You Are What You Eat: Holistic Health, Neurodivergence & the Gut
What Is Holistic Health?
Western medicine tends to focus only on deficits and minimizing symptoms. The focus is often not on the whole person or their perception of their health. This is why western medicine often falls short for neurodivergent (ND) patients, like myself. Our main concerns are often complex and affect multiple body systems, requiring a holistic whole life approach and treatment plan.
There is no one size fits all medications, diet regimen, or box for physicians to prescribe or check off. This leaves ND people feeling unheard, lost, and not feeling any better, forced to navigate our complex existence without professional guidance.
This doesn’t have to be the only way for neurodivergent adults and/or children to navigate their lives, or to get the complex and complete care they need.
The holistic health model can revolutionize how neurodivergent (and neurotypical) people receive treatment. Holistic health is defined as “...an approach to life. Rather than focusing on illness or specific parts of the body, this ancient approach to health considers the whole person and how they interact with their environment.”
Our environments can be overwhelming sensory-wise, and can also disable us in many ways. Sensory overload impacts our nervous systems, triggering the notorious fight or flight mechanism which tells our adrenal glands to recreate copious amounts of cortisol. The cortisol then increases inflammation throughout our body, brain, and guts. Systemic inflammation can contribute to gut pain, food intolerance, mood instability, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and much more.
Instead of chasing and trying to treat each symptom, I propose a new standard of care: holistic assessment of every ND person's physical and environmental health. This is a big task for any physician or group of physicians. I am not going to try and summarize the whole process in a single blog. For now, we will focus on using the holistic health model in regards to our gut health and in our homes.
Navigating Barriers to Care
Autistics and other ND individuals find healthcare very rigid and not accommodating. This can either be a choice on the provider's part or a result of inadequate staffing within the clinic. It also takes time to establish rapport, trust, and understanding between a care team and a ND person. Notable barriers to holistic care are: Inadequate access, financial limitations, and a lack of providers trained in neurodiversity.
If you or your loved one are having a hard time obtaining holistic care, you may be able to ask for a patient advocate, social worker, or even your clinic’s nurse to help you. If directions are not clear or do not fit within your abilities, please ask for another option.
Overcoming barriers begins at home in the choices and actions we make for our health every day. These simple and easy one- or two-step actions that we choose often greatly impact our health.
Holistic Care at Home
How our guts tie into our holistic health and how it manifests in our actual lives
Being neurodivergent can affect every moment of a person’s day and make it challenging to complete basic self-care tasks. Holistic care doesn't require expensive items, modern devices or fancy clinics. Holistic interventions are often simple. People might accuse me of over simplifying. Yet, the interventions I am about to share are accessible, attainable, and powerful!
If you were/are labeled a “picky eater,” I can empathize with you, for I am still a picky eater. I often find it hard to get all the nutrition I need. This is why we are going to break it down into three simple ways to support our guts and in turn support our mental health at home.
#1 - Hydration. We need water, no matter how much our ND brain tells us we only need coffee. Without enough hydrating fluids, our GI motility slows, our brain becomes sluggish, and our gut microbiome becomes unbalanced. Not to mention we also might experience gut pain, constipation, and chronic dehydration. I kindly suggest all ND people to start with their hydration.
Slowly increase your fluid intake until you are consuming about half your weight in ounces a day. Any non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic, thin liquids count as hydrating fluids. A simple hydration hack is filling a water bottle with 1/3 fruit juice and 2/3 water. The flavor rewards our brains for drinking and “tricks” us into drinking more. Self-accommodation over perfection!
#2 - Probiotics. Probiotics are often under-utilized super heroes for our guts. Not only can they decrease our GI discomfort, but also certain strains like L. plantarum PS128 appear to balance “happy hormones'' like serotonin and dopamine*. Yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kefir are examples of fermented foods that can also provide us with beneficial bacteria in our diet if we do not want to take a probiotic.
Our gut contains our enteric nervous system, located inside the lining of the intestinal walls. This nervous system (ENS) supports dopamine production and re-uptake. When our ENS is nourished and supported by a healthy gut microbiome, our mental health is also supported.
#3 - Nutrition. The holistic view of nutrition is balance. Somewhere between food/texture aversions, hyperfixation foods and adequate caloric intake is a neurodivergent person's ideal nutritional profile. If there is a tendency to hyper-focus on a specific processed food, can a secondary ingredient be added that doesn’t change its texture/flavor? Like a small portion of steamed puréed carrots added to mac and cheese (with the consent of the person or child of course, when possible)? Or try substituting new foods that are similar to current favorites, such as swapping a fast-food milkshake for a thick, sweet, and frozen chocolate protein shake.
Another option is pulling in foods that help boost dopamine and serotonin production. For dopamine, bananas, almonds, healthy fresh fish, and dark chocolate are some examples. In general protein-rich foods, fruits, and green leafy vegetables boost dopamine and serotonin. Be slow to make changes and allow yourself or your ND person to lead and feel empowered with any changes. Being involved is a key component of holistic healthcare.
Of course, please consult with your physician prior to implementing any dietary, supplement, or hydration changes.
What the Heck Is Dopamine?
Why is it important for neurodivergent brains?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is created in the brain and by our enteric nervous system. Called our “reward” neurotransmitter, dopamine gives our minds a happy feeling after completing a task or taking part in a pleasing activity. Dopamine plays a role in memory, mood, attention, motivation, and movement. Dopamine is critical when thinking about a ND person’s mental health. In many ND brains there is a deficiency of dopamine that can lead to executive dysfunction or other challenges.
Executive dysfunction impacts an ND person’s ability to participate in their life and medical care. Following through with daily tasks, self-care, and medical appointments often can feel like impossible feats.
In holistic medicine, we acknowledge and navigate these challenges by focusing on task prioritization techniques. This includes activities, foods, and environmental modifications that help a person's focus.
Can a Holistic Approach Help You?
Manage your health as a neurodivergent person.
The short answer is yes. It can help anyone within our amazing neurodivergent community. Holistic health sees us as a whole person who has challenges and strengths and deserves to thrive within our lives. Holistic health brings respect and accommodations to a person’s care, allowing space for questions and feedback and time to celebrate successes and learn from setbacks.
Holistic care providers practice throughout the United States. There are a lot of providers that are holistic in methodology that do not advertise as such. If a holistic provider is not in your geographical area, try establishing a home routine. Then, bring it to your current provider along with any results or challenges you experienced. See if they can embrace and guide your holistic health journey.
Remaining empowered in our abilities and disabilities when we make decisions about our health is necessary. While leaving the symptom chasing behind can leave us feeling scared and uncertain, it can also be rewarding to look at ourselves as the whole, complete humans that we are.
*Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Bened Life.
About the author:
Casey-Lee Flood blends her experiences as a registered nurse and a late diagnosed neurodivergent human into her life and work as an author, board certified Health and Wellness Nurse Coach, and artist. Casey-Lee founded the Art-Full Apothecary to increase accessibility of holistic healthcare to all who need it.
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