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Olwen Anderson's Blog

Fermented foods and your gut health

Saturday, March 19, 2016

“So what are we going to do with this big pile of cabbages?” You can imagine the dilemma faced by the early adopters of agriculture practices some 10,000 years ago. As we moved from hunting & gathering to growing our own food new challenges emerged: we used to just forage what we needed at the time and move on, now we grew what we wanted to eat. But there are only so many ways you can cook fresh cabbage. Some seasons were amazingly abundant; hence the pile of vegetables to be used somehow. Or maybe it was olives.  Or apples. Perhaps milk. Could they be preserved for the hungry winter months?

Who knows how the early adopters of fermented foods developed sauerkraut, pickled olives, turned apples into apple cider vinegar, cultured milk into yoghurt, or transformed rice into miso. Whether it was accidental or a long process of trial and error, the outcome was a really helpful food that also tastes good. Our ancestors didn’t realise it, but they had developed the first functional foods that could boost health as well as taste good and preserve food.
Whatever the form of fermented food being created, the process is the same: Create an environment that commensal (friendly) bacterial like to live in: Short on oxygen, rich on foods they like to feed on; similar to the environment in our intestines. 

Although it’s inside your body, as far as your immune system is concerned the lining of your gut is like an inside skin, to protect you from invaders as well as enable absorption of nutrients. So your immune system patrols your intestines as carefully as it patrols other inside/outside surfaces like the inside of your nose and lungs. Helpful resident bacteria like those found in fermented foods help maintain health by outnumbering and out-competing disease producing bacteria that could incite inflammation and infection. 

We’ve learnt to coexist happily with good bacteria like the lactobacillus and bifidobacteria species. We provide a comfortable base on mucous, and keep up a supply of food the bacteria enjoy, like soluble fibre from vegetables. The bacteria, in return, digest and ferment the food, enabling it to be absorbed as nutrients. What fermented food does is provide a fresh supply of those friendly bacteria. 

Different cultural groups have developed their own unique fermented foods based on abundant harvests, and then recipes to enjoy them. You don’t have to develop or buy your own exotic cultured food; every day foods like olives, yoghurt, apple cider vinegar, sauerkraut and pickles all qualify as fermented good-for-you foods. Eating healthy made easy!

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'How Can I Get Probiotics If I Can't Eat Yoghurt'

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Supplement buyer beware

Sunday, March 13, 2016
Alvimann via morguefileThe bottle looks professionally labelled. The claims listed and their web site look genuine, and your sister’s friend’s cousin said they were good. So should you pick up your credit card to order online?

Buying health supplements over the internet from overseas seems so simple, and cheaper. You just pay and they post. No need to attend an appointment with a trained natural health practitioner. How easy can it get! After all, ‘natural’ means ‘harmless’ doesn’t it? The latest reports of people whose health has been destroyed through supplements of uncertain origin that they self-prescribed demonstrates otherwise.

It’s often more costly to buy supplements within Australia; one reason is our safety net: Therapeutic supplements sold in our country are rigorously scrutinised by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, a government regulatory body. This provides two big advantages for practitioners and for consumers: For practitioners, it means that when prescribing a supplement scrutinised by the TGA we can be confident that the contents match what’s on the label. Supplements purchased overseas don’t offer this protection.

The need for a manufacturer to jump through the hoops of the TGA approval process and ongoing checks adds considerably to the cost of bringing a new product to the marketplace. And engaging a trained practitioner to choose the right dose and check the supplement doesn’t clash with your medication increases what you have to pay, making self-prescribing from overseas tempting.

Some manufacturers in countries with less rigorous regulation than ours can be remarkably cavalier about the source of their ingredients and the accuracy of their content labels. This can result in herb substitutions, and raw materials adulterated with who knows what. Mostly this doesn’t have an impact, but you’ll hear the tragic stories when things go wrong. Like this report or this story.  Then the cheaper option isn’t so inexpensive.

The system isn’t perfect, understandably. Sometimes regulators seem too stringent; or supportive research is rejected. But overall, it’s helpful. If you find the AUST-L or AUST-R number on the label then you know that the supplement you’re purchasing has been screened by the TGA.  (Functional foods slip under the radar of the TGA, so an Australian supplement-like product may actually be classified as a food, not a supplement, and aren’t regulated).

If you choose to buy your supplements from overseas, keep in mind that you can’t be as confident of the contents as you can with products that have been screened by the TGA. Buyer beware.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Why self prescribing might not be such a good idea after all'

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Why not salad for breakfast

Saturday, February 27, 2016
Salad with breakfast? Well, why not? The question came up as I spoke with a group of women last weekend about optimising their health past 40. We were talking about how easy it was to create a protein and vegetable based breakfast. And in hot weather, why not make it salad instead of hot vegetables?  Their reaction really highlighted how certain meal ingredients become the unquestioned norm.

You’re probably familiar with a vegetable based breakfast already, if you enjoy some fried eggs with mushroom and tomato, or perhaps an omelette including spring onions, leftover sweet potato and some cherry tomatoes. It’s really simple to create an egg-and-vegetable breakfast once you get used to the routine.

During winter a hot breakfast is comforting. But what about the really hot and humid days, when cooking a hot breakfast seems ridiculous? Why not opt for a breakfast salad on summer days?

It probably seems odd because it’s out of the ordinary. For the last few decades we’ve been culturally attuned to sweet breakfasts. It’s become the new normal. Children grow up thinking that breakfast is sweet, poured out of a cardboard box and spooned out of a bowl. (Whether it’s a commercial cereal or muesli, it’s likely that there are lots of sugary ingredients). Or a slice of toast with a sweet spread. And yet a hundred years ago breakfast out of a packet was unheard off. 

Breakfast then was porridge, toast, eggs, and yes, vegetables like mushrooms and tomatoes.  As today, any other type of breakfast in those days seemed unthinkable, ridiculous.  Perhaps it’s time to start a new breakfast trend for the 21st century that fits with a modern lifestyle; where we seek health as well as convenience. 

Salad’s pretty quick to throw together, so here are some ideas for a salad-and-protein based breakfast: Instead of just fried mushrooms and poached eggs on toast, why not have some crisp rocket or dandelion leaves on the side with some cherry tomatoes and finely sliced salad onion?  If it’s too hot to cook, you could have some hard-boiled egg and avocado on seed crackers with a mixed greens salad on the side and a tangy dressing.

This may sound like an adventurous breakfast, but if you’re up for an adventure, why not?

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy this recipe for a breakfast vegetable omelette.

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How to develop helpful habits

Saturday, February 20, 2016
Image credit FidlerJan via MorguefileDo you brush your teeth every day? Probably you do. How do you remember to pick up your toothbrush and the toothpaste? Now, if I asked you this in person you might start asking yourself questions too. Like “why am I talking to this crazy woman?” and “do I have bad breath?” But we’re not talking in person, and I can’t tell whether you have bad breath or not at this distance, so you can relax and read on.

The reason I’m asking you is all to do with healthy habits and what this has to do with improving your health.
First, let’s look at how you developed the habitual practice of daily toothbrush use. Your parents probably helped you start, providing a tiny soft toothbrush and reminding you, every day, for years on end, to brush your teeth before bed. They knew that without persistent prompting what happens between your gums wouldn’t be on your mind from one dentist visit to another. So they took on the thankless task of helping you remember.

The toothpaste manufacturers played a part in this too, through creating a reward. After brushing your teeth you get to experience a clean fresh feeling. After a few years you didn’t have to be reminded to look after your pearly whites, it was an ingrained habit with ongoing reward.

It’s hard to establish new habits; life can get in the way, events happen, and you forget, just like you did as a toddler. You can use the same technique your parents used to develop new health habits you want, like exercising daily: Remind yourself every day, and provide a reward. Expect to have to keep this up for months to years before it becomes an unconscious habit. Please don’t ask your parents to do this for you, they’ve done their work just helping you keep your teeth. 

Mobile phones are a fabulous tool for developing a new health habit like exercise. You can set up a recurring appointment reminder. Or there are plenty of apps that can measure how many steps you take, what distance you covered, and how you’re progressing overall. The apps will reward you with achievement badges, and even help you share your progress on social media if you want to. 

Having the app doesn’t spare you from actually doing the work, but it does make it much easier to keep practising the habit until it’s just part of your life. Like brushing your teeth.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'why its so hard to change your health habits'

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Plastic and your hormones in PCOS

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Take a look around you now, right where you are, and notice how many items around you contain plastic. The keyboard I’m typing this on is made of plastic, as is the standing desk converter. The printer, the plant pots, even the fan whirring in the corner. Although plastic is a helpfully versatile medium to create almost anything with, it’s not so helpful when it comes to our hormones.

Our modern environment is considerably polluted; every day our bodies come into contact with man-made chemicals that we’re just not designed to process and get rid of effectively; our genes haven’t evolved fast enough to handle them. Since we developed a love of plastic and its versatility over the last century and a half  our exposure has multiplied exponentially.Plastic and the pollution it creates is so prevalent that all you can do is minimise your exposure.

Manufacturers are now focused on creating safer plastics, but more research keeps emerging about how this man made substance causes us harm.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a component of plastics. It’s useful for plastics manufacturers because it makes plastics more resilient and flexible, clearer, more resistant to heat. Since the first plastic items were invented during the 19th century our society has fallen in love with this versatile, light material. It’s now used extensively in food and drink packaging, medical devices, compact discs, epoxy-phenolic resins, in drinking water storage tanks, and in water pipes. It’s everywhere, and modern life seems impossible without plastic.

Although plastic is waterproof, the BPA within the plastic leaches easily into the contents of a food or drink container. Even more easily if the contents are acidic, have a high fat content, or are heated. BPA is then readily absorbed in your mouth, transferring across mucous membranes into the rich web of blood vessels that sit under your tongue. From there the molecules can travel through your body, escaping detection because at first glance your body thinks its a hormone molecule.

Eating and drinking is actually the major way we ingest BPA, but it isn’t the only way. You can absorb it through your skin, breathe it in too. When you consider that BPA is part of dental materials, contact lenses, thermal paper, and in many other objects, you get a sense of how pervasive it has become in our world. Once in your body BPA mimics estradiol, one of the estrogen hormones. So now your body thinks it has more estrogen in circulation than it planned for. 

Here’s what BPA does in various parts of your body. This list isn’t exhaustive; consider that many cells in your body possess oestrogen receptors. 

- When BPA molecules land on your ovaries, they stimulate the theca cells within them to produce more androgens.  The Androgens down-regulate the liver enzyme involved in clearing BPA from your body. So now you have more androgens in your system and less ability to break them down.

- Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG) is affected by BPA too. Remember that SHBG ‘mops up’ excess hormones in your system (like excess androgens). The BPA molecule attaches itself to SHBG; so again, excess hormones remain in circulation.

- There’s a compound your body produces, testosterone hydroxylase, that breaks down testosterone to keep levels in check. BPA inhibits the work of this enzyme, contributing to increased testosterone levels.

- Animal studies have shown BPA interferes with thyroid hormone production too. Perhaps this is why PCOS and hypothyroidism can occur together.

- Animal studies have also revealed that BPA alters the endometrial lining where a fertilised egg would normally attached.

- Because it mimics estrogen, BPA is suspected to contribute to early onset of puberty.

- BPA also interferes with your pancreas function, impairing blood glucose regulation. Considering that insulin resistance is a major underlying cause of PCOS, this is profound.

BPA has a half life of just over five hours, which means it’s constantly being broken down and excreted through urine. However the more you keep taking it in and the less functional your liver, the higher your BPA accumulation. So although BPA is not a cause of PCOS, it can certainly intensify it.

How does BPA get into your system? You can ingest it in contaminated food or water, absorb it through your skin or inhale it; but the main source of exposure is food or water contaminated through contact with BPA-containing plastic. You’ve probably noticed more and more plastic products promoted as ‘BPA-free’, and that’s certainly one way to reduce your exposure to this suspect toxin. 

That doesn’t mean that BPA is the only environmental toxin that could be affecting your hormones; just that BPA is the plastic toxin we know more about. In the meantime, it's a good idea to minimise your exposure to plastic wherever practical.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'adipokines the key to shifting your tubby tummy in PCOS'

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Get the dose right

Tuesday, February 02, 2016
I watched a man, clearly in pain, lean heavily on the checkout counter. You know, the kind of pain that makes you wince internally. He was buying a handful of turmeric root . My distracted mind ran away with the idea that he must have heard somewhere about the inflammation-calming properties of turmeric and headed out to buy some. I could have been wrong, he might have been just creating a very powerful curry, and I didn’t want to pry. I just hope he didn’t’ give up on herbal remedies if that little bundle of fresh turmeric didn’t solve his problem.

The experience reminded me how many times people have stated, dismissively, they’ve tried herbs and they don’t work. Or, they’ve heard about how useful a particular herb is for the condition that ails them, so they’re including a sprig of it on their salad.  What they don’t realise (and what I’d like to remind you) is something all trained herbalists learn: You need a therapeutic dose to make a difference; enough of the active constituents of that herb to treat an ailment. ‘Enough’ for treating a particular condition might be far more than you can get in food.

Here’s what has to happen to herbs to create a therapeutic dose in western herbalism: The plant is collected and dried, then processing starts: Roots and bark are usually soaked in a fluid that extracts the constituents that do the good work. Plants are often packed into a long tube and alcohol or glycerine dripped through so that the therapeutic constituents move out of the plant and into the liquid. Soft material like leaves and flowers give up their precious elements easily – harder material like bark or roots takes a lot longer.

An ethical manufacturer tests herbs several times; before processing to check that the species is authentic (substitution is an ongoing problem); after processing too, to check that the right proportion of active ingredients are present.

The manufacturer’s label recommends a dose range based on its historical use and recent scientific research findings. Then the herbalist chooses the right dose for the person based on their size, how many other herbs are also being used, and the degree of their need. They also check that the herbs won’t clash with prescription medications being used.

Complex, huh? By all means include wonderful herbs in your cooking to reap some benefit; but if you have an ailment the best results will come from consulting with a professional herbalist.

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Olwen Anderson @olwenanderson


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