3 things I learned from Nutritional Therapy training that I wish someone had told me when I was younger

Ilona Madden - RightFood4U - Nutrition Programmes - Bray Wicklow Dublin

Written by Ilona Madden

December 18, 2017

What is Nutritional Therapy?

– N.T. is rooted in Functional Medicine which unlike conventional medicine doesn’t just look at and treat the symptom but is trying to find the root cause

– N.T. tries to identify the root cause looking at the various body systems (endocrine, cardiovascular, immune, digestive, etc.) and is looking to treat those root causes by supplying and supporting the systems with the correct nutrients through food or if necessary through supplementation. This could be vitamin/mineral or herbal supplementation

– For example let’s take High Cholesterol, which could be genetic, thyroid related or from food, or stress, so rather than just stopping the production of cholesterol – what statins do – you look at treating the root cause. Cholesterol is an important fat that the body needs to function properly.

– Nutritional Therapy supports the body’s natural healing properties. And since I have been studying how our bodies work, I begin to realise that everything in our bodies is actually directed towards healing. More about this later.

– Many “modern” diseases happen because we work against and not with our bodies.

– “Modern” diseases are on the rise since rise of modern food industry! Is that just a coincidence???

– All modern diseases, such as Type 2 Diabetes, Alzheimers, Cancers, Heart Disease have INFLAMMATION as the underlying cause.

– Today, we just treat the symptoms, our doctors are highly specialised, our GPs have very little time, and prescription of a drug is easier and quicker than to explain life-style changes. Diabetes drugs are now immediately prescribed when blood results show high blood sugar, even though the official guideline is to prescribe them once life-style changes didn’t work. This is costing the tax payer a fortune!!!

Patients are not given much information, help and support on how to deal with diabetes by changing the diet and life-style.

– Even if a GP would suggest life style changes such as “lose weight” “get fit” “reduce stress”, they simply haven’t got the time to explain how and give the support over a longer period of time.


This is a little background on Nutritional Therapy which I’ve now been studying for nearly 3 years. And there are 3 main things that strike me as really really important and I would like to share this with you today, so that you can be at you fullest health when you get to 50years!

I know that at 25 years of age you don’t really think or worry about what you’ll be like at 50. So, even if you don’t implement some of the suggestions right away, I hope that they will somehow stick and you will remember them when you need to.


The 3 things are:

1. Our Bodies are amazing!

2. Mind your Gut!

3. Balance your Blood Sugar!


1. Our bodies are amazing

This is about exercise, injury, health service and taking responsibility.

If you are not exercising at the moment, I highly recommend you find something that you love, anything, just something where you have to move your body. Our bodies are designed to move. We are not made to sit in front of computers or TV sets all day.

If you are exercising, I am sure you have had maybe at some stage had to deal with an injury or at least with some sore muscles. You probably also might have been told at some stage by a physio to rest or take it easy.

I guess anybody who’s doing some sort of exercise has at some point been told not to do this or that exercise anymore. Or you might decide yourself maybe that you’re knees are simply hurting too much and you leave the running.

I just want to go back to what I said earlier: Our bodies are designed to heal, they are so perfectly designed but unfortunately not to our modern life-style of the last (not even) 100 years.

We evolved and are designed to deal with real threats and our systems are mainly designed to deal with infectious diseases and injuries. We are designed to digest “real” foods and not highly processed foods. We are not designed to deal with the thousands of toxins we are exposed to in our environment, the things we eat (I deliberately don’t want to call that “food”), our cosmetics, cleaning products etc etc.


Everything in our bodies is based on feedback mechanisms to keep homeostasis, if our body temperature gets to warm, the body brings it down through various mechanisms such as sweating. If our blood sugar goes up, we release insulin to clear it and bring it back to normal. Most hormone levels are based on a feedback mechanism, if you need them the body produces it and if enough been produced it stops again. That goes for Calcium levels, acidity, thyroid, adrenalin, cortisol, etc etc.

Our bodies don’t suddenly decide to become evil and become sick – we just don’t work with our bodies in the healing process but often against it.

Our bodies have fantastic systems in place to get rid of all toxins, through the liver, gut or kidneys, even the skin, but nowadays there are so many toxins in the environment and in our foods that our bodies are so overloaded that detoxification can’t happen quick enough, and toxins are stored in our fat cells – or worse possibly as cancer cells. A well-functioning immune system will then at some stage later, release the toxins from the fat and deal with them. A well-functioning immune system can also deal with cancer cells in early stages.

Today we are faced with so many environmental toxins that we need to – wherever possible – reduce the toxins where we actually do have a choice. And food would be the number one!!! Other things would be to reduce the chemicals in your cleaning materials, in your cosmetic, buy foods that are not wrapped in plastic, don’t store in plastic, detox regularly through sweating, breathing, exfoliating, reducing alcohol, meditation, etc etc.

Apart from fantastic systems in our bodies to get rid of waste, we have an amazing immune system – when it works properly. Often we think of an immune system only in regards to fighting off colds & flues, but actually our immune systems are at work when we get injured. And with injured I don’t just mean breaking a leg or so, but any form of inflammation is our immune system being at work.

Inflammation is a healing mechanism with the ultimate purpose of getting you stronger. A little bit of sore muscle, a sprain, etc and the inflammation markers move quickly to the site of injury and work on it. The body realises that more muscle and stronger bones are required and repairs the site and in the process makes it even stronger.

But – it needs time!!! And it needs the right nutrients to follow a perfectly designed healing process.

The worst thing you can do is to pop an anti-inflammatory medication straight away. While it stops the hurting and brings down the inflammation, it fast-tracks the natural healing process and doesn’t actual heal and doesn’t make you stronger! It just masks over the pain. It brings down inflammation but not the way the body is designed to do it.

If you decide tomorrow to run a marathon, you might actually be able to do it, but what state will you be in afterwards?

If you support the natural healing process by bringing blood to the area (through movement, cold or heat packs, dry needling etc.), or by eating anti-inflammatory foods such as turmeric, ginger, garlic, etc. you are supporting the natural pathways and help make the body stronger.

Pain as such is a sign of the body to tell you to stop, and listen. It is not just some evil act by the body to hurt you. By just popping pain killers you are ignoring this vital sign. Rather than just ignoring it and continuing you can learn from your pain what you are doing wrong. Especially in running, often if it hurts when you run in one particular way, but it might not hurt running another way. Pain shows you that you’ve been doing something wrong. And it should teach you how to do it right.

Most doctors and physios tell you to “stop, rest, etc.” when you have some pain or minor injury. Quite often they have to say this to cover themselves. If you heal while resting, it’s fine, and if you don’t heal, then something is wrong, but at least it’s not THEIR fault. Had they told you to continue, you could have blamed them.

Just a little story here from myself:

I did a lot of sports as a teenager, athletics and gymnastics, and kept “jogging” until I was 25 when my knees starting hurting more and more frequently and I stopped running, thinking I was simply getting too old or that there’s something wrong. When I was in my early forties I realised I was putting on weight and was looking at something I could do as exercise, and I came across an article by Catriona McKiernan about Chi Running. I soon after got an opportunity to take part in her Chi-Running workshops, and I haven’t looked back since, I suddenly realised, it wasn’t me or my knees, it was simply the running technique. I was not running efficiently. I can’t tell you how many times since I started running or working out in Crossfit, I’ve been in some sort of pain and have been told to stop. When I was training for my first marathon I started getting numb from my back down into my legs and went to see an osteopath, who eventually told me to stop running for a couple of months, that was 2 months before the marathon and after I’d put so much effort into the training. I didn’t listen and did my marathon!!! I realise now, that any pain comes from doing something wrong or not efficiently. And I can learn from pain. I’m not saying run or work through pain, but find out what works and where you can make changes. And if you are seriously injured in one part of the body, work with another part of the body. But don’t stop!!!

Take responsibility for your own body, and believe that you are stronger than you think or what some doctors and physios make you think you are.

Another advice on going to the doctor. Don’t just listen to one opinion. If a doctor wants to prescribe you a drug that you are supposed to take for the rest of your life – question it!!! I wish I had done so when I was prescribed my thyroid medication. Nowadays on the internet I would have found so many alternatives that I should have tried before sticking to the medication.

Modern medicine just treats the symptoms, but doesn’t ask WHY and is not looking for the root causes, as mentioned above. Some symptoms could for example come from mercury poisoning of amalgam filling in your teeth and a doctor would generally not even look there. Again, our livers can deal with certain amounts of poison but not if we overload with loads of different ones, at some stage it will manifest in symptoms, but just like pain – these are signs that something isn’t going right. So don’t just get away with the symptom, find the reason for it.

When the petrol lamp comes on in your car, you don’t just knock off that light, you fill up the car, then it goes away!

Another amazing fact in our bodies are the power houses called mitochondria, they are like little rechargeable batteries and give you energy. The more you move, the more you stress them the more charged they actually get. These are responsible for our metabolism. It’s also cellular respiration.

But again you need to support them with the right food and with exercise, mainly in order to create oxygen for the respiration process. Often people are tired and told to rest which in some cases is necessary, but again we are much much stronger than we are made to believe.

It is not normal to have energy dips in the afternoon, it is not normal to feel tired just because you are getting a bit older! You need to eat the right foods at the right time, in the right amounts, support your mitochondria and not destroy them with toxins and with lack of exercise.


Now to the second thing I wish I had known more about.

“Mind your Gut”

Hippocrates already said: “All disease starts in the gut”

There is more and more evidence that our gut bacteria are responsible for our health and well-being and that many “modern” diseases are linked to a lack of variety of gut bacteria. And we have trillions of them! We have more bacteria in our bodies than cells.

In order to understand our gut, just a brief introduction. Our G.I. tract is actually outside of the body and it starts with the mouth, goes via the oesophagus, the stomach, the small and large intestines and finishes at the anus. Our digestion starts already with Thinking about food which activates some digestive enzymes. The next process is chewing, which mechanically breaks down food (And who has time nowadays to really chew properly and sit down for every meal?), then it hits a strong acid in the stomach (many people lack this because the stomach acid gets produced by slowly chewing) and then the many enzymes (again many people lack those because of poor eating habits) break down the food into its smallest particles that can be absorbed through the gut and are distributed to the parts in the body where they’re needed.

We know now that 70% of our immune system sits in the gut. The idea is that should anything “foreign” get through, it will get killed straight away. That’s our immune systems at work, which can either kill foreign invaders or create antibodies to deal wth the infection.

The purpose of our digestive system is to extract the vital nutrients from food, to absorb it and then to eliminate the waste product – and to feed our good bacteria so that they can keep us healthy. As I mentioned earlier the important thing is that we eliminate the waste properly. It is really important to have at least one bowel movement per day, because otherwise toxins are building up in the gut and these need to be detoxified by the liver or else they are being stored in the body. They have to go somewhere!!

Again, it’s the total amount that adds up. If you are not detoxing and keep adding up more toxins every day, you are creating a problem to your body. Having the odd night out with drinks or being exposed to some poison, does not directly cause an issue, because our bodies are well designed to detox. But you need to give the liver the right nutrients. You need to look at your liver like a recycle plant which has different pathways and it can only deal with a certain amount, so what’s important is simply to reduce toxins wherever possible, and that is by buying organic where possible, washing the fruit and veg properly, avoid toxins in cosmetics and cleaning products, etc. etc.

But you can support the liver with the right proteins and nutrients that should mainly come from a variety of vegetables. It basically means you help the liver work properly, but it also means that when there are free radicals in our system that we have plenty of anti-oxidants that help clean them up.

Another important thing regarding a healthy digestion is that you need to look out for anything that is causing you discomfort. It is unbelievable how many people put up with digestive issues such as heartburn, indigestion, flatulence, stomach cramps, bloating, belching etc. and assume this to be “normal”. It is not normal, and is quite often one of the first symptoms of some sort of gut dysbiosis, i.e. that you might have too many of the bad bacteria or too much yeast in your digestive tract. It could also be a sign of not enough stomach acid or digestive enzymes. You might be eating plenty of healthy foods but because your G.I. tract is not working properly you might not absorb the nutrients properly. You could have some sort of inflammation going on inside you without noticing and this could cause stress on your body constantly.

My tip: If there is anything causing you discomfort in your digestive tract, have it checked out – ideally by a Nutritional Therapist who looks at the whole picture. A lot of people start taking stuff like Rennie or Nexium that stops stomach acid, because they feel bloated or have heartburn, while those could actually be signs for low stomach acid. So, you’re just making things even worse.

Also, please eat slowly, sit down properly at the table and don’t eat in a rush or at your desk. If you are in the so called sympathetic nervous system (Fight and Flight mode), your body is diverting the blood away from your digestive tract and into the limbs, it is getting ready to actually run away – like they would have had to do in cavemen times. Only when you are relaxed – and you can simply get into this parasympathetic mode by taking a few deep breaths before each meal – does your body produce all the HCL and enzymes and supplies the gut with plenty of blood and nutrients that help absorb the best from your food.

When your food is not digested properly it can damage the gut wall and eventually get into the blood system. Your body then sees this as a foreign invader that it needs to deal with straight away and the immune system gets activated. This usually happens via antibodies. The problem is that now an ordinary piece of cheese can actually become treated like a dangerous invader, and with those antibodies you are creating an intolerance to some foods, or you can even create an auto-immune disease. Most recent studies seem to show that there is some connection between auto-immune diseases and gluten intolerance. I.e. the Gluten protein molecules are similar to our body’s own protein molecules and our immune system simply confuses the two.

The most important thing in this instance is to heal your gut by eliminating those triggering foods for a while, and support the gut with the right nutrients. Any Nutritional Therapist can help you there as well.


And the last thing is “Blood sugar Balancing”

I used to have extremely strong energy dips, I could not skip a meal without getting irritable, I was a demon in a restaurant when the service was too slow and I was hungry. In the afternoon I was often so tired I could not move and had to lie down whenever I could. I was vegetarian at the time and was constantly hungry, and I was living on pasta and pizzas. And I actually thought I was eating healthy as I had plenty of vegetables and salads in the diet and the pasta was always wholegrain. I now know that I was not only lacking vital proteins in my diet which are important for nearly all functions in our cells, but I was also on a constant blood sugar roller coaster. My body needed to send out insulin all the time to deal with the high sugar and carbohydrate content of my meals, and then it “overshot” the target and I got low blood sugar, which I brought up again by eating more sugary, carb foods. This causes a constant insulin and cortisol response in my body and made me a really cranky person to live with most of the times.

I believe now that balancing the blood sugar is the key to having plenty of energy all day long, and it is also the key to maintaining a healthy weight.

How do you balance the blood sugar? The most important thing is to avoid all refined sugars and carbohydrates which cause this spike in insulin release. The high insulin prevents fat burning, and any excess calories are simply stored as fat. You should basically eat low G.I. foods, foods that don’t affect your blood sugar that much. There are plenty of lists but nobody walks around with such a list all the time. So you can either go by a food label, or just think about how long it would take you to chew the food. Any wholegrain food needs longer to chew and you can’t eat as much of it. But there’s also things like potato mash is higher in GI than boiled potatoes. Or Pasta al dente is better than really soft cooked pasta. Fruit juice brings out a much higher insulin response than the fruit itself where you also get the full amount of fibre.

You should also always eat a bit of protein with your meal. As protein digestion only starts in the stomach, and not like carbohydrates already in the mouth, the protein needs longer to get digested and sits longer in the stomach, keeping you full for longer.

The rule for balancing blood sugar is not to go hungry, because when you go hungry you tend to go more for the convenient foods. Some recommend to always have some healthy snack with you, and eat every 3-4 hours, and within 1hour of waking. In contrast to this is the theory of fasting and the benefits of not having too many meals and exercising on an empty stomach to burn more fat.

The problem there is that most people have lost their ability to be a fat burner, they only live on glycogen and their glycogen stores but the body cant actually access the huge amount of calories that is in fat. For example even I have over 10kg in fat, when you think that 1g of fat has 9calories, that’s a lot of calories stored! You know you’ve used up all your glycogen stores when you hit the wall in a marathon, that’s why you have to keep replenishing with gels. But many elite athletes now look at becoming a more efficient fat burner, and you can train this slowly by fasting, and intermittent fasting etc – BUT you need to have you blood sugar in order first in order not to pose more stress on your body.

Because of the whole blood sugar balancing I would highly recommend a low carbohydrate and higher (HEALTHY) fats diet. Fats are so important for all cell function, brain function and for the absorption of Vitamin D, E, A – all the anti-oxidant vitamins. If you have fat in your diet you also become a more efficient fat burner, especially if at the same time you reduce your carbohydrates. You don’t have to go as far as the Ketogenic Diet to be a fat burner. All this is highly individual and each person deals with carbohydrates, fats and protein differently. This is actually down again to our gut bacteria, as recent scientific studies are finding out.

Again, there are plenty of tips any Nutritional Therapist can give you and help you with to balance your blood sugar within your lifestyle.

So, I hope this article has given you some inspiration, and even if you don’t implement all of the things right away, you will hopefully remember them in the future, and make little changes at a time.

And I am here to help if you want to discuss any of the issues in more detail.

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