• Stress and poor nutrition have the potential to cause or worsen chronic health conditions

  • Nutritional therapist Kate Chaytor Norris explores common difficulties and offers need-to-know tips

  • We have health coaches available here as well as therapists and counsellors who work with chronic illness here 

As a nutritional therapist, I have seen a myriad of different symptoms from people from all walks of life, and I have learnt that rarely can chronic disease be healed with medication alone. The symptoms may be suppressed but the underlying cause or causes are not being addressed, so people are not being given the option to heal their bodies. 

Below are some of the major disorders that I see where people are not getting the information that they need.

1. Irritable Bowel Syndrome

IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) is a blanket term for: ‘There is something wrong with your digestive tract but we don’t really know what it is. Our options are for us to give you some medications to help with the symptoms’. 

Need to know: When people have digestive issues, the vast majority are not digesting their food properly. Our bodies can stop producing enough stomach acid and digestive enzymes for many reasons - the most common is long-term stress.  

If we do not produce enzymes in sufficient quantities, we do not break our food down properly and partially digested food further down the digestive tract can cause chaos. This can lead to IBS.

We all have good and bad bacteria in our guts. The bad ones tend to prefer partially digested food and refined carbohydrates. When the bad bacteria feeds, they ferment the food which produces gas and leads to bloating, a typical symptom of IBS. Our western diet tends to contain lots of refined carbohydrates and sugar which means that we are feeding the bad bacteria more than the good. 

The good bacteria like to eat things like leeks, onions, garlic, lentils, dandelion greens, chicory root, Jerusalem artichokes. To put it into perspective, for everyone cell in our bodies there are ten bacteria in our guts. So, we need the balance to be correct or it can have a very profound effect on our entire wellbeing.

2.  Under-active thyroid 

When thyroid results come back normal and we feel like we are walking through treacle on a daily basis, we may still have a thyroid imbalance. Thorough testing of the thyroid is rarely done with the NHS (it is expensive) and yes, proper testing can provide helpful information, but often there can be a thyroid imbalance that doesn’t show up in a blood test. This is where we need to go on symptoms. 

Need to know: The most usual symptoms when our thyroid is under-functioning are weight gain, fatigue (can be extreme), feeling cold all the time (especially hands and feet) constipation, hoarse voice and loss of outside third of our eyebrows. This is just a small handful of the many symptoms that low thyroid function can give us, because if our thyroid is turned down everything is on go slow. 

If our thyroid is running slow, it does not always mean that you have to take medication. We may be low in the nutrients that are required for the thyroid to function properly and we may be running on a lot of chronic stress. In this case the body, in a bid to protect itself, will turn down the metabolic rate to stop us from burning out. Or, we may have imbalanced gut bacteria or high levels of inflammation in the body, both of which can interfere with production of the active thyroid hormone T3. This is the hormone that dictates our metabolic rate.

3.  Loosing weight

Weight loss is not just about calories in and calories out, it is also about the type of food that those calories are coming from.

Need to know: Insulin is our fat storage hormone. If we eat foods that require an insulin response then it gives the body a message to store fat. The foods that require an insulin response are anything that gets broken down into glucose. These are obviously the sugary foods but also bread, pasta, potatoes, grains and rice. 

Plus, we have been misled that fat makes us fat. Fat does not require an insulin response in order for the body to process it. All those low-fat foods that we eat in an attempt to lose the pounds are being pumped full of sugar and salt in a bid to make them taste better. Food manufacturers are not in the business of health and wellbeing; they need to make food that tastes good in order to boost their bottom line so it is up to us to be discerning about what we consumer.  

4. Taking medication for stress and anxiety

A stressed and anxious body cannot be healed with anti-depressants, beta blockers or benzodiazepines.  They may alleviate the symptoms but they do not truly heal the body and bring it back into balance. 

Need to know: A body producing a chronic stress response may manifest in symptoms like anxiety, heart palpitations, insomnia, depression, hormone imbalance, low immunity, digestive issues (the list is extensive) because it is existing in an environment where it feels under threat. 

Unfortunately, our stress response is out of date – we are still running on the idea that stress is a life threatening sabre toothed tiger or woolly mammoth so our body prepares to fight or run away. In this situation all of the ‘housekeeping’ jobs like digestion, detoxing, immune system, regeneration and repair get put on the back burner – they are not a priority when our life is in danger. 

In our 21st century world, stress is rarely life-threatening but much more chronic, which means that our body can start running this stress response as a default in order to ‘keep us safe.’  In other words, we need to be on the alert at all times, which makes it hard to relax and we can constantly feel on edge. Medication alone cannot solve this problem. We need to be reassuring our body that all is well, by being aware of our breathing and the stories that we run in our head, in order for our body to feel safe so that it can relax and restore balance.

5. Chronic disease

It is possible to turn back the clock on some of the most serious chronic diseases; the types of diseases where the prognosis is grim and we get told there is nothing anyone can do. Dr Dale Bredesen author of The End of Alzheimers, has developed a programme not only for the prevention but more astoundingly, the reversal of some of the symptoms of this disease. Terry Wahls, a doctor and clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa, confined to a wheelchair with MS, has developed the Wahls' protocol. With a multi-dimensional approach which includes a strict diet she has healed herself and is now able to ride a bike. 

I guess what I am trying to relay is that our bodies are miraculous machines with an incredible ability to heal themselves. When our body produces chronic symptoms there are usually many underlying reasons why it is doing so and this is why medication, because it is only focussing on one element, does not solve the problem. 

It is most often the case that our bodies need a major change in the environment that they are being exposed to, be it diet, sleep, stress levels, toxic exposure (including electro-magnetic radiation) or nurturing of the soul. 

When it comes to chronic disease our doctors should be prescribing lifestyle medicine and guiding us on all of these factors in order to heal our bodies, and not squash the symptoms with a sticking plaster approach.

Kate Chaytor Norris is a nutritional therapist and the author of I Wish My Doctor Had Told Me This

Further reading

Stress, IBS, and the gut-brain axis

Can hypnotherapy cure my IBS?

Eating for a healthy mind-gut relationship

Why taking care of your gut could improve your mental health

The link between chronic illness and depression