Are YOU suffering from midlife malnutrition? How your FACE reveals the nutrients your body really ne
Updated: Mar 28, 2019
Malnourishment is not something we associate with our 21st century lifestyles. The problem is that menopause puts the body under more strain than we appreciate. To cope with it well, women need to be in tip-top condition, but few women reach their mid-40s in a nutritionally good place
Surrounded by her loved ones, having just exchanged marriage vows with the man she adored, it should have been one of the happiest days of Alison Mattinson’s life.
But amid the popping champagne corks and warm wishes of her guests, Alison couldn’t shake a thought from her head: when would her wedding day end so she could go back to bed? Alison, then 49, had been suffering with exhaustion and aching joints in the run-up to this, her second marriage. Presuming a virus must be to blame, she waited for it to pass, but things only got worse.
By her 50th birthday, mood swings, brain fog, memory loss, joint pain, hot flushes, depression and anxiety dominated her life. ‘I was miserable,’ says Alison. ‘My husband couldn’t understand what had happened to the vibrant woman he’d proposed to, who had all but disappeared since the weeks before our marriage.
HOW YOUR FACE REVEALS WHAT YOUR BODY NEEDS...
If you want to work out which nutrients your diet is deficient in, it’s as easy as looking into the mirror. Most vitamin deficiencies will affect your face first, as the skin is so delicate here. Here’s what to look out for...
CAUSES: Deficiency of vitamin B2. This affects eye and skin health, and deficiency can cause skin to crack.
SOLUTION: Cheese, almonds and eggs are good sources of B2.
CAUSES: This can be caused by a lack of B6, which plays a roll in how elastic skin is.
SOLUTION: Potatoes and fortified cereals are high in B6.
CAUSES: Zinc deficiency. This can also cause acne.
SOLUTION: Yoghurt, grass-fed beef and chickpeas are all rich sources of this mood-boosting vitamin.
CAUSES: Not enough vitamin A. This vitamin, also called retinol, is key for making skin springy and youthful.
SOLUTION: Liver, sweet potatoes and cheese are all excellent sources.
CAUSES: A lack of the mineral biotin, This helps us keep a young, attractive appearance since it plays a major part in maintaining the health of our hair, nails and skin.
SOLUTION: Eggs, wholegrains and milk are good sources.
CAUSES: A lack of biotin and vitamin C, which helps hair health.
SOLUTION: Citrus fruit, such as oranges and lemons.
‘I’d suddenly feel dizzy for no apparent reason, some part of me always hurt and I was terrified that this was only the beginning of what the rest of my life had in store.
‘I was even losing my looks: my nails kept splitting, my skin was rough and pimply and my hair was dry and dull. My first thought of the day was often: “How long until bedtime?” ’
Many will recognise here a woman in the grip of the very worst symptoms of menopause. But that was only one part of Alison’s story.
Because what was wreaking by far the greatest havoc on her health was a condition which I believe, as a women’s health specialist, is affecting an increasing number of middle-aged women: chronic malnutrition.
Many will scoff at the very notion. Malnourishment is not something we associate with our pampered 21st century lifestyles.
How could the body of a well-to-do practice nurse from North Cornwall possibly have become so nutritionally challenged to make her this depressed and ill?
Especially considering Alison’s diet, which, as is the case with most of us, was less than perfect but contained reasonable amounts of fruit, salad and vegetables.
The problem is that menopause puts the body under more strain than we appreciate. To cope with it well, women need to be in tip-top condition, with nutritional levels at their optimum.
But few women reach their mid-40s in a nutritionally good place. Published studies conducted by my own team of nurses and nutritionists have discovered that, by the end of their childbearing years, up to 80 per cent of women have inadequate levels of magnesium. Many are also low in iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D and essential fatty acids.
And unless those levels are topped up, they will only deteriorate as the strain the ageing process puts on our bodies increases.
I believe Alison’s problems are just the tip of iceberg — she’s one of millions of women who hit midlife nutritionally deprived and unable to cope.
Through her work as a nurse, Alison knows all about healthy eating — on paper at least.
‘It was part of my job to advise people on diet. But it’s not always so easy to practise what you preach when you’re permanently rushed off your feet,’ she says.
Like so many women of a certain age, Alison, now 58, repeatedly put her own nutritional needs last.
She has raised a family — her daughter is 32 — and, alongside a challenging career, has cared for elderly parents.
Inevitably, over the years many meals were replaced with something sweet or stodgy grabbed on the run.
When women are busy, the quality of the food they eat is often the first casualty and for far too many, eating on the hoof becomes a way of life.
The Government’s latest national diet and nutrition survey found 27 per cent of women have low iron stores and a fifth have low of levels of vitamin D.
Oily fish consumption, meanwhile, is well below the recommended one portion per week, and only 28 per cent get their five-a-day.
With menopausal women, however, the problem is made worse as their bodies, with their fluctuating hormone levels, struggle to absorb and store nutrients from the healthy food they do find time to eat.
The upshot? Women like Alison hit menopause with a body so nutritionally deprived that it starts to crumble.
When Alison came to me a year ago, her husband was struggling to cope with her mood swings, she’d had to give up her job and was chronically fatigued.
Alison is the first to admit she was hell to live with. ‘I felt so ill and as though everything was out of my control. The pain and tiredness, combined with the mood swings and anxiety, had put me in a very dark place.
‘I would snap at my husband over the slightest thing. I was so irritable behind closed doors while trying to put on a brave face to the rest of the world.
‘He really took the brunt of it and couldn’t understand why I could be perfectly pleasant with my daughter and friends and yet when we were alone together I was so miserable.
‘I suppose he felt I was storing it all up for him, and actually I think that’s very much what I did.
‘Unsurprisingly, he took it very personally and things were strained between us.’ But it needn’t be that way.
Over the past 30 years through my work as a nutritionist and pioneer in the field of treating illness without drugs, I have helped tens of thousands of women whose health problems could be fully corrected without medication but with a simple, sustained healthy eating programme.
Some come to me suffering from night sweats that make sleep impossible, and joint pain that makes them feel old before their time.
A dental nurse recently told me how she had to quit work after 35 years because she started dripping sweat onto her patients.
Others talk about stripping off when they get home because their clothes are drenched.
A postmistress I treated had finger joints so swollen she couldn’t hold her pen.
Then you get women whose moods become so confused and erratic they are genuinely terrified they might be developing early onset dementia.
Yet once they address their malnourishment, through diet and supplements, these symptoms can almost always be completely reversed. Memory loss, such a common complaint during menopause because the oestrogen receptors in the brain are affected by fluctuating hormone levels, is exacerbated by low blood sugar due to irregular eating patterns.
Older women need magnesium to help with normal hormone function — low levels exacerbate menopausal symptoms and will make your body feel tired and sluggish.
Yet up to 80 per cent of women who enter the menopause are lacking this essential nutrient, which are found in foods such as almonds, Brazil nuts and soya products.
Calcium is vital for healthy bones and teeth and for nerve function, while zinc, found in meat, eggs and various nuts, is vital for a healthy immune system. Low iron levels cause extreme tiredness.
Meanwhile, if your levels of vitamin D, found in fortified cereals, are low, your joints will ache, your bones will thin and your risk of diabetes and various cancers are increased.
Low levels of B-vitamins and essential fatty acids — found in nuts, seed oils and oily fish — will leave you feeling tired and with a low mood, common complaints during menopause.
Like having a bank account that is constantly in the red and from which you repeatedly take out more than you put in, over time you’re going to go bust.
Satisfying your body’s nutritional needs, even when you do eat well, becomes like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in the bottom.
So how do you identify the nutritional deficiencies in the first place? The human body is good at telling us what’s going wrong inside it by the symptoms it creates.
Take Alison: her hot flushes and night sweats indicated she was short of magnesium, calcium and vitamin D as well as oestrogen. Her depression, irritability and exhaustion suggested low levels of essential fatty acids and B vitamins. Those split nails, cracks at the corners of her mouth and rough, pimply skin on her arms and legs told me she was deprived of iron, B vitamins and essential fatty acids.
She needed to boost the amounts of isoflavone-rich foods, which contain naturally occurring oestrogens, in her diet, by eating soya-based products and organic flaxseeds. These support and regulate her hormone levels, which were fluctuating due to menopause.
She also needed to reduce the foods that were blocking the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals, such as tea, red wine and sugary snacks.
But in the short-term, as is the case for most people, dietary improvements alone aren’t enough.
To get her nutritional levels up to optimum levels, I recommended some key supplements, which included a high quality vitamin and mineral supplement, red clover, which is isoflavone-rich, and St John’s Wort to help with the symptoms of depression.
‘Six weeks into the programme I felt human again,’ says Alison. ‘I began to look and feel better — my hair started to shine and my skin was glowing, with people telling me how well I looked.
‘It was incredible to feel myself coming back to life. After six months, the night sweats and hot flushes stopped completely and I was sleeping really well.
‘Now, my brain feels sharp and focused again. Best of all I’ve got my energy and enthusiasm for life back — I no longer feel anxious and depressed and my relationship with my husband is back on track.’
Marg Gray, 51, was also suffering with life-ruining symptoms caused by chronic malnutrition.
‘I was having panic attacks in the middle of the night, suffered horrendous migraines, and often my brain felt as though it didn’t really belong to me,’ says Marg.
‘I didn’t feel safe driving long distances and would constantly drift off, losing my train of thought and would completely forget what I’d just been saying. I began to worry that I losing my mind.
‘I was short-tempered with family members and often felt down and tearful, but couldn’t get to the bottom of why I felt that way.
‘The emotional toll was as hard to cope with as all of the horrible physical symptoms.’
Marg, 51, from Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, is the first to admit her diet was poor.
‘I was in self-destruct mode as far as food was concerned,’ she says.
‘When I lost my husband Ian to cancer in 2014 — he was only 55 — I just couldn’t face cooking for a long time afterwards. So I ate out or lived off ready meals that I could just bung in the oven.’
She was comfort eating chocolate and drinking endless cups of tea and coffee.
As a result, excessive sugar consumption was depleting her vitamin and mineral stores while too much caffeine was stoking the fires of her hot flushes and night sweats. She was suffering crippling panic attacks and migraines.
It took just six weeks of good quality, magnesium rich vitamin and mineral supplements, along with a nutrient dense and naturally occurring oestrogen-rich eating plan, to get Marg’s health back on track.
By breaking the cycle of poor eating — making the time to invest in herself and put her body’s needs first — she was able to correct the results of 18 months of neglect.
‘My hot flushes and night sweats have gone completely, and most importantly my brain feels as if it belongs to me again — my thinking is clear,’ she says.
‘Driving doesn’t daunt me. I used to be constantly on edge, but I’m now much more relaxed. It’s incredible to think that my diet was having such a massive impact on my body.’
It’s incredibly rewarding to help women such as Alison and Marg, but also deeply frustrating that the answer to a problem that ruins millions of women’s lives can so easily be resolved, yet too often isn’t.
Think about it: how often have you skipped breakfast, relying on cups of tea, chocolate bars and sweet snacks to keep you going, before grabbing a quick sandwich for lunch?
Mid-afternoon, the coffee and biscuits come out in an attempt to give those flagging energy levels a bit of a boost.
You try to redress the balance that evening with a healthy meal —some lean meat with lots of salad and vegetables to cancel out the junk. Perhaps a glass of red wine, too, because isn’t that good for the heart?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Sugar, so often the go-to ingredient of the perpetually busy, doesn’t contain any nutrients — but it does demand them from the body in order to be metabolised.
The same goes for tea and red wine: both contain tannin, which impedes the absorption of essential nutrients such as iron, calcium, zinc and magnesium, making them less available for use by the body.
I dread to think how many more continue to suffer, robbed of their wellbeing, devastated by their symptoms, yet they remain clueless that many of their problems boil down to basic malnutrition.
Their GPs are quick to write prescriptions for HRT, but due to inadequate understanding of the impact and prevalence of malnutrition, are slow to appreciate the true impact it will have on a woman’s long-term health.
Women put themselves last for such a huge chunk of their lives, but the point where they become malnourished as a result is surely the one where it has to stop.
As far as nutrition is concerned, every woman, from midlife onwards, should be putting herself first, otherwise she faces years of misery and ill health.