Autism South West 2017 and A Shameful Tale

Yesterday I got to speak about “Sugar, Stress and the Spectrum” at the Autism South West conference. Specifically I was building on Dr. Luke Beardon’s excellent equation: 

Autism + Environment = Outcome

to explain how internal stressors (internal environment,) such as high or erratic cortisol levels, change the outcome for any autistic person. 

Let me explain. Now it’s pretty well known that being in a supermarket (an external environment stressor) is highly stressful for autistic people (maybe for you too, but definitely if you are autistic.) When somebody is stressed their adrenals ramp up production of the hormone cortisol which raises blood sugar levels in order to deal with threats. (If you have to run away from a lion – you need glucose in your bloodstream to fuel that race for your life.) But unfortunately your body doesn’t distinguish between real or perceived threats. It just acts without question. 

What else happens when your cortisol is raised? Here’s one of my slides:

Now, think how difficult navigating a simple supermarket shop might be when your brain is affected like that… (This is why my shopping gets done online!) Imagine living in a world where a great deal of your environment causes the outcome of reduced abilities to remember, to regulate your mood and behaviour, to organise yourself and make good judgements?

Next in my talk we discussed how consuming excess carbohydrates quickly raises blood sugar levels, causing the body to employ insulin in order to reduce potentially dangerous levels. And then, because your body likes balance, it fires up our friend cortisol again, because low blood sugar is also a threat! The low blood sugar is an internal environment stressor. 

As far as autistic anxiety is concerned: being hunted by a lion = going to the supermarket = low blood sugar!

Anyway, we covered some other useful stuff too but, in the interest of brevity, that’s probably enough for you to understand my shameful behaviour yesterday evening. Shameful because I am a nutrition and health coach. Please don’t judge…

So the conference was fab! Well organised and with brilliant key-note speeches (Sarah Hendrickx and Dean Beadle) that made me both laugh and cry. But, you know, a conference is still a difficult environment for an autistic to navigate. And so my cortisol levels were pretty high…

Now I knew I had a fridge full of delicious and nutritious organic veg and meat at home. I could have rustled something nourishing up in 30 minutes flat. But my memory and good judgement failed me and I demanded we stop off at tesco for ready made pizza (the shame.) And I looked at those huge, insipid, crappy pizzas and could not for the life of me work out how many we’d need and which types we, as a family, would like. My husband found me crying in the chilled aisle and took over. At which point I wandered off and filled the basket with packets of biscuits. I had acted out my own talk perfectly! My high cortisol response had perfectly reflected my slide’s bulletpoints! Oh the irony…

A few things:

  1. If you’d like me to come and talk about diet and autism please contact me here. (Rest assured that I will prepare my evening meal in advance for future talks.)
  2. I didn’t actually eat the biscuits. I was asleep soon after the pizza!
  3. I’m not really ashamed of my choices yesterday. I’ve learned not to blame myself in those situations and am taking care to rest my adrenals today.  
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Club Glucose and Club Fructose. A Cautionary Tale.

Refined sugar is exceptionally bad for your health. It messes up your energy levels, your mood, your skin, your weight and, as if that wasn’t enough, it biologically ages you. But how does something so sweet and lovely cause such a decline in health? Gather round and make yourself comfortable children, because I’d like to tell you a story…

Friday Night

It’s been a great night at the hottest new joint in town, Club Glucose. The music has been pumping and the alcohol has been flowing freely. There’s been dancing and laughing and flirting and all kinds of fun stuff. But as the bar tender calls time and the lights go on Artery Street is quickly filled with happy, drunken Glucose party-goers. These folks know how to have a good time and they’re darned if they’re going to stop now. They’re running around in front of cars, flashing their knickers and making a whole load of noise. Luckily, Sgt Insulin, one of the local police station’s finest, is adept at calmly rounding up rowdy individuals and getting them home quickly and calmly. Within a few hours everyone is tucked up in bed, sleeping soundly, and they’ll all be ready to face the next day rested and with a few good stories to tell.

Saturday night

Club Glucose was heaving last night due to an increased door count. The bar sold out and the crowd was lively. When Sgt Insulin got the call at closing time he was not impressed at the thought of a second night hauling inebriated Glucose clubbers back to their family homes. In fact, due to the increase in numbers he wasn’t able to deal with them all.

To make matters worse, Club Fructose – the exclusive club for those who feel themselves above the pull of Club Glucose – has recently opened. The clientele of Club Fructose have such high connections that they do not have to answer to Sgt Insulin and so will not be escorted home in an orderly fashion.

Those left outside from both clubs started to vandalise the local shops up and down Artery Street, and so a vehicle was sent to cart them off to the F.A.T. cells where they will all stay until released on bail.

Sunday night

For the third night in a row Club Glucose and Club Fructose kick out their drunken clubbers. For the third night in a row the Glucose posse flood Artery St, running around in front of cars, flashing their knickers and making a whole load of noise while the Fructose lot score expensive drugs which they feel are offset by their charity work.

Poor Sgt Insulin takes the call to please round the Glucose hooligans up and get them to their cellular homes as quickly as possible. He’s really tired now. He gets some of them home and some, like their friends yesterday, are left staggering around up and down Artery Street ready for the F.A.T squad to come pick them up.

To make matters worse, some of the families of our Club Glucose clubbers have had enough of this rowdy behaviour. They bolt their doors and refuse to let Sgt Insulin escort them inside. There are now crazy numbers of the Glucose crowd running around and causing total havoc. As only large groups of drunkards can they vandalise not just Artery Street but the entire neighbourhood, smashing shop windows, urinating in alleyways and knocking down walls. As time goes on, and both clubs have their licenses renewed for seven days a week the local communities begin to suffer.

The local council does, however, have an emergency contractor who will very cheaply and effectively smooth over the worst of the damage to the buildings with a homemade soft and oily substance that hardens over time. This magic stuff is called Cholesterol. The only problem is that the more damage that is caused by the influence of Glucose, the more layers the cholesterol contractor  will need to keep applying. And with increased layers the neighbourhood begins to resemble a ghetto, something akin to Gotham City.

I could go on. But I won’t, because I think my use of metaphor is just going to get more confusing. But do you see where I’m going with this? I’ll break it down for you – a very basic guide to what happens to sugar once it get’s absorbed into your bloodstream:

  • Insulin is the hormone that lets glucose into cells to provide energy.
  • If there’s too much glucose (or fructose, which doesn’t stimulate an insulin response) for immediate use it gets stored in the fat cells for future use.
  • Too much circulating glucose causes damage (both internal and external) to the body.
  • Continued high levels of blood glucose cause the insulin response to switch off. This is known as insulin resistance, and is the state of being pre-diabetic.
  • Cholesterol is produced by the body to repair the damage caused by high levels of sugar.

I don’t know about you but I like stories that end well. So, here is my final chapter – I hope you like it too!

Epilogue

The local authorities persuade Club Glucose and even Club Fructose to limit their entries on the door, and even to close for a few days a week. Meanwhile a new cleaning contractor is called in, a highly recommended clean-up crew with buckets of saturated fat and Omega 3s to wash down the walls and sluice the streets. The cholesterol contractor returns to his preferred job, that of doing basic home maintenance. Both Glucose and Fructose party-goers are inspired to once again become useful members of society, with just the occasional party night at which to let their hair down and so, once our friend Sgt Insulin is able to catch up on his sleep, he is a happy man patrolling the streets once more.

-The End-

How Flojo got her Mojo back.

I have had an on-off relationship with depression for twenty five years now. It’s clutches have all but consumed me at quite random times; sometimes during periods of great stress, sometimes surprising me like a horror movie just when things have been settled and calm. But this last bout has been my most complicated yet, treading water for over eighteen months, smiling and waving on the surface but often feeling my legs weighted by bricks towards the colder depths. Everything else was fine, a fantastic supportive husband, a loving family, relatively financially secure, good health, ok a fortieth birthday to deal with but no biggies. But social anxiety was taking me over 24/7.

A bit of background. I have struggled with groups of people for most of my life. Never fitted in with my age group at school, never understood the subtle nuances within friendship groups. Arguments, even minor disagreements confused me; if someone didn’t believe the same as me how could I trust that they believe in me? In pubs I’ve never been able to distinguish between a conversation next to me or one at the other end of the table. My concentration flits between the two and I lose both the thread and the flavour. Those pictures of varying facial expressions portraying different emotions used in diagnosis of the autistic spectrum? I tried that and my score was low, very low. Phone calls were almost impossible as a disembodied voice going directly into my ear with no back-up clues of body language teamed with the inability to filter out someone’s words with visual distraction cause me frequent distress. I have also discovered recently that I have various dyslexic issues – words refusing to stay still on a page, an inability to remember sequences of numbers, letters or instructions; left and rights were the least of my problems. Even worse, I never realised that these were not universal problems for everyone. That in itself was pretty isolating.

In my teens I learnt the unparalleled joy of playing in orchestras and this, I feel, was life changing. Planned, organised conversation. Such bliss. Everyone working towards the same end melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. Sat centrally in the viola section all the combined sounds made sense. There were written instructions and time honoured rules (follow the conductor, look to section leaders for clear visual clues, blend your sound with others) to be followed that still allowed for creativity, for interpretation, for intellect and emotional stimulation. Music gave me the confidence to make eye contact, to initiate conversations, to follow a joke through. It also provided an environment in which to meet crazy, creative, clever, witty and passionate people. I was less of a square peg.

Fast forward to a year or so ago and I have an awesome husband who loves me with my freakiness rather than despite of it. In fact, I fell in love with him when I realised he was the only person I had ever allowed myself to “be me” with. I have two loving, talented, creative, beautiful and confident daughters. I have no shared musical experiences any longer for various and complicated reasons but I still have the learned skills to appear confident, sometimes to even be confident in situations that require it. It’s not a matter of no longer being shy, it’s knowing that transactions go better between strangers when I am open and friendly. But, within a group of people that I know, and even like, I still do not fit in. Judging when to speak and when to shut up, who to look at when more than one conversation is happening, when to move around and risk crashing into something like an elephant or just sit tight and risk boring the person I’m sat next to – all of this is stressful.

I cannot even relax with drink (I do not like the feeling of being drunk, I feel too vulnerable). I compensate with stuffing my face with sugar and stodge. I joke about being qualified as a nutritional therapist with no discipline around chocolate. I develop increasing anxiety about social situations as basic as the school run (what to wear, where to stand, how to stand?). I make plans then cry off (instead spending the evening crying bitterly at my failure). If I do go out the pressure of ignoring that urge to bolt, to shut doors behind me and run is exhausting and I cannot focus. Friends are oblivious, how can I explain that I just want to be loved, respected, listened to when I know I will not trust any of their attempts at assurances. Those that do not seem scared off I become overly dependant on. Needy. Clingy. My self respect becomes non-existent. I cannot work out what particular flaw makes me not good enough. Am I too boring? Too intense? Too loud? Do I look so bad people don’t want to even look at me? Am I too embarrassing to be seen out with? Have I made the stupid mistake of not apologising enough or not being grateful enough? Did I say something stupid yet again? Exhausted by the inner dialogue I spend hours daily bawling my eyes out, curled into a ball on the sofa. I make the decision to stop contacting anyone so that I do not have to do with the inevitable paranoia that follows when they do not contact me back. I guess I burned too many bridges because I no longer heard from too many people for it to be a coincidence.

I make a doctors appointment, cry, refuse drugs but accept tissues and a referral for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. But do not take it further. Group therapy? Really? I read up on CBT and laugh bitterly when I catch myself noting that while it might make me worry less it won’t actually make people like me. But it gives me perspective. And I read more.

I note that I do actually have a couple of very good friends that I am always comfortable with. They never judge. Always kind. Accepting of my nervous energy and my humour. They are two of the kindest, most creative and most enthusiastic people I have ever met. I always feel better for having seen them although these occasions are few and far between. They see through my often brutal directness and teasing without taking offence and instead talk art, music, health and personal philosophies with me. There is no competitiveness. No awkwardness. And I never have the sense of not understanding the rules when I talk with them. I never feel like I should constantly apologise for stepping over some invisible line. We just talk, listen, interrupt, laugh. Maybe it’s not just that I am an unworthy friend. Maybe I was just trying to be friends with the wrong people.

I finally realise that I know full well the answer to my anxiety and sleepless nights. Pure laziness has stopped me from sorting it out. I remove sugar from my diet. Then grains. I no longer binge eat. I sleep soundly. I stop crying. I do not have to replace eye make up and drag on a uniform of cheeriness and normality before my family return home each day. If the concept of grain and sugar intake influencing mental health is a new one to you I’d really recommend researching it. I knew it in theory, but had forgotten to apply it to myself.

And, over the following weeks, with the clarity that comes with not living daily with anxiety or brain fog I realise that I no longer crave friendship-at-whatever-cost any more than I still crave a tray of hot brownies. Being part of a close-knit gang that have been together since school; having friends that will show up at your house, stick the kettle on and curl up on the sofa with you; trusting others enough to get drunk with them, get into blazing arguments and then proclaim undying love for each other; clothes shopping together, spending an evening sharing wine and secrets; going on holiday together: all those things that make a sit-com, a movie scene, a paragraph in a rom-com novel – they are someone else’s reality. I cannot keep wishing for what isn’t going to happen. Move on. Wise up. Appreciate the thousands of fabulous moments I already have and will continue to have. As my husband quotes regularly, “take pleasure in the details.” I have, and am, so much more than the things I don’t have.

And, as this realisation begins to hammer home, I notice how my energy levels continue to increase, and I rediscover my love of cooking, and I lose weight, and I remember that I actually like to exercise, and time with my family grows increasingly precious. I get that spring back in my step, I care less about what others think of me because it’s largely irrelevant, and I care more about what I think of me. I recall that I was once taught that, “not being the person you are meant to be is the biggest stress of all,” and make the belated connection that if I was trying to be someone else – no wonder I was stressed!

I’m not sure where I go from here. In the last six weeks I feel like I’ve turned several corners. Insight is a marvellous thing! I’m not totally sure who exactly I am, but maybe not everyone does know that, and I guess experience makes us change anyway. The point is that I know now that I’m good enough and that I’m looking forward to whatever the future brings. And I’m truly grateful to the family, friends and experiences that have got me to that level. And, much though I want to apologise in case you’ve read this and wish you hadn’t bothered because what a drama queen! I’m not going to. But I would like to thank you for reading to the end. Much love to you from me, Flojo xxx

A Baked Lemon Cheesecake

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Apologies first – I’ve been MIA for weeks. My brain got stuck and I couldn’t remember how to make words come out in the proper order. I think I’ve got a handle on things again though and, if nothing else, I’m so proud of this culinary creation that I really wanted to share it with you. I hope you’ll give it a go, it’s very easy. And you are more than welcome to make it in a springform tin before serving it up on a pretty plate – I just know that I’d make a mess if I tried it. I’ve learned to embrace my rustic presentation…

Firstly, stick the oven on at 170C and then blitz 200g almonds, 120 g butter, 100g ground flaxseed and a bit of stevia if you like. Squidge the mixture into your tin and bake for 20 minutes. Then let it cool for a bit.

In a large mixing bowl beat a couple of eggs with the zest of two lemons and granulated stevia equivalent to 150g sugar. Then beat in 600g cream cheese the juice of one lemon and a couple of tablespoons of double cream.

Spoon your cream cheese mixture onto your base and bake for 40 minutes. Let it cool while you go and sit in the sunshine with a nice cup of tea. When you can’t bear waiting any longer sprinkle your cheesecake with fresh berries. Instagram it, tag me and try not to get it down your front.