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How the Easter Bunny can also deliver migraines and hot flushes.

Saturday, April 15, 2017
Aah, chocolate. It’s the ultimate comfort food; not just because it stimulates production of some happiness-inducing neurotransmitters. In the Western world it’s a symbolic Easter gift. But chocolate has another, darker side (no pun intended) that can make people who experience migraines or menopausal hot flushes pause before scoffing any chocolate Easter eggs.

You see, chocolate belongs in a food family known as vasoactive amines* – along with other delicious foods like red wine, cheese, bananas, coffee, and tea. Even clearly healthy foods like fava beans and tuna, celery, potato, licorice and nutmeg are in this group. As are chillis. 

‘Vasoactive amines’, in layman’s terms just means protein molecules (that’s the ‘amines’ part of the term) that affect your blood vessels (that’s the ‘vasoactive’ part of the term). This means if you happen to be susceptible to vasoactive amines, and you’ve eaten enough of them, you may quickly feel hot, perhaps look red, and maybe even break out into a sweat.

What vasoactive amines do is cause your blood vessels to widen, and to become more permeable (sieve-like). This increases blood supply to the surface of your skin, which makes you feel warmer, perhaps even break out in a sweat. It usually passes quickly; because while you’re throwing off your jumper and wiping your brow your body is already compensating with a whole new cascade of biochemical reactions to hose down what the vasoactive amines did.

Vasoactive amines aren’t bad for you as such. But science has found certain foods produce chemical reactions in the body: Some helpful, some unhelpful. Some create obvious reactions, some are silent. A Google search for ‘pharmacologic food reactions’ can be the launching point to find out more about how our bodies can react even to foods that are good for us.

If you’re susceptible to migraines, however, a big enough dose of vasoactive amines could be enough to trigger one of these awful headaches. Migraine sufferers especially seem to learn through trial and error which foods can trigger migraines, and just avoid them. Some women, however, have to experience many hot flushes before making the connection that vasoactive amines in foods are causing even more frequent and more powerful hot flushes.

I hope you have a wonderful Easter break, and that the Easter Bunny leaves you many delicious chocolate eggs to enjoy – even if you can only eat a little at a time.

*Franxman, Timothy J., and James L. Baldwin. "Pharmacologic Food Reactions." Food Allergy: Adverse Reactions to Foods and Food Additives, Fifth Edition: 437-451.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "How to Stay Healthy During Menopause"

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Help when life is turned upside down

Monday, April 10, 2017
Swan Dive by Eve LiddellIt’s been a rather big week, hasn’t it? There we were, contemplating the weekend ahead and along comes Cyclone Debbie to turn our little community upside down. She’s left quite a bit of trauma, worry and stress behind her. So this week’s column is all about how to look after yourself, boost your resilience, and care for those around you.

The curious thing about natural disasters is that those who weren’t directly affected can be just as traumatised as the people who did lose a family member, or their homes, business, job and pets. And that trauma can stick just as well as flood mud.

What’s good to remember is that the strategies you were already using to help you cope with day-to-day life are just as helpful now.  This might seem self-evident, but when you’re in shock from an event like the floods it’s easy to underestimate their healing power.

First, try to re-establish your routines: Like getting up and going to bed at the same times. This will help reassure your subconscious, settling the biochemical stress reaction that can lead to chronic health problems. And it helps give you a sense that you’re regaining control. Resume your exercise, and keep eating well. Meditation, music, prayer, taking time out to just rest with a cuppa, and connecting with people. This all helps. The strategies to avoid are the ‘false friends’ like alcohol and drugs.

Also, keep an eye out for physical health problems. When your body is exposed to relentlessly high cortisol levels from post-trauma stress, illnesses can develop. Like stomach aches, headaches, digestive problems, skin problems.  Your emotions can change your body.

If you’re in the position of supporting friends and loved ones who have lost so much, one of the most useful things you can do to relieve their stress is just listen. And listen. And listen some more. As you’ve probably noticed, people can respond in some unexpected ways when they’re in shock; so a little tolerance goes a long way.

Lastly, remember that one of the most challenging aspects of managing the stress that emerges from an event like these floods is allowing yourself to reach out for help; whether that’s a cuppa and a chat with a trusted friend, or a consultation with your health professional.  As much as you want to help other people recover, there are many people who would love to help you recover too.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Six Signs You're Reaching Burnout' 

Image credit: Swan Dive by Eve Liddell via MorgueFile

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Does Dairy Affect Asthma?

Saturday, March 25, 2017
With every diagnosis comes free advice, it seems – from friends, from family, from Facebook. One commonly held belief about asthma is that dairy makes asthma symptoms worse; that it increases mucous production. But is there any scientific evidence to back this up? And if this is what you actually experience as an asthmatic, why does it happen?

I hasten to point out, before we continue, that having asthma requires ongoing medical monitoring, whether you utilise natural therapies or not. Uncontrolled, it’s potentially fatal. But there are many ways you can help prevent asthma attacks happening, and diet is one of them.

The scientific research around asthma and dairy so far has reached two conclusions: first that many people make changes to their diet based on their beliefs and their experiences; how they feel. And second, that very little robust (peer reviewed) research has been done on whether dairy really does make asthma worse. Many of the studies have been too small to be taken seriously, and those that did include enough people to be statistically significant are inconclusive. So there’s no definitive answer from science for the question; but immune systems can over-react, and here’s how over-production of mucous can develop. (By the way, I've included a list of some studies I found at the end of this article).

All parts of your body where the inside meets the outside world, like your airways, are guarded by the patrolmen of your immune system, immunoglobulins. Their role is to constantly check what’s entering your body. When something arrives that they’ve been trained to believe is dangerous (like dairy) they alert other members of your immune system to take action. Kind of like calling in emergency services at the border check point to deal with an attacker.

In response to a perceived invader mucous producing cells (called goblet cells) secrete sticky mucous in abundance so that the offenders are entrapped and washed away. But if the immune system decides that wasn’t enough your airways can over-react, bringing on an asthma attack. If attacks seem relentless your body can increase the number of goblet cells so that even more mucous will be produced next time.

It can be hard to decipher whether dairy is affecting your asthma, as there are so many other factors involved; like whether you’re susceptible to airborne pollutants, and whether you’re already malnourished. One way to investigate whether dairy is a problem for you is to cut it out of your diet completely for a few weeks and see how you feel. 

McKeever & Britton 'Diet and Asthma'  published in American Journal of Clinical and Respiratory Medicine 2004  DOI:

Onorato et al 'Placebo-controlled double-blind food challenge in asthma' published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 1986

Woods et al 'Food and nutrient intakes and asthma risk in young adults' published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2003 

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Could mindful eating help you lose weight?

Saturday, March 18, 2017
With a heavy heart, you realise that your waistband isn’t shrinking. Your belt confirms, as you let it out another notch, that your stomach really is getting bigger. What’s causing this subtle yet relentless weight gain? 

You don’t believe your diet has changed, yet life’s been busy. It’s been easy to fall into the traps of mindless eating: Consuming food while your mind is occupied with other things: like the TV, internet, driving. You’re not focused on the taste and texture of what your jaw is working on. Or how that food makes you feel.

Television watching can be the most potent distractor: relaxing on the lounge accompanied by a bag of crisps or a block of chocolate. Somehow, although your avowed intention was to have just a couple, by the time the show has ended the contents of the packet have completely gone and you’re now feeling uncomfortably stuffed. Why didn’t your body alert you earlier?

You got through all that food unconsciously because eating is a multi-sensory experience, and your brain is signalled that you’re satiated not just by the quantity you’ve observed yourself eat, but through hormones and nerve signals emitted by your stomach. While your brain was preoccupied elsewhere your stomach was unable to grab your attention with ‘that’s enough!’ messages.

The result of preoccupied consumption can be all-too-easy over-eating. Worse, you often might not feel satisfied by what you’ve consumed; unconscious eating means you’re missing out on one of the great pleasures of life.

A diet seems like the solution, but dieting usually means deprivation. That’s not fun. Instead, consider the non-diet diet: a way of restoring your connection with your body and how it’s responding to what you’re eating. Through mindful eating you could actually enjoy your food more and perhaps eat less without feeling deprived.

In practice, this is what conscious eating looks like: sit down at a table for your meal. Remove distractions: switch off the TV and internet, or stop the car. Appreciate the aroma, texture and taste of what you’re putting in your mouth. Notice how it feels to eat. 

When you’re paying attention, your body will tell you whether that food was right for you. Do you feel revived and nourished? Or not? Perhaps one of the reasons you keep gaining weight is that you’re not paying attention to how your body feels about the kind of ‘nourishment’ you’re feeding it. 

If you enjoyed this article you might also like to read "Enjoy Food More - Here's How"

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So, how's your relationship with food going?

Friday, March 17, 2017

book cover women food and god by geneen rothA confession and a revelation first: I didn't seek out this book; my supervising counsellor recommended I read it. So I duly obtained a copy and began. And the revelation: This book has nothing to do with God as Christianity knows it.

Within a few pages I wanted to toss the book across the room. Apparently, many other readers and people who've attended the author's retreats felt the same way. You might too, if you decide to read it. But, since this was 'assigned homework', I persisted. And I'm glad I did - because the book is full of insights, gentle guidance, and sometimes in-your-face realisations about your relationship with food.

There are some really enjoyable insights into "your internal weather pattern" (p.193), how the way you eat could be the key to finding what you believe in (p.77), and lots of others. But you'll probably have to keep reading beyond your discomfort, as I did.

If you suspect that your relationship with what you eat perhaps isn't all that you'd like it to be, then you'll find this book useful. But perhaps not enjoyable in the beginning. Persist.

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Turn back the clock for a better breakfast

Saturday, March 11, 2017
Even just a few decades ago, the meal we started the day with was quite different to the kind many people now experience; and I wonder how much this is contributing to the skyrocketing obesity and diabetes statistics. There were no ‘instant’ breakfast cereals or meal replacement drinks back then.  Instead breakfast was a defined meal, enjoyed sitting down at the table with other household members.

It was a far more substantial affair: porridge was a staple, perhaps with some fresh or stewed fruit. Eggs and often bacon or sausages also appeared, sometimes accompanied by mushrooms, tomato, toast, butter. And, of course, the teapot in its glorious knitted cosy.

Besides the higher nutritional value, sitting down for a defined meal had emotional benefits too: The day began in a calmer, slower fashion. Family relationships were strengthened by eating together.  Admittedly, one family member usually had the job of ‘home maker’ who worked at home and could wash up afterwards But they didn’t have electric dishwashers in those days either. We do now.

Over just a couple of generations we’ve come to perceive breakfast as a bowl of sugary cereal, eaten standing up. Or a meal replacement shake. Even as takeaway balanced one-handed on the commute to work. The outcome may be contributing significantly to our collective poor health, increased sugar consumption and mood swings as well as, I suspect, adding to stress and eroding relationships.

What that old-fashioned better breakfast did was re-feed the body after a long fast overnight. Bolstered by a combination of protein, fat, slow release carbohydrates and fibre, blood glucose level rose gradually. Slower digestion meant this steady blood glucose was sustained for a few hours before declining in time for lunch. That stability didn’t just prevent energy slumps and sugar cravings, it promoted a more even tempered mood.

We can’t turn back time, but we can certainly use what we’ve learnt. Care to take up the challenge to a better breakfast? You’ll notice within a few days that your mid-morning sweet cravings are diminishing, as is the mid-afternoon energy slump. Your mood is more stable and you get home with more energy to enjoy your evening relaxation.

That better breakfast can be as easy as eggs on toast; but have a plan to make your good intentions reality: List your breakfasts for the week and paste it to your fridge door. Enjoy your better day from a better breakfast.

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

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Hidden sources of sugar and your addiction to sweet

Saturday, March 04, 2017
Ever wondered why sugar is so addictive? It’s sometimes regarded as the ultimate legal drug from its effects and how easily it can propel you to seek out your next ‘fix’. “But I don’t eat sugar” is a frequent response; yet most of us would be shocked to learn how much sugar we’re actually eating because it’s so well concealed.

We’re hard-wired to detect sweet tastes, just like we’re equipped to detect salty and sour tastes. But  the experience of sweetness switches on a certain neurotransmitter (a brain chemical messenger) that sparks happy feelings of satisfaction and reward. 

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter. The experience of a sweet taste on your tongue is rapidly communicated to your brain, which releases some dopamine in response. The more sweet the taste, the more powerful the dopamine outpouring and the better you feel. Feeling happy is a rather nice sensation, so your brain prompts “Fun! Let’s do this again!” and it pushes you to go seek out some more sweet foods.

That drive for ‘sweetness’, researchers have found, is suspected to over-ride other appetite control mechanisms we have to help let your body know when you’ve eaten enough. Because those controls are dampened it’s all too easy to eventually find yourself constantly seeking out the next sugar ‘high’. When you can’t get your ‘fix’ of sugar, a pretty nasty mood can develop. That’s how sugar becomes an addiction.

There are the obvious sugar sources: soft drinks and lollies. But thanks to our addiction to sweet tastes, manufacturers have learnt how to include increasing amounts of sugar to make their product taste good, and you feel good, without being cloyingly sweet.

Yoghurt is an easy trap because in its natural form it’s quite tart; so some manufacturers have added five teaspoons of sugar to a small 200g tub. Muesli is another apparent ‘healthy’ food that can include lots of sugar, especially the toasted varieties. Foods which would normally have a sharp tang to them, like tomato-based pasta sauces, often have sugar added to make them more palatable.

Scrutinising the label has become the only way to ensure your own sugar addiction is managed. Look at the ‘per 100g’ section of the label: More than 15g of sugar per 100g is regarded as ‘high’ in sugar. There’s no perfect way to overcome a sugar addiction, but avoiding hidden as well as obvious sources of sugar is a good start.

Want to know more? Take a look at this paper: ‘Dietary sugars: their detection by the gut-brain axis and their peripheral and central effects in health and diseases. Ochoa et al Eur J Nutr (2015) 54:1-24

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'The 14 day sugar challenge'.

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Should yoga be part of your life?

Saturday, February 25, 2017
Yoga pose by martin louis via MorgueFileYou’ve probably seen those lycra-clad people purposefully striding towards their yoga class, colourful rolled-up mat tucked under their arm. Should you be doing yoga too? After all, so many folk seem to be taking part these days, and apparently enjoying extra flexibility and strength as a result. 

But you’ve heard yoga’s a spiritual practice, requiring membership of a religious group. And don’t these yoga classes mean you’ll be contorting yourself into uncomfortable, impossible positions like wrapping your leg around your neck? 

Fear not. Yoga certainly is an ancient practice, ‘originating from a Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline’ according to Google. So it began as a spiritual practice, certainly. But as more people around the world joined in it’s been modified into many different versions for those with specific needs and preferences. Some spiritual groups emphasise yoga, but just as many groups are focused only on the physicality of the practice.

Yoga has become popular because it helps develop your flexibility and strength. That means more ease of movement, and for older adults, less pain and inconvenience from lost mobility that threatens your ability to continue living independently. Yoga also returns you to connection with your body, often needed by those of us who work in intellectual fields. It also allows you to pause and de-stress, especially with the period of quiet meditation that concludes classes. Pretty good all round. 

Because yoga has become so popular, it has sparked the interest of scientists, reviewing how helpful yoga is or could be for supporting specific conditions like asthma, pain, mental health and high blood pressure.

There’s now specific yoga classes for seniors, for mums with bubs, pre-natal yoga, hot yoga, anti-gravity yoga, and some traditional forms too, Iyengar and Hatha. It’s pretty simple to work out if you fit into the ‘seniors’ or ‘pre-natal’ categories, but how do you choose which yoga style is right for you?

The best way to find a class and a teacher you can relate to is through trying out a few different classes and yoga styles, until you find one the best one for you. Keep in mind that yoga is called a ‘practice’ for a reason: you need to keep practising to achieve better results. Check your teacher is accredited to ensure they’re been trained professionally; that helps keep you safe. And, of course, if you have any pre-existing health conditions it’s a good idea to check with your doctor first. 

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'Learn From Your Dog About Work Life Balance'

Image credit: Martin Louis via morgue file

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Help for when the mosquito leaves more than just a bite

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Mosquito. Image credit Dodgerton SkilhauseYou’re entitled to feel a little nervous: relaxing outside on a balmy tropical evening, you notice a mosquito feasting on your arm. Although your instinctive reaction means the mosquito’s life comes to an abrupt end, you can’t help but worry.

That concern is justified: That tiny mosquito could suck out your energy and joy of life in one brief visit, through infecting you with of the tropical mosquito-borne viruses like Ross River or Barmah Forest. These viruses can flatten previously healthy, active people for months with debilitating symptoms including joint ache and relentless dragging fatigue. Some become too unwell to work.

Although many people recover their health completely, others are affected for months or even years with their vibrancy impaired and sometimes with ongoing pain. The urban myth claims nothing can help, but in fact, from a naturopathic perspective, several tools are available to help relieve the symptoms and speed recovery.

If you’ve been struck down by one of these tropical viruses, one of the key strategies you have is rest. Your body is literally fighting an infection; that uses immense amounts of energy. Remember the last time you had a flu or cold, how depleted you felt? Well, the tropical viruses are like the flu, but a more serious form of infection. 

You’ve probably noticed how easily colds and flus can ‘hang on’ when you refuse to allow recovery rest, soldiering on as if nothing was happening. It’s the same with the mosquito-borne viral illnesses: Refuse to rest and you’ll suffer the symptoms even longer. So rest is your number one priority.

Another strategy is to utilise food as medicine and incorporate more immune-boosting, inflammation calming foods into your diet. That means fresh raw foods with a high nutrient density: raw juices, salads, fresh fruits. Remember that home-made chicken soup as an anti-viral isn’t just an old wives’ tale, it’s been scientifically proven to help as it calms down the inflammation-inciting activity of particular immune cells, neutrophils. And that helps because a large contributor to your aches and pains is the waste materials of the immune battle irritating your nerve endings. Calm the inflammation and you help reduce the pain.

Finally, your herbalist has natural remedies available to help too. Some research has identified particular herbs as active against specific viruses; other herbs have a broader range of activity. There are also natural remedies to help calm the inflammation that can create joint and muscle pain. 

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy 'Quenching the Fires of Inflammation' here 

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You can blame bacteria for your bad breath

Saturday, February 11, 2017
Bad breath is one of those embarrassing conditions that can really put a dampener on your social and romantic life. Finding the source can be challenging though, so here are some common causes and a couple of home remedies to help.

The key point to remember is that bacteria smell. The more bacteria, the more powerful the odour they create through their sulphurous off gassing. Somehow, humans are attuned to detecting the distinctive aroma of harmful bacteria. Perhaps that’s how we’ve learnt to detect ‘off’ food that could poison us and to feel repelled by the smell of contagious infection. Bad breath means bad bacteria, means instinctive revulsion.
The challenge with treating bad breath is discovering what part of your anatomy that smell originates from, and persisting long enough to evict the unwanted colony. Start at your mouth, as it’s a hive of bacterial activity. 

Bacteria are constantly being ingested through food, on air particles, and through kissing (technical term for a process of exchanging body fluids with others). To help keep you safe your immune system has established boundary patrols on all surfaces, called immunoglobulins. They identify potentially dangerous bacteria then alert immune cells to destroy them. This happens in all areas of your body where the inside meets the outside world: sinuses, nose, mouth, intestines, ear canals, vagina, urinary tract.

We also host colonies of commensal (helpful) bacteria on these surfaces. Although the good bacteria also have a distinctive smell, to us they don’t smell ‘bad’, because they’re ‘good’ bacteria.
Change the conditions on your internal mucous membranes and the bacterial balance will change, as will the smell. When you consider your mouth, tongue, tonsils and sinuses are full of moist little crypts harbouring bacteria, you can see how easily an odorous colony could set up their own safe haven.

Further down your digestive tract, reduced stomach acidity (which often happens with age) promotes bad breath; simply because the pH of food when it leaves your stomach affects the bacterial balance of your intestines; and bad bacteria love a more alkaline intestinal environment that an inadequately acidic stomach promotes. 

Some people find the addition of a little apple cider to water before a meal helps boost their stomach enough to restore bacterial harmony. Another home remedy for bad breath is chewing fresh parsley. But to wipe out bad breath completely you need to locate their safe havens and dislodge them by changing your internal environment.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'foods your liver will love'

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Olwen Anderson @olwenanderson


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