’s just the way we are. This is often why people are despondant when a particular “diet” or approach which works for their friend/family member/internet blogger doesn’t work for them. It’s important to get expert advise on what is right for you, and to get help navigating the world of food/health advice choices that we are presented with.
Factors that are considered in a holistic nutritional medicine approach to health include:
- environmental stressors and toxins
- physical and emotional stressors
- genetic factors
- social, environmental, psychological and behavioral aspects of our relationship to food which prevent us from making healthy choices
In today’s fast paced, complex world we are overwhelmed by food and lifestyle choices, not all of them healthy (descpite the marketing hype!). We are also overwhelmed by an abundance of opinions on health and food, wherever we look. All of this information leads to contradictions and confusion, and can cause a lot of stress when trying to make the right choices. Sometimes the right choices mean changing habits of a lifetime which requires dedication and support (from an expert like me!)
There is increasing evidence that Alzheimer ’s disease (like many other chronic diseases) can be caused from systemic and chronic inflammation in the body. This is one aspect of your health that is affected primarily by lifestyle and dietary factors. Another emerging cause of Alzheimer’s disease is that of insulin and glucose regulation (this type of Alzheimer’s is referred to diabetes of the brain) – again this aspect of your health is largely determined by lifestyle and dietary factors. Apart from this, at a cellular level, the brain cells require certain nutrients to keep them healthy and fight off attack from environmental toxins and endotoxins (produced within the body as a result of, for example, chronic inflammation). Being aware of your genetic risk factors affecting brain health is important, as emerging evidence is suggesting that differing genetic profiles will react differently to different diet and lifestyle interventions.
Cancerous cells are being produced in the body all the time, and a healthy immune system is key to getting rid of them before they become a problem. With cancer, as with many diseases, prevention is key, and being aware of your genetic risks and environmental exposure to toxins is important in reducing your risk of getting cancer. Lifestyle factors are also very important in minimising the risk of most common cancers. The holistic approach of nutritional medicine is ideal for examining aspects of your life which can put you at a higher risk for getting cancer, and mitigating those risks. For people who are undergoing treatment for cancer, nutritional status is vital for maintaining strength and immune system function to help deal with the side effects of the treatment. Nutritional needs in the body are drastically increased, while unfortunately, the person may experience a decrease in appetite, gastrointestinal disturbances and be limited in what they are able to eat. This requires carefully and individually tailored dietary advice to ensure that the body is fully supported during this chronically stressful time.
Throughout the lifecycle, the body has differing nutritional requirements. As we age, we typically face reductions in lean body mass, metabolic rate and activity levels. This means we require less energy than before. The need for some nutrients (for example vitamin D) is increased, and for others (for example iron, in women) the requirement is decreased. Decreased production of digestive enzymes also means that nutrients might not be absorbed as effectively as before. The role of nutritional status in supporting a healthy immune system is also critical as we age. The goal of my approach to healthy ageing is to remain healthy, fit and well for as long as we can so that we can enjoy this stage in life. Ill health and disease do not need to be a normal part of the ageing process.
Our genes make us who we are – at a cellular level, and they are inherited from our parents. They determine our risk profiles for diseases and ill health. But the good news is that genes are not fixed, they are rather like a light switch, they can be turned on and off (the gene is “expressing” or “not expressing”). This process is called epigenetics. Epigenetic factors which can affect how an individual gene behaves include diet and lifestyle factors. But, the genes themselves also affect the impact that diet and lifestyle factors have on the body, so it’s important to know what your genetic profile is (either through testing or a thorough family history) to be able to identify factors in your diet and lifestyle that may increase/decrease your risk profile for certain diseases. This is an emerging field of research which is very complex, but which holds promise for truly individualised medicine, right down to determining what foods/nutrients are best for your genotype.