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Olwen Anderson's Blog

Manipulating the neurotransmitters that make you feel good

Saturday, May 27, 2017
Brain produces dopamine and other neurotransmittersDon’t know about you, but I rather enjoy the experience of feeling happy. Whether that emerges just from enjoying a day of glorious weather, or a job well done. When something good happens that makes you feel good your brain shoots out a flash of dopamine, a neurotransmitter designed to create feelings of satisfaction and reward. 

If you didn’t already know that your brain can create emotional feelings this may come as a surprise. But your brain really is running the show when it comes to your behaviour, craftily squirting out a bit of serotonin for happiness, or dopamine for satisfaction, and many other neurotransmitters designed to get you experiencing particular feelings so you’ll behave in certain ways. And you thought you were in control. Not as much: if your brain decides that what you just did was something worth doing again, it will produce happiness neurotransmitters. It has decided that what you just did is worth repeating: job well done, do it again.

There are two problems with this: sometimes those neurotransmitters are produced in response to doing something that really isn’t good for us: like smoking, alcohol, caffeine and recreational drugs. Over-use of computer games and social media (that smart phone you’re carrying can induce a shot of dopamine, making it all too easy for us to get lured back to swiping and liking.) It’s good old self-discipline that helps you control those urges towards self-destructive behaviours that feel good in the moment but less so in the long term.

Brains can get inflamed, too, which inhibits their ability to produce neurotransmitters, including happiness inducing serotonin and dopamine.  If your body is inflamed then it’s possible your brain can become inflamed too, generating mood disorders like depression and anxiety. 

Although some of that dopamine can be re-absorbed and used again, your brain needs a steady supply of nutrients like protein, minerals and glucose to keep producing more. There’s another problem with dopamine: it can be exhausted. This is most evident with recreational drugs, where larger amounts are needed as time passes to extract the same feelings the drug offered.

On the positive side, ordinary helpful day-to-day activities can spark a dopamine reaction too. Exercise, particularly, is well known to produce the class of neurotransmitters known as ‘endorphins’ because they make you feel good. One of the best ways to boost your mood (in a healthy way) is to get sweaty exercising.  

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Natural Mood Boosters'



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Is fragrance making you sick?

Saturday, May 20, 2017
Ever found yourself pausing at the supermarket cleaning products aisle, uncertain whether to push your trolley through the cloud of smells? Would you get one of those mysterious headaches? Sneeze? Have trouble breathing until you got back into the open air? For some people this supermarket aisle has become the one to avoid. If you’ve experienced this you’re not alone; more and more people are finding our lives are over-fragranced.

There’s a reason why you’re not feeling overwhelmed by different smells already: soon after experiencing the new scent your nose stops registering it. For example, as you’re putting on your t-shirt you’ll briefly get a whiff of the laundry powder, but then it will go. So although it seems like the perfume you applied earlier has all gone, in fact other people can still smell it. 

Think your life isn’t over-perfumed? Tally up the number of fragranced products you’ve encountered already today. You might have washed your hair with a nice-smelling shampoo, used a perfumed soap. An aerosol deodorant spray helped avert worries that your perspiration would offend others, and you used after-shave too, the one your partner appreciates. The clothes you’re wearing were washed in perfumed laundry powder. In the kitchen, your bin liner was fragranced, the dishwasher detergent had its own distinctive smell, and just in case your house didn’t smell pristine, an automatic dispenser sprayed air ‘freshener’ regularly. That’s a lot of artificial chemicals your body has encountered even before breakfast.

Questions are being asked now about whether our exposure to fragrance is affecting our health. After all, we can absorb chemicals across our lungs, increasing the burden of toxins our livers and kidneys have to process. Kate Grenville, the author of ‘The Case Against Fragrance’ has asked some hard questions about perfume while reviewing research already done on the effect of synthetic fragrances. She didn’t find many answers, but her research generates even more worrying questions about what we are unconsciously splash around in our quest to smell good.  It’s a book worth reading if you suspect breathing in artificial fragrances could be affecting your breathing, generating mysterious headaches, creating nausea, even upsetting your hormones and nervous system.

There’s lots you can do to help yourself, beyond opening windows. Select unfragranced products more often. And grow some greenery indoors: House plants have been found to be particularly adept at absorbing the chemicals that make up artificial fragrances. 
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How to support the people you care about

Tuesday, May 09, 2017
Image credit paahulb via MorgueFileFor readers who don't live locally, we had a major flood wash through our community a few weeks ago. This article was published in our local newspaper. the Tweed Daily News.

It was truly amazing, how after the floods everyone just stepped up to help each other wash out mud, wash clothes, deliver food. So many ways we expressed that we all really care about each other.  Along with the practical assistance, many people wonder how they can best support the emotional and mental health of their family, friends, neighbours and community when talking about the disaster.

A major event like the floods affects people in different ways, at different times. Some people can appear to be handling it all okay and then a few weeks or months down the track realise they’re really not coping at all. Others need extra support from day one. There’s no ‘normal’ time frame for recovery;  but being there for people is always helpful.

The way to best support someone is to simply listen. It’s been proven by science that genuine listening is actually immensely therapeutic. But there’s a way to listen that makes it helpful. First, allow time and space for listening. Simply sit and be with the other person in a place they’re comfortable. This could mean over a cuppa, or even while sitting together fishing. Some adolescents seem to open up more on long drives (perhaps because they don’t have to make eye contact). Young children may talk while you’re playing in the sandpit with them. 

Here’s the tough part that can undo your good intentions: While listening remind yourself, as often as you need to, that you don’t have to take on their problems. That means you don’t dispense advice. Nor try to fix the problem for them; that’s not your job here.  All you have to do is be present, with your ears, and let them know you’ve heard what they say.  You can expect to feel frustrated inside, as you can probably think of many things that they could or should do. But try to restrain yourself.

It may help to let them know you’ve heard with a phrase like “so what you’re saying is….” They might agree, or disagree, or just repeat the story. That’s OK; people in shock will often repeat the same story over and over as they try to make sense of it all.

One more thing: Trauma is sticky, so through listening to many upsetting tales you may feel you need some support yourself.  So don’t be afraid to reach out towards help for yourself.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Help When Life Is Turned Upside Down'


Image credit: Paahulb via MorgueFile

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The illusion of fancy food on social media

Saturday, May 06, 2017
Breakfast with mushroom(Yes, I know, I have my own Instagram account, here, where I share what I'm cooking and eating. But, just like the article you're about to read points out, you don't get to see the 'train wrecks'. The photo here is one of my better looking breakfasts; and yes, it had gone cold by the time I'd posted it on Instagram. So enjoy the pictures but please don't think my food is perfect - it's often not.) 

When you want to improve your diet I can understand how the fabulous food portrayed on social media could feel overwhelming and seem expensive; because many of the spectacular looking meals on social media sites like Instagram include some exotic, hard-to-obtain and pricey ingredients in a dish that’s taken hours to prepare. Then you can fear you’re missing out as you fork through your own, less photogenic dinner.

Social media can ignite some genuine food anxiety, perpetuating the illusion that everyone else is tucking into stunningly attractive healthy meals all the time. But many of those photos you’re admiring actually take ages to arrange and photograph, and could certainly have gone cold by the time the photographer picks up their cutlery. The reality of life is that sometimes your meals can look like a train wreck when they land on your plate. Another, although hidden reality, is that you only get to see the finished product when the photographer thinks it’s worth sharing. Which isn’t all the time.

Another fallacy perpetuated by social media and advertising: that in order to eat healthy you have to include exotic, expensive and fashionable ingredients. If you can afford to live that way, fantastic; but most of us have a budget. Instead, reach for some of the great recipe books devoted to showing you how the plain, inexpensive foods our grandparents and great-grandparents accessed can be made into delicious and yet healthy meals and snacks. Or google ‘budget healthy food’.

The short cut to saving money with food is to keep in mind that the more hands your food has passed through before it gets to your table, the more you will pay for it. For example, if you make your own yoghurt in bulk at home, then add fruit you stewed yourself, the price you pay for that snack will be less than buying a snack-sized tub at the supermarket. Same for home-made salads, cakes, even bread. The more of the work you do yourself, the less you pay. 

A once-a-week food preparation campaign will help ensure you’ve always got healthy food on hand, and having a meal plan for the week will save you from having to make decisions when you’re tired.
So enjoy those food photos on social media – they can inspire you to focus more on eating healthy food; but don’t let them deter you from your quest to eat healthy.

If you enjoyed this article you might find my meal plan helpful. It's here.


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Should you step away from the salmon?

Saturday, April 29, 2017
Heard of “Health washing”?  It’s a modern term, describing foods promoted as healthy but which, after you’ve done your due diligence, turn out to be not so fabulous. Farmed salmon is a good example, proclaimed as a good source of healthy omega-3 oils. And it is. But when you learn how this food is produced you might conclude that farmed salmon isn’t such a healthy choice after all.

If you’ve ever visited Canada you’ve probably sampled their wild salmon, which is a rich red colour and has a rich flavour, as well as excellent omega-3 content. It needs a really cold climate and a wild diet to grow those oils naturally. In Australia we like to eat salmon too, but don’t have the icy coldness of Canadian waters that would enable wild salmon to thrive here. Instead they’re farmed, as far south as we can manage – in Tasmania. There, circular pens house swarming masses of salmon which are harvested and soon after appear on the supermarket shelves. 

There are two issues with the farming of salmon which could give you pause as you’re wandering down the supermarket aisles. One is the diet the farmed salmon are fed on. Understandably, a large amount of salmon housed in a pen can’t forage for wild feed, so it’s provided for them. Some producers feed the salmon fish meal; others use some fish meal as well as grains and meat products. Just before harvesting the salmon’s diet is adjusted to include more omega-3 oils, so that what you buy has a good content of these healthy oils. Also, since farmed fish flesh is gray and we all prefer to see a pinky hue in our salmon, their feed includes a dye. That dye could be natural or synthetic.

Some people perceive the circular pens salmon are housed in as the aquatic equivalent of cage eggs or pig stalls, where movement is restricted and natural behaviours aren’t possible. Also, concerns have been raised in the media about the impact of intensive aquaculture on the environment.

Details of housing and diet are readily available on the salmon farmers’ and feed manufacturers’ web sites; the Tasmanian acquaculture industry and their brands are quite open about their practices, the feed they utilise, and how they manage their industry. Researching this is easy, and perhaps a good idea if you like to know the reality of that apparently healthy food.
 
If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Omega 3 & omega 6 oils: getting the balance right
 


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The wrapping around everything that moves us

Saturday, April 22, 2017
We used to think that our muscles were simply levers, connected to tendons and ligaments in order to move our limbs. That they were all separate from one another, and that damage in one muscle wouldn’t affect other parts of the body. But we know more now about how our bodies are constructed, how they work and how function can be restored after damage.

We now know that what helps give us our shape and holds everything is a vast web of connective tissue called the fascia. We’ve got a layer under our skin, another layer coating each muscle bundle, yet another layer around each fibre of muscle tissue....and so on, right down to the web of connective tissue holding our cells in place, and even within each cell: ensuring the tiny contents within don’t tumble around like clothes in a washing machine. We even have connective tissue to hold our internal organs in place.

One of the big jobs for fascia is to buffer the stresses, bumps and gravitational forces that we’re exposed to in everyday life. Since this fascia is elastic enough to move in several directions it responds to tension in one area by compensating through stretching elsewhere. But when tissue is damaged it can heal in ways that restrict its elasticity. You’ve probably noticed this if you have a significant scar on your skin – the scar just doesn’t move so freely as the original skin. Movement isn’t restricted only in that particular area, it ‘pulls’ in other areas of your body to compensate.

According to myofascial therapies injuries to the fascia in one place can have an impact on fascia in distant parts of the body that are far away from the original injury. Worse, as time passes that dislocation and dysfunction of the fascia can deepen, restricting movement more and more as time passes. 

In practical terms that means unresolved or inadequately managed and treated sprains, strains and movement problems can deteriorate as the decades pass, gradually impinging more and more on your ability to move without pain. The other, hopeful perspective is that regular stretching, massage and adjustment treatments can help you maintain your mobility.

There’s lots of information out there now about fascia and myofascial therapies, so if you’re experiencing a musculoskeletal injury that just won’t seem to resolve, perhaps it’s worth investigating a myofascial therapy to help things along.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Healing Bursitis and Tendonitis' here 
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How the Easter Bunny can also deliver migraines and hot flushes.

Saturday, April 15, 2017
Aah, chocolate. It’s the ultimate comfort food; not just because it stimulates production of some happiness-inducing neurotransmitters. In the Western world it’s a symbolic Easter gift. But chocolate has another, darker side (no pun intended) that can make people who experience migraines or menopausal hot flushes pause before scoffing any chocolate Easter eggs.

You see, chocolate belongs in a food family known as vasoactive amines* – along with other delicious foods like red wine, cheese, bananas, coffee, and tea. Even clearly healthy foods like fava beans and tuna, celery, potato, licorice and nutmeg are in this group. As are chillis. 

‘Vasoactive amines’, in layman’s terms just means protein molecules (that’s the ‘amines’ part of the term) that affect your blood vessels (that’s the ‘vasoactive’ part of the term). This means if you happen to be susceptible to vasoactive amines, and you’ve eaten enough of them, you may quickly feel hot, perhaps look red, and maybe even break out into a sweat.

What vasoactive amines do is cause your blood vessels to widen, and to become more permeable (sieve-like). This increases blood supply to the surface of your skin, which makes you feel warmer, perhaps even break out in a sweat. It usually passes quickly; because while you’re throwing off your jumper and wiping your brow your body is already compensating with a whole new cascade of biochemical reactions to hose down what the vasoactive amines did.

Vasoactive amines aren’t bad for you as such. But science has found certain foods produce chemical reactions in the body: Some helpful, some unhelpful. Some create obvious reactions, some are silent. A Google search for ‘pharmacologic food reactions’ can be the launching point to find out more about how our bodies can react even to foods that are good for us.

If you’re susceptible to migraines, however, a big enough dose of vasoactive amines could be enough to trigger one of these awful headaches. Migraine sufferers especially seem to learn through trial and error which foods can trigger migraines, and just avoid them. Some women, however, have to experience many hot flushes before making the connection that vasoactive amines in foods are causing even more frequent and more powerful hot flushes.

I hope you have a wonderful Easter break, and that the Easter Bunny leaves you many delicious chocolate eggs to enjoy – even if you can only eat a little at a time.


*Franxman, Timothy J., and James L. Baldwin. "Pharmacologic Food Reactions." Food Allergy: Adverse Reactions to Foods and Food Additives, Fifth Edition: 437-451.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "How to Stay Healthy During Menopause"


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Help when life is turned upside down

Monday, April 10, 2017
Swan Dive by Eve LiddellIt’s been a rather big week, hasn’t it? There we were, contemplating the weekend ahead and along comes Cyclone Debbie to turn our little community upside down. She’s left quite a bit of trauma, worry and stress behind her. So this week’s column is all about how to look after yourself, boost your resilience, and care for those around you.

The curious thing about natural disasters is that those who weren’t directly affected can be just as traumatised as the people who did lose a family member, or their homes, business, job and pets. And that trauma can stick just as well as flood mud.

What’s good to remember is that the strategies you were already using to help you cope with day-to-day life are just as helpful now.  This might seem self-evident, but when you’re in shock from an event like the floods it’s easy to underestimate their healing power.

First, try to re-establish your routines: Like getting up and going to bed at the same times. This will help reassure your subconscious, settling the biochemical stress reaction that can lead to chronic health problems. And it helps give you a sense that you’re regaining control. Resume your exercise, and keep eating well. Meditation, music, prayer, taking time out to just rest with a cuppa, and connecting with people. This all helps. The strategies to avoid are the ‘false friends’ like alcohol and drugs.

Also, keep an eye out for physical health problems. When your body is exposed to relentlessly high cortisol levels from post-trauma stress, illnesses can develop. Like stomach aches, headaches, digestive problems, skin problems.  Your emotions can change your body.

If you’re in the position of supporting friends and loved ones who have lost so much, one of the most useful things you can do to relieve their stress is just listen. And listen. And listen some more. As you’ve probably noticed, people can respond in some unexpected ways when they’re in shock; so a little tolerance goes a long way.

Lastly, remember that one of the most challenging aspects of managing the stress that emerges from an event like these floods is allowing yourself to reach out for help; whether that’s a cuppa and a chat with a trusted friend, or a consultation with your health professional.  As much as you want to help other people recover, there are many people who would love to help you recover too.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Six Signs You're Reaching Burnout' 

Image credit: Swan Dive by Eve Liddell via MorgueFile

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Does Dairy Affect Asthma?

Saturday, March 25, 2017
With every diagnosis comes free advice, it seems – from friends, from family, from Facebook. One commonly held belief about asthma is that dairy makes asthma symptoms worse; that it increases mucous production. But is there any scientific evidence to back this up? And if this is what you actually experience as an asthmatic, why does it happen?

I hasten to point out, before we continue, that having asthma requires ongoing medical monitoring, whether you utilise natural therapies or not. Uncontrolled, it’s potentially fatal. But there are many ways you can help prevent asthma attacks happening, and diet is one of them.

The scientific research around asthma and dairy so far has reached two conclusions: first that many people make changes to their diet based on their beliefs and their experiences; how they feel. And second, that very little robust (peer reviewed) research has been done on whether dairy really does make asthma worse. Many of the studies have been too small to be taken seriously, and those that did include enough people to be statistically significant are inconclusive. So there’s no definitive answer from science for the question; but immune systems can over-react, and here’s how over-production of mucous can develop. (By the way, I've included a list of some studies I found at the end of this article).

All parts of your body where the inside meets the outside world, like your airways, are guarded by the patrolmen of your immune system, immunoglobulins. Their role is to constantly check what’s entering your body. When something arrives that they’ve been trained to believe is dangerous (like dairy) they alert other members of your immune system to take action. Kind of like calling in emergency services at the border check point to deal with an attacker.

In response to a perceived invader mucous producing cells (called goblet cells) secrete sticky mucous in abundance so that the offenders are entrapped and washed away. But if the immune system decides that wasn’t enough your airways can over-react, bringing on an asthma attack. If attacks seem relentless your body can increase the number of goblet cells so that even more mucous will be produced next time.

It can be hard to decipher whether dairy is affecting your asthma, as there are so many other factors involved; like whether you’re susceptible to airborne pollutants, and whether you’re already malnourished. One way to investigate whether dairy is a problem for you is to cut it out of your diet completely for a few weeks and see how you feel. 

Studies:
McKeever & Britton 'Diet and Asthma'  published in American Journal of Clinical and Respiratory Medicine 2004  DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1164/rccm.200405-611PP

Onorato et al 'Placebo-controlled double-blind food challenge in asthma' published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 1986 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0091-6749(86)90263-0

Woods et al 'Food and nutrient intakes and asthma risk in young adults' published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2003 




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Could mindful eating help you lose weight?

Saturday, March 18, 2017
With a heavy heart, you realise that your waistband isn’t shrinking. Your belt confirms, as you let it out another notch, that your stomach really is getting bigger. What’s causing this subtle yet relentless weight gain? 

You don’t believe your diet has changed, yet life’s been busy. It’s been easy to fall into the traps of mindless eating: Consuming food while your mind is occupied with other things: like the TV, internet, driving. You’re not focused on the taste and texture of what your jaw is working on. Or how that food makes you feel.

Television watching can be the most potent distractor: relaxing on the lounge accompanied by a bag of crisps or a block of chocolate. Somehow, although your avowed intention was to have just a couple, by the time the show has ended the contents of the packet have completely gone and you’re now feeling uncomfortably stuffed. Why didn’t your body alert you earlier?

You got through all that food unconsciously because eating is a multi-sensory experience, and your brain is signalled that you’re satiated not just by the quantity you’ve observed yourself eat, but through hormones and nerve signals emitted by your stomach. While your brain was preoccupied elsewhere your stomach was unable to grab your attention with ‘that’s enough!’ messages.

The result of preoccupied consumption can be all-too-easy over-eating. Worse, you often might not feel satisfied by what you’ve consumed; unconscious eating means you’re missing out on one of the great pleasures of life.

A diet seems like the solution, but dieting usually means deprivation. That’s not fun. Instead, consider the non-diet diet: a way of restoring your connection with your body and how it’s responding to what you’re eating. Through mindful eating you could actually enjoy your food more and perhaps eat less without feeling deprived.

In practice, this is what conscious eating looks like: sit down at a table for your meal. Remove distractions: switch off the TV and internet, or stop the car. Appreciate the aroma, texture and taste of what you’re putting in your mouth. Notice how it feels to eat. 

When you’re paying attention, your body will tell you whether that food was right for you. Do you feel revived and nourished? Or not? Perhaps one of the reasons you keep gaining weight is that you’re not paying attention to how your body feels about the kind of ‘nourishment’ you’re feeding it. 


If you enjoyed this article you might also like to read "Enjoy Food More - Here's How"


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