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Olwen Anderson's Blog

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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The extra life we don't have a map for

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When a cool breeze becomes a cold draft

Saturday, March 17, 2018
The change has come. You notice you’ve stopped stepping into doorways to catch any cool breeze, and begun closing that door to block out the cold draft. Winter is definitely on its way.

But there’s something you need to check, along with trying to remember where you packed the flannel pyjamas last spring. You need to check “the kit” is on hand. Because the change of season seems to be the time when so many of us are susceptible to catching colds and flu.

Even though you take good care of your health, sometimes that virus is just going to catch up with you. Perhaps you’ve been on a long distance flight, sharing recirculated air with several hundred other people.  Or stuck in a stuffy room for hours.  Or someone else in your household brought the germs home with them and is sharing them around.

Most of us have developed our own favourite flu-prevention remedies – often natural helpers like a specific herb mix, or a homoeopathic combination, or certain nutrients, or particular foods like ginger and honey. You’ve learnt from experience that the faster you can take action, the less of a hold the virus will get on you, and the faster you’ll recover. This is the time to check your supplies, to stock up on the remedies that work most effectively for you.

Chicken soup is a well-known cold remedy, and surprisingly, there’s some research behind it. This old home remedy works because the nutrients in the soup hose down the inflammation that generates symptoms like achiness, runny nose, sneezing and coughing. Preparing a big batch then freezing in portion sizes means that the day you come home feeling less than spectacular you can just heat up a bowl of this powerful symptom moderator.

Don’t forget another important tool for your flu kit: rest. Fighting off a virus uses immense amounts of energy, so taking the (sometimes embarrassing) step to rest as soon as you feel affected could mean you only have to take a day or two off work rather than struggle through a week or two of feeling poorly; or worse, remain unable to shake off the virus until spring.

Once you’ve got that cold & flu kit together you can relax a little, knowing you’ve got the tools you need on hand. Now you can get back to searching for your favourite knitted socks. You’ll need them soon.

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

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The brutal sleep report from your mirror

Saturday, March 10, 2018
The mirror report is brutal: “You’re looking less-than-perky today. Older, actually.” Well, okay, maybe you do look bleary-eyed, your wrinkles a little deeper. Who would have thought that a disrupted sleep could have this effect?
If you’ve ever experienced insomnia, or enforced sleep deprivation, you know how truly awful it feels when you run short on good quality sleep. Shift workers and new parents, you know what I mean.

Parents eventually get respite when their children eventually sleep through the night. Long term shift work is well known for its ability to erode your health. But you don’t have to be a parent or a shift worker to experience sleep problems. 

What you miss without good sleep is growth hormone. Although well known as the hormone that is sometimes (mis)used by athletes who cheat, growth hormone is naturally produced during sleep by the pituitary gland in your brain.

Amongst its other jobs, growth hormone helps regulate where the energy from food is utilised. In a young person growth hormone encourages cells to take up amino acids, produce protein, and grow muscles.  As you age though, and less growth hormone is produced, the balance shifts. Energy from food will tend to converge in fat deposits, especially on your tummy. Maintenance and growth of muscle is now something your body will undertake only if it’s pushed to. This makes exercise even more important as you age, because now you could literally melt into the couch. 

There seems to be some disagreement in the scientific literature about whether growth hormone is secreted more in the really deep phases of the sleep cycle, or whether it’s happening more in the first hour or so.

This is why sleep is such a central pillar of good health, and good sleep practice is known as sleep hygiene. Helpful habits: like avoiding electronic screens after dark, having a wind down routine, going to bed at the same time every day can help your body get into a better sleep routine. Some people find that exercising, meditation or stretching in the afternoon helps them sleep better. 

Sleep isn’t the only factor: chronic stress inhibits production of growth hormone, and exercise gives it a boost. It’s all linked though: Exercise helps reduce stress, and less stress helps you achieve a deeper, more restful sleep.
You can always get a report on your sleep quality and your growth hormone production from that unforgiving assessor, the mirror. 

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy "Why Can't I Sleep"

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Functional Testing for Gut Problems

Monday, March 05, 2018
Suspect there's a functional problem with your digestion? Here are some of the functional tests that can be engaged to help discern why your digestion has problems.

When you need a comprehensive picture of what’s going wrong.

The CDSA (comprehensive stool digestive analysis) provides a good overview of what’s going right, and what’s going wrong. One or more stool samples are collected to find out –
- If there are parasites – and if so, which, and how severe is the infection
- The presence of good (helpful) and bad (damaging) bacteria 
- The presence of problem fungi like candida
- Whether your immune system is alerted, indicating food intolerances
- How well your digestive enzymes are working
- Whether there are red blood cells present
There are different  levels of sophistication in the testing mechanism that affect the price you will pay for the test. The best test for you is decided through discussion with your practitioner.


If you think you have a leaky gut

There are two ways of testing: 
- One is to deliberately drink a solution of mannitol and lactulose, which, if you have a leaky gut, will then appear in your urine.
- Another test for leaky gut is a blood test, This test looks for the presence of markers of intestinal barrier problems in your bloodstream. It’s called the “Advanced Intestinal Barrier Assessment”

If you think you have parasites, or candida, or a bacterial infection

A stool test  can reveal whether you have intestinal candida; a blood spot test will reveal your level of candida antibodies. Which test you would choose depends on whether you believe you have a candida infection that is either confined to your digestion, or systemic (right through your body).

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Olwen Anderson @olwenanderson


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