I am a Highly Sensitive/neuro-diverse mother to three wonderful, sensitive children. Having spent much of my life ashamed of my sensitivities and often in a state of overwhelm and disconnection I have more recently learned to love my quirks and find calm through my lifelong love of cooking and working with my senses.
However, it was only when I had my first child, 12 years ago, that I realised he was a “Highly Sensitive Person”.
What is a “Highly Sensitive Person”?
I could tell he struggled with processing his senses, finding noises startling, bright lights overwhelming, textures of clothes something of comfort or complete revolution…. so I began to look into it more, working with nutritional therapists (such as my good friend Jo Saunders from Naturedoc – who has helped provide much of the nutritional content here), chiropractors and more “alternative” therapists to help find ways to create calmer and empowerment during times he might be struggling and I soon realised it was helping me too…
15-20% of the population are Highly Sensitive People
Why am I talking about Highly Sensitive People? Because it’s estimated that 15-20% of the population are Highly Sensitive People and it can often go hand in hand with Dyslexia, ADHD, Austim and other Neurodiverse categories. Highly Sensitive People (or HSPs) are people who have a heightened nervous system. They can react with deeper emotional and behavioural responses, become overwhelmed easily, get rattled when there are too many demands on them and may often need to withdraw to quieter environments to self-regulate. They also often have a rich and complex inner life, can be hugely empathetic and conscientious (for more information I strongly recommend looking here). It can be a wonderful trait (it’s a trait, not a disorder) and often runs strongly through families. However, it can be a hard one to carry throughout life, especially if unaware of it, as we seem to live in a world where you need sharp elbows and steely grit to succeed, where sensitivity can often be mistaken as a weakness.
Through the research I have done over the years I have created what I call my “maintenance” or “toolbox” that focuses on the key areas of nutrition and wellness that can help give you more a sense of empowerment during times of need.
What foods should HSP eat?
As cliched as it might sound you simply want to be aiming to have a full, varied diet, rich in an array of whole foods…(in fact recent research suggests we ideally want to be eating 30 different types of fruit/ veg each week, please see Tim Spectre’s latest work on gut health. Eating a whole diet can feel like a bit of a conscious lifestyle change that can be very daunting, especially if you are not very familiar with the foundations of eating well. Below are the key areas worth focusing on with plenty of easy recipes to help you along the way.
Protein helps to stabilise blood sugar and mood provides the building blocks in the form of amino acids needed to create neurotransmitters (our brain chemical messengers). Complete proteins are found in animal products (eggs, meat, fish, dairy etc) as well as plant-based ones such as quinoa, buckwheat, etc but you can also mix plant-based proteins together to create complete proteins ie nut butters with wholegrain crackers, etc. I love these nutty snack bars for a quick protein hit after school.
Healthy fats such as Omega 3, found in oily fish and eggs have anti-inflammatory benefits. Grass-fed butter is rich in butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that provides a key food source for colon cells and supports the diversity in our gut.
Complex carbohydrates provide a source of fibre to provide fuel to our gut bacteria and also help to keep blood sugar levels and mood balanced by prompting our brain to produce the feel-good hormone, serotonin. Sources of complex carbohydrates include whole grains such as brown basmati rice and starchy carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes. Something as simple as this dish can bring all of these 3 macronutrients together: salmon with thyme and honey.
Vitamins for HSP
Vitamin C – is depleted by overworked adrenal glands (the glands that secrete our stress hormones such as adrenaline). Ensure plenty of citrus fruits (and seasonal vegetables like rhubarb and leafy greens.
Vitamin D – this is mainly found in the Sun. So whilst it’s good for us to protect our children’s skin during the summer months it’s also good to remember to let them be exposed to some sun to help top up these levels. It can also be found in small amounts in oily fish, eggs & mushrooms but you may need to supplement, particularly in the winter months. This vitamin can really help to stabilise mood.
Supporting the microbiome/gut brain axis with a wide variety of different coloured vegetables and fibre particularly pre and probiotics foods (more on this below) helps create a healthy gut/brain axis and productions of neurotransmitters. These foods include oats, asparagus, garlic, onions, chicory.
Encouraging probiotic-rich foods – this is slightly easier said than done with children (not many of them like sauerkraut!) but a little yoghurt (or even better kefir yoghurt) or trying kombucha in the summer sun you might just get away with… Other foods include good quality sourdough (which has the benefit of being high in fibre) as well as trying swapping salt for miso paste in some recipes (I love using traditional-japanese miso) – it adds a great depth of flavour to things like risottos, stews and sauces.
Foods to boost brain health
The nervous system controls the body’s organs and plays a role in nearly all bodily functions.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the body. Their role is to transmit signals from nerve cells to target cells. Neurotransmitters form an important part of the nervous system – they regulate many necessary functions such as sleep cycles, digestion, mood, concentration and appetite.
The main inhibitory neurotransmitter is GABA which is wonderful at creating a sense of calm and reducing the impact of anxiety and psychological stress. Foods containing Glutamic Acid help to promote the production of GABA, these include tofu, tempeh, fermented yogurt & kefir, citrus fruits, walnuts & almonds, spinach, broccoli, sweet potatoes, lentil, beans, brown rice, shrimps & halibut.
Recipes for HSP
My lentil shepherd’s pie contains many of these ingredients. Also certain probiotic strains, Lactobacillus & Bifidobacterium, are able to produce GABA – found in things like Kefir and Kombucha (I run cookery classes from home teaching you how to make these yourself
Also by eating foods rich in tryptophan (such as turkey, oats, cottage cheese and peanut butter) alongside carbohydrates you can help create serotonin – the neurotransmitter involved in many processes from regulating mood, promoting positive feelings, regulating sleep cycles, supporting learning and memory to promoting digestion.
Again probiotics in the diet from a variety of fermented foods may also help to increase tryptophan in your blood, helping it to reach the brain and be converted to ‘happy hormone’ serotonin. Spending time outside is also key to supporting serotonin levels (at least 10 to 15 minutes, ideally in the first part of the day.
I don’t believe you should totally restrict sugar from children’s diets, as I don’t think it’s realistic (and they will often end up gravitating to it more in the end) but I do know that sugar is one thing that can get quite out of control if you aren’t careful. Keeping an eye on your limits and making sure it doesn’t go too crazy during holiday times and during parties/ celebrations will be doing them a favour in the long run. Consuming sugar impacts the immune system and if you are someone that is in a constant state of alert/ fight or flight or overwhelm, this can just antagonise it further. Also although all sugar (refined or not) creates the same reaction in the body some literally rob the body of nutrients (white sugars for example) whereas sweetness from say, honey, will at least have its own benefits that can add rather than take from the body so it can be something to be mindful of when baking and cooking at home.
Having a calm home environment can really help children that have heightened senses and obviously, that can be difficult if you have more than one child, so creating quiet zones for them to be able to go can really help. If you have the space having somewhere they might be able to swing or have sensory input can be really useful too (depending on your child’s needs). If you do live in a noisy environment or know that noises in certain places can be a trigger (such as hand dryers in toilets or going to the cinema) using loop earplugs can be really useful to help reduce sound levels and make them feel more manageable.
Working with others
Given that being a HSP is all based around the central nervous system, to me, it has always made sense for us to see a chiropractor regularly, as I feel we are more likely to fall into nervous system dysregulation, however, there are plenty of wonderful treatments that are wonderful for the nervous system.
Sacral Cranial Therapy can be a wonderful way to induce calm as can other therapies including touch, such as Body Brushing – which works on a combination of tactile skin stimulation and physical exercises, and is designed to mature the central nervous system by inhibiting retained primitive reflexes and allowing adult responses to come to the fore.
I have found learning more about the nervous system very helpful – through wonderful books by Deb Danna.
Want to find out more?
You can come and join me on any of my cooking courses which I run from my home in Hampshire. They all have a deep focus on healthy eating – especially around gut and brain health, some focused on how to master delicious sourdough and fermented foods, as well as other workshops I host such as Crystal Sound Baths, focused on nervous system support and women’s health and fertility. Find out more at Little Plough Kitchen.com.
Article by Georgie Soskin founder of Little Plough Kitchen.