Nutrition: the foundation of self-care for caregivers

A balanced, well-planned diet helps to prevent caregiving stress.

I first heard Darlene Kvist speak about the life-changing power of good nutrition in May, 2007 on her weekly radio show, Dishing Up Nutrition. At the time, I was 100 pounds overweight and feeling hopeless about my health. With her guidance, I got well and drastically improved the quality of my life. I hope you find information in her article that will help you on your health journey.

Nell Kauls, CaringBridge staff member

What do your day-to-day nutritional choices have to do with being a caregiver? A great deal, it turns out. The food you eat affects your moods, overall health and immune system. When you experience the ongoing stress of caregiving, good nutrition becomes critical to maintain your health and well-being.

Stress and Eating

Stress of any kind can impact your eating patterns. When you’re busy taking care of someone, your own nutrition often becomes a secondary concern, even an afterthought. You may not take the time to cook, let alone time to sit down to a healthy meal. Or you may eat by default, consuming whatever is handy, including sugary or junk food that you would not normally eat. Your eating may no longer be about self-nurturing or even nutrition because you are worn out.

Feeding Depression

You probably know that the excess sugar or junk food is not good for you. You know deep down that your blood sugar will crash after eating sweets, causing you to feel worse. Ironically, those plates of goodies that family and friends bring to comfort you may actually feed your depression and weaken your immune system.

The Food-Mood Connection

The cells in your body talk to each other through an elaborate network of neurotransmitters. Eating foods with sugar or trans fats (margarine or hydrogenated oils) desensitizes or blocks those neurotransmitter receptors. Well-intended “comfort foods” 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 and anxiety. Short term, you can aggravate an already stressful situation; long term, you compound health problems.

Stress and Your Immune System

Trauma, stress and grief have a detrimental effect on your immune system. When you are stressed with your caregiving duties, you may experience frequent colds, cold sores or other viral infections. These viruses are bothersome, but if you do not eat healthy enough to rebuild your immune system and the stress continues for months or years, you make yourself more vulnerable to illnesses such as cancer, chronic fatigue or other immune problems.

Importance of Nutrition

No school teaches us how to deal with the stress associated with caring for an ill friend or family member. We didn’t learn how to experience and grow from this experience, nor did we learn to support the body, mind and spirit nutritionally as caregivers.

Grief counselors, clergy, friends and family may all try to help. Culturally, people are trained to give and seek emotional support. However, until recently, nutritionists have not been part of the support team. While you may recognize the need for emotional help, what about your physical, mental and spiritual health?

A time of extended caregiving often takes a greater toll on your health than you may initially realize, and good nutrition can be more powerful than anything else you could do for yourself to deal with caregiving stress. Eating nutritious, good food is the most basic way to care for your health and well-being and ultimately, to be a better caregiver.

Nutrition Self-care Plan

If you are experiencing intense stress from caregiving, nutritional guidance may help you feel stronger and keep you healthier. After working with clients who have been in the taxing caregiver role, I have formulated the following nutritional steps for self-care:

  • Eat several small meals per day. Five or six may be best.
  • Include protein, vegetables and healing fats (olive oil, butter, nuts, olives) at each meal and snack.
  • Limit consumption of coffee, soda and alcohol.
  • Drink eight to ten glasses of water per day.
  • Avoid processed sugar and carbohydrates. When you crave sugar, slice an apple and spread it with healthy peanut butter (no added sugar or fat).
  • To sleep better, avoid sugar, cookies, chips, popcorn and alcohol at bedtime. Instead, have a handful of nuts and hot herbal tea. You may also want to try taking a magnesium supplement at bedtime to help you relax and get better sleep (400-600 mg of magnesium citrate or glycinate are both good options).
  • Eat sufficient animal protein throughout the day to support proper neurotransmitter production.

Good nutrition is nourishing on many levels. Eating healthy will not only help you cope better in the short term, it may also protect you from future health problems.

Comments (2)

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Ari Jan 15, 2013 12:12am
This is an excellent actirle on some of the options available to caregivers. Taking care of a loved one with Alzheimer's can be a difficult task, and this actirle provides great information on a number of available resources. Adult day care centers like Active Day can provide care, companionship, and much more for your loved one. Consider adult day care for your loved one. It provides a great alternative to traditional care, with many locations and affordable options.
    Estela Jan 25, 2013 1:08pm
    Almost 20 years ago, I lost my first wife to colon cancer. I wish I'd known then what I've leeanrd from Kay Marshall Strom's excellent Caregiver's Survival book. Like many people suddenly caught up in the role of caregiver, I was unprepared mentally, physically, and emotionally for the role. I did my best then, but it was far short of what I could have done for her, for the children, and for myself had I only known. My hope now is that this book will find its way to where it's needed: to those facing the prospect of providing the primary care for a loved one in failing health, so that this extremely painful journey can be made more tolerable by Ms. Strom's tender, Christian insights and advice. She connects to the reader by laying bare her own doubts and hardships in more than 7 years of caring for her terminally ill husband. Her book is filled with the dignity, respect, and hope that, through God's inspiration, can be developed in even the most hopeless of cases.