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Olwen Anderson's Blog

Is social media affecting your mental health?

Saturday, September 22, 2018
Before social media, there were slide nights. After returning from a holiday you’d invite your friends around, ply them with food and drinks, and share your happy snaps, often on a slide projector. But they only got to see the good images, mind you. 

What wasn’t included were shots of your partner being unceremoniously booted out of a restaurant due to their cultural insensitivity. The tears when you became hopelessly lost in a new city. How you looked after food poisoning from that dodgy local eatery. Instead every image was carefully curated to make it seem your holiday was completely magical. I bet some folk left those events feeling a little envious, like their lives just weren’t so successful in comparison.

Slide projectors and slide nights are now historical artefacts. In modern times we have social media like Facebook and Instagram as the tool to make it appear our lives are very special, wealthy, healthy and happy. That we’ve got it all together. Just like the slide nights, though, the less than ideal images are left out. Unless you’re savvy to it, what is presented seems so real; you can begin to believe that your friends’ lives are just more successful than yours.

It’s no wonder, either: Populating every Instagram and Facebook account are shots of people that seem to be on the up-and-up. They’re in great shape, eating “clean”, earning lots, living in stylish clean homes. Women regain their pre-pregnancy shape in astonishing time. People eating highly restrictive diets somehow look great instead of gaunt. No commuting fatigue, no bad hair days, no ‘bad’ food. Does it have an effect? You bet: Australian research found that just 10 minutes of swiping through Facebook posts has a deflating effect on women’s mood.

This means that unless you already have the skills to see through it all you could easily get sucked into eating a severely restricted diet. And if you’re already a little depressed or anxious your mood could deteriorate further. That’s not what you want.

But social media is a useful tool, too, and life would be a little less without it. Like the slide nights, the internet provides a way to stay connected with our communities and the people we love. But the next time you’re browsing Facebook and notice your mood deflating, just remember: what you see on the screen isn’t the total picture of a real life.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "The Illusion of Fancy Food on Social Media"

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Tis the season for tissues

Saturday, September 15, 2018
Great to see the spring rains arrive. All those plants thought the rain was pretty good too. That gentle watering from Mother Nature was their signal to get flowering. And you know what that means: pollen, and lots of it.

If you don’t suffer from hay fever then spring just seems like a pretty time of year, with flowers, bees and butterflies in abundance. But if you have an allergy to pollens, then spring is the season for tissues, and lots of them, as your respiratory system protests.

Sneezing is your body’s natural defence response when it breathes in something your immune system has decided is potentially dangerous. So the campaign begins: some violent sneezing should propel it out fast. If that doesn’t work, perhaps a wave of mucus will wash it out. 

You can blame your streaming nose on your body’s natural histamine response. When the dedicated patrol members of your immune system, immunoglobulins, detect an invader they rapidly flag other cells in your immune system to take action and release histamine. This is another alarm system that sets off even more body reactions. The cells lining your nose, mouth, even your eyelids are directed to produce and release watery mucus in what seems like gallon quantities.

If only you could move away, just until the pollen count dies down, then come home. But for most of us, this just isn’t practical.

There are ways to hose down this reaction naturally. Some people reach for homoeopathic remedies as hay fever first aid. Others find keeping a bottle of chewable vitamin C tablets close by helps. You see, vitamin C is a natural anti-histamine, helping calm that over-reaction to allergens like pollen. A word of caution though: this tip shouldn’t be tried for anaphylactic allergic reactions, and people with kidney problems should seek professional advice first. 

If you’d like to try this out, take a 500mg chewable vitamin C tablet next time your nose starts to tickle. You may notice your reaction diminishes in intensity. But if the pollens remain in the air you may have to take another tablet soon as encountering more of the pollen will trigger yet another sneezing session.

Some people find that eliminating foods renowned for triggering intolerances can help reduce the intensity of their hay fever; like dairy foods. You may need to try out one remedy or a combination of strategies to find what works for you. 

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No Wonder You're Not Excited About Breakfast

Saturday, September 01, 2018
It used to puzzle me that people don’t get excited about breakfast. But as I pondered the bowl of mushy bland nothingness in front of me while away from home, the reason became clear. This must be punishment food, surely? Then I realised: this packaged breakfast cereal is the first meal of the day for many people. Imagine launching a day’s work fueled by this unappealing sludge.

But it sure is convenient. This modern new product must have seemed a god-send a few decades ago for people who up until then had to stir porridge, fry eggs, tackle the inevitable washing up that comes with preparing real food. With the advent of packaged cereal all you had to do was open the box, pour into a bowl, add some milk, and eat. Breakfast was done, and only a bowl and spoon to wash. So fast.
But there was something missing: flavor. Being just processed grains, this soggy stuff is so flavourless that inducements are needed to make you eat it. Like sugar, that legal drug of addiction that can induce an energy slump just as you’re trying to concentrate at work. Which makes cereal not such a great way to fuel up for the day.

Yet eating is one of the great pleasures of life, wouldn’t you agree? And we have such an abundant supply of food in Australia, with endless variety. We’re actually so excited about food we have created entire reality television shows about cooking and filled miles of book shelves just about food: where you can get the best, what’s the most delicious way to prepare it. You might be one of the many people who get excited about what you could enjoy eating at the next meal. So why would you subject yourself to a bowl of insipid mush each morning?

If you make the time for it (organise yourself), breakfast can be something to look forward to. Full of flavor and texture. A chance for you to re-connect with your partner and family, to ponder the day ahead and power up with some high quality protein, good fats, and complex carbohydrates. 

How about a vegetable omelette, perhaps. Or maybe some leftover stew on toast. Even just a sliced hard-boiled egg, hummus and tomato slices on toast. Still quick to prepare, much more appealing for your taste buds than that processed sludge, and more power for your day ahead.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy this recipe for zucchini fritters, which would make a rather nice breakfast!

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The perils and perks of your selective memory

Saturday, August 25, 2018

There was a great movie released in 1997 called ‘Men in Black’. You know, one of those unrealistic yet hilarious action flicks where you could, temporarily, escape into a different world. The two heroes of the story, apparently charged with some Very Important Work in the world had a special device. If you had witnessed something they thought you shouldn’t have, they could erase all your memory of the event with the press of a button: “Just look at this light for a moment…”

Perhaps this fantastical device wasn’t all that far-fetched, as it seems it might already be operating in our own lives. And in fact, there’s a part of our brains that performs the same function.  As information comes in from our senses (like sight, sound, touch, taste, smell), your brain decides what’s worth paying attention to, what you should remember for a few minutes, and what should be remembered forever.  In short, what seems unimportant at the time is tossed away, forgotten.

A very useful attribute it is, too, because if you had to remember every small thing in your day: (like who you spoke to, what you said, how you felt, what you ate, which part of your body itched momentarily) you could soon feel quite overwhelmed. Instead, we pay attention to what seems to be important at the time.

Alas, when you’re focused on improving your health, this selective memory can be a hindrance. This ease in forgetting makes it possible to walk out of a consultation and almost immediately forget the practitioner’s advice; as though one of those devices had just erased your memory. The same thing can happen as you try to recall what symptoms have changed since your last meeting with them. You can’t remember because when it happened your brain didn’t deem it as something worth remembering. But that makes it harder to sense when you’re progressing too. So what can you do?

One tool you could use is a notebook. Write down the issue that you’re working to heal and each day make a brief note of how you’re going. What’s changing, whether you’re trying out a new therapy and how it’s going for you. Then at your next appointment you’ll be able to easily and accurately let them know how your treatment is progressing, how well you responded to what they prescribed, and what still needs to be attended to.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "Tips For Better Brain Health" 

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Tips For Better Brain Health

Tuesday, July 31, 2018
Nothing quite compares, I think, with the awful sensation that you’re losing control of your mind. Whether it’s a mood change that seems out of your control (like depression or anxiety), trauma that seems to hold your thoughts on a continual nightmare loop, loss of function through stroke or dementia, or a full blown mental illness that leaves you incapable of thinking straight. I don’t think anyone would queue up to experience any of these. 

But like any other organ in your body, your brain will respond well to the right care and feeding. So I’d like to pass on some tips for keeping the grey matter between your ears in resilient shape. 

Your brain, mostly consisting of fat cells, relishes certain types of food. It loves good fats, the omega-3 oils from green vegetables, seeds and oily fish. Fats help maintain the cells. Your brain loves high quality animal protein as well, like that from fish, eggs and meat. With this it creates the chemical messengers that help manage your mood. And what about fuel to do the work of thinking? For this, your brain appreciates a steady supply of glucose from low glycemic index complex carbohydrates. Like vegetables, oats and brown rice. 

The foods that research suggests your brain cells don’t appreciate include sugar, which is suspected to help create the brain-clogging plaques that bring on dementia. Also ‘bad’ fats like trans fats (think processed foods, pastries and the like) can tend to stiffen the oil membrane that surrounds each cell, making moving nutrients in and waste out of cells more challenging. 

But besides what you put in your mouth, there are also certain activities that support healthier brain function: Like daily meditation, which is a chance for your brain to take a conscious rest and reduces stress. Enough sleep is essential (usually 7-8 hours for most of us), because that’s when restorative growth hormone is secreted. Exercise, although it’s technically exercise for your body, also benefits your brain. Like meditation, exercise reduces stress; but it also builds muscle, which supports better blood glucose regulation. Having a purpose in life and being connected with your community helps too.

No matter what’s driving you to care for your brain better, take the simple steps of feeding it well, get enough rest and make sure you exercise. Then you’ll be less likely to experience that awful sense that your brain has slipped out of your control.

(By the way, this post was inspired by Dr Barbara Lipska's story "The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind". You can find out more about Dr Lipska and her book on her web site, here)

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "How To Clear The Mists Of Brain Fog"

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Kick sugar cravings to the curb with this key diet strategy

Saturday, July 21, 2018
There’s a major stumbling block that you’ve likely encountered whenever you’ve tried to reduce your sugar intake, or go on a weight loss diet: sweet cravings. Perhaps you’ve quit adding flavour syrup to your morning coffee. Or managed to walk past the chocolate display. Or replaced fruit juice with water. Then the grumblings from your brain begin: want sugar, now.

Your brain is quite experienced in convincing you to do what it wants, and it can generate some pretty nasty feelings of overwhelm as it tries to convince you that this is a life threatening situation: get sugar or you’ll die! If you’re particularly stressed, or tired, it’s even easier to give in and you’re back to square one: with the weight gain, ‘hangry’ episodes and mood swings that come with a sugar addiction. That’s so disheartening.

I’d like to show you a tweak to your diet that will quieten that dragon of sugar addiction. The ‘trick’ (if that’s the right term) is to include high quality (animal) protein at each meal along with fibre.

Animal protein works because biochemically, animal protein molecules are tough for your stomach to break apart, so food spends longer in your stomach. Also, protein doesn’t release energy as readily as carbohydrates, so it won’t spike your blood glucose like sugar and some simple carbohydrates do (think anything like cakes, biscuits, lollies). Fibre works for the same reason: it slows down the release of energy from food.

Changing your breakfast is a key strategy. Many people get caught by a growing sugar addiction because they have only a carbohydrate-rich cereal or muesli for breakfast. That kind of breakfast is almost guaranteed to ignite sugar cravings later on because it’s digested so quickly. If instead you have a couple of eggs, or some savoury mince, or even some leftover roast lamb on toast for breakfast, then sugar cravings, if they do come up, will be a distant murmur rather than a distracting drive to get hold of something sweet, soon. 

You can enjoy animal protein as a snack too. Even though it may feel a little odd to reach into your handbag for a hard-boiled egg at snack time, instead of a sweet muesli bar.

Gradually, as you overcome that pesky sugar addiction, you’ll notice your mood becomes more stable, and so does your energy levels. Now you’re winning the battle against sugar.

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Stories of Hope And Guidance

Saturday, July 14, 2018
If only it were a dream. Suddenly, you’re in this strange new landscape, feeling lost. You really just want to get home, to your usual life. If only a guide who has been here before would take your hand and lead you home. 

When you’ve had an accident, or a sudden troubling diagnosis, life might feel something like this. What used to be the familiar comforting landscape of your life has suddenly shifted to a place you don’t recognise. Maybe you’ve just woken up in hospital surrounded by beeping machines and people with clipboards using complicated words. Or you’ve just left the medical centre clutching the paper detailing your life-changing diagnosis. Either way, it’s like you’re in a bad dream. So, where’s the guide? How can you lose this sense of overwhelm and regain a sense of control?

Mercifully, no matter what your ailment, it’s likely someone else has experienced a very similar situation to what you’re facing. And they’ve taken the time to write down their journey. A librarian might call this kind of book a health biography. They can easily help you find those stories amongst the shelves because there are so many of them.

Some of these people might never have written a book before. But they’ve sat in many waiting rooms, fielded both useful and unhelpful advice, experienced the frustration of blind alleys when treatment didn’t work, and eventually worked out the treatment right for them.  Not only can they alert you to potential pitfalls in treatment, they can reassure you that there is a way through this.

As you read, you’ll likely learn about many other treatments that you might not have known existed. After all, there are a multitude of different ways to address any particular health problem. But each practitioner you’ve met in your journey so far might only be aware of a handful of other methods.

Before you head over to the library, though, keep one point in mind: Books are not ‘peer reviewed’ texts, and as occasional publishing scandals demonstrate (think Belle Gibson) it’s possible to put anything into print – factual or otherwise. So when you come across a potential solution that your biographer has suggested, do your research and check the facts. The library can help here, too.

You might find that through reading the stories of those who have travelled this landscape before you, you can find your way home.

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Life without cling wrap

Saturday, July 07, 2018

It’s one of the really big questions of life you might ponder while stretching plastic wrap over a freshly cut piece of pumpkin: what did we do with pumpkin pieces before cling wrap appeared on supermarket shelves in the early 1960s?

Turns out someone else has been thinking the same, with a recent reality television show examining how we used to live over each of the past sixty decades. A particularly interesting series because it seems we were somehow better nourished and less unwell as a population in the middle of last century. According to the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare’s latest report, half of us are now living with a chronic health condition. What was different then with how we managed our nutrition?

All it took was a sneak peek at the show’s trailer to supply the answers: there were two big differences in the way food was managed. One was the refrigerator: much smaller than modern models, less efficient, and the available freezer space was the size of a shoebox. As a result perishable food had to be purchased almost daily from the butcher and greengrocer; no need for cling wrap then. Plus, vegetables were often grown in the back yard, to pick fresh for the pot.

Keep in mind that fresh food begins to lose its water soluble vitamins and life force as soon as it is picked. The fresher the food that’s on your plate, the higher its nutrient content. So the way people shopped for and stored food back then automatically supplied more nutrients than what you could spear on your fork today.  Maybe that’s one reason they were healthier.

Of course we can’t go back to grocery shopping every day or so. Modern life isn’t like that for most of us, and fewer of us work in full time home management. But there are a couple of ways you can help ensure that your meal contains more nutrients. One is to utilise your local farmers market, where the awesomely fresh produce has often been picked only the day before.

Another is to grow your own vegetables and fruit. This isn’t as difficult or time consuming as you’d think. Even if you have a small courtyard or patio there are miniature gardening systems available that could supply your daily salad. Maybe, through small changes in how you manage food, you’ll never need to buy cling wrap again.

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Why do we keep catching new flu viruses?

Saturday, June 30, 2018
It’s the war with no end in sight. Each year a new crop of influenza virus appears seemingly out of nowhere. Catch it and the outcome for you is oceans of mucus, dragging aches and pains, and many days of work lost. You may wonder as you’re snuggled in bed with a box of tissues, hugging your hot water bottle, whether your immune system has been slack on the job. 

Why didn’t this apparently sophisticated collection of defence cells recognise the virus as soon as it landed on you, and overpower it? But your immune system isn’t being lazy; viruses have a cunning strategy: an ever-changing wardrobe of disguises. 

Once it gains entry to a cell, a virus heads straight to the control nucleus where the DNA codes are stored. If it’s fast enough, it will disengage the emergency signalling too. You see, if a cell knows it’s been invaded by a microbe it will usually alert the immune system that it’s infected – so destroy me. The immune system obliges: goodbye cell, and goodbye virus. Gotcha!

Viruses hide within cells because that’s there they reproduce and disguise themselves, creating new virus particles ready to explode the cell like a popped balloon when conditions are right (like if you’re tired and stressed). Each virus particle finds a new cell to take over, and the cycle continues. 

Your immune system creates a list of ‘viruses I recognise’. When it comes across a familiar virus, it prods your defence mechanisms into action. This takes time – longer the first time, but the second time the virus appears your immune system recognises and destroys the bug faster. However the flu viruses’ disguise can elude the immune system’s memory. Sneaky.

So next year, when a new flu virus invades our immune system thinks it’s seen this one before and launches the same defence. But the virus particle often escapes detection through that new camouflage. So the immune system doesn’t respond with appropriate vigour. Over-reaction, after all, would create quite a bit of collateral damage. So the response is too weak and you get to experience the symptoms.

We haven’t yet found a way to outwit the flu virus, so your best defences from a natural health perspective are to optimise your self-care through winter with rest and nourishing food, and keep your favourite flu-busting herbs on hand, especially those specific for tackling influenza viruses, whatever their disguise.

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The two dollar therapist

Saturday, June 23, 2018
Some weeks are so eventful you could keep a therapist busy for hours. So much happening around you or to you and life just presses on, busy as ever. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to talk it through with someone who won’t pass judgement on what you disclose?

If you have a good friend who can do this for you then you are one very lucky person. Ideally you would also have a therapist to turn to for help when life gets too eventful and you feel like you just need to talk. You know that just expressing is going to help you untangle your thoughts. But not everyone can afford to reach into their pockets for a professional listener like a counsellor, psychologist or psychotherapist. So what can you do then to work through those feelings?

You may actually have some tools on hand right now. One is paper and a pen, which you can pick up for under $2. Writing helps because you once you can get those thoughts out of your head and express them in words, they begin to unravel enough for you to gain new perspectives. There are no rules around this – you could choose to write pages and pages, or just create a brief bullet-point list. You can choose to save what you’ve written and return to it later, possibly gaining even greater understanding as a result. Or you can choose to burn or drown what you’ve written. 

Another way to express your feelings is through art. For some folk the ultimate form of therapy is to pick up a canvas, paints and brushes, and get immersed in expressing how they feel. 

Yet another form of expression is through dance. Here, you could close the blinds and switch off your phone, switch on the music and use your body to physically express what’s happening inside your head.

What can you expect to get out of this? Possibly a sense of relief that your head isn’t about to explode from the pressure of unexpressed feelings. Maybe a new perspective, greater understanding of what happened, why you did what you did or why ‘they’ behaved that way. And perhaps you’ll just feel better, inexplicably. Worth trying out, perhaps? Like I said, there are no rules about how you’re supposed to do this.

And if you’re still feeling stuck? Well, you could engage your professional listener. We’re here to help.

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Olwen Anderson @olwenanderson


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