When I was younger, the phrase “You are what you eat,” totally confused me. Doughnuts are so delicious and sweet, therefore if I eat a half dozen of glazed old fashioned doesn’t that mean that I would also be sweet and highly desirable? Obviously, I now know that my logic as a kid was inaccurate, otherwise I would still be on a doughnut and milkshake diet. I now know the importance of healthy eating and the benefits of fruits and veggies.
This discovery came from my own health journey, which may sound familiar to many of you. No doctor could figure out why I had horrible abdominal pain. I had constant fatigue and headaches. I underwent a plethora of tests, but no one could give me any answers. Thankfully, my mom (the wisest woman I know) suggested I do a food journal to see if something in my diet was the problem. After, only a few days of tracking my diet, I noticed several unhealthy trends. I began researching strategies to improve my diet and began to notice improvement in my health and less symptoms overall. I was amazed that something as simple as eating more “green things” could make me feel better. In reality, it makes so much sense. What we supply our body with will impact how it will run. For me, I was not being mindful of what I was eating or buying at the grocery store. Since the frozen food and packaged items I purchased were labeled as organic or vegan then I assumed that they must be good for me. No wonder my body hurt so much, I was not feeding it anything of substance! This experience made me to want to know more about how diet can impact not only myself, but my patients as well.
I was fortunate to learn about how nutrition can play a role in patients with pelvic floor dysfunction as I recently completed a certification program as a Women’s Health and Nutrition Coach through the Integrative Women’s Health Institute. The integrative Women’s Health Institute was founded by Jessica Drummond, a pelvic floor physical therapist and a health coach with a certification in clinical nutrition. Jessica founded the Institute to help educate professionals and patients about functional nutrition and its role in pelvic health and pain disorders. The programs Jessica offers are very informative and in-depth, so there is no way to share all of the information in one blog post, but there are a few key tidbits that I feel everyone could benefit from.
First, every person is unique, therefore when it comes to diets there is no one size fits all. What one person may lack and therefore require in nutrients, another person may have in abundance. I recommend that one consult with an integrative medical provider, naturopath or dietician before making any drastic changes to their diet. Lab tests may be helpful in determining if you are deficient in certain vitamins, which can help you and your provider decide foods that can be helpful in correcting the deficit.
Rule out food sensitivities. If you read Liz’s blog post on the gut microbiome, you may recall that the gut plays a huge role in immune health. So, if certain foods irritate the lining of the gut, it can result in an overall inflammatory response that is not just limited to the gut region. If a person continues to eat a food that they are particularly sensitive to, it can lead to chronic inflammation that can lead to pain anywhere in the body, such as the pelvis. For some people, food sensitivities can present as fatigue, skin conditions such as eczema, brain fog, nausea or headaches to name a few.
So, how does one determine if they have any food sensitivities?
If only there was an app for that, where when you swipe right for cheese and hope that you get a notification that you were a match! In the meantime, there are two options. One is a blood test can look for different inflammatory markers that can be related to food sensitivities. The other is the gold standard in terms of effectiveness: an elimination diet.
The name should hopefully explain the process. You eliminate all foods that are most likely to cause food sensitivities for at least 3 weeks. Drummond recommends eliminating the following: gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, corn, beef, citrus fruits, peanuts, coffee, baker’s yeast, potatoes, onions and nightshade vegetables. After the 3 weeks have passed, you add one item back into your diet for 1-4 days and then remove it and monitor your symptoms. If you experience symptoms, wait until the symptoms resolve before you add a different food back in. If you identify an item that you are sensitive to, you must eliminate it from your diet for 3-6 months. This would be the time to add in gut healing foods, such as bone broth, which is high in glutamine an amino acid that supports gut epithelial health. You can make your own bone broth or you can order it online here or here. You may still be stuck on the list of foods you need to eliminate on the diet and if you are like me are thinking What the heck am I supposed to eat?! Lots of things: Organic hormone-free lean protein such as chicken or salmon, leafy greens, apples, avocados, beans and lentils. It may seem like a daunting task, but the results gained from doing an elimination diet should make it worthwhile.
One final note regarding food sensitivities, if you suspect you may be gluten intolerant or have Celiac’s Disease you should consult with a medical provider, as the testing to rule out this disorder requires ingesting gluten versus eliminating it.
So let’s say you’ve done an elimination diet or maybe you aren’t ready to do one or don’t feel that it is beneficial for you and you want to know what else can you do to support your body and decrease inflammation related to your pelvic floor dysfunction.
- Drink water! Your body needs water to stay hydrated, to flush out toxins and keep your colon happy. Dehydration can lead to bowel dysfunction, primarily: constipation. Constipation can play a huge role in contributing to pelvic floor dysfunction. Stephanie talked about this in more detail in a previous blog post. Previously, everyone lived by the rule of 8 cups of water a day. That is a great way to start, but not everyone needs the same amount of water. The new rule of thumb is to drink the amount of water best suited for your body weight. You should take your weight and divide that number in half and the result is the amount you should drink in ounces. For example: If you are 200 pounds, you should ideally drink 100 ounces of water a day. For every 30 minutes you exercise, you should add in an extra 8-12 ounces. Other factors may require you to increase your water intake such as being pregnant, if you are breast-feeding or undergoing different medical treatments such as chemotherapy.
- Eat real food. In order to help your body function to it’s full potential, you need to feed it high quality, nutrient dense food. Try to stick to organic fruits and vegetables and grass fed, organic and hormone-free meat. Some examples include cruciferous vegetables, broccoli, avocados, wild salmon and other lean proteins, and lemon. Avoid processed foods, frozen meals or meal replacement bars. They often contain high amounts of oil, sugar and fat and very little fiber or nutrients. Some processed foods can contain large amounts of chemicals which are used to add flavor or prolong the shelf life of the item. For all of those reasons, processed food can lead to the inflammatory process I discussed above.
- Limit your sugar intake. Increased sugar consumption can lead to elevated cortisol (a stress hormone) levels which can have a negative impact on your sex hormones. Elevated cortisol can cause a bunch of other symptom such as headaches, sleep problems and weight gain.
- Spice up your life! Certain spices such turmeric, garlic, ginger, oregano, cloves, dill, sweet basil and cinnamon have anti-inflammatory properties. Be mindful that certain spices, such as pepper, are nightshades and can be irritating for some people. Other anti-inflammatory foods include: Lime zest, button mushroom, oyster mushroom, onion, sweet potato, parsley
Now that is definitely not everything you need to know, and it is certainly not the solution for everyone’s pelvic dysfunction. As we know, chronic pain is not something that can be treated with a magic pill. It usually requires a multi-disciplinary approach with different providers and interventions being utilized. A person’s diet can often be forgotten when discussing strategies to treat pelvic pain and dysfunction. Changing one’s diet does not mean it will eliminate one’s symptoms, but it can certainly help supplement other treatment modalities.
Want to learn more? Check out the following resources for more information:
The Elimination Diet: Discover the Foods That Are Making You Sick and Tired–and Feel Better Fast by Tom Malterre MS, CN and Alissa Segersten
The Integrative Women’s Health Institute: http://integrativewomenshealthinstitute.com/
Prescription for Nutritional Healing by Phyllis A. Balch