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Olwen Anderson's Blog

It seemed like a good idea at the time

Saturday, June 24, 2017
“There must be an easier way to do this” was probably on everyone’s mind. So it seemed like a good idea at the time, I’m sure. Back then, people had to expend enormous amounts of energy just for day to day living. Wood cutters were swinging axes then somehow getting huge logs onto the bullock train. Housekeepers faced the laborious chore of lifting wet heavy linen in and out of a copper each week, on and off the line, then smoothing them with a heavy iron.  Almost everyone had to walk or ride a horse to get somewhere. 

So the motor car, the automatic washing machine and the chainsaw would have been welcome inventions: easing sore backs and aching muscles. Enabling much greater mobility and freedom for us all. With each new invention, the reduction in energy expenditure would have made little difference at first; so much of life still required effort. But as time has passed less and less energy has been asked of us to manage daily life. Cars carry us home from the supermarket. Leaf blowers replace using a rake and broom. Automatic dishwashers spare the drudgery of washing up after dinner. We even have robotic floor sweepers – you may never have to pick up a broom again. 

I suspect it’s no coincidence that over the last 100 years and particularly within the last 50 years, waistlines in general have expanded. Now we’re faced with a population obesity crisis of epidemic proportions. Perhaps there’s a connection here. Maybe our quest for an ever easier, more convenient way to get things done has got out of hand.
Why should this matter to you? Well, if you sense that you’re slowly but surely putting on weight when your diet hasn’t changed, it may be that the ease of modern life has caught up with you. Why not do a quick review of how much technology is now sparing you from expending energy between when you climb out of bed and when you lay your head back on the pillow at night.

It would be extreme to switch off the electricity, abandon your car, head out to gather firewood for cooking, or set aside Mondays completely for clothes washing like we had to. We don’t need to return to the Stone Age. But there may be many ways you can subtly shift your energy expenditure to stop your waistband becoming ever tighter. 

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'An Antidote to the Hand Wringing About Childhood Obesity' 

Image credit: Edwin Garcia via MorgueFile

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Get those methylation moves happening with greens

Saturday, June 17, 2017
You might have heard of methylation, a fancy term for a particular biochemical reaction within your body that affects mood, skin, blood glucose regulation, wound healing and many other processes. If you know about methylation you might also have heard of the MTHFR gene mutation that makes methylation difficult for many of us and promotes development of conditions like depression, anxiety, addictions, acne, skin rashes, even muscle pain and fatigue.

You can obtain relatively inexpensive genetic tests now to determine whether your genes for methylation are defective (we can easily arrange this through the clinic); but even without the testing there’s something in your diet that can help your methylation processes and boost your health. Something ordinary. Something most of us don’t eat enough of: greens.

These vegetables, particularly raw greens, contain an important nutrient for methylation: folic acid, also known as folate or folinic acid. The name for this nutrient comes from where it’s most abundant, in green leafy vegetables. It’s in quite a few other foods as well, but green vegetables are a particularly rich source. As folate is a water soluble vitamin your body can’t store it, you have to top up on it each day. 

Vitamin C, found in all fresh raw fruits and vegetables, also helps the methylation process along by ‘recycling’ the folate so it can be used again and again to make the biochemical process happen at the right rate to keep you healthy and happy.

The big challenge is how to include more of these greens in your diet. The easiest way is to enjoy a salad every day. Not just salad in a sandwich, but a real salad; about two cups of salad vegetables with plenty of leafy greens like lettuce, dandelion leaves, rocket and herbs. Plus a yummy dressing, of course. Then for your evening meal aim to cover half your plate with steamed greens. 

You can even add greens to your breakfast: For example, lay a couple of rocket leaves on top of the bread before topping with eggs or savoury mince. 

Green smoothies are okay too, but try not to overdo them, as some raw greens regularly included in this drink, like kale, actually need to be cooked first to disable the phytic acid that can block the uptake of minerals.

One last tip to help you eat more leafy greens: Wrap them in a damp tea towel and enclose in a plastic bag to keep them fresh in your fridge.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Greens, the Ultimate Super Food' 

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The extra tag needed on an emergency services uniform

Saturday, June 10, 2017
Thank heavens for our emergency services. When flood waters rise they head out in boats to pull people to safety. Rush into burning buildings. Pull us out of mangled cars after an accident. Keep us alive on the way to the hospital. Keep us safe. So if you are one of the many people in uniform out there, we are immensely grateful.

Those uniforms you wear seem pretty sturdy. Tough-looking overalls, hard hats, protective boots and gloves. I guess each set comes with a helpful washing instructions label like “wash in cold water”. But perhaps there should be an extra tag: “Warning: wearing this uniform will not protect you from emotional trauma. Seek regular support.” Because that uniform can protect you from a lot of muck and mud, but it can’t protect you from the trauma of witnessing the distress of people you're looking after.

It’s now widely accepted that those who look after us are actually human, aren’t immune to the effects of trauma, and can be affected by other people’s distress. But media reports indicate it’s still difficult for many in the helping professions to reach out for ongoing support. Maybe because it may seem like everyone else on the team is coping, not affected. But it’s away from the main event when there’s time and space to think that feelings can surface. Sometimes you can recognise that what you’re feeling is about what you witnessed; and sometimes the feelings emerge just as a sense that you’re not functioning as well as usual, or your relationships are struggling.

Tempting as it is to numb these unpleasant feelings with alcohol or some other unhelpful coping strategy, the sense of feeling affected just returns when you sober up. It doesn’t help that the culture in some workplaces actively deters any need for extra support, deeming it a sign of weakness. But as anyone who has gone through counselling will attest, fronting up to talk over your feelings requires an immense amount of courage.

In many of the helping professions like counselling we are obliged to have ongoing ‘supervision’ through counselling to help us manage our feelings about what we are witness to. And yet, this kind of supportive 'supervision’ still isn’t an mandatory part of the job in other fields, like emergency services. If it were, perhaps more of our heroic helpers would feel comfortable accepting help for themselves so they can keep helping us.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'How To Avoid Developing PTSD'

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Manipulating the neurotransmitters that make you feel good

Saturday, May 27, 2017
Brain produces dopamine and other neurotransmittersDon’t know about you, but I rather enjoy the experience of feeling happy. Whether that emerges just from enjoying a day of glorious weather, or a job well done. When something good happens that makes you feel good your brain shoots out a flash of dopamine, a neurotransmitter designed to create feelings of satisfaction and reward. 

If you didn’t already know that your brain can create emotional feelings this may come as a surprise. But your brain really is running the show when it comes to your behaviour, craftily squirting out a bit of serotonin for happiness, or dopamine for satisfaction, and many other neurotransmitters designed to get you experiencing particular feelings so you’ll behave in certain ways. And you thought you were in control. Not as much: if your brain decides that what you just did was something worth doing again, it will produce happiness neurotransmitters. It has decided that what you just did is worth repeating: job well done, do it again.

There are two problems with this: sometimes those neurotransmitters are produced in response to doing something that really isn’t good for us: like smoking, alcohol, caffeine and recreational drugs. Over-use of computer games and social media (that smart phone you’re carrying can induce a shot of dopamine, making it all too easy for us to get lured back to swiping and liking.) It’s good old self-discipline that helps you control those urges towards self-destructive behaviours that feel good in the moment but less so in the long term.

Brains can get inflamed, too, which inhibits their ability to produce neurotransmitters, including happiness inducing serotonin and dopamine.  If your body is inflamed then it’s possible your brain can become inflamed too, generating mood disorders like depression and anxiety. 

Although some of that dopamine can be re-absorbed and used again, your brain needs a steady supply of nutrients like protein, minerals and glucose to keep producing more. There’s another problem with dopamine: it can be exhausted. This is most evident with recreational drugs, where larger amounts are needed as time passes to extract the same feelings the drug offered.

On the positive side, ordinary helpful day-to-day activities can spark a dopamine reaction too. Exercise, particularly, is well known to produce the class of neurotransmitters known as ‘endorphins’ because they make you feel good. One of the best ways to boost your mood (in a healthy way) is to get sweaty exercising.  

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Natural Mood Boosters'

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Is fragrance making you sick?

Saturday, May 20, 2017
Ever found yourself pausing at the supermarket cleaning products aisle, uncertain whether to push your trolley through the cloud of smells? Would you get one of those mysterious headaches? Sneeze? Have trouble breathing until you got back into the open air? For some people this supermarket aisle has become the one to avoid. If you’ve experienced this you’re not alone; more and more people are finding our lives are over-fragranced.

There’s a reason why you’re not feeling overwhelmed by different smells already: soon after experiencing the new scent your nose stops registering it. For example, as you’re putting on your t-shirt you’ll briefly get a whiff of the laundry powder, but then it will go. So although it seems like the perfume you applied earlier has all gone, in fact other people can still smell it. 

Think your life isn’t over-perfumed? Tally up the number of fragranced products you’ve encountered already today. You might have washed your hair with a nice-smelling shampoo, used a perfumed soap. An aerosol deodorant spray helped avert worries that your perspiration would offend others, and you used after-shave too, the one your partner appreciates. The clothes you’re wearing were washed in perfumed laundry powder. In the kitchen, your bin liner was fragranced, the dishwasher detergent had its own distinctive smell, and just in case your house didn’t smell pristine, an automatic dispenser sprayed air ‘freshener’ regularly. That’s a lot of artificial chemicals your body has encountered even before breakfast.

Questions are being asked now about whether our exposure to fragrance is affecting our health. After all, we can absorb chemicals across our lungs, increasing the burden of toxins our livers and kidneys have to process. Kate Grenville, the author of ‘The Case Against Fragrance’ has asked some hard questions about perfume while reviewing research already done on the effect of synthetic fragrances. She didn’t find many answers, but her research generates even more worrying questions about what we are unconsciously splash around in our quest to smell good.  It’s a book worth reading if you suspect breathing in artificial fragrances could be affecting your breathing, generating mysterious headaches, creating nausea, even upsetting your hormones and nervous system.

There’s lots you can do to help yourself, beyond opening windows. Select unfragranced products more often. And grow some greenery indoors: House plants have been found to be particularly adept at absorbing the chemicals that make up artificial fragrances. 
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How to support the people you care about

Tuesday, May 09, 2017
Image credit paahulb via MorgueFileFor readers who don't live locally, we had a major flood wash through our community a few weeks ago. This article was published in our local newspaper. the Tweed Daily News.

It was truly amazing, how after the floods everyone just stepped up to help each other wash out mud, wash clothes, deliver food. So many ways we expressed that we all really care about each other.  Along with the practical assistance, many people wonder how they can best support the emotional and mental health of their family, friends, neighbours and community when talking about the disaster.

A major event like the floods affects people in different ways, at different times. Some people can appear to be handling it all okay and then a few weeks or months down the track realise they’re really not coping at all. Others need extra support from day one. There’s no ‘normal’ time frame for recovery;  but being there for people is always helpful.

The way to best support someone is to simply listen. It’s been proven by science that genuine listening is actually immensely therapeutic. But there’s a way to listen that makes it helpful. First, allow time and space for listening. Simply sit and be with the other person in a place they’re comfortable. This could mean over a cuppa, or even while sitting together fishing. Some adolescents seem to open up more on long drives (perhaps because they don’t have to make eye contact). Young children may talk while you’re playing in the sandpit with them. 

Here’s the tough part that can undo your good intentions: While listening remind yourself, as often as you need to, that you don’t have to take on their problems. That means you don’t dispense advice. Nor try to fix the problem for them; that’s not your job here.  All you have to do is be present, with your ears, and let them know you’ve heard what they say.  You can expect to feel frustrated inside, as you can probably think of many things that they could or should do. But try to restrain yourself.

It may help to let them know you’ve heard with a phrase like “so what you’re saying is….” They might agree, or disagree, or just repeat the story. That’s OK; people in shock will often repeat the same story over and over as they try to make sense of it all.

One more thing: Trauma is sticky, so through listening to many upsetting tales you may feel you need some support yourself.  So don’t be afraid to reach out towards help for yourself.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Help When Life Is Turned Upside Down'

Image credit: Paahulb via MorgueFile

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The illusion of fancy food on social media

Saturday, May 06, 2017
Breakfast with mushroom(Yes, I know, I have my own Instagram account, here, where I share what I'm cooking and eating. But, just like the article you're about to read points out, you don't get to see the 'train wrecks'. The photo here is one of my better looking breakfasts; and yes, it had gone cold by the time I'd posted it on Instagram. So enjoy the pictures but please don't think my food is perfect - it's often not.) 

When you want to improve your diet I can understand how the fabulous food portrayed on social media could feel overwhelming and seem expensive; because many of the spectacular looking meals on social media sites like Instagram include some exotic, hard-to-obtain and pricey ingredients in a dish that’s taken hours to prepare. Then you can fear you’re missing out as you fork through your own, less photogenic dinner.

Social media can ignite some genuine food anxiety, perpetuating the illusion that everyone else is tucking into stunningly attractive healthy meals all the time. But many of those photos you’re admiring actually take ages to arrange and photograph, and could certainly have gone cold by the time the photographer picks up their cutlery. The reality of life is that sometimes your meals can look like a train wreck when they land on your plate. Another, although hidden reality, is that you only get to see the finished product when the photographer thinks it’s worth sharing. Which isn’t all the time.

Another fallacy perpetuated by social media and advertising: that in order to eat healthy you have to include exotic, expensive and fashionable ingredients. If you can afford to live that way, fantastic; but most of us have a budget. Instead, reach for some of the great recipe books devoted to showing you how the plain, inexpensive foods our grandparents and great-grandparents accessed can be made into delicious and yet healthy meals and snacks. Or google ‘budget healthy food’.

The short cut to saving money with food is to keep in mind that the more hands your food has passed through before it gets to your table, the more you will pay for it. For example, if you make your own yoghurt in bulk at home, then add fruit you stewed yourself, the price you pay for that snack will be less than buying a snack-sized tub at the supermarket. Same for home-made salads, cakes, even bread. The more of the work you do yourself, the less you pay. 

A once-a-week food preparation campaign will help ensure you’ve always got healthy food on hand, and having a meal plan for the week will save you from having to make decisions when you’re tired.
So enjoy those food photos on social media – they can inspire you to focus more on eating healthy food; but don’t let them deter you from your quest to eat healthy.

If you enjoyed this article you might find my meal plan helpful. It's here.

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Should you step away from the salmon?

Saturday, April 29, 2017
Heard of “Health washing”?  It’s a modern term, describing foods promoted as healthy but which, after you’ve done your due diligence, turn out to be not so fabulous. Farmed salmon is a good example, proclaimed as a good source of healthy omega-3 oils. And it is. But when you learn how this food is produced you might conclude that farmed salmon isn’t such a healthy choice after all.

If you’ve ever visited Canada you’ve probably sampled their wild salmon, which is a rich red colour and has a rich flavour, as well as excellent omega-3 content. It needs a really cold climate and a wild diet to grow those oils naturally. In Australia we like to eat salmon too, but don’t have the icy coldness of Canadian waters that would enable wild salmon to thrive here. Instead they’re farmed, as far south as we can manage – in Tasmania. There, circular pens house swarming masses of salmon which are harvested and soon after appear on the supermarket shelves. 

There are two issues with the farming of salmon which could give you pause as you’re wandering down the supermarket aisles. One is the diet the farmed salmon are fed on. Understandably, a large amount of salmon housed in a pen can’t forage for wild feed, so it’s provided for them. Some producers feed the salmon fish meal; others use some fish meal as well as grains and meat products. Just before harvesting the salmon’s diet is adjusted to include more omega-3 oils, so that what you buy has a good content of these healthy oils. Also, since farmed fish flesh is gray and we all prefer to see a pinky hue in our salmon, their feed includes a dye. That dye could be natural or synthetic.

Some people perceive the circular pens salmon are housed in as the aquatic equivalent of cage eggs or pig stalls, where movement is restricted and natural behaviours aren’t possible. Also, concerns have been raised in the media about the impact of intensive aquaculture on the environment.

Details of housing and diet are readily available on the salmon farmers’ and feed manufacturers’ web sites; the Tasmanian acquaculture industry and their brands are quite open about their practices, the feed they utilise, and how they manage their industry. Researching this is easy, and perhaps a good idea if you like to know the reality of that apparently healthy food.
If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Omega 3 & omega 6 oils: getting the balance right

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The wrapping around everything that moves us

Saturday, April 22, 2017
We used to think that our muscles were simply levers, connected to tendons and ligaments in order to move our limbs. That they were all separate from one another, and that damage in one muscle wouldn’t affect other parts of the body. But we know more now about how our bodies are constructed, how they work and how function can be restored after damage.

We now know that what helps give us our shape and holds everything is a vast web of connective tissue called the fascia. We’ve got a layer under our skin, another layer coating each muscle bundle, yet another layer around each fibre of muscle tissue....and so on, right down to the web of connective tissue holding our cells in place, and even within each cell: ensuring the tiny contents within don’t tumble around like clothes in a washing machine. We even have connective tissue to hold our internal organs in place.

One of the big jobs for fascia is to buffer the stresses, bumps and gravitational forces that we’re exposed to in everyday life. Since this fascia is elastic enough to move in several directions it responds to tension in one area by compensating through stretching elsewhere. But when tissue is damaged it can heal in ways that restrict its elasticity. You’ve probably noticed this if you have a significant scar on your skin – the scar just doesn’t move so freely as the original skin. Movement isn’t restricted only in that particular area, it ‘pulls’ in other areas of your body to compensate.

According to myofascial therapies injuries to the fascia in one place can have an impact on fascia in distant parts of the body that are far away from the original injury. Worse, as time passes that dislocation and dysfunction of the fascia can deepen, restricting movement more and more as time passes. 

In practical terms that means unresolved or inadequately managed and treated sprains, strains and movement problems can deteriorate as the decades pass, gradually impinging more and more on your ability to move without pain. The other, hopeful perspective is that regular stretching, massage and adjustment treatments can help you maintain your mobility.

There’s lots of information out there now about fascia and myofascial therapies, so if you’re experiencing a musculoskeletal injury that just won’t seem to resolve, perhaps it’s worth investigating a myofascial therapy to help things along.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Healing Bursitis and Tendonitis' here 
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How the Easter Bunny can also deliver migraines and hot flushes.

Saturday, April 15, 2017
Aah, chocolate. It’s the ultimate comfort food; not just because it stimulates production of some happiness-inducing neurotransmitters. In the Western world it’s a symbolic Easter gift. But chocolate has another, darker side (no pun intended) that can make people who experience migraines or menopausal hot flushes pause before scoffing any chocolate Easter eggs.

You see, chocolate belongs in a food family known as vasoactive amines* – along with other delicious foods like red wine, cheese, bananas, coffee, and tea. Even clearly healthy foods like fava beans and tuna, celery, potato, licorice and nutmeg are in this group. As are chillis. 

‘Vasoactive amines’, in layman’s terms just means protein molecules (that’s the ‘amines’ part of the term) that affect your blood vessels (that’s the ‘vasoactive’ part of the term). This means if you happen to be susceptible to vasoactive amines, and you’ve eaten enough of them, you may quickly feel hot, perhaps look red, and maybe even break out into a sweat.

What vasoactive amines do is cause your blood vessels to widen, and to become more permeable (sieve-like). This increases blood supply to the surface of your skin, which makes you feel warmer, perhaps even break out in a sweat. It usually passes quickly; because while you’re throwing off your jumper and wiping your brow your body is already compensating with a whole new cascade of biochemical reactions to hose down what the vasoactive amines did.

Vasoactive amines aren’t bad for you as such. But science has found certain foods produce chemical reactions in the body: Some helpful, some unhelpful. Some create obvious reactions, some are silent. A Google search for ‘pharmacologic food reactions’ can be the launching point to find out more about how our bodies can react even to foods that are good for us.

If you’re susceptible to migraines, however, a big enough dose of vasoactive amines could be enough to trigger one of these awful headaches. Migraine sufferers especially seem to learn through trial and error which foods can trigger migraines, and just avoid them. Some women, however, have to experience many hot flushes before making the connection that vasoactive amines in foods are causing even more frequent and more powerful hot flushes.

I hope you have a wonderful Easter break, and that the Easter Bunny leaves you many delicious chocolate eggs to enjoy – even if you can only eat a little at a time.

*Franxman, Timothy J., and James L. Baldwin. "Pharmacologic Food Reactions." Food Allergy: Adverse Reactions to Foods and Food Additives, Fifth Edition: 437-451.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "How to Stay Healthy During Menopause"

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