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Olwen Anderson's Blog

Tips For Better Brain Health

Tuesday, July 31, 2018
Nothing quite compares, I think, with the awful sensation that you’re losing control of your mind. Whether it’s a mood change that seems out of your control (like depression or anxiety), trauma that seems to hold your thoughts on a continual nightmare loop, loss of function through stroke or dementia, or a full blown mental illness that leaves you incapable of thinking straight. I don’t think anyone would queue up to experience any of these. 

But like any other organ in your body, your brain will respond well to the right care and feeding. So I’d like to pass on some tips for keeping the grey matter between your ears in resilient shape. 

Your brain, mostly consisting of fat cells, relishes certain types of food. It loves good fats, the omega-3 oils from green vegetables, seeds and oily fish. Fats help maintain the cells. Your brain loves high quality animal protein as well, like that from fish, eggs and meat. With this it creates the chemical messengers that help manage your mood. And what about fuel to do the work of thinking? For this, your brain appreciates a steady supply of glucose from low glycemic index complex carbohydrates. Like vegetables, oats and brown rice. 

The foods that research suggests your brain cells don’t appreciate include sugar, which is suspected to help create the brain-clogging plaques that bring on dementia. Also ‘bad’ fats like trans fats (think processed foods, pastries and the like) can tend to stiffen the oil membrane that surrounds each cell, making moving nutrients in and waste out of cells more challenging. 

But besides what you put in your mouth, there are also certain activities that support healthier brain function: Like daily meditation, which is a chance for your brain to take a conscious rest and reduces stress. Enough sleep is essential (usually 7-8 hours for most of us), because that’s when restorative growth hormone is secreted. Exercise, although it’s technically exercise for your body, also benefits your brain. Like meditation, exercise reduces stress; but it also builds muscle, which supports better blood glucose regulation. Having a purpose in life and being connected with your community helps too.

No matter what’s driving you to care for your brain better, take the simple steps of feeding it well, get enough rest and make sure you exercise. Then you’ll be less likely to experience that awful sense that your brain has slipped out of your control.

(By the way, this post was inspired by Dr Barbara Lipska's story "The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind". You can find out more about Dr Lipska and her book on her web site, here)

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "How To Clear The Mists Of Brain Fog"

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Kick sugar cravings to the curb with this key diet strategy

Saturday, July 21, 2018
There’s a major stumbling block that you’ve likely encountered whenever you’ve tried to reduce your sugar intake, or go on a weight loss diet: sweet cravings. Perhaps you’ve quit adding flavour syrup to your morning coffee. Or managed to walk past the chocolate display. Or replaced fruit juice with water. Then the grumblings from your brain begin: want sugar, now.

Your brain is quite experienced in convincing you to do what it wants, and it can generate some pretty nasty feelings of overwhelm as it tries to convince you that this is a life threatening situation: get sugar or you’ll die! If you’re particularly stressed, or tired, it’s even easier to give in and you’re back to square one: with the weight gain, ‘hangry’ episodes and mood swings that come with a sugar addiction. That’s so disheartening.

I’d like to show you a tweak to your diet that will quieten that dragon of sugar addiction. The ‘trick’ (if that’s the right term) is to include high quality (animal) protein at each meal along with fibre.

Animal protein works because biochemically, animal protein molecules are tough for your stomach to break apart, so food spends longer in your stomach. Also, protein doesn’t release energy as readily as carbohydrates, so it won’t spike your blood glucose like sugar and some simple carbohydrates do (think anything like cakes, biscuits, lollies). Fibre works for the same reason: it slows down the release of energy from food.

Changing your breakfast is a key strategy. Many people get caught by a growing sugar addiction because they have only a carbohydrate-rich cereal or muesli for breakfast. That kind of breakfast is almost guaranteed to ignite sugar cravings later on because it’s digested so quickly. If instead you have a couple of eggs, or some savoury mince, or even some leftover roast lamb on toast for breakfast, then sugar cravings, if they do come up, will be a distant murmur rather than a distracting drive to get hold of something sweet, soon. 

You can enjoy animal protein as a snack too. Even though it may feel a little odd to reach into your handbag for a hard-boiled egg at snack time, instead of a sweet muesli bar.

Gradually, as you overcome that pesky sugar addiction, you’ll notice your mood becomes more stable, and so does your energy levels. Now you’re winning the battle against sugar.

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Stories of Hope And Guidance

Saturday, July 14, 2018
If only it were a dream. Suddenly, you’re in this strange new landscape, feeling lost. You really just want to get home, to your usual life. If only a guide who has been here before would take your hand and lead you home. 

When you’ve had an accident, or a sudden troubling diagnosis, life might feel something like this. What used to be the familiar comforting landscape of your life has suddenly shifted to a place you don’t recognise. Maybe you’ve just woken up in hospital surrounded by beeping machines and people with clipboards using complicated words. Or you’ve just left the medical centre clutching the paper detailing your life-changing diagnosis. Either way, it’s like you’re in a bad dream. So, where’s the guide? How can you lose this sense of overwhelm and regain a sense of control?

Mercifully, no matter what your ailment, it’s likely someone else has experienced a very similar situation to what you’re facing. And they’ve taken the time to write down their journey. A librarian might call this kind of book a health biography. They can easily help you find those stories amongst the shelves because there are so many of them.

Some of these people might never have written a book before. But they’ve sat in many waiting rooms, fielded both useful and unhelpful advice, experienced the frustration of blind alleys when treatment didn’t work, and eventually worked out the treatment right for them.  Not only can they alert you to potential pitfalls in treatment, they can reassure you that there is a way through this.

As you read, you’ll likely learn about many other treatments that you might not have known existed. After all, there are a multitude of different ways to address any particular health problem. But each practitioner you’ve met in your journey so far might only be aware of a handful of other methods.

Before you head over to the library, though, keep one point in mind: Books are not ‘peer reviewed’ texts, and as occasional publishing scandals demonstrate (think Belle Gibson) it’s possible to put anything into print – factual or otherwise. So when you come across a potential solution that your biographer has suggested, do your research and check the facts. The library can help here, too.

You might find that through reading the stories of those who have travelled this landscape before you, you can find your way home.

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Life without cling wrap

Saturday, July 07, 2018

It’s one of the really big questions of life you might ponder while stretching plastic wrap over a freshly cut piece of pumpkin: what did we do with pumpkin pieces before cling wrap appeared on supermarket shelves in the early 1960s?

Turns out someone else has been thinking the same, with a recent reality television show examining how we used to live over each of the past sixty decades. A particularly interesting series because it seems we were somehow better nourished and less unwell as a population in the middle of last century. According to the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare’s latest report, half of us are now living with a chronic health condition. What was different then with how we managed our nutrition?

All it took was a sneak peek at the show’s trailer to supply the answers: there were two big differences in the way food was managed. One was the refrigerator: much smaller than modern models, less efficient, and the available freezer space was the size of a shoebox. As a result perishable food had to be purchased almost daily from the butcher and greengrocer; no need for cling wrap then. Plus, vegetables were often grown in the back yard, to pick fresh for the pot.

Keep in mind that fresh food begins to lose its water soluble vitamins and life force as soon as it is picked. The fresher the food that’s on your plate, the higher its nutrient content. So the way people shopped for and stored food back then automatically supplied more nutrients than what you could spear on your fork today.  Maybe that’s one reason they were healthier.

Of course we can’t go back to grocery shopping every day or so. Modern life isn’t like that for most of us, and fewer of us work in full time home management. But there are a couple of ways you can help ensure that your meal contains more nutrients. One is to utilise your local farmers market, where the awesomely fresh produce has often been picked only the day before.

Another is to grow your own vegetables and fruit. This isn’t as difficult or time consuming as you’d think. Even if you have a small courtyard or patio there are miniature gardening systems available that could supply your daily salad. Maybe, through small changes in how you manage food, you’ll never need to buy cling wrap again.

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Why do we keep catching new flu viruses?

Saturday, June 30, 2018
It’s the war with no end in sight. Each year a new crop of influenza virus appears seemingly out of nowhere. Catch it and the outcome for you is oceans of mucus, dragging aches and pains, and many days of work lost. You may wonder as you’re snuggled in bed with a box of tissues, hugging your hot water bottle, whether your immune system has been slack on the job. 

Why didn’t this apparently sophisticated collection of defence cells recognise the virus as soon as it landed on you, and overpower it? But your immune system isn’t being lazy; viruses have a cunning strategy: an ever-changing wardrobe of disguises. 

Once it gains entry to a cell, a virus heads straight to the control nucleus where the DNA codes are stored. If it’s fast enough, it will disengage the emergency signalling too. You see, if a cell knows it’s been invaded by a microbe it will usually alert the immune system that it’s infected – so destroy me. The immune system obliges: goodbye cell, and goodbye virus. Gotcha!

Viruses hide within cells because that’s there they reproduce and disguise themselves, creating new virus particles ready to explode the cell like a popped balloon when conditions are right (like if you’re tired and stressed). Each virus particle finds a new cell to take over, and the cycle continues. 

Your immune system creates a list of ‘viruses I recognise’. When it comes across a familiar virus, it prods your defence mechanisms into action. This takes time – longer the first time, but the second time the virus appears your immune system recognises and destroys the bug faster. However the flu viruses’ disguise can elude the immune system’s memory. Sneaky.

So next year, when a new flu virus invades our immune system thinks it’s seen this one before and launches the same defence. But the virus particle often escapes detection through that new camouflage. So the immune system doesn’t respond with appropriate vigour. Over-reaction, after all, would create quite a bit of collateral damage. So the response is too weak and you get to experience the symptoms.

We haven’t yet found a way to outwit the flu virus, so your best defences from a natural health perspective are to optimise your self-care through winter with rest and nourishing food, and keep your favourite flu-busting herbs on hand, especially those specific for tackling influenza viruses, whatever their disguise.

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The two dollar therapist

Saturday, June 23, 2018
Some weeks are so eventful you could keep a therapist busy for hours. So much happening around you or to you and life just presses on, busy as ever. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to talk it through with someone who won’t pass judgement on what you disclose?

If you have a good friend who can do this for you then you are one very lucky person. Ideally you would also have a therapist to turn to for help when life gets too eventful and you feel like you just need to talk. You know that just expressing is going to help you untangle your thoughts. But not everyone can afford to reach into their pockets for a professional listener like a counsellor, psychologist or psychotherapist. So what can you do then to work through those feelings?

You may actually have some tools on hand right now. One is paper and a pen, which you can pick up for under $2. Writing helps because you once you can get those thoughts out of your head and express them in words, they begin to unravel enough for you to gain new perspectives. There are no rules around this – you could choose to write pages and pages, or just create a brief bullet-point list. You can choose to save what you’ve written and return to it later, possibly gaining even greater understanding as a result. Or you can choose to burn or drown what you’ve written. 

Another way to express your feelings is through art. For some folk the ultimate form of therapy is to pick up a canvas, paints and brushes, and get immersed in expressing how they feel. 

Yet another form of expression is through dance. Here, you could close the blinds and switch off your phone, switch on the music and use your body to physically express what’s happening inside your head.

What can you expect to get out of this? Possibly a sense of relief that your head isn’t about to explode from the pressure of unexpressed feelings. Maybe a new perspective, greater understanding of what happened, why you did what you did or why ‘they’ behaved that way. And perhaps you’ll just feel better, inexplicably. Worth trying out, perhaps? Like I said, there are no rules about how you’re supposed to do this.

And if you’re still feeling stuck? Well, you could engage your professional listener. We’re here to help.

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Call off the search for the holy grail of diets

Saturday, June 16, 2018
Quite some time ago we farewelled the scientists as they departed on a quest for the holy grail of nutrition. Equipped with test tubes and armed with theories, they sought out the one perfect diet that would suit everyone.

Messengers brought back bulletins of their progress. First they had found proof that low fat was the way to go to prevent heart disease. So those of us keen on living longer, better lives duly complied and opted for skim milk instead of full fat. 

But it didn’t work. Low fat eating wasn’t particularly satisfying, inadvertently increased sugar intake, and obesity rates rose. Until a new directive arrived: That low fat eating is too high in carbohydrates. Switch to full fat everything, and reduce your carbohydrate intake. Steak was back on the menu; what a relief. But that diet wasn’t perfect for everyone, either.

Then came instructions to adjust our meal sizes. To think about rationing calories a couple of days a week and eating normally the other days (the 5:2 diet). The intention?  To mimic the way our ancestors lived back when there wasn’t a constant over-abundance of food.
With each new pronouncement most of us have adjusted the contents of our supermarket carts in the hope of a longer, healthier life.  But there’s a catch: whatever the current recommendation, it won’t suit everyone.

I think it’s time to call off the search. Maybe accept that everyone as individuals need a different diet. Instead of trying to fit into a protein/carbohydrate/fats combination rule, perhaps the better approach could be to develop the [insert your name here] diet. The food combination that suits your particular physiology. 

How can you find out the best eating plan and nutrient balance for you? Some folk look to the traditional diet of their ancestors, who gradually adapted to their geographic locations over centuries. For example, consider the different traditional diets of an Eskimo versus a Pacific Islander. Both work. Some people like to arrange genetic testing to reveal the best nutrient combination for them. And still others like to establish their ideal diet through trial and error.

Any one of these approaches could suit you. So if you find yourself sighing as you read yet another report about the ‘right’ way to eat, maybe it’s time to switch to reading something more enjoyable and get on with working out  the right diet for you.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Getting off the FODMAPS diet'

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Getting The Dose Right

Saturday, June 09, 2018
“I tried those natural remedies and they didn’t work”. I wish I hadn’t heard this statement as much as I have over the years. Especially when as the conversation progresses it emerges that the disgruntled one wasn’t taking a therapeutic dose, making their self-exploration of natural therapies futile.

The ‘therapeutic dose’ is technical speak for taking enough of a herb or nutrient to actually make a difference. The dose at which treatment becomes effective has often been discerned through a combination of laboratory research and clinical experience.

Fish oils are a great example of challenges with dosing that most people don’t know about. Depending on whether you purchased a high strength or low strength product, each capsule will contain a certain proportion of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), the fatty acids that do the work. The rest of the capsule is made up of just plain oil.  A high strength fish oil will contain about 600mg of EPA and DHA in every 1000mg capsule. A low strength fish oil about half that. 

The amount of EPA and DHA required to ease a chronic health condition like arthritis varies widely, but from my experience a therapeutic dose means at least 1800mg of EPA/DHA per day. That’s three high strength capsules. So if you tried one low strength fish oil capsule per day for your arthritis and wondered why it didn’t work, this could be why. Mental health or acute rheumatoid arthritis treatment may need up to 5000mg EPA/DHA per day. 

Your practitioner goes through a similar process as we just did with other natural remedies like herbs, vitamins and minerals: Assessing the therapeutic dose required then measuring this against the intensity of the presenting condition.
The dose point is different for everyone: some folk are more sensitive and only need a tiny dose or do best on the energetic remedies instead. Others need the robust herbs and high dose nutrients to make a difference.

You can get an measure of what dose of nutrients you need from organic acids testing, a relatively new functional test that examines what’s left over in your urine from biochemical reactions. From this a calculation is done of how much you need of each nutrient. This is particularly handy when you’re treating a chronic problem that needs ongoing management.

So don’t give up on natural therapies just because your self-prescribing didn’t work. Maybe talk with an accredited naturopathic practitioner next time.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "Getting The Right Dose of Fish Oil" 

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Can you afford to get sick?

Saturday, June 02, 2018
A visitor to our building might notice some unexpected activity:  practitioners disappearing into another therapist’s room. Closing the door. An hour or so later they both emerge, and the visitor looks even better. Nothing suspicious going on though; each of us is calling in on each other for treatments. 

The massage therapists are exchanging treatments, but so is everyone else: acupuncturists, the kinesiologist, the naturopaths and cranio-sacral therapist. There’s an important reason why this happens: All of us are self-employed, and like all business owners we know that if we get ill, income stops. We’ve learnt that it pays to look after ourselves diligently.

If you are also self-employed, you know that when you can’t work, you don’t earn. There’s no paid sick leave in self-employment. And yet some self-employed folk can tend to burn the candle at both ends and avoid doing what they know they should do to stay well. 

There’s a subtle, insidious pressure that all business owners experience. We know that succeeding in business is tough: you’ve got to take risks, keep an eye on the cashflow, juggle a multitude of demands, manage the marketing...the list never ends. You could conceivably work 24/7 and still not cross everything off your to-do list. So it’s always a temptation to overlook your health in favour of work.

You don’t need to spend a fortune on treatments to keep yourself in good shape and your business ticking over. Just practising the basics of good health will help keep you working. Simple steps, like making sure you step away from those cashflow calculations early enough to get a solid eight hours sleep. To pick up a salad with some high quality protein for lunch instead of a sausage roll, and avoid turning to coffee and sweet stuff to keep pushing through the day. To choose to strap on your training shoes for a run even when you’re tempted to spend that extra hour focused on the marketing plan. To switch off your mobile for 20 minutes each day, allowing for uninterrupted meditation. 

You know that without solid self-care it’s too easy to succumb to the flu or any of the other illnesses you could fall prey to more easily if over-work and under-fun has already run you down. 

It’s all about learning to strike a balance between working hard and self-care. Are you looking after your health enough to keep working?

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "Help Business Owners Eat Healthy"

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Bad news: The Cavalry Aren't Coming

Saturday, May 26, 2018
So there you are, reclined on the couch and waiting for help to arrive. For whatever reason (it doesn’t matter why or how) you find you’re not well. Maybe a little unwell, maybe a lot unwell. You want to feel better: vibrant, alive, the way you used to feel.

If only the solution would arrive soon to rescue you. Just appear by your side, one pill to solve everything, immediately, and you can get back to life as it used to be. Ah, that would be so good. But alas, news just arrived: the cavalry aren’t coming. You’re going to have to help yourself.

This probably sounds a bit callous, unfeeling and inaccurate. After all, bad things do happen to good people; sometimes illness just comes out of nowhere. But when it does strike, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the idea that something or someone will save you at zero expense and no effort from you. 

We have a wonderful public health system. When something bad happens emergency services will scoop you up and transport you to a hospital full of well trained and dedicated professionals. Powerful drugs and expert surgeons are there to help. But all this expertise on tap can only go so far in helping you recover and stay healthy.

Really getting well again might require you to take stock of how you got unwell: like what you’ve been eating, how you cared for yourself from day to day. Did you collect your dinner through a small window at the fast food outlet too many times? Brush off exercise because you were too busy? Push yourself relentlessly without a break? There’s likely to be more than one contributing factor, and probably half a dozen.

And that’s just the physical aspects of health; there are the emotional and spiritual aspects too. Maybe your relationships have been sliding into disrepair, or you failed to notice those close to you complaining about your mood, or you feel you’ve lost your purpose in life. You may find you need to explore areas of health recovery you hadn’t considered before, seek out help from extra professionals.

It’s uncomfortable, but taking a ruthless stocktake of how you manage your health can be immensely rewarding when you empower yourself. Maybe you don’t need to keep waiting for the cavalry after all.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "Beat Burnout This Year"

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Olwen Anderson @olwenanderson


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