Food Choices Can Strengthen Body, Mind, and Spirit at Any Stage of Illness

By Ruth Westreich 

I believe you are what you eat, and that food is medicine. I have been deeply involved in the natural health and nutritional science movement for many years. 

I also believe that anyone at any age, including people with serious illness, can benefit from organic, mostly plant-based food. There seems to be a prevailing protocol that once a person with chronic disease is in the hands of a palliative care or hospice team, they should eat whatever they want.

I have been a long-time supporter of the CSU Shiley Institute for Palliative Care and I deeply believe in their mission of providing evidence-based education for practitioners and caregivers in palliative care and hospice care. Palliative care being a relatively new field, we are learning so much about this supportive caregiving when a cure is not attainable. Creating optimal quality of life at every stage becomes the goal. 

As we gain more understanding of the importance of a personalized medical approach to caring for people with serious illnesses, we know that every patient is an individual and their needs will be different. I was the only caregiver for my mother, who suffered poor health her entire life. Her poor health was exacerbated by a chronic cardiac condition, cancer, stroke, and congestive heart failure, yet she enjoyed a long life. I like to say she was like the Energizer Bunny – she kept on ticking.

Looking back, my mother’s longevity, I believe, was due to my being her medical advocate, along with decades of proper nutrition and exercise. My individualized approach to her care wasn’t always met with enthusiasm, but she enjoyed a quality of life, and added many years to her life, she would not have had otherwise. She passed away at 83.

Nutritional Support to Manage Symptoms and Build Resiliency

I now care for my 83-year-old husband using the same individualized nutritional support. He enjoys a daily quality of life I do not believe he would have otherwise. He often says, “If I am not married to Ruth, I wouldn’t be here.” He has a history of heart disease (his mother died at 51 of a heart attack) and he has overcome malignant throat cancer, two atrial valve replacements, as well as many other health conditions. What is astounding is that he is entirely pain free and has a wonderful glass-half-full attitude.

Research supports that good nutrition is the cornerstone of health. I believe that many of the co-morbid illnesses we see in our population today may have the underlying commonality of chronic inflammation. This condition compromises our immune system and leads to a cascade of health events that eventually can lead to death. Proper nutrition has the ability to lower chronic inflammation.

When someone in the family is suffering with a debilitating chronic condition that requires palliative or hospice care, the entire family suffers as well. Many sacrifices are made, especially by primary caregivers – sometimes at the expense of their own mental and physical health. Proper nutritional support for everyone, including caregivers, during those exhaustive times is critical. 

When I first came to Jennifer Ballentine, the Executive Director of the CSU Shiley Institute for Palliative Care, with the idea that proper nutritional support was critical at every stage of life, she told me that there wasn’t much in the areas of nutritional education for palliative and hospice providers.

Since then, we have seen a trend incorporating a Food as Medicine approach in the continuum of care for all patients, including those receiving palliative and hospice services. 

I believe this new Food Is Medicine curriculum will enable caregivers and practitioners to have another important tool in their care toolbox as they care for their loved ones, patients, and themselves.

Ruth Westreich is President of The Westreich Foundation, which generously supports personalized lifestyle, integrative, functional, palliative, and natural medicine approaches to healthcare and creative arts programs as part of whole person healing – body, mind and spirit.