Self-Care When You're Caring for Others

By JoAnn Ridout, MPH, RD, LD

A family very close to mine has turned their home into a "family hospital," as they call it. Their adult daughter's brain injury six years ago has turned their lives upside down in many ways. Watching her slow steady progress has been both heartwarming and very challenging. She was close to losing her life at the time of her injury and has been many times since then.

When I was working at Courage Center, I often saw families struggling to arrange to bring a family member home. One woman said to me, "You can't image how much time everything takes until you are actually doing it...I have a hard time leaving the house."

People who are caregivers often focus on their children, spouse, or family member's needs rather than on their own needs. Does this sound like you? Caretaking can be stressful enough, but when a child has special needs, that raises the stress level in the family immensely. A child born with a disability such as cerebral palsy or spina bifida, a learning disability such as autism, or a brain injury from an accident can require ongoing care long past the usual child-rearing years. It's important for caregivers of children with disabilities to take care of themselves properly not only so they can be the best caregiver possible, but also so they can live happier, less stressful lives.

STRESS AND EATING

Stress of any kind can impact eating habits. When you are busy caring for someone, your own nutrition often becomes an afterthought. You may not have the time to cook, let alone time to sit down to a healthy meal. Or you may eat what is handy, such as the pan of brownies that your neighbor dropped off. The ongoing stress of caregiving is 24/7 and leaves little time to think about your own nutrition. But going for the quick, handy snacks instead of healthier choices often affects mood and overall health. When a low mood hits, cravings for sugary snacks kick in again, and consuming those foods leads to another low mood. It's not uncommon for caretakers to fall into this unhealthy eating cycle because they are so focused on caring for others.

LEARNING 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 and trans fats (margarine, hydrogenated oils) desensitizes or blocks these neurotransmitter receptors. The well-intended "comfort foods" (casseroles and goodies) 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, anxiety and may even be more apt to catch a cold.

The good news is that an anti-inflammatory diet based on eating real foods will healthy mealhelp with brain function and health, along with cardiovascular health and can reduce pain and inflammation. "No more brain fog" is a comment I often hear from my clients at Nutritional Weight & Wellness. They share these comments as a result of eating real food including more protein, healthy fats, and lots of vegetables and fruits. People following an eating plan of real foods feel their best and function as better caregivers for those who need them most.

SUPPLEMENTS THAT CAN HELP YOU AND THOSE YOU CARE FOR

Since 60 percent of the brain is made up of fat, research has shown that supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids (EPA/DHA) or straight DHA can be very helpful for brain healing. Omega-3 can help caregivers focus and can alsosupplements be helpful for those with a brain injury or developmental disability such as ADD or Autism. Research has shown that Alzheimer's, dementia, and cardiac disease can be prevented or improved with omega-3 fatty acids. 

Another supplement that many people benefit from at bedtime is magnesium. Magnesium can help you relax and get better sleep-two important factors for staying a strong and healthy caregiver.

NUTRITION SELF-CARE PLAN

It can be overwhelming to think about changing your food, especially at a time when you have no time!  If you are experiencing intense stress from caregiving, following the nutritional guidance below can help you feel stronger and healthier. This same formula will work well for your entire family, especially the person you are caring for.

  • Eat several small meals daily; five or six may be best.
  • Eliminate fast food and processed foods as much as possible.
  • Include protein, vegetables and healthy fats (olive oil, butter, coconut oil, nuts, olives) at each meal and snack.
  • Limit consumption of coffee, soda, and alcohol.
  • Drink 8-10 glasses of water daily
  • Avoid processed sugar and carbohydrates (muffins, pasta, bread, cookies, French fries). When you crave sugar, slice an apple and spread it with healthy peanut butter (made with peanuts and salt only)
  • To sleep better, avoid cookies, chips, popcorn, and alcohol at bedtime. Instead, have a handful of nuts and hot herbal tea.  You may want to try a magnesium supplement to help you relax and get better sleep (400-600 mg Magnesium Glycinate or Citrate at bedtime)
  • Eat sufficient animal protein throughout the day to support proper neurotransmitter production.
  • Consider taking a good quality Omega 3 (EPA/DHA) fatty acid or DHA supplement for brain health.

Good nutrition as a caregiver is nourishing to you on many levels. Eating healthy will not only help you cope better, it may also protect you and your family members from future health problems.

Nutritional Weight & Wellness is located in the Twin Cities metro area. We educate and counsel individuals about nutrition at our offices, telephonically, through classes, and at workplaces. We are also known for our popular weekly radio show, Dishing Up Nutrition. Learn more at weightandwellness.com.

JoAnn Ridout, MPH, RD, LD graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor of science in nutrition and dietetics and a master of science in public health. As a registered dietitian and nutrition educator, she has experience in therapeutic nutrition counseling, weight management, and nutrition education. She has over 25 years of experience in the field of nutrition.