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Olwen Anderson's Blog

When every day feels like the Marshmallow Test

Saturday, March 03, 2018
Would you have passed the marshmallow test? Last century two scientists at Stanford University devised what’s now widely known as the ‘marshmallow test’ to explore how children develop self-management in order to delay gratification. To do this, they sat each child down with their favourite treat on a plate in front of them. They could choose to eat it right away, but if they could wait for 15 minutes they’d receive another treat. 

It would have been a tough test for a five year old. But even for an adult, every day can seem like a long succession of marshmallow tests when you’re working on your health.  There’s the choice of whether to put on your training shoes and head out the door for a walk, or to roll over and press the snooze button. Whether to make time for the kind of breakfast that will sustain you yet create pots to wash, or to grab a donut and coffee on your commute. 

At lunchtime you have to make the choice between munching on a salad, or succumbing to the aroma of those toasted sandwiches. In the evening, do you make time to meditate, or slump into the couch in front of the TV, beer in hand? Your day can seem to be filled with endless decision points. Eventually you’ll be rewarded for your hard work with more energy, a better shape and mood. But you’ll have to wait for it.

It’s also been suggested that self-discipline is like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the easier it gets to manage yourself. But even professional athletes, those doyennes of self-management, have days off from time to time. 
So perhaps allowing yourself a ‘cheat meal’ once a week, or a day on the couch, could give your self-management muscles a rest. Then the next day get back to being disciplined. 

To let yourself off the hook, temporarily, could be the way to strengthen your self-management. It’s human to relapse on your best intentions, after all; and not entirely reasonable to expect you’ll do things perfectly every time.

So if you’ve fallen behind on the worthy New Year health resolutions you set yourself, don’t despair. You could, if you want to, choose to get back on track with your exercise and diet, face another day of training your discipline muscles, and witness your self-management get stronger with each step forward.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'How to make it easier to exercise' 

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Could a bigger breakfast lead to a smaller you?

Monday, February 26, 2018
Breakfast used to be such a big deal. For the first meal of the day people routinely reached for a frypan, eggs, perhaps even a steak, and toast too. Then some (now somewhat discredited) scientific research emerged claiming that eating eggs and steak would clog your arteries, so we were advised to reach for a packet of processed breakfast cereal instead. As a result, many frypans were reluctantly despatched to the back of the kitchen cabinet.

As the years passed, a bowl of cereal became the new normal. But curiously, our population didn’t get healthier. Instead, rates of diabetes and obesity began to soar to epidemic numbers. Could there be a connection with that breakfast change?

The nutritional science boffins at CSIRO investigated and concluded that the traditional protein based breakfast should have continued, and that you can help yourself lose weight by dusting off the cookware to create a bigger, more sustaining breakfast. Seems paradoxical, doesn’t it – eat a bigger breakfast to become a smaller size. But there’s some solid science behind it:

High quality animal protein is unique in that the molecules it’s made of are structurally pretty stiff. They take a lot of digestive enzymes and mechanical stomach action to break down, and this takes time. Extracting energy from eggs, meat, fish or chicken is slower than the speedy-energy-release breakfast cereal. That means your blood glucose level rises slowly too, providing sustained energy.  This keeps your appetite in check, making it less likely you’ll crave a sweet something mid-morning.

Curiously, that better (protein) breakfast even affects how you feel by mid-afternoon, helping you avoid the 3pm energy crash (which can also prompt you to seek out a sweet something to munch on) The end result of that good quality breakfast is less sugar in your diet overall.

Preparing that better breakfast takes much less time than you’d think, providing you’re willing to think ahead a little. Here’s an idea: Hard boil eggs the night before, and in the morning use them as toast toppers with hummus and slices of fresh tomato. In the cooler weather try leftover meat stew or savoury mince on toast. If you have the time, a vegetable fry-up in olive oil with a couple of eggs added is delicious. 

If you want to review the scientist’s reasoning, their report about why we need more protein is available on their website. Google “CSIRO protein report”.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "Is a High Protein Diet Safe?"


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Finding out more about your health

Saturday, February 17, 2018
Several decades ago, when I was desperately trying to get a handle on my own health problems, there were two frustrating obstacles that, fortunately, no longer exist today.

One obstacle was access to knowledge: Computers didn’t exist, Dr Google wasn’t practising yet, and so accessing information about health was a super-slow process. Locating journal articles meant physically navigating through dusty library shelves filled with (outdated) journals and thumbing through whatever (even older) books you could get your hands on.  Almost it’s own full time job.

As a result of this restricted access to information the accepted belief of the time was that your fate in health was determined by one practitioner stating “well, that’s how it will be”. A belief developed that one qualified professional had all the answers, was always right, and was the gatekeeper to any further exploration of the problem you faced.

The other obstacle was lack of access to testing. Until a few years ago it wasn’t possible to organise  tests investigating your health problem, even if you were prepared to pay for it. But thanks to the new field of functional testing you can explore your body functions (or dysfunctions) right through to genetic testing, and often in a non-invasive way. It’s a service that is helping bring power over health care to the consumer.

For example, if you suspect you have a hormone problem, functional urine or saliva testing can help decipher your hormone imbalance. Think your genes could be contributing to your mood disorder? Or that there’s a particular type of diet you’re genetically predisposed to? You have access to genetic testing. Tummy troubles? There are several varieties of stool tests available to inform you about what happens to your food after you’ve eaten it. You can even have your urine assessed to get a personalised report of what specific nutrients you need more or less of than the rest of the population.

Like other areas of health, some of these tests have been validated, and some not; it pays to do your due diligence before reaching for your wallet. But, thanks to the power of the internet, accessing information is easier than ever, and there are fewer obstacles in your way. So, if you’re struggling with a health problem and want to find out more about your body’s needs, functional testing offers you a way to find the answers. This testing can be arranged through a consultation. 

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "Choosing the right health practitioner for you"


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What went wrong? Your health in the rear vision mirror

Saturday, February 03, 2018
If you haven’t been feeling fabulous for a while now, here’s a useful question to ask yourself: “When did you last feel really well?” Peering into the rear vision mirror of your life way back to when you last felt good could help you locate the solution. Because sometimes what you used to do, and don’t any more could be the clue to regaining your wellbeing. Or maybe you began doing something new that has gradually had a detrimental effect, draining your health.

For example, maybe you’re feeling more stressed lately, or don’t sleep well, and can’t work out why. But then you recall playing team sports on the weekend before you stopped, for some reason. Perhaps you moved to a new community, or began working longer hours, and somehow never got back to spending your Saturday afternoons running around with your team mates. 

That shouldn’t make so much difference, surely? But reams of studies have been written emphasising the vital role exercise has in boosting health. We’re designed to move, and movement actually burns off the stress hormone cortisol. So those Saturday afternoon sports were actually releasing built up stress, which helped you sleep. But over weeks and months without the outlet of exercise your stress began to build up, and now you’re really feeling it.

On the other hand, it could be something new you’re doing that’s eroded your health. Like maybe your trousers are gradually shrinking. But lately you’ve been calling in to the café on your way to work for a super-sized milky coffee - plus syrup flavour - and the effects of that extra sugar are adding up.  A 400ml milky coffee contains about three teaspoons of natural milk sugar. Add a shot of syrup flavour and you’ve just doubled the sugar content. Imagine what an extra six teaspoons of sugar every day will do to your mood and waistline. This is how a small addition to your diet can have an insidious effect over the long term. But it might be some time before you catch on to the cause.

Locating what it was that made the difference takes some time; particularly as our lives are quite complex. And it isn’t just usually one factor that’s caused the negative impact. But reviewing what your life was like when you were feeling great could provide some valuable insight on where to focus your recovery efforts.


If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'One Hundred Flavours of Fatigue'

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Your bladder and anxiety - the connection

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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What interferes with thyroid function

Saturday, January 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is an extract from "The Empowered Thyroid" , a free e-book by Olwen Anderson available for download from www.olwenanderson.com.au/thyroid  

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Finding yourself amongst the crowd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Time for an environmental detox?

Saturday, December 16, 2017
If you’re keen to minimise the impact of artificial chemicals on your health, then the highly processed foods probably don’t make it into your supermarket cart. But it’s easy to overlook the external sources of chemical overload that have become pervasive in our modern world; particularly considering researchers voice concerns about their safety. Think you don’t encounter many chemicals in your life? Maybe you don’t. But consider this normal day for many of us –

In the morning, you washed your hair with fragranced shampoo, anointed your skin with fragranced deodorant and maybe perfume too. If you don’t already have a shower filter, your lungs took in chlorine gas from the municipal water supply. Bet you could still smell the laundry powder fragrance on your clean clothes. Gives you pause, doesn’t it, when you realise that our skin and our lungs are actually quite permeable to chemicals.

Then you prepared breakfast (on the surfaces cleaned with chemicals) and filled the teapot with unfiltered water (more chlorine and fluoride here). Don’t forget the cloud of artificial fragrance that you breathed in when you opened the kitchen bin with its perfumed liner. Maybe you heated your food in plastic containers – plenty of hormone disrupting chemicals in them.

Working in the garden today? All those plants and nature are really good for you – but are there insecticides or weed killers in your garden shed?

Well, maybe it’s better to just stay home. But inside a sealed house isn’t advisable though, as brand new upholstery or carpet emits fumes.  As do air freshener sprays. Your car presents the same problem, particularly if you use chemical cleaners or air freshener devices. But then there’s exhaust fumes to consider too.

Your nose deliberately switches off from this cacophony of smells after a while, but you’ll still take in fumes, and removing them increases the workload for your liver and kidneys just as effectively as eating food laced with artificial chemicals and preservatives.

By this time you might have decided that it’s safer to just stay in bed, perhaps. It’s true, we can’t live in isolation to completely avoid chemical contact. But it’s certainly possible to reduce your toxic load in lots of small ways that really add up. Where to start? You could consider purchasing unfragranced products, debate whether you really need perfumed bin liners and artificial air fresheners.

Maybe, this new year, the ‘detox’ you need to do is an environmental detox.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Lessons From The Plant Hospital' 

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Food intolerance mystery insights

Saturday, December 09, 2017
When your stomach doesn’t feel good, it’s natural to think back to what you last ate and blame that – particularly if your last meal was yet another end-of-year function with catering of dubious quality. 

Although it’s tempting to attribute the tummy rumbling, gas and bloating to what you ate recently, if you have food intolerances you actually need to think about what you ate over the last four days; because your immune system will tolerate a certain amount of a problem food, and only when you exceed your limit within four days that the symptoms might ignite.

The way it works is predictable in some ways and not in others. The IgG immunoglobulins are the The immune system patrol members responsible for managing food intolerances. These immunoglobulins will allow a certain amount of a problem food substance to pass by unchallenged. But exceed that self-imposed limit within four days, and the battle begins. 

Immunoglobulins call in extra support against this ‘invader’, sensitive cells become inflamed, the normally tight barrier in your bowel wall becomes porous, which means the battle can spill over into your bloodstream. What you might experience from this are symptoms like odd rashes, bowel discomfort, mood changes and the like.

There’s another, complicating element to this situation too. When you are under stress (i.e your cortisol levels are elevated), your immune system has less tolerance for problem foods than it usually does. Translated into real life, let’s look at a common food intolerance culprit, dairy. Your first exposure (perhaps with party pizza) is unlikely to cause problems. Consume more dairy the next day (an ice cream, maybe) and you could be getting close to your body’s upper tolerance. Let’s imagine the day after that you enjoyed a cheese tasting function and exceeded the IgG limits. 

Now your tummy might start rumbling or that odd rash re-appears; the one you’ve never quite been able to find the cause of. As long as you don’t have any more dairy for a few days, your symptoms are likely to diminish. But unless you’re savvy to what foods your body tolerates, and doesn’t, you might be unfairly blaming just the final dairy exposure, the cheese platter, for how you’re feeling.

The key to remaining ahead of your food intolerances is, when you experience the sense of “that food didn’t agree with me”, think over what you’ve eaten for the past four days, not just one.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'Identify Your Food Intolerance', here


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Giving the (wanted) gift of good health

Saturday, December 02, 2017
There are gifts that make you feel like the giver really ‘gets’ you and somehow knows what would delight you. Generates that warm, fuzzy, loved feeling, doesn’t it? And then there’s - well, ever been given a Christmas ‘gift’ with a hidden message? Like bathroom scales, or a gym membership? Bet you didn’t feel all that grateful for the covert message behind that choice: “you should be different from who you are”.

So what do you give someone who says they want to get healthier without offending them? Choosing an appropriate gift that they’ll value can be tricky, though there are some gifts more likely to generate a heartfelt ‘thanks’. Here are some ideas if you find yourself in that Christmas conundrum.

Most people love a massage – perhaps a voucher for a relaxation massage with an accredited practitioner could make you very popular. While you’re there, why not pick up a voucher for yourself too?

What about a fruit box, filled with exotic fruits and nuts? Many local fruiterers provide this service – you just nominate the amount you want to spend and whether you want specific varieties excluded, they’ll do the rest. It’s usually gift wrapped for you too. If you’re feeling particularly generous, consider subscribing them to a regular delivery.

Fielding hints that your giftee wants to play tennis, go kayaking, or ride a bike? Maybe sports equipment would be a valued gift. Or perhaps they would prefer the experience alongside you: Then a kayaking or snorkelling tour might be just the thing.  If you want to spend more time with your kids, perhaps some active toys like football, even a backyard croquet set.

Or, if your beloved could do with a little R&R, consider a relaxing river tour where everything is laid on and they get to just enjoy the scenery with the food laid on, the cleaning up done. With your company, of course!

The kind of unhelpful and unappreciated healthy gifts to avoid are those that communicate your intended really could do better with their health; if only they would try harder. It’s thoughts like this that lead some people to find the kind of ‘gift’ they’d never want under the Christmas tree: like bathroom scales or a treadmill. A tip, too: If you find yourself on the receiving end of gifts like this, there are many self-help relationship restoration books you could choose to bestow upon them next year.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'How to cope better with the lead up to Christmas' here


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