My story is typical of any frustrated dieter trying to lose weight. I was a chubby child with a persistent hunger and cravings which only sweet food would satisfy. This led to frequent cycles of overeating. Rapid weight gain occurred from early childhood and continued throughout my teens and adulthood.
Being overweight was just one of many symptoms occurring in my body. Looking back I never connected my weight gain with other signs of imbalance such as low mood, poor energy, irritability, aches, acne, poor dental health, dandruff, fungal infections, constipation, myopia, astigmatism, itchy skin, dry frizzy hair.
Viewed holistically these symptoms were all pointing to deeper imbalances, which were steadily growing day by day.
To combat my weight gain I followed the mainstream dietary advice of a low fat diet with carbohydrates making up at least 50% of the diet. I included fruits, vegetables and made whole grain cereals: bread, potato, pasta or rice the main part of each meal whilst reducing fat as much as possible. I replaced margarine, yoghurt; milk and cheese with lower fat versions and chose foods/drinks sweetened with artificial sugar and used artificial sugar to sweeten my tea.
The following strategies extracted from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) on Obesity outlines the general recommendations to help overweight/obese individuals to achieve and maintain a healthy weight
- Base meals on starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, rice and pasta, choosing wholegrain where possible.
- Eat plenty of fibre-rich foods – such as oats, beans, peas, lentils, grains, seeds, fruit and vegetables, as well as wholegrain bread, and brown rice and pasta.
- Eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables each day, in place of foods higher in fat and calories.
- Eat a low-fat diet and avoid increasing your fat and/or calorie intake.
- Eat as little as possible of:
- fried foods
- drinks and confectionery high in added sugars
- other food and drinks high in fat and sugar, such as some take-away and fast foods
- Eat breakfast.
- Watch the portion size of meals and snacks, and how often you are eating.
- For adults, minimise the calories you take in from alcohol.
I am not saying that I didn’t lose weight with this advice. After much mental effort I did temporarily shed weight but my cravings for sugar were still there. I noticed significant changes in my health. Most notable was that I felt cold, sluggish and unsatisfied even though I had consumed lots of vegetables, starchy carbohydrates with some protein and no additional fat. I noticed that my energy was poor and that my mood was lower. My skin and hair felt drier and even though I had lost weight there was a lot of water retention as cellulite in my arms and legs.
Something was not right in this picture and my body was trying to tell me this in many ways.
Could my weight gain be attributed to other factors besides the excess consumption of fatty and sugary foods?
The Other Factors Influencing Weight Gain
Weight gain is not just about excess consumption. There were many complex inter-related factors which influenced not only my weight but the other symptoms of imbalance.
In my heath picture, the main factors which contributed towards imbalance and weight gain included:
- Ancestral predisposition
- Imbalanced Intestinal Flora
- Poor diet: nutritional deficiencies and imbalances
- Poor elimination from the colon, skin, kidneys and lungs
- Imbalanced liver functioning and weak digestion
- Cellular electrolyte, pH and hydration imbalances
- Poor blood sugar management and a need for stimulants to raise blood sugar
- Lifestyle stress and the need for emotional comfort
- Oestrogen dominance and thyroid imbalance
- Medications, vaccinations, amalgam fillings and environmental toxicity
The inherited constitution sets the scene when we first enter this world and is a very good indicator of the strengths and weaknesses present from birth. If our ancestors grandparents, parents etc had imbalanced health and were experiencing nutritional deficiencies at the point of conception then it is highly likely that the building blocks required for the next generation would not have been fully present.
What are the consequences of this form of nutritional depletion?
The right combination of nutrients and cellular environmental factors are required to fully switch on genes. For example the mineral zinc helps to regulate genes present within the small intestine, thymus and hepatic cells 1. Zinc is often low in the diet of babies and toddlers and can set the scene for digestive disorders early on in life.
If nutritional deficiencies have been present back along the ancestral line then it is highly likely that future generations will have certain weaknesses from birth. For example, if imbalances are presenting from birth within the digestive system or in the detoxification/elimination organs: colon, skin, kidneys, lungs, liver etc then this lays the seeds for the development of future health issues. In my case colic (imbalance within the colon) and eczema (imbalance within the skin) were present from birth.
Imbalanced Intestinal Gut Flora
The intestinal flora is another significant factor influencing health from birth and should be composed of mainly beneficial bacteria. A healthy gut flora consisting of mainly beneficial bacteria helps aid digestion, boosts immunity, protects the gut lining and produces vitamin K and the B vitamins like B12. The baby receives its first inoculation of bacteria as it travels down the mother’s birth canal during the birthing process. If the mother has an imbalanced gut flora such as an overgrowth of the fungus known as candida which has spread to the vagina then it will also be swallowed by the baby and can take hold in the baby’s gut. My mother had a candida infection when she carried me during pregnancy. After birth I was treated for a fungal outbreak on my scalp. It is highly likely that my intestinal flora became imbalanced from birth.
Antibiotics also influence the gut flora. If the mother had been on a course of antibiotics prior to birth then she may not have many beneficial bacteria within her to pass onto her baby during the birthing process as antibiotics kill both beneficial and harmful bacteria. It is interesting to note that during a caesarean birth the transfer of bacteria from the mother’s birth canal does not occur and this may also set the scene for an imbalanced gut flora within the baby.
An imbalanced gut flora often leads to allergic reactions, colic, cravings for sugar and may later manifest weight gain.
A poor diet from birth will not contain the necessary nutrients for key developmental stages. For example the nutrient zinc and the essential fatty acids are crucial for the development of the small intestine. If these nutrients are missing or in short supply from birth then the villi which are the numerous small finger like projections within the small intestine will not develop correctly leading to problems with nutrient digestion and absorption. These nutrients were not in sufficient supply in my diet from birth, so it is probable that my small intestine did not develop properly.
In the first 2 years of life, zinc and the essential fatty acids are involved in transforming and minimising the porosity of the small intestine. If the small intestine is unable to make this transition it will then leak undigested food and toxic substances directly into the blood which over time may irritate other areas like the liver and brain. This form of intestinal imbalance has been highlighted by Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride author of Gut and Psychology Syndrome. McBride links toxicity from poorly digested foods & harmful micro-organisms from the leaking gut as a source of irritation for the rest of the body and the brain in particular 2. This can result in mental imbalances like autism, hyperactivity and learning difficulties like dyslexia and may develop later in life to deeper imbalances like depression and schizophrenia.
Dr Carl Pfeiffer researched schizophrenia and noted that gut imbalance was commonly present. Carl C. Pfeiffer made his first contribution in 1974, contributing 22 papers by the time he died in 1988. He made major contributions to the understanding of nutrient metabolism in schizophrenia 3.
When the intestine becomes imbalanced in this way many food sensitivities also occur. Gluten and dairy are usually the common allergens. Gluten is a protein found in many grains like wheat, oats, barley and rye and becomes difficult to digest. If the intestinal villi have not developed properly due to nutritional deficiencies like zinc and essential fatty acids they become flattened and are unable to digest gluten. This condition is known as coeliac’s disease.
I have noticed that gluten containing foods have always been hard for me to digest and have led to IBS symptoms like bloating, discomfort and constipation.
When the intestinal villi are not properly developed they become irritated from foods like gluten. The villi produce a mucous layer which protects them from irritation. Unfortunately this mucous layer often prevents access to the enzymes which digest certain nutrients like disaccharides and polysaccharides (types of carbohydrates). For example lactose is a disaccharide which is a sugar found in milk and milk products, is often a problem to digest.
I was fed formula milk which contained lactose but unlike breast milk did not contain the enzyme lactase to digest it. This meant that formula milk and later on cow’s milk would present a digestive stress for my body to process and eliminate.
When partially digested foods containing gluten and lactose hang around, they become a source of food for the intestinal flora and encourage the growth of harmful bacteria and fungi. The waste products from the imbalanced intestinal flora are toxic and irritate the body. Allergic responses are triggered to help combat the irritation which often includes increasing mucous production to protect the intestinal lining from irritation. Water is also retained within the affected body tissues to help dilute water soluble toxicity. This form of water retention contributes to the condition known as cellulite. Fat soluble unprocessed toxicity is often stored within fatty tissue. Both responses to store unprocessed toxicity results in weight gain.
A poor diet high in processed foods also presents a nutritional challenge to the body to digest, assimilate and eliminate. Certain foods which are high in sugar and foods containing hydrogenated fats, trans fats encourage internal inflammation, stimulating the body to respond by increasing mucous and histamine as a means of protection from inflammation. These foods result in areas of the body like the digestive system becoming overly acidic, and dehydrated whilst providing the right environment for unbeneficial micro-organisms like candida to flourish.
Consequences of a low fat diet
My low fat diet was reducing the amounts of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K which are found naturally in fatty foods like oily fish, nuts, whole milk yoghurt, seeds and butter. I had also unwittingly increased my intake of damaging trans and hydrogenated fats by consuming low fat processed foods like reduced fat margarine, low fat cakes and biscuits.
By increasing grain consumption and swapping butter with margarine made from hydrogenated seed oils like sunflower oil, I was increasing omega 6 essential fatty acid intake, whilst lowering omega 3 fatty acid consumption. As a result inflammatory reactions increased within my body.
Due to the imbalance between omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids, other health issues like hormonal imbalance, poor mood, dry hair, skin and eyes also occurred.
Nutritional Deficiencies and Imbalances
We have been conditioned to believe that nutritional deficiencies and imbalances do not occur in our affluent society as many everyday foods are artificially fortified. However the body processes and handles naturally occurring nutrients more effectively when compared to inorganic nutrients. Natural food nutrients also tend to be in a more absorbable state for the body.
Nutrients do not act in isolation but have complex inter-relationships with one another. When food is fortified, it is very difficult to include the right balance of vitamins and minerals which will work synergistically together. For example the mineral calcium is often added to many foods however calcium synergistically works with the mineral magnesium which is not added to foods. This imbalance can lead to a condition where calcium is overly abundant and magnesium is deficient. When this occurs, calcium comes out of solution within the body fluids and solidifies hardening body tissues. Part of magnesium’s role is to keep calcium dissolved within body fluids.
Nutritional imbalances also occur due to intensive farming. Soils have not been allowed to regenerate in between planting and have not been fortified with the full complement of essential minerals. This results in food which has a much lower content of these essential minerals.
Changes in farming practices like the move away from pasture feeding to grain feeding of chickens, cows and sheep creates an imbalance in their bodies. Their meat, milk and eggs become more concentrated in the omega-6 essential fatty acids than in omega 3 fatty acid. Excess omega 6 consumption promotes inflammatory reactions within the body and can trigger health imbalances like eczema, gut inflammation, high cholesterol and so on.
The processing of many foods like creating flour from grains and then producing a food like bread depletes many nutrients along the chain of production.
Essential Fatty Acid Imbalances
Omega 3 is a key nutrient involved in producing prostaglandins (tissue hormones) influencing endocrine and nervous functioning. Puberty is one of the key life stages when essential fatty acid imbalance becomes highlighted. During this key transition phase, reproductive and brain development occurs.
It is interesting to note that it is the teens when there can be radical changes in behaviour and an increased need for stimulants like sugar, alcohol, drugs, caffeine, nicotine and or recreational drugs. Many stimulants also mimic prostaglandins and the neurotransmitters within the body. It therefore makes sense that in a deficient state the body seeks stimulants to temporarily rectify imbalances. In my case weight gain became more rapid during the teen years and the need for sugar and processed foods more acute.
Even wholegrain diets need to be approached with caution. Whole grains, nuts and seeds contain phytates which is a storage form of the mineral phosphorous. However within the gut, phytates bind to minerals like calcium, zinc, magnesium etc making them unavailable to the body. Our ancestors developed certain methods for processing grains which included fermentation, soaking, slow cooking and sprouting which all helped to reduce the phytate content of foods. Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, has done a lot of research on the methods used within traditional diets for food preparation 4.
Sadly these practices are not widely used in the modern preparation of whole grains. Therefore even though a wholegrain diet is being consumed, there may still be nutritional deficiencies if these foods are not correctly prepared.
Nutritional deficiencies and imbalances can seriously imbalance health, with weight gain being only one of many seemingly unrelated symptoms occurring over time.
Poor Elimination from the Colon, Skin, Kidneys and Lungs
The body’s natural detoxification and elimination mechanisms deal with neutralising, rebalancing and the removal of toxicity and wastes. However there eventually reaches a point when digestive stress becomes too high for the body to fully clear. It is at this point that elimination becomes overwhelmed and the body then tries to store this unprocessed toxicity within non-essential tissues. Storage of toxicity will initially be within the lesser essential tissues and organs like the skin, joints and muscles but can eventually move into more vital organs like the liver, kidneys and brain. Unprocessed toxicity will also be stored within body fat and/or retained in body water. Stored body toxicity eventually manifests physical symptoms such as pain, skin rashes, sore and stiff joints or as poor energy, low mood etc. Therefore part of my weight gain has been attributed to the storage of toxicity within my body tissues.
Elimination is a key factor influencing health. If the routes of elimination are weak and overloaded then eventually health becomes imbalanced.
Our cells are continually producing waste products from normal metabolic activity. These waste products are normally drawn out of the cells into the surrounding lymphatic fluid which bathes each cell. Cellular waste is then drawn into the lymphatic system, which filters and destroys harmful pathogens.
The lymph vessels of the lungs and skin also eliminate waste products via the lungs or through the pores of the skin.
Eventually lymphatic fluid drains back into the blood system. The blood vessels of the lungs and skin can also channel some waste for elimination by the lungs and skin but it is the liver which will process the majority of this waste and toxicity.
The liver then transforms any toxic substances to lesser toxic substances which are to be eliminated through urine, sweat or in the faeces.
When the body becomes overloaded with unprocessed or partially processed toxicity/wastes stemming from the diet, medications, stimulants like alcohol, caffeine and environmental pollutants, the liver and the eliminatory organs start to become overwhelmed. A side effect of this is often an increase in fat production and water retention. Fat is a way of storing fat soluble toxicity and retaining water within the body is a way of storing water soluble toxicity.
Cleansing techniques which help release toxicity within the main elimination organs are invaluable in helping the body to release. When the body becomes overwhelmed in this way it usually leads to symptoms like pain, constipation, skin rashes, lung congestion and weight gain.
Imbalanced Liver Functioning and Weak Digestion
The liver which is the main organ for detoxification can become overly toxic from an imbalanced diet, lifestyle and/or environmental stress. Excess toxicity from the liver often seeps into the bile which is also produced by the liver. The main functions of bile involve making the pH of food from the stomach compatible with the digestive enzymes of the pancreas. Bile also has the important function of emulsifying fats. When bile becomes overloaded with toxicity from the liver, its pH changes which reduces its effectiveness. Therefore an overloaded liver has a knock on effect of producing imbalanced bile resulting in foods not being effectively broken down, nutrients not being correctly released and the undigested foods hanging around as a source of toxicity.
Imbalanced bile is just one example of how digestion may be weak. There are many other stages of digestion which may be weak that can impact on the ability to correctly digest food. Common issues with weakened digestion include the inability of the stomach to correctly produce the right amount of stomach acid which impacts on the digestion of proteins and the ability to kill harmful pathogens present within food.
Imbalanced temperature, hydration and pH are also common issues impacting the effectiveness of digestive enzymes resulting in poor digestion and partially digested foods hanging around within the digestive tract.
An overworked liver is unable to effectively carry out its other functions. For example one of the jobs of the liver is to switch off hormones when they have finished their job. An overloaded liver which is unable to switch off the hormone oestrogen when not required leaves it circulating within the blood. Excess oestrogen triggers a condition known as oestrogen dominance which often triggers weight gain.
The liver is also involved in the delicate process of balancing blood sugar. The hormone glucagon which is produced by the liver helps to raise blood sugar when it is low and the hormone insulin produced by the pancreas helps to lower blood sugar when it becomes too high. Together these hormones help to keep blood sugar within acceptable levels. If the liver is not working effectively then this may lead to a low blood sugar condition known as hypoglycaemia. This condition triggers the use of an external stimulant like caffeine, nicotine, alcohol or sugar to artificially prop up low blood sugar.
Poor Blood Sugar Management -
Hypoglycaemia and the need for stimulants to raise blood sugar
Conventional dietary advice suggests the consumption of a high carbohydrate diet consisting of mainly whole grains. However this level of carbohydrate consumption exasperated my already poor ability to manage blood sugar.
When carbohydrates are broken down there is a surge in blood sugar resulting in a rapid release of insulin by the pancreas to lower blood sugar. My diet was causing rapid fluctuations in blood sugar but there were also other significant factors influencing my blood sugar: stress, dehydration and imbalances in the blood electrolytes calcium, sodium, magnesium and potassium. These factors influence blood pH and hydration, therefore any changes to blood pH or blood hydration levels also has a knock on effect on blood sugar levels.
When hydration or electrolyte levels of the blood become imbalanced the body automatically tries to correct the imbalance of blood pH by triggering a lowering of blood sugar. The lowering of blood sugar in this way leads to blood sugar crashes and sets up the conditions for the requirement of an external stimulant to prop blood sugar. My stimulant fix was sweet food but cigarettes, alcohol and recreational drugs are all common methods for artificially raising blood sugar.
Lifestyle Stress and the need for Emotional Comfort
Life can be stressful at times however all stress physical, emotional or mental stimulates the fight and flight response. Stress makes the body believe it is in danger and prepares it to physically face or be able to run away from the perceived danger. The stress hormones are triggered and blood sugar is raised to provide an extra energy boost to muscles. This is only meant to be a short-term response however prolonged stress can overly stimulate the fight and flight response and weaken the body. The adrenal glands in particular suffer from continued stress and over time results in a condition known as adrenal exhaustion. This condition is often accompanied by low mood and energy requiring stimulants to artificially prop up energy.
Emotional comfort is a significant factor for craving stimulating foods and drinks which provide a short-term boost of the ‘feeling good factor’ and help to numb painful emotions like anger, sadness, anxiety etc. The use of food as an emotional comforter is one of the most common reasons for overeating and preferring stimulating foods and drinks.
Internationally recognised pharmacist Dr Candace Pert author of ‘Molecules of Emotion’ has done some fascinating research on how the emotions exist both as energy and matter in the vibrating receptors on every cell in the body. Her research suggests that all of the senses, sight, sound, smell, taste and memories are stored mostly as neuro-peptides and their receptors which Pert refers to as molecules of emotions 5. Modern science has made a connection between the mind, body and emotions. This concept is also known in many ancient healing cultures such as in traditional Chinese medicine the ‘Five Element theory’ which connects the emotions to the body. According to five element theory, the emotion of anger influences liver functioning, the emotion of sadness affects lung functioning whereas worry weakens stomach functioning.
To achieve long-term success with improving health and wellbeing suitable support with working through emotions and dealing with stress is paramount.
Oestrogen dominance is the term used when there is too much of the hormone oestrogen. Oestrogen’s job is to trigger cellular growth however excess oestrogen usually results in excess cellular growth, low energy, poor mood, irritability and excess weight gain. Excess oestrogen also depresses thyroid functioning. As the thyroid is involved in growth and metabolism, lowering its function may be a natural response by the body to inhibit the excess growth from oestrogen.
Excess oestrogen also occurs when there are too many oestrogen mimicking substances in the diet and environment. The common oestrogen mimickers are birth control pills, animal hormones found in meat, dairy and eggs products, plastics, parabens, body products, herbicides and pesticides. Certain metals like aluminium, mercury, copper and lead also have an oestrogenic response 6.
Plant based phyto-oestrogens (flaxseed, fennel etc) may help by locking onto oestrogen receptors and preventing xeno-oestrogens from triggering a strong oestrogen response. The phyto-oestrogenic stimulation of the oestrogen receptors is a lot weaker than xeno-oestreogens which strongly stimulate cellular growth.
Fat cells also produce oestrogen and will contribute towards oestrogen dominance. Excess oestrogen also elevates the mineral copper and lowers zinc by pushing the body into copper excess leading to dependency behaviours.
In order to keep oestrogen in balance the hormone progesterone is required. However progesterone is also a precursor to the stress hormone cortisol and excess stress depletes progesterone tipping oestrogen into excess.
As previously discussed a weakened toxic liver will not be able to fully switch off hormones like oestrogen which leaves them in the blood triggering further oestrogenic response and exasperating oestrogen dominance.
Medications, Vaccinations, Amalgam fillings and Environmental Toxicity
When the body has a decreased ability to cleanse and the liver is weak then it becomes harder for the body to detoxify and eliminate. In this state, medications, vaccinations, mercury from amalgam fillings become an additional burden for the body. When these substances are not effectively broken down and eliminated they hang around and over time become a source of toxicity. Some of these substances lock onto hormone receptors triggering hormone responses or they force the body to retain fat and water to store these toxic elements thus contributing to weight gain.
The environment can also become a source of toxicity for the body. Chemicals found within pesticides, cooking utensils, cleaning products, body products all add to the body’s existing toxic load and will impact on the body’s ability to detoxify and cleanse. When the body is in this delicate state it will be prudent to avoid, simplify and choose less harmful alternatives. For example honey is an excellent face wash and coconut oil may be used as a moisturiser. Vinegar and bicarbonate soda may be used as household cleaners. Glass, ceramic, stainless steel and cast iron could be used to replace harmful non-stick/aluminium cookware.
Technology such as computers, mobile phones, WiFi can also influence the bio-magnetic field within living tissues resulting in ill health.
In my case, a year of being on medications and antibiotics to counteract childhood typhoid depleted the beneficial bacteria within my gut flora. This set the scene for fungal infections and poor digestion. My liver functioning and elimination was also weak which meant that additional chemicals from medications, vaccinations, mercury fillings etc would become harder to process and eliminate from my body. In an overloaded body, these chemicals if not eliminated are stored in either water or fat containing body tissues resulting in weight gain.
In this article I have discussed many issues which impacted on my long term weight gain. It is only when I started to address the deeper imbalances that my symptoms started to reduce and my weight normalised.
When we just try to treat weight gain through calorie reduction then we may achieve short-term weight loss but the underlying imbalances will not have been resolved and will eventual deepen resulting in a further state of imbalance. Poor blood sugar inevitably leads to diabetes and many other chronic health disorders stem from the factors discussed which influence weight gain.
- Uppanghala, Nidhi. (2010). Gene Regulation by Minerals and Vitamins. Available: http://www.biotecharticles.com/Genetics-Article/Gene-Regulation-by-Minerals-and-Vitamins-193.html. Last accessed 20th Jan 2011
- Campbell-Mcbride, N (2009). Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, ADD/ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Depression, Schizophrenia. Medinform Publishing: Cambridge
- Pfeiffer, C (1987). Nutrition and Mental Illness: An Orthomolecular Approach to Balancing Body Chemistry. Healing Arts Press, Vermont
- Fallon, Sally, Enig, G Mary, (2001) Nourishing Traditions: The cookbook that challenges politically correct nutrition and the diet dictocrats. Revised 2nd edition. New Trends Publishing Inc: Washington
- Pert, C (1998) Molecules of Emotion, Simon & Schuster UK Ltd: London
- Dabre, P D. (2006). Metalloestrogens: an emerging class of inorganic xenoestrogens with potential to add to the oestrogenic burden of the human breast. Journal of Applied Toxicolog. 26 (3), p191-197.