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Olwen Anderson's Blog

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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You're not a machine, so why approach your health as if you are?

Saturday, May 19, 2018
“Biopsychosocial”. Now there’s a big word. Doesn’t exactly roll easily off the tongue, does it? And yet this convoluted expression has been popping up more, thanks to a growing realisation: that none of us are machines.

The traditional approach to physical health problems has been to address them as if your body were a mechanical instrument: when some part or another malfunctions approach repairs as though it were a malfunctioning spare part. For example, the mechanical approach is to a depressed mood is to chemically change your brain neurotransmitters. But what’s happening with your mood might have less to do with your brain chemistry and more to do with how you’re feeling about your lack of purpose in life or your unsatisfying relationships. So just changing your brain biochemistry won’t address the root of the problem.

The term “biopsychosocial” is short for a biological-psychological-social approach: a wholistic way to assess your wellbeing and a guide posts to treatment for illness, particularly chronic illness. This approach considers that how you manage your physical body affects your health, but so does your emotional health, and the health of your relationships with other people. Even your work. They all affect one another.

One example of this connection is feeling fatigued. You might have the best diet in the world, but if you’re unhappy at work your body is likely to express this in some form. If your relationship at home is struggling, you wouldn’t be surprised to experience some reflective physical problems (like stomach problems from the stress). And if the community you’re living in is dysfunctional (to use an extreme example, if you’re living in a war zone), you could expect your physical and emotional wellness to be affected. What biopsychosocial means for you is that in order to get healthy, it’s important to look after your body, certainly. But just as important to pay attention to how you feel emotionally, and what your relationships are like with other people - including your community.

Want to explore this in relation to your own health? Grab a piece of paper, draw three overlapping circles, and in each circle write down how your physical health is, what’s happening with your emotions, and what you think of your relationships. Then consider the overlapping parts: could your emotional health or relationship issues be affecting your physical health? You might notice some interesting connections that could help you find the best treatments to get better.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "Being Connected To Your Community Can Help You Stay Healthy"

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Dodge the persuasive trap of bro science

Saturday, May 12, 2018
There’s a new force in science that some people are finding far more credible than their practitioners. It’s earned the label “Bro Science”: the health advice dispensed by close friends that seems believable but might not be real. Whether that advice is accurate or not is a moot point; true believers of Bro Science find the pronouncements of their friends far more convincing than their qualified health practitioners. 

Here’s an example of Bro Science in action: A fellow fitness fanatic at the gym mentions some new product he’s found that will help you get the results you aspire to. It might be an imported supplement that can only be purchased online because it’s not available in Australia. Your practitioner, hearing of your new supplement, might point out that this particular product is actually rather dangerous, and that’s why it isn’t sold here. But if you’re an adherent of Bro Science, you might decide that your practitioner doesn’t know as much as your mate about these things. And besides, all the “proof” that it’s safe is online. Isn’t it?

The traps of Bro Science are everywhere: You’ve probably seen social media posts listing foods you “must not” eat, exercise you “must do”, or “science says…”.  But you’re actually a savvy health consumer; so when you hear a new claim pause, take a deep breath, and ask yourself “where’s the evidence for this?” Because online health ‘advice’ might just have been created on the fly. Just click bait.

One of the most useful skills you can acquire in managing your health is critical analysis. We all have a tendency to believe what’s told to us, particularly when it comes from someone we like and admire.  Trust is a powerful persuader. Words are powerful persuaders too, and words in print are easily given more power than they sometimes deserve by virtue of being in print. Nowadays we have access to mountains of information online, but our ability to assess what we’re reading perhaps hasn’t yet caught up with the pace of publishing in cyberspace.

What do you do then, if your good mate tries to convince you of some Bro Science that really isn’t plausible? Appreciate their concern for you, absolutely, but do your due diligence too: Look for links to peer-reviewed research articles backing up the claim, and maybe talk it over with your health practitioner, who can help you decipher whether that health claim is genuine.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "Don't Let Your Health Get Caught In a Web of Deceit"

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Why there's a limit on fat soluble vitamins

Saturday, May 05, 2018
Quite some time ago, before the advent of GPS, internet communication and helicopter rescues, several blokes headed across Antarctica with the south pole as their goal. They rugged up well against the cold and took plenty of food, which was (unfortunately as it turned out) mostly piled atop just one of the dog sleds. What transpired from that odyssey became a tragic demonstration of the health problems that can develop from over-consumption of fat soluble vitamins.

The unfolding nutritional disaster became apparent later in the journey. But before we go there you need to know an important distinction in the vitamins: ‘water soluble’ and ‘fat soluble’ vitamins. The former include vitamin C and the B group. Our bodies are unable to store these important helpers in meaningful amounts and so we need to top up daily. So long as you’re eating fresh unprocessed food, it isn’t too hard to meet minimum intake levels to keep your cells ticking over, and our bodies automatically adjust their absorption depending on our body’s demands.

‘Fat soluble’ vitamins (like A D and E), however, behave differently. Unlike the ‘water soluble’ vitamins, our bodies will absorb and store fat soluble vitamins in food relentlessly. There’s no limit to the amount our bodies will take up if that vitamin is available. Not a problem if you have one meal high in vitamin A; but a big problem if you’re eating it every day. And here’s where we head back to the Antarctic expedition.

That fateful decision to pile most of the food on just one sled didn’t seem such a good idea when the sled was lost down an ice crevasse. No-one was coming to rescue them, and there was still quite some distance to cover before reaching safety. So they began to eat the dogs. Which were quite tough, really; it turned out that the easiest part of the animal to eat was the liver. 

Problem is, liver is one of the most abundant sources of vitamin A. Soon the expedition members became quite unwell, and some died. Reviewing the journey, it was deduced that the hapless expeditioners had fallen victim to an overdose of vitamin A. Since then research has uncovered what amounts of fat soluble vitamins are healthy and what are unsafe for long term use.

Vitamin A is still very useful though, and has many important roles in keeping you safe. So this isn't a warning against eating vitamin A rich foods, or taking a vitamin A supplement prescribed by your practitioner. 

You might have noticed warnings on some vitamin products about the potential for overdose. Now you know why. 

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'Vitamin A and D (or, Cod Liver Oil anyone?)'

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The power of pets to boost your health

Saturday, April 14, 2018
You’ve probably seen them out and about: Striding along with heads held high, clearly relishing the whole experience of exercise outdoors in the fresh air. Oh, the myriad of stimulating sights, new sounds and intriguing smells! At the other end of the lead will be their owners, maybe enjoying this experience as much as their pets, maybe not. Who is taking whom for a walk? Who can tell…

It’s easy to see how owning a dog could help you get fit, because that dog will take you out walking, with joy, as soon as you pick up the lead and doggy bag. Sure makes it easy to walk regularly when you know you’ll have company. And dogs are unique amongst pets in that they’re always pleased to see you, always up for a walk, and can even help you make new friends at the dog beach. Unlike cats, who can be moody and don’t much like walks. Nor being on a lead.

But could a dog support your health too? It turns out that dogs seem to have an innate ability to detect the physical and emotional state of their owners, sometimes before the person themselves is even aware they need extra support. So therapy dogs or assistance dogs are becoming a more frequent sight, accompanying children with autism in challenging situations, people with diabetes, veterans with post-traumatic stress, even assisting in counselling sessions to comfort distressed clients. 

We’re already familiar with guide dogs with leather harness strapped on, helping their sight impaired handlers navigate their way through the world. Dogs are so helpful in so many ways they’ve even had a book written about them, “Dogs with Jobs”: Dogs are out there helping people in need with no expectation of reward beyond time for play.

Some research has been done into the benefits of dogs to ease blood pressure, boost the immune system and relieve stress. So far they’ve decided that there just might be some benefits to pet ownership. Avid dog lovers, though (you know, the people who can’t imagine life without dogs) would disagree: of course owning a dog is going to do you good, they’d claim!

So if you’re being told to exercise more by your health practitioner, there’s some four-legged trainers who would love to help you get fit again. And if your mental health is struggling, maybe a furry friend could help there too.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'Natural Therapies For Mental Health'

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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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Olwen Anderson @olwenanderson


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