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Olwen Anderson's Blog

Your bladder and anxiety - the connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What interferes with thyroid function

Saturday, January 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finding yourself amongst the crowd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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