By Sarah de Visser
Raising a child with special needs is an incredibly rewarding and enriching journey that gives personal insight and fulfilment quite like no other. Drawing upon incredible strength, determination, resilience, compassion and love, parents and care-givers work hard towards a quality of life for their child that is filled with opportunity, equality and inclusion.
However, there are also many unique challenges and demands that arise from supporting a child who is highly dependent, and these often take their toll physically and emotionally leading to chronic distress and burnout.
THE VALUE OF SELF-CARE
The effects of chronic stress can affect the body in many ways, including:
- Weakened immunity and vulnerability to autoimmunity.
- Metabolic disorders contributing towards weight gain, cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance.
- Sleep difficulties affecting sleep onset and duration.
- Poor digestion and digestive problems (e.g. IBS like symptoms such as diarrhoea and/ or constipation, wind and pain).
- Irregular thyroid function.
- The development of chronic anxiety and/or depression.
- Irritability and/or loss of the ability to enjoy the here and now.
A child’s disability is not going to magically go away, so if parents can’t significantly change their circumstances, it’s vital to find ways to manage levels of stress, build internal resources and thrive while remaining in the caring role.
The truth is that there is no single strategy that can effectively manage and cultivate a sense of wellbeing, as wellbeing in itself is made up of different elements. Taking a holistic approach utilising a blend of strategies is key. Some ideas include:
- Prioritising and taking at least one hour of time to yourself a week.
- Incorporating a short practice of mindfulness into your daily routine.
- Mapping out your network of support in order to visualise who you can call upon when you’re in need of some assistance.
- Engaging in an evening (or even weekly) practice of self-reflective journaling to observe how your mind is speaking to you.
Nutrition is also a vital component of self- care and plays a huge role in creating the physical foundations of wellbeing while also feeding a healthier state of mind.
So many people that I speak with struggle with sugar cravings and emotional eating patterns – how does stress and biochemistry exacerbate these habits?
As I have previously mentioned, being a full-time caregiver can be physically and emotionally draining and as such, influenced biologically by the stress hormone cortisol, it’s very common to regularly crave stimulants (caffeine included) and binge on carbohydrate rich, sweet foods to provide a tired body and mind with a quick source of energy.
A depletion of the chemical serotonin inside the brain, essential for mood regulation and healthy sleep initiation (through its conversion into melatonin inside) and often the target chemical of antidepressant medication, can also play a role in triggering sugar cravings and binge-eating behaviours.
Diets rich in refined sugars and simple carbohydrates play havoc with our blood glucose levels, creating a rollercoaster effect that can further exacerbate sugar cravings and binge- eating while also feeding that cortisol response. Furthermore, a lack of dietary protein and vitamin and mineral deficiencies such as folate, vitamins B3 and B6 and magnesium can deplete serotonin levels inside the brain. If there is inflammation inside the body, which there often is with chronic stress and poor dietary habits, chemicals released through the inflammatory response can further deplete serotonin levels inside the brain, further depressing mood, encouraging feelings of anxiety and reducing the capacity to emotionally self-regulate.
In my practice, I always aim to encourage my clients to follow the strategy of balancing their main meals with a combination of protein, slowly digested, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and with 2 cups of nutrient and antioxidant rich, dark leafy green vegetables. This effectively promotes a sense of satiety, provides important nutrients for energy production and healthy mood and helps to manage sugar cravings.
GOOD QUALITY SOURCES OF PROTEIN INCLUDE:
• Pasture-raised, ethically sourced grass-fed beef, lamb, chicken and eggs.
• Natural, plain yoghurt. • Almonds.
(fermented soybean and
great for the gut!).
• Oily fish such as mackerel,
anchovies and wild salmon.
HEALTHY FATS INCLUDE:
• Raw nuts and seeds
(e.g. walnuts, macadamias, pecans, almonds, chia seeds and pumpkin seeds).
• Unrefined coconut oil and cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil.
GREAT SOURCES OF SLOWLY DIGESTED, COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATES INCLUDE:
• Sweet potato
• Brown basmati rice • Quinoa
HOW CAN YOU PRACTICALLY IMPLEMENT THE ABOVE FOODS INTO YOUR MEALS AND SNACKS?
When you’re feeling stressed and tired it can be so easy to turn to foods of convenience such as takeaway or pre-packaged meals to save on the mental and physical energy required to cook and clean up. However, doing this regularly not only deprives you of the nutrients that your body and brain needs to function adequately, they also tend to be filled with food additives, hidden sugars and preservatives that can create their own set of issues, compromising your health and wellbeing over the long term. The following ideas can help you get through such moments while supporting your body in the process.
- Set aside 15 minutes twice a week, e.g. a Sunday or a Wednesday, to make batches of a whole grain such as brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa to keep in the fridge and add to your meals as you need (wholegrains existing in their natural form – not as a cereal or bread – have their nutrients intact and aren’t void fibre). Work it into a salad of mixed greens, smoked salmon, tinned tuna, chicken or soft-boiled eggs for a throw together, easy meal.
- If time is permitting, you could also prepare a dried salad mix (e.g. grated carrot, spinach, green beans and red onion) on Sunday and ‘dress’ with olive oil and apple cider vinegar upon serving throughout the week. If that seems too much for you with a busy schedule, look for organic, ready to go dark leafy salad mixes at your local supermarket and use these.
- Soft boil a batch of eggs twice a week and keep them in the fridge to add to lunches or dinner, or for a protein hit as a snack.
Add cans of wild salmon, pole and line caught tuna, sardines or mackerel (all rich in omega 3) to your weekly shop. Keep them in the cupboard to add to salads
or to ‘throw’ onto a piece of wholegrain sourdough toast (with some leafy greens), perhaps with a seasoning of dried Italian herbs, perhaps with a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice, for a fast yet balanced breakfast, lunch or dinner.
- Keep your fruit bowl full of ready to grab fruit if you’re rushing out the door, make up small containers of raw nuts and keep them in the fridge. When you’re rushing out the door to an appointment with your child pop one these containers, along with a piece of fruit into your bag. Having a snack on hand can ward off hypoglycaemia and consequential sugar cravings while travelling between appointments.
Sarah de Visser is a degree qualified Clinical Nutritionist, Massage Therapist and Disability Support Worker with a keen interest in self care and the promotion of mental wellbeing.