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Olwen Anderson's Blog

Time for an environmental detox?

Saturday, December 16, 2017
If you’re keen to minimise the impact of artificial chemicals on your health, then the highly processed foods probably don’t make it into your supermarket cart. But it’s easy to overlook the external sources of chemical overload that have become pervasive in our modern world; particularly considering researchers voice concerns about their safety. Think you don’t encounter many chemicals in your life? Maybe you don’t. But consider this normal day for many of us –

In the morning, you washed your hair with fragranced shampoo, anointed your skin with fragranced deodorant and maybe perfume too. If you don’t already have a shower filter, your lungs took in chlorine gas from the municipal water supply. Bet you could still smell the laundry powder fragrance on your clean clothes. Gives you pause, doesn’t it, when you realise that our skin and our lungs are actually quite permeable to chemicals.

Then you prepared breakfast (on the surfaces cleaned with chemicals) and filled the teapot with unfiltered water (more chlorine and fluoride here). Don’t forget the cloud of artificial fragrance that you breathed in when you opened the kitchen bin with its perfumed liner. Maybe you heated your food in plastic containers – plenty of hormone disrupting chemicals in them.

Working in the garden today? All those plants and nature are really good for you – but are there insecticides or weed killers in your garden shed?

Well, maybe it’s better to just stay home. But inside a sealed house isn’t advisable though, as brand new upholstery or carpet emits fumes.  As do air freshener sprays. Your car presents the same problem, particularly if you use chemical cleaners or air freshener devices. But then there’s exhaust fumes to consider too.

Your nose deliberately switches off from this cacophony of smells after a while, but you’ll still take in fumes, and removing them increases the workload for your liver and kidneys just as effectively as eating food laced with artificial chemicals and preservatives.

By this time you might have decided that it’s safer to just stay in bed, perhaps. It’s true, we can’t live in isolation to completely avoid chemical contact. But it’s certainly possible to reduce your toxic load in lots of small ways that really add up. Where to start? You could consider purchasing unfragranced products, debate whether you really need perfumed bin liners and artificial air fresheners.

Maybe, this new year, the ‘detox’ you need to do is an environmental detox.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Lessons From The Plant Hospital' 

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Food intolerance mystery insights

Saturday, December 09, 2017
When your stomach doesn’t feel good, it’s natural to think back to what you last ate and blame that – particularly if your last meal was yet another end-of-year function with catering of dubious quality. 

Although it’s tempting to attribute the tummy rumbling, gas and bloating to what you ate recently, if you have food intolerances you actually need to think about what you ate over the last four days; because your immune system will tolerate a certain amount of a problem food, and only when you exceed your limit within four days that the symptoms might ignite.

The way it works is predictable in some ways and not in others. The IgG immunoglobulins are the The immune system patrol members responsible for managing food intolerances. These immunoglobulins will allow a certain amount of a problem food substance to pass by unchallenged. But exceed that self-imposed limit within four days, and the battle begins. 

Immunoglobulins call in extra support against this ‘invader’, sensitive cells become inflamed, the normally tight barrier in your bowel wall becomes porous, which means the battle can spill over into your bloodstream. What you might experience from this are symptoms like odd rashes, bowel discomfort, mood changes and the like.

There’s another, complicating element to this situation too. When you are under stress (i.e your cortisol levels are elevated), your immune system has less tolerance for problem foods than it usually does. Translated into real life, let’s look at a common food intolerance culprit, dairy. Your first exposure (perhaps with party pizza) is unlikely to cause problems. Consume more dairy the next day (an ice cream, maybe) and you could be getting close to your body’s upper tolerance. Let’s imagine the day after that you enjoyed a cheese tasting function and exceeded the IgG limits. 

Now your tummy might start rumbling or that odd rash re-appears; the one you’ve never quite been able to find the cause of. As long as you don’t have any more dairy for a few days, your symptoms are likely to diminish. But unless you’re savvy to what foods your body tolerates, and doesn’t, you might be unfairly blaming just the final dairy exposure, the cheese platter, for how you’re feeling.

The key to remaining ahead of your food intolerances is, when you experience the sense of “that food didn’t agree with me”, think over what you’ve eaten for the past four days, not just one.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'Identify Your Food Intolerance', here

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Giving the (wanted) gift of good health

Saturday, December 02, 2017
There are gifts that make you feel like the giver really ‘gets’ you and somehow knows what would delight you. Generates that warm, fuzzy, loved feeling, doesn’t it? And then there’s - well, ever been given a Christmas ‘gift’ with a hidden message? Like bathroom scales, or a gym membership? Bet you didn’t feel all that grateful for the covert message behind that choice: “you should be different from who you are”.

So what do you give someone who says they want to get healthier without offending them? Choosing an appropriate gift that they’ll value can be tricky, though there are some gifts more likely to generate a heartfelt ‘thanks’. Here are some ideas if you find yourself in that Christmas conundrum.

Most people love a massage – perhaps a voucher for a relaxation massage with an accredited practitioner could make you very popular. While you’re there, why not pick up a voucher for yourself too?

What about a fruit box, filled with exotic fruits and nuts? Many local fruiterers provide this service – you just nominate the amount you want to spend and whether you want specific varieties excluded, they’ll do the rest. It’s usually gift wrapped for you too. If you’re feeling particularly generous, consider subscribing them to a regular delivery.

Fielding hints that your giftee wants to play tennis, go kayaking, or ride a bike? Maybe sports equipment would be a valued gift. Or perhaps they would prefer the experience alongside you: Then a kayaking or snorkelling tour might be just the thing.  If you want to spend more time with your kids, perhaps some active toys like football, even a backyard croquet set.

Or, if your beloved could do with a little R&R, consider a relaxing river tour where everything is laid on and they get to just enjoy the scenery with the food laid on, the cleaning up done. With your company, of course!

The kind of unhelpful and unappreciated healthy gifts to avoid are those that communicate your intended really could do better with their health; if only they would try harder. It’s thoughts like this that lead some people to find the kind of ‘gift’ they’d never want under the Christmas tree: like bathroom scales or a treadmill. A tip, too: If you find yourself on the receiving end of gifts like this, there are many self-help relationship restoration books you could choose to bestow upon them next year.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'How to cope better with the lead up to Christmas' here

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Why you can get sick just as you start your holiday

Saturday, November 25, 2017
Finally, you’re on holiday. The mobile phone is off, there’s no way you can access your email, and you’re ready for some well-deserved R&R with no plans but to sit by the pool sipping cocktails. When you eventually get out of bed, that is.

But why, why, why would you get sick just when, for the first time in months or years, you can finally truly relax? It seems like a cruel irony of life that you’d come down with symptoms of a flu-like illness soon after you start your holidays. After all, relaxation is supposed to boost your immunity, isn’t it?
Well, yes, but there’s been something going on – or more to the point, not happening – over the months or years you’ve been working hard.

We all come into contact with viruses and unhelpful bacteria all day every day. And normally our immune system is constantly on patrol for these invaders. Ideally, as soon as immune patrol cells spot a bug it’s annihilated. Potential infections are wiped out, rogue cells are destroyed, and a peaceful balance prevails.

This situation changes when you’re under stress. In the short term (minutes to hours) your immune system sparks up. This harks back to our stone-age genes, where the immune system helps you recover from injury incurred while escaping from a physical threat. But unless that stressor is resolved soon the reverse happens – your immune system is actually restricted by the ongoing secretion of stress hormones.

Your immunity can still function to a limited degree, but not as effectively as it usually would. That means low level infections can creep in and set up a comfortable home, secure in the knowledge that your immune system hasn’t got the resources to mount an attack.

Release the stress, however, and your immune system will rebound into action: now it has permission to tackle the bugs. But that creates the kinds of symptoms that you get when you have an infection: aching joints, fatigue, rivers of mucus. What you experience is actually the collateral damage of the immune system in action creating symptoms. You haven’t just caught a cold, your body has finally got the resources to fight an infection that’s been there all along.

This is why it’s so important to keep up your stress-busting health practices, like exercise, meditation, time out and the like – even when you’re busy – because who wants to feel sick on their holiday?

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

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Is your iron shortage slowing your thyroid too?

Saturday, November 18, 2017
The challenge, when you’re a woman, and feeling simply exhausted by life, is to find out what’s causing the fatigue so you can do something about it. Blokes get tired too, of course, but there are uniquely female sources of fatigue.

It’s all too easy to dismiss female exhaustion as inevitable as we juggle so many tasks like earning a living, managing the household, parenting, and the relationship with your partner. Then hopefully, too, time to attend to our own health and fitness. A cursory investigation of your weariness might miss what could be the cause: Iron shortage, or an underactive thyroid, or both; surprisingly, one can affect the other.

Many women are already savvy about how much impact a shortage of iron can have on your stamina, how easy it is to run low on this important minerals, and how frustratingly slow it can be to rebuild your iron stores. (Here’s a tip: If you’re menstruating it’s a good idea to review your iron status with your GP every year. Make sure you keep a copy of the results).  When you read your iron study, check not just for your serum iron, but your serum ferretin level too; I’ll explain in a moment how the latter is connected with your thyroid function.

Serum iron is in a form that’s available for use right now: building new blood cells that will carry oxygen, and helping form enzymes that make biochemical reactions happen. Serum ferretin is also iron, but enclosed within a protein molecule. Effectively it is iron in reserve, to be converted into serum iron as needed. But your thyroid gland is interested in utilising the ferretin form.

Enzymes are continually being produced within your thyroid to convert the raw materials of iodine, zinc, selenium, tyrosine and the like into thyroid hormone. The enzyme that does this, thyroid peroxidase, uses iron in the ferretin form. Insufficient ferretin iron can lead to a shortfall in thyroid hormone, which leads to inadequate energy production in your body, and you’re now struggling to generate enough energy for your busy day.

But like any chicken-and-egg mystery, the question remains: If you’re tired, does that mean you’re tired because you’re low on iron, or tired because your thyroid gland isn’t working well enough? Or both? Worth looking into, perhaps. After all, as a woman you need your body to be in top shape to keep juggling all those tasks.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'How Well Is Your Thyroid' 

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How your mind is controlling your digestion

Saturday, November 11, 2017
There’s a very unhelpful statement frequently tossed at those suffering irritable bowel symdrome, or IBS: “it’s all in your mind”. Mercifully less nowadays, as we understand more of how our bodies function. IBS isn’t all in your mind of course, but there’s a good reason why those calming activities you’re advised to participate in make a difference. What makes them challenging is that much of what happens with your body is outside your conscious control.

There’s a section of your brain, the amygdala, which constantly scans the environment for potential threats to your safety. The amygdala knows what’s happening around you even before the conscious brain is working out what your senses are communicating.  This is why you can sometimes feel distressed even before you encounter ‘that’ smell, the one that reminds you of an unpleasant event earlier in your life.

Standing by for instructions from the amygdala are your sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system. The former gets everything in your body geared up to escape from a threat and switches off digestion; the latter allows your body to calm down, rest, and resume digestion. The balance between the two is rather like two people taking turns to drive a car.

If the amygdala says so, your sympathetic nervous system grabs the controls of involuntary muscles like your heartbeat and breathing rate. Only bodily processes designed to help you escape get energy, so digestion is switched off or diarrhoea induced. Once the amygdala has decided the threat has passed it permits the parasympathetic nervous system to take back the controls. This is a much calmer driver of your nervous system, allowing you to rest and continue digesting, quietly, unless the amygdala decides there’s another threat to address.

But what if your amygdala is over-reactive, imagines a threat is always present, and keeps the sympathetic nervous system in the drivers’ seat? Then you can expect digestive problems: like inadequate secretion of digestive enzymes leading to heartburn, mis-timing of bowel motions leading to IBS and the like.

This is where stress busting activities supports better digestion. So although it’s not all in your mind, what’s in your mind certainly has a powerful impact. Engage your senses to soothe your amygdala so it doesn’t hand over to the sympathetic nervous system: calming smells, soothing sounds (like music), a beautiful view, even certain textures like a favourite fabric can help keep the amygdala calm.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "Tips for Improved Digestion As You Age" 

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The Most Natural Remedy for Post Viral Fatigue

Saturday, November 04, 2017
It’s been a whopper of a flu season, don’t you think? So many struck down with one variety or another of the viral illness, and those of us who managed to dodge becoming infected had to reach frequently for our favourite cold and flu preventatives. If you were one of those badly hit, did you have to take time off work or study? More to the point, did you take time off? If you didn’t, and the flu is still hanging on, may I suggest a natural remedy.

Battling a viral infection uses up an immense amount of energy. So does the inflammation that creates the symptoms like the aching joints and oceans of mucus. That’s why you feel tired when you have the flu, and that’s why complete rest is a key strategy for recovery. By ‘complete rest’ I mean extra time in bed, more sleep, or at least spending time on the couch. That’s because when you rest your body gets a chance to gain the upper hand over the virus and prevent the inflammatory process becoming chronic. Your body can focus all its energies on getting well again.

Alas, some folk insist on soldiering on regardless of how their body is struggling. They push themselves out the door to work and generally behave as though nothing was happening. Problem is, this means the immune system never quite gets a chance to overcome the infection properly, and inflammatory processes causing fatigue, aches and pains can become chronic.

This doesn’t just happen with the influenza bug, but also with any of the mosquito borne viral infections we get around here, like Ross River Virus, Barmah Virus and the like. The key strategy to overcome them faster, and more completely, is through complete rest. Even though it’s frustrating to take time off work, say no to community commitments and decline party invitations, rest is your key tactic.

If you choose to just soldier on, you can expect you’ll be dragging yourself through many more weeks of feeling weary than if you had just come to a complete stop for a few days. Worse, some of those symptoms, like the aching joints and muscles, might not go. 

So, if it seems the last time you felt really well was before you caught that flu, and if you just can’t seem to shake it off, perhaps you could engage the effective and very natural strategy of complete rest. 

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'chicken soup for colds & flu' 

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How to make it easier to exercise

Saturday, October 28, 2017
There are some that just do it, some that will only if a friend comes along, and some that put it off until tomorrow (although tomorrow never comes). Some don’t even think about doing it. I’m talking about exercise. Maybe you’d really like to get fit but it’s just not happening. What if you could leverage your natural personality traits to make fitness training easier?

Or, do you want to get fit and yet find it’s somehow impossible to actually strap on those training shoes and get out the door? A recently published book, ‘The Four Tendencies’, might help light up the way for you. It’s a very readable text about what motivates certain people to do particular things for certain reasons. The book divides people’s motivations into four types:

1. There’s the ‘upholder’ type who is self-motivated regardless of what others are doing. This is the kind of person who somehow manages to exercise regularly, regardless. 

2. There’s also the ‘questioner’; this type who will only exercise when they devise their own fitness regime based on their own research and opinions. 

3. Another type is the ‘obliger’ who is motivated through relationship; these are the people who can’t seem to exercise unless other people are relying on them to be there. 

4. Finally, there’s the ‘rebel’ who won’t be told what to do – the kind of person who would deliberately refuse to exercise in response to recommendations that they do.

There’s a quiz associated with the book too, at which might help you  make discoveries that pave the way to actually make exercise happen. (Look for ‘The Four Tendencies Quiz’). For example, if you’re an ‘obliger’, then teaming up with others to exercise together will actually make it more likely you’ll exercise because others are relying on you to join in.  Discover you’re a ‘questioner’? Well, you’ll probably get moving once you’ve done the research, identified what you consider to be the right exercise, and designed your own program. If you’re a ‘rebel’ type there’s no point at all in making suggestions about how to exercise, because you’ll only train if it’s something you want to do! And if you’re an ‘upholder’? Well, then, you’re probably already exercising daily and enjoying the benefits. 

Curious? Why not try out the quiz; it just might help you understand why you’re having trouble exercising, and how to manage yourself more easily to make it happen.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "Exercise is Good For Everything" 

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Your cells love a good conversation

Saturday, October 14, 2017
Sometimes it’s nice to simply take some time alone with your thoughts, to enjoy some refreshing solitude. Then you’re ready to head back out into the world, to reconnect with people. As well as time alone, it seems like our cells get healthier with people contact, and decline when we become too isolated from our community.

One of the earlier studies about the impact of connection on health was an investigation of a particularly cohesive immigrant community in the USA. Now known as the Roseto study, it was triggered when a physician noticed the members of a nearby close-knit immigrant community, Roseto, were less susceptible to chronic disease than other local communities despite being smokers and indulging in unhealthy food. Researchers concluded their community connections boosted their health more than smoking and what they ate undermined it.

This was about 50 years ago; and although in some respects we’re more closely connected (through social media), it seems easier than ever to isolate yourself from the people you live amongst. Perhaps you live alone, have retired or don’t work, or you’ve moved to a new area where you don’t yet know anyone.  Paradoxically, it can be easier to isolate yourself in the more densely populated areas, and much harder to live as a hermit further away from the towns. For example, if you live in a rural corner of the valley you’ll most likely know who your neighbours are; in a large block of apartments, though, it’s all too easy to remain a stranger to those living close by.

Without regular in-person people contact you can become vulnerable to mental health problems like depression; a mental health disorder which, cruelly, makes it even harder to re-connect and creates its own form of punishing solitary confinement. It turns out that our cells love a good conversation, with another person, face to face.  Somehow, just having a ‘how’s the weather’ chat actually boosts your health. 

There’s a limit to this, of course, and it’s true that contact with other people can bring tension. When that happens it’s time to take time out, enjoy some solitude and recharge your enthusiasm for people contact. Once you’ve had a little time alone the best thing you can do for your health is get back out there and talking with people, in person. “People who need people” (to cite a popular song) really do remain healthier, both mentally as well as physically.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'Being connected to your community', here

Image credit: Jessica Gale via MorgueFile

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Loving the disease that's keeping you healthy

Saturday, October 07, 2017
Twenty years ago a certain book was first published with a title designed to get your attention – and maybe make you a little bit angry too: “Love Your Disease, It’s Keeping You Healthy”. I confess to feeling more than a little irritated myself: It smacked of an unhelpful “you brought this upon yourself” attitude. Did this title annoy you as well?  Surely the author isn’t suggesting that being unwell is a good thing? 

But I read it, and eventually the title made sense. Then over the last decade or so of clinical practice I began to see where he was coming from. Today I’d like to share with you why this medical doctor author might just be correct about the connection between disease and health.

Virtually all of us have at least one health challenge to manage. Perhaps there’s some part of you that’s never worked completely because you were born that way. Maybe something went awry with your mental health or hormones in adolescence. Possibly a series of health challenges have seemingly just descended on you out of nowhere. Maybe an accidental injury has changed your life. Maybe you’ve been able to avoid any health challenges.  But sooner or later, most of us get at least one. 

Having a health issue, injury or disability to manage, especially the chronic variety, often means you have to take extra actions as preventative maintenance. Like, for example, a daily stretching routine to help you minimise your pain and maximise mobility. Or maybe you have to include or avoid certain foods to keep your digestion content. Perhaps ensuring you get enough sleep and meditate daily so your brain supports your mood and mental health better. Funny thing is - stretching, eating well, meditating and sleeping enough are great health boosters on their own.

If you were one hundred per cent healthy and functional you might regard these activities as optional extras in life. But then you might not do them at all, feeling you could get away with those unhealthy practices. But because your particular health challenge forces you to eat well, manage your movement and coddle your brain, for you these health practices have become compulsory.

Was this what the author, Dr Harrison was trying to communicate?  He’s recently re-released the book, plus two other books, one focussed on smoking. Maybe you’d enjoy reading them too – if you can get past the unfortunate titles.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'What's different about functional medicine' 

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Olwen Anderson @olwenanderson


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