“…There’s nothing that I can tell you that you can’t Google. Therefore, I’m going to discharge you.” were some of the last words from the mouth of my NHS Dietician as she handed me a diet sheet about the low FODMAP diet. This is a highly restrictive elimination diet, for which NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) recommends patients are supervised.
To be honest, I might have exasperated her a little with my countless questions. What I hadn’t told her though was that between my first and second consultation (a gap of nearly 6 months), I had started my training in Naturopathic Nutritional Therapy. Looking back now, I see that my dietician was in an impossible position. The NHS use their resources where they are needed most – for life threatening and debilitating conditions. IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), which I was struggling with at that time, is a condition that can be managed with lifestyle, and with so much information at our fingertips, we have the potential to make ourselves feel better.
I’d originally been referred to the Dietician for allergy testing. When the gold standard skin-prick test came back negative on all foods, her work was essentially done and I just had to get used to avoiding an increasing range of foods that seemed to trigger my IBS symptoms.
My diet was pretty unhealthy as a child. I was a fussy eater and vegetarian for great lengths of time but I disliked most fruit and vegetables and loved all things processed, loaded with sugar and fat! Probably my only saving grace was an active lifestyle - playing outdoors, climbing trees and helping my Mum from time to time with her conservation work. However, I was frequently ill and regularly dosed up on anti-inflammatory medication for muscle and joint pain.
During my twenties, the demands of adult life, working hard and playing hard led to me continually ignoring the constant warning signs my body gave out for me to treat it with more care. I had learned how to manage my weight with calorie counting, diet products and for quite a while, avoiding all fat. Despite an impressive collection of health magazines and cookbooks, I really didn’t know how to fuel my body properly.
Everything started to change around 2007 and 2008. In the space of about a year, I lost two close relatives and my Mum had become quite ill. My exciting role in Finance for a fast-growing technology company started to overwhelm me and my health threatened to become a big problem. I refused to take sick leave and would spend my days at work unable to eat anything because of IBS flare ups. Then late in 2008 I started to lose my voice frequently – with one particularly bad bout of laryngitis and sinusitis I was eventually told to work from home until my voice returned… 12 days later.
I carried on like this until I had my first daughter in 2010 and then my second in 2012. My resistance to all the bugs that come with children was so low that I would often need antibiotics. At the time I hadn’t linked my poor immunity with my digestive issues.
Then two events set me off on a quest to really focus on what was going on with my health. The first one was an appointment with my GP which left me dumbfounded when I came away with a prescription to improve my sleep which was disturbed by IBS symptoms at night. It was only when I collected the prescription that I realised it was for antidepressants. There had to be a better way to support my health without medication! As it was, I could no longer tolerate many medications due to my weakened digestive system.
The second ‘light bulb’ moment was when I read an article about food intolerances. It suggested that we may often have cravings for the foods we are intolerant to due to a complex attempt by our bodies to maintain balance. This one idea set me off on a little research project – could I be lactose intolerant? I found an inexpensive private test that could be done locally. According to this particular test, I was intolerant to milk, soy, eggs and a type of preservative found in factory made bread. But avoiding all those things didn’t solve my problem and I went back to the doctor to get my Allergy Clinic referral.
Whilst I followed the advice of my dietician, I was also considering whether I really wanted to go back to my previous career. Finance can be a great choice for returning-to-work parents but my particular role didn’t really make for a good work-life balance with small children.
Plus, I recognised that something was missing since my close-knit small technology company had become more corporate – I missed having time to connect with members of my team and being there for them through their difficult times. I needed to feel that I could make a difference to people’s lives and to help them feel better.
Over the years I noticed the way in which whole, natural foods made me feel great and how processed and less healthy foods seemed to be linked to my symptoms. I had become a health geek– reading everything I found about nutrition and the body. I also really enjoyed going to food shows, and I knew that I wanted to immerse myself in this world.
So, after a great deal of consideration I made the decision to turn away from the more secure prospect of returning to finance, to retrain as a naturopathic nutritional therapist at the College of Naturopathic Medicine. It meant at least another three years not only without an income, but with the cost of the course fees, and all the expenses of travelling in and out of London for my lectures. It also meant three years of missing numerous weekends with my children, organising people to help when my children both went off to different parties at the same time, and even spending days in college for birthdays and Mother’s Day.
But during those three years, despite the intensity of the exams, assignments, long days, studying and revising through illness, almost exhaustion at times, I was in my element. I love learning and with health and nutrition there is so much to learn. There are also new developments to keep on top of all the time. And I found my tribe – a like-minded group of friends, all passionate about health and helping people. We found a common purpose and supported each other throughout all of our studies. We continue to support each other to this day.
Following qualification, I started setting up my practice in January 2019. It’s a simple model so far, I focus on seeing private clients one to one for nutritional therapy sessions. It’s important for me during these initial years to build up experience – each client is unique and with each consultation I build up more material that I can reuse in the future. Longer term I do have other directions I want to take the business in, for example corporate wellbeing, but I realised quickly the need to build strong foundations first and the rest can follow later.
My clients come to see me for a variety of health issues and goals for at least two consultations. I love learning about each client – they all have interesting stories to tell and the underlying causes behind their symptoms can be multi-faceted. My specialist area is Digestive Health which covers a large range of conditions. Often symptoms that occur elsewhere in the body can relate to problems rooted in the gut. It often amazes my clients how much better they can feel simply by supporting their digestion. Another area I am looking to specialise in is joint health with a focus on hypermobility. The musculoskeletal system is dependent on good nutrition which in turn requires good digestion and absorption. Everything in the body is interconnected!
During my training, my preparation for setting up clinic involved a single lecture and covered many of the practical and compulsory aspects to practicing. I came out of college naively believing that if I just ticked the list of all those steps, all those clients that were out there waiting for the answer to their problems would simply find me and get booked in to see me. Boy was I wrong!
With a finance background, including an Advanced Diploma in Management Accounting, I’d been trained in all aspects of setting up a business so this was going to be child’s play, wasn’t it? I had no idea about digital marketing, social media, how to network, branding, design, and all manner of other skills we all need as entrepreneurs. Embarrassingly too, I worked for a technology company for 5 years yet I am completely clueless about many aspects of technology, but I am learning and investing in other people’s skills.
I’ve learned the hard way that many people don’t really understand what nutritional therapists do. It’s always interesting when people meet me for the first time, their assumptions can be far from the reality! Many aren’t sure what the difference is between a health coach and a nutritional therapist. Some think I’m just going to make them feel incredibly guilty about all their food choices like a modern-day Gillian McKeith! I’ve had to work on how I describe my profession, and the language I use to describe the problems I help to solve for my clients. I talk about the pain points I solve and about the small, manageable, sustainable changes they can make to their lifestyle. I also make it clear that it’s a collaborative, personalised process and the client makes changes at their pace in the order that they choose. This puts people at ease because they then understand that it’s not a rigid, prescriptive plan that is imposed on them and how much progress they make is not a matter of passing or failing.
Networking and connection with people from all professions has been invaluable to me. To spend time amongst people and to support each other is so important when you otherwise work alone. Through networks I have learned new skills, filled some gaps by meeting people who offer services I need and I have learned to be comfortable meeting new people. I never thought when I stood up to read my first minute that within months I would be delivering talks to rooms of people without getting the jitters!
Looking forward to the next year, I hope that my message will start to reach more of the people who need to hear it. That if they are able to invest in their health by seeing a nutritional therapist, they can make manageable and sustainable changes that can help to change the course of their health in the future to one that comes with more ease, quality of life and freedom to enjoy it.
As health practitioners, we all have services to offer that people desperately need so they can find better solutions than pills and avoidable medical procedures. It can be challenging to reach those people and to help them see that there is a better alternative but I am hopeful that the tide is turning and that together we can help to give people a better future.
For more information about Victoria Bell, visit www.victoriabellnutrition.co.uk or follow her on Facebook and Instagram @victoriabellnutrition.