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Olwen Anderson's Blog

When a cool breeze becomes a cold draft

Saturday, March 17, 2018
The change has come. You notice you’ve stopped stepping into doorways to catch any cool breeze, and begun closing that door to block out the cold draft. Winter is definitely on its way.

But there’s something you need to check, along with trying to remember where you packed the flannel pyjamas last spring. You need to check “the kit” is on hand. Because the change of season seems to be the time when so many of us are susceptible to catching colds and flu.

Even though you take good care of your health, sometimes that virus is just going to catch up with you. Perhaps you’ve been on a long distance flight, sharing recirculated air with several hundred other people.  Or stuck in a stuffy room for hours.  Or someone else in your household brought the germs home with them and is sharing them around.

Most of us have developed our own favourite flu-prevention remedies – often natural helpers like a specific herb mix, or a homoeopathic combination, or certain nutrients, or particular foods like ginger and honey. You’ve learnt from experience that the faster you can take action, the less of a hold the virus will get on you, and the faster you’ll recover. This is the time to check your supplies, to stock up on the remedies that work most effectively for you.

Chicken soup is a well-known cold remedy, and surprisingly, there’s some research behind it. This old home remedy works because the nutrients in the soup hose down the inflammation that generates symptoms like achiness, runny nose, sneezing and coughing. Preparing a big batch then freezing in portion sizes means that the day you come home feeling less than spectacular you can just heat up a bowl of this powerful symptom moderator.

Don’t forget another important tool for your flu kit: rest. Fighting off a virus uses immense amounts of energy, so taking the (sometimes embarrassing) step to rest as soon as you feel affected could mean you only have to take a day or two off work rather than struggle through a week or two of feeling poorly; or worse, remain unable to shake off the virus until spring.

Once you’ve got that cold & flu kit together you can relax a little, knowing you’ve got the tools you need on hand. Now you can get back to searching for your favourite knitted socks. You’ll need them soon.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy "Chicken Soup for Colds & Flu" 

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The brutal sleep report from your mirror

Saturday, March 10, 2018
The mirror report is brutal: “You’re looking less-than-perky today. Older, actually.” Well, okay, maybe you do look bleary-eyed, your wrinkles a little deeper. Who would have thought that a disrupted sleep could have this effect?
If you’ve ever experienced insomnia, or enforced sleep deprivation, you know how truly awful it feels when you run short on good quality sleep. Shift workers and new parents, you know what I mean.

Parents eventually get respite when their children eventually sleep through the night. Long term shift work is well known for its ability to erode your health. But you don’t have to be a parent or a shift worker to experience sleep problems. 

What you miss without good sleep is growth hormone. Although well known as the hormone that is sometimes (mis)used by athletes who cheat, growth hormone is naturally produced during sleep by the pituitary gland in your brain.

Amongst its other jobs, growth hormone helps regulate where the energy from food is utilised. In a young person growth hormone encourages cells to take up amino acids, produce protein, and grow muscles.  As you age though, and less growth hormone is produced, the balance shifts. Energy from food will tend to converge in fat deposits, especially on your tummy. Maintenance and growth of muscle is now something your body will undertake only if it’s pushed to. This makes exercise even more important as you age, because now you could literally melt into the couch. 

There seems to be some disagreement in the scientific literature about whether growth hormone is secreted more in the really deep phases of the sleep cycle, or whether it’s happening more in the first hour or so.

This is why sleep is such a central pillar of good health, and good sleep practice is known as sleep hygiene. Helpful habits: like avoiding electronic screens after dark, having a wind down routine, going to bed at the same time every day can help your body get into a better sleep routine. Some people find that exercising, meditation or stretching in the afternoon helps them sleep better. 

Sleep isn’t the only factor: chronic stress inhibits production of growth hormone, and exercise gives it a boost. It’s all linked though: Exercise helps reduce stress, and less stress helps you achieve a deeper, more restful sleep.
You can always get a report on your sleep quality and your growth hormone production from that unforgiving assessor, the mirror. 

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy "Why Can't I Sleep"

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Functional Testing for Gut Problems

Monday, March 05, 2018
Suspect there's a functional problem with your digestion? Here are some of the functional tests that can be engaged to help discern why your digestion has problems.

When you need a comprehensive picture of what’s going wrong.

The CDSA (comprehensive stool digestive analysis) provides a good overview of what’s going right, and what’s going wrong. One or more stool samples are collected to find out –
- If there are parasites – and if so, which, and how severe is the infection
- The presence of good (helpful) and bad (damaging) bacteria 
- The presence of problem fungi like candida
- Whether your immune system is alerted, indicating food intolerances
- How well your digestive enzymes are working
- Whether there are red blood cells present
There are different  levels of sophistication in the testing mechanism that affect the price you will pay for the test. The best test for you is decided through discussion with your practitioner.


If you think you have a leaky gut

There are two ways of testing: 
- One is to deliberately drink a solution of mannitol and lactulose, which, if you have a leaky gut, will then appear in your urine.
- Another test for leaky gut is a blood test, This test looks for the presence of markers of intestinal barrier problems in your bloodstream. It’s called the “Advanced Intestinal Barrier Assessment”

If you think you have parasites, or candida, or a bacterial infection

A stool test  can reveal whether you have intestinal candida; a blood spot test will reveal your level of candida antibodies. Which test you would choose depends on whether you believe you have a candida infection that is either confined to your digestion, or systemic (right through your body).

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When every day feels like the Marshmallow Test

Saturday, March 03, 2018
Would you have passed the marshmallow test? Last century two scientists at Stanford University devised what’s now widely known as the ‘marshmallow test’ to explore how children develop self-management in order to delay gratification. To do this, they sat each child down with their favourite treat on a plate in front of them. They could choose to eat it right away, but if they could wait for 15 minutes they’d receive another treat. 

It would have been a tough test for a five year old. But even for an adult, every day can seem like a long succession of marshmallow tests when you’re working on your health.  There’s the choice of whether to put on your training shoes and head out the door for a walk, or to roll over and press the snooze button. Whether to make time for the kind of breakfast that will sustain you yet create pots to wash, or to grab a donut and coffee on your commute. 

At lunchtime you have to make the choice between munching on a salad, or succumbing to the aroma of those toasted sandwiches. In the evening, do you make time to meditate, or slump into the couch in front of the TV, beer in hand? Your day can seem to be filled with endless decision points. Eventually you’ll be rewarded for your hard work with more energy, a better shape and mood. But you’ll have to wait for it.

It’s also been suggested that self-discipline is like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the easier it gets to manage yourself. But even professional athletes, those doyennes of self-management, have days off from time to time. 
So perhaps allowing yourself a ‘cheat meal’ once a week, or a day on the couch, could give your self-management muscles a rest. Then the next day get back to being disciplined. 

To let yourself off the hook, temporarily, could be the way to strengthen your self-management. It’s human to relapse on your best intentions, after all; and not entirely reasonable to expect you’ll do things perfectly every time.

So if you’ve fallen behind on the worthy New Year health resolutions you set yourself, don’t despair. You could, if you want to, choose to get back on track with your exercise and diet, face another day of training your discipline muscles, and witness your self-management get stronger with each step forward.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'How to make it easier to exercise' 

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Could a bigger breakfast lead to a smaller you?

Monday, February 26, 2018
Breakfast used to be such a big deal. For the first meal of the day people routinely reached for a frypan, eggs, perhaps even a steak, and toast too. Then some (now somewhat discredited) scientific research emerged claiming that eating eggs and steak would clog your arteries, so we were advised to reach for a packet of processed breakfast cereal instead. As a result, many frypans were reluctantly despatched to the back of the kitchen cabinet.

As the years passed, a bowl of cereal became the new normal. But curiously, our population didn’t get healthier. Instead, rates of diabetes and obesity began to soar to epidemic numbers. Could there be a connection with that breakfast change?

The nutritional science boffins at CSIRO investigated and concluded that the traditional protein based breakfast should have continued, and that you can help yourself lose weight by dusting off the cookware to create a bigger, more sustaining breakfast. Seems paradoxical, doesn’t it – eat a bigger breakfast to become a smaller size. But there’s some solid science behind it:

High quality animal protein is unique in that the molecules it’s made of are structurally pretty stiff. They take a lot of digestive enzymes and mechanical stomach action to break down, and this takes time. Extracting energy from eggs, meat, fish or chicken is slower than the speedy-energy-release breakfast cereal. That means your blood glucose level rises slowly too, providing sustained energy.  This keeps your appetite in check, making it less likely you’ll crave a sweet something mid-morning.

Curiously, that better (protein) breakfast even affects how you feel by mid-afternoon, helping you avoid the 3pm energy crash (which can also prompt you to seek out a sweet something to munch on) The end result of that good quality breakfast is less sugar in your diet overall.

Preparing that better breakfast takes much less time than you’d think, providing you’re willing to think ahead a little. Here’s an idea: Hard boil eggs the night before, and in the morning use them as toast toppers with hummus and slices of fresh tomato. In the cooler weather try leftover meat stew or savoury mince on toast. If you have the time, a vegetable fry-up in olive oil with a couple of eggs added is delicious. 

If you want to review the scientist’s reasoning, their report about why we need more protein is available on their website. Google “CSIRO protein report”.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "Is a High Protein Diet Safe?"

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Finding out more about your health

Saturday, February 17, 2018
Several decades ago, when I was desperately trying to get a handle on my own health problems, there were two frustrating obstacles that, fortunately, no longer exist today.

One obstacle was access to knowledge: Computers didn’t exist, Dr Google wasn’t practising yet, and so accessing information about health was a super-slow process. Locating journal articles meant physically navigating through dusty library shelves filled with (outdated) journals and thumbing through whatever (even older) books you could get your hands on.  Almost it’s own full time job.

As a result of this restricted access to information the accepted belief of the time was that your fate in health was determined by one practitioner stating “well, that’s how it will be”. A belief developed that one qualified professional had all the answers, was always right, and was the gatekeeper to any further exploration of the problem you faced.

The other obstacle was lack of access to testing. Until a few years ago it wasn’t possible to organise  tests investigating your health problem, even if you were prepared to pay for it. But thanks to the new field of functional testing you can explore your body functions (or dysfunctions) right through to genetic testing, and often in a non-invasive way. It’s a service that is helping bring power over health care to the consumer.

For example, if you suspect you have a hormone problem, functional urine or saliva testing can help decipher your hormone imbalance. Think your genes could be contributing to your mood disorder? Or that there’s a particular type of diet you’re genetically predisposed to? You have access to genetic testing. Tummy troubles? There are several varieties of stool tests available to inform you about what happens to your food after you’ve eaten it. You can even have your urine assessed to get a personalised report of what specific nutrients you need more or less of than the rest of the population.

Like other areas of health, some of these tests have been validated, and some not; it pays to do your due diligence before reaching for your wallet. But, thanks to the power of the internet, accessing information is easier than ever, and there are fewer obstacles in your way. So, if you’re struggling with a health problem and want to find out more about your body’s needs, functional testing offers you a way to find the answers. This testing can be arranged through a consultation. 

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "Choosing the right health practitioner for you"

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What went wrong? Your health in the rear vision mirror

Saturday, February 03, 2018
If you haven’t been feeling fabulous for a while now, here’s a useful question to ask yourself: “When did you last feel really well?” Peering into the rear vision mirror of your life way back to when you last felt good could help you locate the solution. Because sometimes what you used to do, and don’t any more could be the clue to regaining your wellbeing. Or maybe you began doing something new that has gradually had a detrimental effect, draining your health.

For example, maybe you’re feeling more stressed lately, or don’t sleep well, and can’t work out why. But then you recall playing team sports on the weekend before you stopped, for some reason. Perhaps you moved to a new community, or began working longer hours, and somehow never got back to spending your Saturday afternoons running around with your team mates. 

That shouldn’t make so much difference, surely? But reams of studies have been written emphasising the vital role exercise has in boosting health. We’re designed to move, and movement actually burns off the stress hormone cortisol. So those Saturday afternoon sports were actually releasing built up stress, which helped you sleep. But over weeks and months without the outlet of exercise your stress began to build up, and now you’re really feeling it.

On the other hand, it could be something new you’re doing that’s eroded your health. Like maybe your trousers are gradually shrinking. But lately you’ve been calling in to the café on your way to work for a super-sized milky coffee - plus syrup flavour - and the effects of that extra sugar are adding up.  A 400ml milky coffee contains about three teaspoons of natural milk sugar. Add a shot of syrup flavour and you’ve just doubled the sugar content. Imagine what an extra six teaspoons of sugar every day will do to your mood and waistline. This is how a small addition to your diet can have an insidious effect over the long term. But it might be some time before you catch on to the cause.

Locating what it was that made the difference takes some time; particularly as our lives are quite complex. And it isn’t just usually one factor that’s caused the negative impact. But reviewing what your life was like when you were feeling great could provide some valuable insight on where to focus your recovery efforts.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'One Hundred Flavours of Fatigue'

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Your bladder and anxiety - the connection

Monday, January 29, 2018
Our bladders are one of those great design features of the human body, enabling us to store urine then release it when it’s convenient. When the system works well it’s really helpful, bladders being somewhat elastic in capacity. But an over-active bladder can really disrupt your life, constantly prompting you to seek out a toilet, and urgently. Particularly annoying if you then find it wasn’t really full after all, or if, once you get there, your bladder seems to have changed its mind and refuses to empty.

I’ve noticed that some people seem to be more susceptible to bladder problems, particularly if they are inherently anxious. Could there be a connection? Off I went for a swim in the ocean of peer reviewed studies to see whether science would confirm what I suspected – that the greater your anxiety, the more vulnerable you are to bladder problems.

I didn’t have to get more than ankle deep in the sea of literature before answers began to appear.  In one particularly useful study (citation at the end of this article) rats were subjected to stress, their pattern of urination noted, then their bladder tissue examined for changes. The scientists found that even ten days of stress caused bladder changes. Specifically, they found that with extra stress more ‘mast’ cells appeared in the wall of the bladder.

Mast cells are a particular immune cell charged with monitoring their local area for problem substances (like those we’re allergic to). When they encounter an allergen they ‘activate’, releasing powerful chemicals including histamine to attract more immune cells to the area. They then inactivate the offending substance, orchestrate allergic reactions, expel the offender and generally create an unholy mess until other immune cells arrive to clean up. If you’ve experienced the sneezing and runny nose of hay fever in response to pollen then you’ve experienced mast cell activation. 

More mast cells in your bladder wall means your bladder is over-primed to respond, and over-respond it certainly can, leading to an over-active bladder. More anxiety in the long term means more mast cells. So it seems there really is a connection between anxiety and bladder problems.

The solution to an over-active bladder, though, is to focus recovery efforts at the other end of your body; what’s happening inside your skull. Like so many health problems, managing your stress response and seeking out ways to become more resilient to stress is actually the most powerful therapy.

Smith, A. L., Leung, J., Kun, S., Zhang, R., Karagiannides, I., Raz, S., ... & Mayer, E. A. (2011). The effects of acute and chronic psychological stress on bladder function in a rodent model. Urology, 78(4), 967-e1.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'The Perils of Perimenopause' 

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What interferes with thyroid function

Saturday, January 13, 2018

What can go wrong with the thyroid process? Lots, as it turns out. Here are some of the most likely: 

1. Lack of raw materials: If your thyroid doesn't have enough of the raw materials it needs to create thyroid hormone production won't happen, no matter how much thyroid stimulating hormone is pushed towards it by the pituitary gland. The most important raw materials are iodine, zinc, selenium and vitamin B12, but there are others too. A word of warning, though, lest you were about to reach for an iodine or selenium supplement: If your thyroid gland suddenly encounters a large dose of iodine it can actually slow down temporarily. Also, selenium is toxic in large doses. Allow your health practitioner to choose the right supplements and dose for you.

2. Autoimmunity: If your immune system becomes unbalanced it can begin to attack particular organs as if they were enemy invaders. That attack stops thyroid hormone production by the gland because the immune system destroys the hormone producing cells. Thyroid antibodies (the indicator that your thyroid gland is under attack from your immune system) can be measured with a blood test, and may be diagnosed as 'Hashimotos thyroiditis' or 'Graves’ Disease'. I've noticed that women seem most susceptible to autoimmune thyroid problems when they've been under sustained high levels of stress for quite some time. When you’re under stress high levels of circulating cortisol upsets your immune system function.

3. Thyroid nodules are simply lumps on your thyroid gland; and like any odd lump, needs to be checked by a medical practitioner. Some nodules are benign, harmless and have no effect; others could be interfering with your thyroid function, over-producing thyroid hormones or growing in a way that begins to squeeze surrounding tissues. Or the nodules could contain malignant cells. Your doctor may palpate (feel) your thyroid gland for the presence of these nodules, but they’re more likely to be assessed via ultrasound, and potentially a biopsy.

4. An unhealthy liver: Since it's in your liver that the prohormone T4 is converted to its active T3 form, a sluggish liver function or a fatty liver is going to interfere with this process. ('Fatty liver', by the way, is the term bestowed upon an unhealthy liver where the functional cells have been replaced by fat deposits.)

5. Stress: Nothing in your body works well under sustained high levels of stress, and your thyroid function is no exception. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol (stress hormone) prompts your liver to produce too much reverse T3, the non-productive thyroid hormone. Sustained stress also makes you more vulnerable to autoimmune thyroid problems.

6. Low iron stores. You need iron (as serum ferritin) to create thyroid hormone, so anaemia makes your thyroid problem worse. Look at your iron study blood test results: you'll see 'serum iron' and 'serum ferritin' listed. If your serum ferritin is low, the biochemical reaction involving the enzyme thyroperoxidase which creates thyroid hormone might be hindered.

7. Illness: Your body’s response to illness can interfere with thyroid hormone function by altering thyroid hormone production. This is known as ‘non thyroidal illness syndrome’, sometimes called ‘sick euthyroid’. This means is your thyroid gland is OK, but its function is hindered, often by illness. 

8. Medications: Some medications adversely affect your thyroid function.

9. Fluoride Often part of municipal water supplies and fluoridated toothpaste, fluoride is suspected to compete with Iodine for absorption. Also it is suspected to interfere with hypothalamus hormone TRH (thyrotropin releasing hormone) binding to the pituitary gland, which can result in the thyroid not receiving enough instructions through TSH to produce more thyroid hormone. Fluoride is also suspected to interfere with the on/off switch for the cell’s response to T3, or even to displace iodine in thyroid hormones, rendering them ineffective.

10. Viral infections can sometimes interfere with thyroid gland activity.

11. Environmental toxins including plastics and artificial fragrances are suspected to interfere with hormones.

This is an extract from "The Empowered Thyroid" , a free e-book by Olwen Anderson available for download from  

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Finding yourself amongst the crowd

Saturday, December 23, 2017
Depending on your proximity to childhood you’ve probably heard of the picture books “Where’s Wally”. The game within them is to locate Wally amongst a crowd, with his distinctive bobbled beanie, glasses and red striped shirt. Apparently there’s been a plot twist recently: Wally has found himself. According to a humorous little cartoon in circulation, Wally has taken up meditation, a popular method for working out who you are.

Meditation sometimes gets a bad rap, more so from people who haven’t experienced the benefits. To the uninitiated, it certainly seems like an odd practice; people raving about how good it feels to sit still and do nothing for minutes at a time. And yet regular meditators seem to be calmer, handle life’s unavoidable stressors with more ease, enjoy life more. Meditation is well known as a simple way to improve your resilience to stress and feel happier without spending a cent.

But if you try it, then try it more than once. Like any new skill it’s going to take a while to master. Start easy – just one minute. All you have to do is find a comfortable place, switch off your mobile phone, close your eyes and allow your brain to rest. Just watch yourself breathing. Thoughts will pop up like bubbles in fizzy drink; just let them, and return your focus again to observing your breath.

A complaint I’ve heard about meditation is that you feel good straight after, but you have to keep practising it every day to maintain the feeling. That seems unfair, until you realise there are other things in life that don’t last forever, and have to be repeated daily to keep up the benefits. Like showering, for instance.  And dental hygiene.

Since this is the time of year when so many people set new year resolutions, you could do worse than make your 2018 resolution be to meditate daily. As much a part of your daily routine as showering and brushing your teeth. For instance, you might practise your meditation before heading out to work, or perhaps as soon as you arrive home, helping you unwind for the evening 

If you don’t feel confident meditating without structure there are plenty of meditation apps available, and groups with trained teachers.

Some weeks or months from now you might notice that you’re feeling happier and less easy to upset. And, like Wally, you might even find yourself in that silent space.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy "Your Holidays Restored You, Here's How To Hang On To The Benfits"

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