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Olwen Anderson's Blog

Managing When Memories Flood Back

Saturday, March 31, 2018
I wrote this article for the local paper on the anniversary of the devastating floods that hit our town in March 2017. But you can apply these techniques to your memory of any awful happening.

It’s been a year now, and a lot of water has gone under the bridge, so to speak. We’ve hosed away the mud, and supported each other through the process of rebuilding our community. But even though life seems to have returned to normal, many of us now feel nervous when it rains. Thinking that it could all happen again can rattle even the strongest of us.

If cyclone season makes you particularly nervous this year there’s a good reason, and there are strategies you can use to help yourself cope.  First, through knowing how your mind works, then working with it. 

As far as your brain is concerned, it’s important to keep scanning the environment for potential threats. If your senses of sight, sound, smell or touch detect something that reminds you of the flood (like the sound of rain, the sight of the river coming up or the smell of mud) your brain is instantly alerted: you’re in danger. As a result your emotions take you right back to how you felt at the time of the flood and physical indications follow. This reaction is really helpful when there’s an actual threat; not so helpful when it’s just a memory.

A key technique when this happens is to get an important message through to your brain: that there’s no genuine threat in this moment and although there was a flood last year you’re actually safe right now, right here. Some people find gently reminding themselves that it’s just a memory is enough. Others find it helpful to use the physical sense of touch or smell to bring themselves back to the present.  Touching or smelling an object that makes you feel good can help; perhaps a favourite blanket, or a smell that triggers happier memories. 

You might not be coping despite these strategies. Signs you could use extra help include 
  • having trouble managing your moods (particularly when ‘triggered’ by a memory), 
  • if you’re using alcohol or drugs to manage your feelings, 
  • notice your relationships are struggling, 
  • you find yourself going ‘spacey’ when those memories materialise, 
  • nightmares or flashbacks often disrupt your sleep, or 
  • you get weird physical symptoms without a medical cause. 

If this happens, some time with a professional can help you manage your feelings. The most difficult part of getting help, though, is actually acknowledging that you need help, and making the arrangements to sit down with a practitioner.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'How to avoid developing PTSD'

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Changing your food strategies when life changes

Saturday, March 31, 2018
I so admire people who can conjure a delicious meal for 20 people at a moment’s notice. As well as those magicians of food who can walk into anyone’s kitchen and create a restaurant quality meal from almost nothing.  If you and I sat down to work out how they do it, we’d probably agree that they’ve had a lot of practice and developed strategies that make it look easy.

When you’re single and first leave home there’s a steep learning curve as you master the skills of home management, ensuring there’s enough food in the pantry, and having a plan for meals so you don’t go hungry – because there’s no longer a parent there to rescue you.

But life changes. Later you might be a parent yourself, who learns how to create a nutritious family dinner while simultaneously supervising homework and listening to stories of the day. Then the children eventually leave home. Suddenly, those huge pots aren’t needed any more, and it takes a while to adjust from cooking for six to cooking for one or two.

The suddenly single face a similar dilemma. There was a reason to cook because their partner was there. Until they were left alone. Now they have to not only re-learn how to cook for one, but to develop strategies to maintain an interest in food. That’s even more challenging when you are grieving the loss of that partner. 

It’s guaranteed – life is going to change. And at each point of change, you know your food strategies have to shift if you’re going to be nourished.  It’s tempting when change happens unexpectedly to toss in the towel on nutrition:  to lean on fast food drive-through as your dinner chef. To settle for instant frozen meals and packaged breakfast cereals instead of chopping vegetables. Or, (a particular danger for the elderly), to stick with tea and toast because that’s all you can muster the energy and interest for.

But if you can accept that you just need to shift strategies, you might find yourself better nourished than ever before. And learning about food can be almost as much fun as eating it. You could attend a cooking workshop, download some pre-prepared meal plans from the internet, or enjoy watching food videos.
Soon, you will find you’ve learnt this new skill, and mastered the change. Then you’ll wonder how you ever managed to cook any other way. Until life changes again.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "Avoiding the tea & toast syndrome as you age"

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The extra life we don't have a map for

Saturday, March 24, 2018
Our grandparents and great grandparents never expected this, so they couldn’t teach us how to manage it. The challenge? How to live longer; because major epidemics aside, we’re likely to live longer than our ancestors even dreamed was possible. It’s new territory.

If you were born in 1880 life was a race to reproduce your genes before you passed away yourself at about 50. As you can imagine there was no concept of a luxuriously long retirement, where you could be kept busy babysitting the grandchildren. Just birth, work, reproduce and die, and not many holidays either.

But gradually, life span changed. If you were born in 1946 you could expect to live long enough to create a family. Not much time for retirement fun though, with a life expectancy of 66. Improvements in health care and infection control, along with improved living standards, has made all the difference. Life just keeps getting longer. 

By 2007 average life expectancy was 79 or so. The World Health Organisation now estimates that a child born in 2015 can expect to live at least 82 years; longer than our great grandparents ever thought. Long enough to produce a family and even some grandchildren, with time left over for perhaps a second career, study, or developing a sporting career if you aren’t leisurely exploring the world.

But there’s a catch. The World Health Organisation now has an extra statistic: “Healthy” life expectancy – and at present it’s about 10 years short of estimated total life expectancy. The gap exists because it’s now also possible to live a long and un-healthy life. 

Lifestyle diseases are behind the gap between healthy life expectancy and total life expectancy. (A ‘lifestyle disease’ is a degenerative problem often brought on by unhelpful living habits: think adult-onset diabetes and obesity from sugar and lack of exercise, cardiovascular disease from smoking.) 

Fortunately, though, many people are learning how to manage these bonus decades of life. They’re persisting with exercise, training their bodies, even competing in Masters Games and the like. They’re eating well, and generally caring for their bodies. They don’t want to be one of those suffering for the final 10 years of their life. 

You might have more time left than you think: how would you like to spend it? The statistics indicate that without managing these extra years effectively, those last years could be unhealthy and not much fun.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Anti-aging strategies for blokes'

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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.

By the way, short 20 minute cold & flu consultations are available in the clinic. So if you catch a cold or flu and need some remedies, book your consultation here. 

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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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Olwen Anderson @olwenanderson


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