Nutrition: the Foundation of Self-Care for Caregivers
By Darlene Kvist, MS, CNS, LN
August 20, 2016
You may wonder what your day-to-day nutritional choices have to do with being a caregiver. The food that you eat affects your moods, overall health and immune system. When you experience the ongoing stress of caregiving, good nutrition becomes critical to maintain your health and well-being.
Stress and Eating
Stress of any kind can impact eating patterns. When you are busy taking care of someone, your own nutrition often becomes a secondary concern, even an afterthought. You may not take the time to cook, let alone time to sit down to a healthy meal. Or you may eat by default, consuming whatever is handy, including sugary or junk food that you would not normally eat. Your eating may no longer be about self-nurturing or even nutrition because you are worn out.
You probably know that the excess sugar or junk food is not good for you. You know deep down that your blood sugar will crash after eating sweets, causing you to feel worse. Ironically, those plates of goodies that family and friends bring to comfort you may actually feed your depression and weaken your immune system.
The Food-Mood Connection
The cells in your body talk to each other through an elaborate network of chemical communicators called neurotransmitters. Eating foods with sugar or trans fats (margarine or hydrogenated oils) desensitizes or blocks those neurotransmitter receptors. The well-intended "comfort foods" that people may bring you are frequently high in sugar or processed carbohydrates that can lead to heartburn, low moods and depressed immune function. When this happens, you may experience pain, depression and anxiety. Short term, you can aggravate an already stressful situation; long term, you compound health problems.
Stress and Your Immune System
Have you ever thought how stress affects your immune system? Trauma, stress and grief have a detrimental effect on your immune system. When you are stressed with your caregiving duties, you may experience frequent colds, cold sores or other viral infections. These viruses are bothersome, but if you do not eat healthy enough to rebuild your immune system and the stress continues for months or years, you make yourself more vulnerable to illnesses such as cancer, chronic fatigue or other immune problems.
Importance of Nutrition
In school we are taught to read, memorize and solve problems, but not how to deal with the stress associated with caring for an ill friend or family member. Those years in school did not teach us how to experience and grow from this experience, nor did we learn to support the body, mind and spirit nutritionally as caregivers.
Grief counselors, clergy, friends and family may all try to help. Culturally, people are trained to give and seek emotional support. However, until recently, nutritionists have not been part of the support team. While you may recognize the need for emotional help, what about your physical, mental, and spiritual health?
A time of extended caregiving often takes a greater toll on your health than you may initially realize. Have you ever thought that good nutrition is more powerful than anything else you could do for yourself? Eating nutritious, good food is the most basic way to care for your health and well-being and ultimately, to be a better caregiver.
Nutrition Self-Care Plan
If you are experiencing intense stress from caregiving, nutritional guidance may help you feel stronger and keep you healthier. Through working with clients who have been in the taxing caregiver role, I have formulated the following nutritional steps for self-care:
- Eat several small meals per day. Five or six may be best.
- Include protein, vegetables, and healing fats (olive oil, butter, nuts, olives) at each meal and snack.
- Limit consumption of coffee, soda and alcohol.
- Drink eight to ten glasses of water per day.
- Avoid processed sugar and carbohydrates. When you crave sugar, slice an apple and spread it with healthy peanut butter (no added sugar or fat).
- To sleep better, avoid sugar, cookies, chips, popcorn and alcohol at bedtime. Instead, have a handful of nuts and hot herbal tea. You may also want to try taking a magnesium supplement at bedtime to help you relax and get better sleep (400-600 mg of magnesium citrate or glycinate are both good options).
- Eat sufficient animal protein throughout the day to support proper neurotransmitter production.
Good nutrition is nourishing to you on many levels. Eating healthy will not only help you cope better in the short term, it may also protect you from future health problems.