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Olwen Anderson's Blog

Loving the disease that's keeping you healthy

Saturday, October 07, 2017
Twenty years ago a certain book was first published with a title designed to get your attention – and maybe make you a little bit angry too: “Love Your Disease, It’s Keeping You Healthy”. I confess to feeling more than a little irritated myself: It smacked of an unhelpful “you brought this upon yourself” attitude. Did this title annoy you as well?  Surely the author isn’t suggesting that being unwell is a good thing? 

But I read it, and eventually the title made sense. Then over the last decade or so of clinical practice I began to see where he was coming from. Today I’d like to share with you why this medical doctor author might just be correct about the connection between disease and health.

Virtually all of us have at least one health challenge to manage. Perhaps there’s some part of you that’s never worked completely because you were born that way. Maybe something went awry with your mental health or hormones in adolescence. Possibly a series of health challenges have seemingly just descended on you out of nowhere. Maybe an accidental injury has changed your life. Maybe you’ve been able to avoid any health challenges.  But sooner or later, most of us get at least one. 

Having a health issue, injury or disability to manage, especially the chronic variety, often means you have to take extra actions as preventative maintenance. Like, for example, a daily stretching routine to help you minimise your pain and maximise mobility. Or maybe you have to include or avoid certain foods to keep your digestion content. Perhaps ensuring you get enough sleep and meditate daily so your brain supports your mood and mental health better. Funny thing is - stretching, eating well, meditating and sleeping enough are great health boosters on their own.

If you were one hundred per cent healthy and functional you might regard these activities as optional extras in life. But then you might not do them at all, feeling you could get away with those unhealthy practices. But because your particular health challenge forces you to eat well, manage your movement and coddle your brain, for you these health practices have become compulsory.

Was this what the author, Dr Harrison was trying to communicate?  He’s recently re-released the book, plus two other books, one focussed on smoking. Maybe you’d enjoy reading them too – if you can get past the unfortunate titles.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'What's different about functional medicine' 

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Lessons from the plant hospital

Saturday, September 16, 2017
“I think we’d better keep these in for the week”. I admit to mixed feelings when the plant hospital wouldn’t let me take my office plants home. Well, they did look a little tired. Seems they needed re-potting and a nutritional boost of some microbes and fertiliser.  Indeed there is such a thing as a plant hospital – at least in Murwillumbah - and they’d been running a plant clinic.

If you’re a gardener yourself, or have house plants, you know how much they can lift a room. Being in a much-cared for home garden feels so uplifting, and spending time in nature can really calm and soothe your soul. Being able to gather vegetables for your next meal from your own back yard is priceless.  

Turns out that healthier plants produce more nutritious food too. I had the chance to talk with the plant experts and also do some research about soil health and the nutrient density of food. Plants rely on microbes to help them as much as we humans rely on microbes in our intestines to help us absorb food. Healthy soil leads to not just happier, but healthier plants too.

I wondered, too, is the health of the soil and its nutrient density reflected in the mineral concentration of the plants? Is this why, despite eating vegetables, we can still come up short on nutrients like zinc and magnesium?  A brief exploration of the peer reviewed scientific literature revealed that yes, the mineral density of crops has diminished over the years; for instance, a crop of modern wheat  harvested today doesn’t have the same concentration of magnesium as an old variety of wheat harvested several decades ago. (In case you didn’t already know, modern high intensity agriculture doesn’t use compost, just specific fertilisers to make the plants grow.)

This means that growing your own vegetables using nutrient-rich compost is now more important than ever, and could reduce your reliance on supplements to stay healthy. Maybe this is why our great-grandparents, fed by backyard vegie plots, stayed so healthy into old age. 

Also, keep in mind that organic growers routinely use more nutrient-rich materials like compost , which makes their produce perhaps worth the little extra cost. It could be worth your while to deliberately seek out more nutrient-dense vegetables and perhaps grow a little of your own food. After all, healthy soil leads to healthy plants, producing healthier people.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'More Minerals Please' 

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Birds, rainwater and your toothbrush

Saturday, September 09, 2017
If there is such a thing as rainwater tank envy, I bet many of us experienced it recently when our shire’s water supply became polluted with salt. Overnight, our tap water became a far less pleasant drinking experience and having your own water supply became priceless.

If you are blessed with your own rainwater tank, I bet you’ve got at least one filter and a first flush diverter between the tank and your home, because you know what happens on your roof: Incontinent birds and bats land there. Leaf litter and perhaps even the occasional nest can gather in the guttering. It’s surprising how much muck builds up, as any householder tasked with cleaning out the gutters finds out.

All this gunk washes off with the spring rains, and without a barrier, straight into your water supply, ready to brew into a less than healthy concoction as the temperature rises leading towards summer. You want to prevent all that bacteria-and-parasite laden water polluting your water supply.

If you’ve ever acquired a gastrointestinal parasite or small intestine bacterial overgrowth, you know just how challenging they are to evict and the intensity of symptoms they can produce. So most people have a filter between the tank and their kitchen tap to keep what’s lurking in their rainwater tank out of their drinking water.  But there’s another source of infection many householders overlook.

If you develop some uncomfortable and inconvenient bowel symptoms your practitioner will ask: Do you filter your rainwater supply? The next question will be “and what about your bathroom tap?” After all, every time you pick up your toothbrush then rinse your mouth out after brushing you could be using straight tank water – with all the muck from the guttering included.

We all get more active in the warmer spring weather, and any parasites and bacteria already present in your tank get more energetic too. Healthy intestines are capable of brushing off the occasional invading bug or parasite, but vast quantities from a polluted tank can overwhelm your body’s defences. So perhaps, if you don’t already filter your bathroom tap water, it could be time to. Or consider a ‘whole of house’ filter where your water pipe enters the building.

You don’t need anything more sophisticated than a ceramic filter, and they’re remarkably cost effective, particularly when you consider how much it’s going to set you back if a parasite takes up residence in your intestines.
If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Nine Bowel Signs You Shouldn't Ignore'

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Speaking your mind in a consultation

Saturday, August 26, 2017
It was probably confusing as a child, but now you’re an adult it makes sense. Maybe you got a swift kick under the table. Or a subtle arm-pinch, perhaps just a pointed glare.  You were having dinner at someone else’s home and it seemed your parents didn’t appreciate you voicing your unique, indefensible opinions about politics, religion or immigration. You were taught that to keep social events congenial, it’s considered polite to refrain from controversial topics. Following this custom also meant is was more likely you would be invited back another time.

Avoiding uncomfortable topics works well in social situations; but it’s all too easy to carry this custom into a practitioner’s consultation room. When you do, it can result in you leaving with the frustrating sense that your real concerns haven’t been addressed. Feeling like you wanted to speak up but somehow couldn’t.

As practitioners we call this effect the ‘imbalance of power’. The client (or patient) visits us in our ‘home’, our office. As a result, the visitor can feel constrained from speaking frankly, from disagreeing. For you, that can mean that the ‘elephant in the room’, what you’re really worried about or don’t agree on, isn’t discussed.  After a few of these kinds of consultation with different practitioners you can come to feel that no-one will help you.

I hope this hasn’t happened to you, but it seems that some folk (like women, those with disabilities, and members of minority groups) are more vulnerable to this imbalance of power, and are less likely to get the health services they need. So, if you sense you’re not getting what you came for, here are a couple of tips to help next time you sit down with a practitioner.

One technique is to write down before you go what you want from the consultation. Keep it with you. This is a fast way to communicate what you need when it can seem time to talk is too brief. It will help you stay on topic too. 

Another technique is to take a wingman with you – an assertive person you trust who also knows what you want to achieve from the visit, and is happy to speak up for you if it seems you’re not being heard.

Whichever technique you use, just remember that when it comes to your health care, this is the time to forget the keep-everyone-comfortable custom and speak your mind instead.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'Nine clues you have found the right practitioner' 

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Is it worth reading?

Saturday, August 19, 2017
You’ve probably had this kind of lightbulb moment. The television presenter breathlessly reports research that seems just the answer to your health problem. Maybe it’s about the importance of a vitamin, a magic formula for weight loss, or reassuring news that red wine and chocolate really are good for you. But you know that some reported ‘research’ might not be genuine or credible when examined closely. How can you uncover what’s real and what’s not in science?

We used to have to physically thumb through card catalogues and roam through dusty library shelves to locate a single study. But since the internet was born, the computer does this work for us. There’s now an overwhelming amount of information available with just a few clicks: good, mediocre and useless varieties. And the speed of our 24/7 news cycle can mean that research might not be checked diligently before the broadcasting begins.

We now have this problem because the internet doesn’t differentiate between what’s real and what’s make-believe. To help out, there’s a process in academic publishing called ‘peer review’, where a study is subjected to the scrutiny of several experts before the journal will agree to publish it. Although the process isn’t perfect, it does winnow out a lot of the chaff of research. Good quality scientific information is peer-reviewed, and worth reading; the rest might not be. Here’s how you find out if what you’re hearing is worthwhile.

First, seek out the journal. If where it was published isn’t mentioned, do an ‘advanced’ search through Google Scholar using clues from the news report. Once you know the journal name, head to their web site. There, perhaps in ‘instructions for submitting articles’, or the ‘about’ section will be the term ‘peer reviewed’ or ‘refereed’ or similar. If their website doesn’t mention this vetting process, or if it charges writers to publish, then you can suspect nobody’s checked the article before printing.

Still not sure? You could look for studies on the academic databases. Most libraries (including ours here in the Tweed) have access to research & study databases whose octopus-like tentacles reach into vast collections of academic journal articles. You can just tick a box in your search requesting ‘peer reviewed articles only’ and voila, it will locate the kind of research worth reading.

Now, when you hear about some fabulous new research you know how to reach behind the veil of publicity and see if it’s real.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'How to become an informed health consumer' 

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What about in a few decades?

Saturday, August 12, 2017
Swiping through Facebook the other day, I enjoyed the video clip about a nun regularly competing in triathlons. That’s a little outside what we would expect our religious to be doing, but that wasn’t the most unusual aspect: she was 86, and had taken up running in her early 50s as a spiritual exercise. It stuck. Sister Madonna Buder did miss competing in one triathlon in 2014 due to a broken hip, but according to the internet, is back on the track.

Then I came across another video clip, this time of a grandfather, Jean Titus, who had decided in his mid-40s that, really, he probably wasn’t even half way through his life, so it was time to get the mindset that would help him stay fit – and healthy – so much so that age would become just a number. He didn’t want to die at 25 to be buried at 70, realising that health & wellness were something money couldn’t buy. Judging by the film footage, he’s doing OK.
Now perhaps I was spending too much time on the internet. But these kinds of video clips and social media shares serve a purpose: they can shake us out of our habitual belief that our health and fitness will only be as good as the people around us. Which, if you’re living amongst people who have given up, might not be so good.

Maintaining your health certainly does become more challenging as the decades pass, partly thanks to the decline in reproductive hormone production from the middle years onwards. But I suspect that another powerful de-motivator is when you see the people around you getting tubbier, purchasing mobility aids, and forgetting where they were headed to after they’ve walked out the front door. 

As social beings, we’re hard-wired to perceive the way most of the people around us look as being normal. For example, it might seem normal now to be overweight since more than half of our population now wear plus-sized clothes. But if you were regularly mixing with people like Sister Buder and Mr Titus, your outlook on your own health and vitality might be a little different, perhaps?

So, if a little voice in your head is whispering that you might enjoy life more and feel better if you were healthier, maybe watching some of the inspiring folk on the internet, and getting amongst people intent on staying fit and healthy could help you shift aspirations into actions.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'The Controversies of Health' 

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Is your morning routine boosting or undermining your health?

Saturday, August 05, 2017
The alarm rings, signalling it’s time to catapult yourself into a new day.  Most people have really strong habitual routines; around what they eat, their fitness, and their mood. I’d like to invite you to consider whether your own morning routine is boosting or undermining your health.

Sound impossible? In reality, how you approach your morning routine, and what it includes can have a powerful effect on how you feel by the time the sun goes down, and on your long term health too. If you’re feeling frazzled, rushed and propelled only by nervous energy, supported through your day with caffeine and sugar, this idea might seem impossible: but there are only three key ingredients.

Actually, it starts the night before, where you may have to peel yourself away from the television to enable a solid eight hours rest. 

In the morning, allow enough time for your health-anchoring routines. This takes practice and adjustments. There are three elements you want to include: a breakfast to fuel your body, some exercise, and attention to your soul as well. It’s not so much the amount of time you have available for each as that you’ve attended to them.
Your breakfast, if it’s going to save you from irresistible cravings for sweet stuff, should include some high quality protein, some good fats, slow release carbohydrates and fibre. This could be as simple as a hard-boiled egg and avocado on toast. 

When it comes to exercise, it’s easy to let it slip by, assuming it will take too long. But in reality every little bit makes a difference. There are apps easily available now that guide you through five minutes of yoga, or strength training. Or you could investigate the possibilities of high intensity cardiovascular exercise promoted by a medical practitioner, Dr Moseley. Exercise helps because it burns off stress but, curiously, generates more energy than it uses.

The third item, for a truly holistic approach, is attending to emotional wellbeing. This is different for everyone: Some people have a religious affiliation inviting them to morning prayer. Others like to meditate, and for some folks it’s reviewing their goals, adjusting their internal compass for the day.

With a morning routine like this you’ll head out the door feeling refreshed, sustained, and well supported. In the long term, these habitual practices of a good breakfast, exercise, and attending to your soul will pay big benefits in better health for you. 

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'Breakfast of Champions' 

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This food tastes strange

Saturday, July 22, 2017
Market by Seemann via MorgueFileThe butcher warned me, as he must have warned many other customers: “This is going to taste a little different”.  I was purchasing a packet of bacon made traditionally – from free range pigs, genuinely smoked (you know, over a fire), and without preservatives. What a relief. I’d had a hankering for bacon but was unwilling to settle for the smallgoods usually available: made from pigs kept in cages, their meat injected with smoke extract to create the flavour and then embalmed in preservative for long use-by dates. It made me think about how real food can now taste ‘odd’; when in reality it’s just that our palates have become jaded by industrial production of food.

Same with celery. A weedy-looking specimen greeted me at the organic stall. I felt a little unsure about buying: would this bunch be inedibly stringy? It was a very dark green and didn’t have the plump appearance of other celery. The farmer shared that this crop of celery hadn’t had such an easy life with a guaranteed water supply, hence it’s ‘stunted’ appearance. The first bite, though, was a revelation: an intense celery flavour, not at all bitter or stringy. I knew that that the stronger in flavour a vegetable is, the more valuable nutrients it contains, so this celery was extra nutritious.  In reality I was actually experiencing  a‘real’ celery flavour.  Like we used to.

Organic chicken is another taste discovery. You might not know that fresh chicken, even free range birds, are routinely chilled during processing in a water bath with chlorine added; but organic chicken is air-chilled. The flavour difference is extraordinary; try it.

It seems we’ve become accustomed to eating foods plump in appearance and uniformly sized, yet short on flavour. And yet taste, after all, is what makes eating vegetables appealing. No wonder people find it challenging to eat enough vegetables. So, if you want more flavour-full produce to eat consider shopping at the local organic market for some less-than-pristine produce that’s actually bursting with flavour. Keep in mind, too, that if you keep settling for less that’s what will fill the supermarket shelves. Manufacturers and farmers will continue to produce the foods people open their wallets for.

What happened with the bacon? As the butcher warned me, it was “different”, mostly in texture. Yet the flavour was sublime, a really smoky, bacony flavour. Like food used to taste like before we began to settle for less. 

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Would you like that fish wild caught or farmed?'

Image credit: Seemann 

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Your very own internal border wall

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Within your intestines is your very own border patrol and border wall; so efficient it would put the wall construction border protecting aspirations of the president of a certain northern hemisphere country to shame: it’s an internal mucous-covered shag-pile carpet.  This is probably not the most appealing image to ponder, but fortunately it’s all hidden from our direct view. That border has an important role.

Living on the mucous are colonies of helpful bacteria. They pick up food particles then digest them into a form that we prefer to take in. Also present are enzyme molecules, which transform food rather like a tradesman will use tools. Immune cells lounge about here too. For all involved, that border checkpoint is a comfortable place to live.
There’s a few different ways nutrients make it across the border into your bloodstream. One is to just be allowed to pass through. These travellers have molecular ‘passports’ signalling they’re safe, and your immune system gives them the nod to seep through. Another is to be ‘assisted’ across, where a helpful molecule tucks the particle under its arm and carries it through; rather like an immigration agent.

There are many substances your body doesn’t want to let through, too; non-food substances, bad bacteria and the like. The strong barrier needs to hold.

But if your bowels become inflamed, though, the mucous barrier isn’t produced, the enzymes have nowhere to live, and the colonies of helpful bacteria shrink.  Now, not only can unwanted substances pass through without checking but, the usual process of nutrient absorption just doesn’t happen. For you, in the long term, this means more health problems, now from malnourishment.

What causes that protective barrier to disappear? Stress is the number one culprit, as cortisol produced in response to an alarming event stops the production of protective mucous. An influx of pathogenic (disease producing) bacteria that overwhelms the border patrol is another culprit, as is continuing to eat food that ignites an immune response; just like any war zone, normal function comes to a halt around the site of the battle and there’s quite a bit of damage. 

It’s not an unhealthy obsession to keep a close eye on your gut health: without a functioning gut border little of the nutrients from good food will get through. So if you’re managing a chronic health problem that just won’t seem to sort itself out, perhaps it’s worth taking a look inside your tummy function.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'nine clues that all is not well with your gut' 

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The breakfast that satisfies

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Noticed how some meals are really satisfying, and some leave you wondering when the ‘real’ course will arrive? Several decades ago I got taken in by the advertisement for a famous name slimming breakfast cereal that is still available today. Entranced by the television images of this slim, apparently successful and contented looking woman on the screen I rushed to the supermarket, and the very next day enjoyed this breakfast cereal that was going to make me slim, successful and happy too. 

What a disaster. Within just two hours my stomach was rumbling, my energy had evaporated and I was primed to leap ravenously upon any food not nailed down. These days I understand why some food is really satisfying and other foods leave you wondering where the rest of the meal is. Knowing how your stomach functions can show you how to easily shape what you eat so that you remain satisfied until the next real meal.

The first key is mechanical. I know you chew your food, but your stomach also rips apart those food particles so digestive enzymes can break it down even faster. It does this through using muscles to literally throw bits of food from one side of your stomach to another. You can’t usually feel this going on, fortunately.  But when there’s enough volume of food to begin this your stomach is more likely to feel ‘full’.

The second key is through messengers. Your brain is alerted through your nervous system when your stomach is deflated (empty) or inflated (full). Hormonal messengers also signal your brain about the contents of your stomach.
The third key is about chemistry. Special cells lining your stomach secrete strong acid and digestive enzymes to ‘melt’ food chemically. High quality protein (like in meat & eggs) is made of tough molecules that take time to break up. Fat globules and fibre also extend the time food will remain in your stomach because they simply get in the way of the chemical workings.

To create a really hunger-busting, satisfying meal include the ingredients that will slow stomach digestion: high quality animal protein, some fibre, some good fats, and enough volume.  For example, a breakfast of eggs and vegetables fried in olive oil. It includes the animal protein, good fat and fibre with enough volume to keep your stomach busy digesting and releasing the energy from that food slowly. A bowl of cereal alone just can’t achieve this for you. 

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Breakfast of Champions'

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Olwen Anderson @olwenanderson


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