BePure’s Real Read series is here to inspire, shining a light on people in our community who have transformed their wellness - mentally and physically. We know that wellness is never a result of one thing, but what we do know is that it does take a level of focus, intent and ongoing action. So, we’re sharing their stories in the hope it will create a beautiful ripple that inspires more people, or perhaps get us to take a look at how we can transform our own wellness and lives.
In this week’s Real Read, we sat down with Fiona Sing to learn how she manages stress and what her approach to wellness is, for everyday and when the stakes are high.
Working as a public health researcher at a well-known University, Fiona’s weekdays see her focusing on the herculean task of reducing diet-related diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. So, naturally, she knows a lot when it comes to the prevention and management of disease. Like many who end up working in this field, it was a personal health journey that led Fiona to this line of work.
Fiona’s first career was quite different and it was while working as a litigation lawyer from 2009-12 in Wellington where Fiona started to experience some debilitating symptoms. After extensive testing including an MRI, she didn’t have a conclusive diagnosis until she moved to London and experienced more of the same symptoms. It was here she found that what she was experiencing was a Multiple Sclerosis flare-up, which served as her first semi-diagnosis of the degenerative disease in February 2013.
“With MS, you can’t receive a diagnosis until you’ve had multiple relapses so I had to wait for another one for it to be official. I was actually quite happy and relieved once that happened because I could finally be in the system and finally start being taken care of.”
Multiple Sclerosis is a disease of the nervous system that disrupts communication between the brain and body. Its cause is unknown but it is believed that both genetic and environmental factors can contribute to the risk of developing it. Women are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed than men.
Living far from home and with no close family nearby, Fiona was prompted to reassess her lifestyle in an effort to protect her body and her mind as much as possible, by putting her health and her wellness first. “It totally flipped everything upside down for me and changed my priorities. I had to become seriously educated about health and the impact lifestyle factors like diet have on disease. I almost wish everyone could have this moment - because MS has given me more than it's taken away.”
In addition to her work as a public health researcher, Fiona was invited to do a PhD in 2019 which she considers to be a worthy feat but also her biggest stress. “I sometimes totally overdo it in my work and personal life, just like the next person.”
She holds the belief that life is all about balance and while she pays special attention to her stress levels, in the pursuit of avoiding painful flare-ups, she wants to be realistic and not let the scales tip too far away from her enjoying herself. While limiting alcohol, for example, is recommended she won’t avoid it altogether when there is something to celebrate. She believes that stress can be limited when spending social time with friends, but will take steps to manage her stress in the lead up and the following day so she gets a lot of rest and recovery.
We asked how Fiona manages stress and what tips she found the most useful to unwind. “Stress and MS are mortal enemies so it is something I have to be conscious of. [Avoiding burnout is a] constant work in progress and I can’t say I have nailed it but my main stress relievers are:
- Exercising as much as I can (5 times a week minimum)
- Trying to reduce my work hours
- Sound bath meditations on Spotify to zen out and clear my mind
- Lots of sleep
- Reading, which brings my stress levels down; and
- When I can’t quite get my body to relax or I have overdone it, a spa or bath can sort me out!"
- Topping up on essential nutrients such as vitamin D, B vitamins and omega 3
- Eating a personalised diet tailored to preventing inflammation and MS flare ups
She also praises the benefits of talking therapies in an effort to effectively deal with stress before it becomes chronic. “I have a great therapist and I made the call to spend as much money on my mental health as I do on my physical health and I haven’t really looked back. In my life I have had to make some really hard decisions and put my health first but it’s been worth it.”
With diet playing an important role in both stress management and MS, Fiona’s role as a health researcher has given her a stronger understanding of what nutrients her body needs to operate at its best. Luckily for her, the conversations she has with her nutritionist and neurologist means she comes to the table with her own research and ideas of what might work for her. Since there’s no silver bullet, and no cure, she focuses on what she can control.
She is prescribed vitamin D by her neurologist and tops it up herself when she feels she needs it. Vitamin D is helpful in preventing overactive immune responses and protecting brain cells, she also takes Iron Restore, a combination of B vitamins including B-12 drops as those with MS tend to experience B vitamin deficiency, she manages leaky gut with digestive enzymes prescribed by her nutritionist, and omega-3s to modulate immune disorders.
The MS diet she follows, Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis, means she avoids meat so ensuring she is getting all the micronutrients she needs from other sources is essential.
When it comes to exercise, she’s slightly more philosophical “If exercise were a pill everyone would take it. Mobility is key for me with my MS so I like to move and strengthen my muscles to future-proof myself, especially as I sit down all day for work.”
She prioritises moving her body to manage dealing with stressors both physical and mental, “the health benefits are so numerous beyond merely the impacts it has on physical appearance”.
Fiona’s health journey has been one of trials: successful and less-successful but all in the pursuit of bringing balance back to her body. Working with nutritionists, neurologists, personal therapists and doing her own research has led to a routine that, while isn’t curative, helps her cope with the cyclical nature of disease so it’s less likely to take her by surprise.