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  • Writer's pictureAlison Cowell

Running on empty?

In the 1970s my husband Steve had a car that he absolutely cherished. It was a beautiful Daimler, and it was his pride and joy. He would spend every waking second polishing it, cleaning it, and ensuring the engine was in tip top shape. One day our very good friend Trevor asked if he could borrow it because it was his 10th wedding anniversary and he wanted to take his wife on a comfortable trip to the South West coast, a 4-hour drive away. After much reluctance (and a lot of persuasion from me) Steve finally agreed.

Long story short, half-way through his journey, unfortunately Trevor put diesel in the tank instead of petrol!

After Steve picked himself off the floor and found his voice again, he asked Trevor why he hadn’t noticed his mistake before the car ground to a halt. Trevor admitted that he thought the car ‘didn’t feel right’ but hadn’t associated the change in performance with the filling up of the fuel. He said he’d noticed an increased sluggishness and decided he would stop at the next garage to have an assessment. However, as the journey continued, the performance of the car deteriorated quite dramatically - with lights coming on the dashboard, smoke billowing under the bonnet until a defiant shuddering STOP – long before a garage appeared in sight.

Just as a car breaking down gives us all the clues it needs attention, our bodies also quickly let us know when things are not working efficiently. OK, we might not exude smoke and blow up, but some of us do shudder to a halt! If any of you have experienced Chronic Fatigue, you’ll know what I mean. That feeling of being so utterly weak …’s just awful. I can recall a time I was in such a low state that the thought of lifting my arm to scratch the itch on my head was too overwhelming; when the effort of speaking was too demanding. Little did I know then that I had developed an intolerance to eggs, tomatoes and mushrooms – not ideal for a vegetarian! I also discovered, during my studies, that I had an issue with a group of foods known as FODMAPs – they include apples and broccoli which I ate in abundance. All perfectly healthy foods but for me, they were diesel in my petrol tank.

When I think back, the signs were all there, but I wasn’t paying attention, or rather I wasn’t appreciating the significance.

Today, as always, the brain lets us know when our nutritional bank is running low on supplies. Take magnesium for example. If you are lacking in this mineral, the brain gives you an early clue - and you notice it. It’s that pesky old twitchy eye muscle! There, the brain has done its job. It sent out the signal and you sit with your flickering eye. Do you rush off to get some magnesium-rich food? No! You might enjoy the sensation (hey, some people do!), or ask your friends if they can see it, maybe even have a bit of a laugh about it, but increasing your magnesium intake isn’t even in your thoughts. Hmmm….so the brain has to up the ante. Ok then, how about some cramps in your legs and feet? There, that ought to do it. Nope. You run around slapping your legs (winking away) but still no magnesium. Alright, time for some serious intervention… you’re getting headaches, in fact, the brain has decided you need a migraine as you have ignored all the other signs. Finally, you are heading to the chemist. For a magnesium supplement? No - for pain killers! Oh dear. Well, how about you have some constipation then? Surely now that you have four clear signs of magnesium deficiency you will get the message? Hooray – at last you are heading back to the chemist………but not for magnesium, you get some laxatives. Aaaggghh!

Now it might not seem the end of the world to be spending your days winking at folk, slapping your leg and living on painkillers and laxatives but…..and it’s a big but….if you are ignoring those early signs of magnesium deficiency, you are now more vulnerable to developing conditions associated with magnesium deficiency, including heart disease. All your muscles need magnesium to function efficiently, and there is no more precious muscle than your heart. You are lacking in magnesium, and have been for some time, so the heart could be next to succumb. Or maybe you will become depressed. Magnesium helps with the balance of dopamine (neurotransmitter connected with mood, anxiety and behaviour) levels.

So, think for a moment, what is your body trying to tell you?

Here are some clues if you’re running low in certain nutrients:

· Zinc: acne, forgetfulness, low libido, poor immunity

· Vitamin D: bone and joint pain, lethargy, migraines

· Vitamin E: muscle pain and weakness, visual disturbances

· Iron: fatigue, headaches, shortness of breath

· Vitamin B12: low energy, pins and needles, low mood

If you want to be sure, your doctor should be able to test for common elements such as B12 and iron. Otherwise, there are many companies offering mineral and vitamin testing on-line.

Remember – prevention is better than cure!

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