We all know that good nutrition is important. We’ve heard that everyone should eat a healthy, balanced diet, although we aren’t always sure what that is supposed to be. We are also hardly ever told why a balanced diet is good for us. We hear that healthy food develops healthy muscles and bones but we don’t know how or exactly what we should be eating.
Nutrition supports our wellbeing
How does it do that?
This is a fundamental element of all occupational therapy, and part of a holistic way of treating the whole person, rather than just the parts we assume have gone wrong.
We are essentially a complex package of bone, nerves, muscles and internal organs.
Our bones provide the essential framework that everything else is built around.
Our muscles provide our ability to move. Not just walking, lifting objects and looking around, but also the muscles that keep our internal organs operating.
Our nervous system sends signals around the body and tells us when to move and what we are seeing.
Finally, our organs accomplish specialist tasks, our brain that thinks, our heart to move blood around the body, our lungs to breath and our stomach that processes our food and provides us with the vital energy we need to move and to nourish and repair our body.
As you’d expect all these systems interact with each other and that is useful for therapists because you can work with one part of the system and in that way have an effect on the rest of the systems that make up the body.
Occupational Therapists (OT) have perfected using our muscles to tap into the entire body’s system. They manipulate muscles to help build the neural pathways we need to be able to function at our best. This is why they also care about nutrition. If your muscles, bones, organs and nervous system are not properly nourished, they won’t allow you to perform at your best. It is therefore vital that we provide the correct, and best possible fuel for our bodies. This way we truly will be able to operate at our full potential.
Muscular contractions are how we interact with the world
This may sound strange but think about it; without muscular contractions, we wouldn’t be able to walk, we wouldn’t be able to blink or move our eyes, we wouldn’t be able to shake somebody’s hand, we wouldn’t even be able to speak. Everything we do relies upon muscles being able to contract. It is in our best interest, therefore, to have our muscles working at their best without obligatory or excess movements that use energy or lock development and growth.
We need to feed our muscles. If we don’t provide the correct nutrition our muscles run out of power and energy and then they won’t work the way we want them to work.
But we can’t give them any old junk food. We need to provide them with the right mix of big pieces and little pieces.
The big pieces
These are proteins and the correct kinds of carbohydrates (from fruit and veg and whole grains) and fats - yes really. Fats are essential food for your brain. And your brain manages the electric circuits and send the messages to your muscles. Fats make the circuits in your brain run faster and more efficiently. This is called myelination.
The little pieces
These are the micronutrients like:
magnesium and calcium that help with contraction and relaxation of the muscles.
Electrolytes, such as salt that, along with water, provide the electricity for sending signals to tell your muscle to contract.
Vitamin Bs are needed to ensure the connections between nerve circuits run smoothly.
The importance of your gut in nutrition
The flora in our gut produces many of the vitamins we need to function properly. If we don’t feed them properly or our gut is in distress (due to stress, illness or poor diet) it will affect the lining of the gut and the ability of the gut to absorb the things we put in our mouth. If this happens we can have a huge problem because we won’t be able to produce the vitamins our bodies need.
The distress of our gut is registered by our bodies as a threat
There is a very specific muscular contraction response to perceived threats:
Our head tips back, our shoulders move forward, and the hands form into fists, our hips bend and the body leans forward so that our weight is now on our toes.
It looks a bit like a boxer in the ring.
If this become long term
If the moment of stress is short-lived then we’re alright. The problem arises if this state becomes the norm in a body, in other words, it is always in place. Then we have a problem. This state will stop the primitive reflexes from teaching the body how to move and how to combine movements. These movements, specifically how you move your head and eyes are directly linked to emotional control and academic achievement, impacting on reading and math ability.
The lockdown in the defence system posture will stop reflexes from developing and the end product is obligatory responses to stimuli and a smaller window of stress tolerance. Often seen in meltdowns and tantrums that are not age-appropriate.
Good nutrition plays a vital role in the bodies internal sense of safety,
and in the cascade of function and success that being safe allows.