Thursday, March 17, 2011

Living Better with Dysautonomia (Help #5: Diet)

*UPDATE 2/13/2012: Since posting this entry, I have extended my anti-inflammatory diet to include being strictly gluten-free (and mostly dairy-free). I have updated the suggested foods list to reflect this as well as my avoidance of MSG, soy yogurts with and without inulin, oats, and agave.

Help #5: Anti-inflammatory Diet + Salt

I don't know about you, but symptom flares typically send me running for the nearest comfort food. Daily I used to consume desserts like dark chocolate, ice cream, cookies, and cupcakes. For snacks, I relied on quick fixes like a bowl of cereal, toast, PB&J, popcorn, pasta, or a glass of juice. I didn't have energy to make fancy meals.

These foods helped me to feel good in the moment, but in the long run, I suffered symptoms of hypoglycemia, uncomfortable digestive problems, muscle aches, and terrible fatigue.

Over the past year, I've been equipped with more knowledge about eating an anti-inflammatory diet. Determining to do this has made a noticeable difference in my symptoms, but it is only part of the puzzle. I still experiment with diet choices and other treatments to optimize my health.

First and foremost, I've learned to cut out all unnecessary sugar and white flour.
This may sound impossible, especially when it's such a comfort. I didn't think I'd make it more than one day (two, tops) without desserts or high-carb foods. I decided to try going cold turkey for as long as I could, and after a few days of resisting the intense cravings, it was suddenly easier to say no to sweets. I trained my taste buds to enjoy a sweet potato without brown sugar. I drank tea instead of juice in the morning. Eventually, I grew accustomed to living on a low-sugar diet and began to enjoy the natural sweetness of fruit, the richness of cocoa powder in milk, and the creaminess of plain yogurt. I don't mean to say that I deprive myself entirely of occasional treats, but now that I see the benefits for my health, I don't go straight for sugar when I'm hungry. Instead, I go for protein, which is my next tip...

Second, I make an effort to base meals and snacks around healthy protein sources.
Instead of grabbing for toast when I'm hungry, I now reach for salted almonds. Instead of cereal, I scramble an egg. Almond butter with banana has replaced ice cream with banana. My new rule to include protein (or slow-digesting carbs) in every snack keeps my blood sugar stable and lessens fatigue. I don't experience sudden cravings and lightheadedness between meals anymore. Eating protein regularly gives me a more steady sense of well-being with lasting fullness and satisfaction.

Third, I have added in more organic vegetables and salads to my diet.
Salad used to be the thing I'd put Saran wrap over at the end of a meal because I didn't have room for it. Now, it's become a main course. Salad isn't boring when you can put a lot of protein on it. Some of my favorite salad toppings include crispy chicken sauteed in olive oil, crumbled bacon, shredded cheese, sunflower seeds, shredded turkey, bits of salmon or tuna, diced tomato and cucumber, or even a Mexican twist with seasoned ground meat, fresh avocado, onion, and cilantro leaves. In addition to building tasty salads, I've also learned to enjoy steamed vegetables like carrots, green beans, broccoli, and asparagus. A little salt and heart-healthy margarine make these vegetables delicious, and as a bonus, I don't feel bloated or sick after I eat them.

Learning what foods pack the most nutritional punch has continued to be challenging but fun. The book Anticancer: A New Way of Life started me off in the right direction by pointing me toward a diet rich in nutritious foods instead of settling for carryout burritos and prepared frozen entrees. Pairing this knowledge with a focus on protein and vegetables, while cutting back on sugar and unhealthy carbohydrates, has improved my health even more.

Beware of food allergies and sensitivities!
Hidden food sensitivities can sometimes play a role in how a person with dysautonomia feels. Diagnosing a gluten, nut, wheat, soy, egg, or dairy sensitivity could be vital to aiding your recovery, so I urge you to speak to your doctor about testing and elimination diets. Not all food sensitivities express themselves as stomach upset. Fatigue, rashes, and vitamin deficiencies can all be signals of a food intolerance. *I did not test positive for celiac disease but still found significant symptom improvement from eating strictly gluten-free and mostly dairy-free.*

In the meantime, remember that every food you put in your mouth contains powerful vitamins and nutrients that can influence the amount of inflammation in your body, just like any medicine or pill. Steering clear of sugar, white flour, and unhealthy, high-carbohydrate snacks may help you feel more clear-headed and less fatigued.

What about salt?
If you suffer from low blood pressure (which is common with dysautonomia), it's likely that your doctor has encouraged you to start a high-salt diet. Do this ONLY under the recommendation of your physician because a high-salt diet will raise blood pressure and can be potentially dangerous.

Be aware: Salt and sodium are two different things.

High school chemistry returns to haunt us! Salt is NaCl; sodium is Na. Salt is made up of 39% sodium. I was so sick and disoriented at my diagnosis that I missed this altogether and panicked at the level of salt prescribed.

If a doctor tells you to eat 8 grams of salt per day, they do NOT mean that you should eat 8,000 mg of sodium. They mean you should eat 3,120 mg of sodium. That’s still a lot, but thankfully it does not involve you solely eating SPAM and salt tablets. The best way to get enough sodium in your diet is to be liberal with the salt shaker. Try to avoid sea salt since the large, coarse crystals give you less sodium per serving than regular table salt.

If you need a quick boost of sodium, try chicken noodle soup. My favorite (gluten-free/dairy-free) brand is Kettle Cuisine.

Bottom line: Better fuel = Better function.
The more nutritious foods you can pack into your diet, the better your body will run. Reducing chronic inflammation through diet is a smart decision for anyone looking to improve energy and lower the risk of cancer.

Here are some of my new favorite simple and healthy snacks (*Updated 2/13/12*):

Numi Green Rooibos tea
Alvita Ginger Root tea
Microwaved sweet potato with cinnamon and pumpkin pie spices
Amande yogurt (almond yogurt: dairy-free/gluten-free/soy-free)
Walnuts, pecans, Blue Diamond Roasted Salted Almonds
Papaya smoothies with banana, pineapple, and lime juice
Redmond's Almond Butter with banana
Nuttzo (multi-nut butter, available in regular and peanut-free) on toast with a drop of cherry preserves
Scrambled egg with diced onion, diced bell pepper, and Rice Shreds cheese (also available for vegans)
Egg salad (egg, mustard, mayo) or tuna salad (tuna, onion, egg, mayo) on Udi's Whole Grain bread (gluten-free)
Salted hard-boiled egg
Baby carrots with or without hummus
Kind bars (coconut/apricot/almond)
Microwaved green beans or mixed veggies (as a substitute for chips) with an open-faced sandwich
Quinoa cooked in chicken broth with peas and pieces of roast chicken
Salmon baked in parchment paper with lemon, salt, pepper, and olive oil
Mashed avocado with minced garlic, cilantro, lemon juice, salt, chopped onion
Riceworks brown rice chips with rice cheese, salsa, or guacamole

Low-Carb Banana Nut Muffins
1.5 c almond flour
2 ripe, mashed bananas
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
3 eggs
1/2 c organic unsweetened applesauce
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon coconut sugar (heaping)
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 c chopped walnuts or pecans

Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes. (Heavily adapted from "Eating Stella Style")

If you have any healthy snack ideas to share, please post in the comments!


David said...

hey long time hope all is okay for you on the roller coaster of dys.

just wanted to let me know you are in my thoughts



Anonymous said...

This is a great post!! I saw somewhere that Dr Grubb recommended the anti- cancer but then I just saw someone who said Dr Grubb told them to go dairy/gluten free. Did he tell you one or the other? That's assuming you've seen him

Qavah said...

I've been eating a lactose-free diet for many years prior to my diagnosis.

I don't stick to a gluten-free diet but live with someone on that diet, so my meals tend to be low in gluten or gluten-free.

I see more than one doctor, but Dr. Grubb was the one who recommended "Anticancer" to me.

Anonymous said...

ok thanks, Dr Grubb probably recommends different things depending on the patient.
I'd love to read about a post of your experince with Dr Grubb!! ...if at all possible

Tonya said...

Hi! Do you still have gi issues being lactose free? The reason I ask is bc I'm lactose intolerant & thought as long as I was lactose free is was ok BUT I recently found out that alot of POTS patients  also have milk protein intolerance that causes issues and don't even know it.
I am one of the and getting off all dairy has helped most of bloating. 
If you'd like I can get you links to the articles

Qavah said...

Thanks for bringing that up, Tonya! Definitely something to look into for me.

Tonya said...

Let me know if you need any resources.
I dont think it's helped my POTS but I have seen a change in my stomach in just a month!

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

First off, thanks so much for writing this blog. I'm 22 and was diagnosed with dysautonomia last year. It's nice to know that I'm not alone. I don't think many people understand the condition. Even my Dad seems to think I'm just lazy, haha.

Do you have any hints on where I can find a doctor who does food elimination diets? I know I'm lactose intolerant but I'm still so sick. I'm willing to try anything. :-/ I live in Florida and I go to Mayo Clinic but I haven't gotten a diet plan at all from my neurologist.

Thanks for any help you can give and God bless.


Qavah said...

Hi Kate! Thanks for reading! If you email me at colorsofqavah "at" AOL "dot" com, I'd be happy to share more with you about what I've learned about diet and POTS!

tim said...

Hey guys. I'm interested in learning more. I'm a p.o.t.s. sufferer and it's been extremely hard for me. It's been really bad.

Qavah said...

Hi Tim - I'm sorry to hear you're suffering from POTS. I recommend that you check out the Dysautonomia Information Network for discussion, support, and info regarding this condition. It's a great place to get questions answered from people who understand what you're going through.
Here is the link:
I wish you the best!