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Olwen Anderson's Blog

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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It seemed like a good idea at the time

Saturday, June 24, 2017
“There must be an easier way to do this” was probably on everyone’s mind. So it seemed like a good idea at the time, I’m sure. Back then, people had to expend enormous amounts of energy just for day to day living. Wood cutters were swinging axes then somehow getting huge logs onto the bullock train. Housekeepers faced the laborious chore of lifting wet heavy linen in and out of a copper each week, on and off the line, then smoothing them with a heavy iron.  Almost everyone had to walk or ride a horse to get somewhere. 

So the motor car, the automatic washing machine and the chainsaw would have been welcome inventions: easing sore backs and aching muscles. Enabling much greater mobility and freedom for us all. With each new invention, the reduction in energy expenditure would have made little difference at first; so much of life still required effort. But as time has passed less and less energy has been asked of us to manage daily life. Cars carry us home from the supermarket. Leaf blowers replace using a rake and broom. Automatic dishwashers spare the drudgery of washing up after dinner. We even have robotic floor sweepers – you may never have to pick up a broom again. 

I suspect it’s no coincidence that over the last 100 years and particularly within the last 50 years, waistlines in general have expanded. Now we’re faced with a population obesity crisis of epidemic proportions. Perhaps there’s a connection here. Maybe our quest for an ever easier, more convenient way to get things done has got out of hand.
Why should this matter to you? Well, if you sense that you’re slowly but surely putting on weight when your diet hasn’t changed, it may be that the ease of modern life has caught up with you. Why not do a quick review of how much technology is now sparing you from expending energy between when you climb out of bed and when you lay your head back on the pillow at night.

It would be extreme to switch off the electricity, abandon your car, head out to gather firewood for cooking, or set aside Mondays completely for clothes washing like we had to. We don’t need to return to the Stone Age. But there may be many ways you can subtly shift your energy expenditure to stop your waistband becoming ever tighter. 

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'An Antidote to the Hand Wringing About Childhood Obesity' 

Image credit: Edwin Garcia via MorgueFile

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Get those methylation moves happening with greens

Saturday, June 17, 2017
You might have heard of methylation, a fancy term for a particular biochemical reaction within your body that affects mood, skin, blood glucose regulation, wound healing and many other processes. If you know about methylation you might also have heard of the MTHFR gene mutation that makes methylation difficult for many of us and promotes development of conditions like depression, anxiety, addictions, acne, skin rashes, even muscle pain and fatigue.

You can obtain relatively inexpensive genetic tests now to determine whether your genes for methylation are defective (we can easily arrange this through the clinic); but even without the testing there’s something in your diet that can help your methylation processes and boost your health. Something ordinary. Something most of us don’t eat enough of: greens.

These vegetables, particularly raw greens, contain an important nutrient for methylation: folic acid, also known as folate or folinic acid. The name for this nutrient comes from where it’s most abundant, in green leafy vegetables. It’s in quite a few other foods as well, but green vegetables are a particularly rich source. As folate is a water soluble vitamin your body can’t store it, you have to top up on it each day. 

Vitamin C, found in all fresh raw fruits and vegetables, also helps the methylation process along by ‘recycling’ the folate so it can be used again and again to make the biochemical process happen at the right rate to keep you healthy and happy.

The big challenge is how to include more of these greens in your diet. The easiest way is to enjoy a salad every day. Not just salad in a sandwich, but a real salad; about two cups of salad vegetables with plenty of leafy greens like lettuce, dandelion leaves, rocket and herbs. Plus a yummy dressing, of course. Then for your evening meal aim to cover half your plate with steamed greens. 

You can even add greens to your breakfast: For example, lay a couple of rocket leaves on top of the bread before topping with eggs or savoury mince. 

Green smoothies are okay too, but try not to overdo them, as some raw greens regularly included in this drink, like kale, actually need to be cooked first to disable the phytic acid that can block the uptake of minerals.

One last tip to help you eat more leafy greens: Wrap them in a damp tea towel and enclose in a plastic bag to keep them fresh in your fridge.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Greens, the Ultimate Super Food' 

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The extra tag needed on an emergency services uniform

Saturday, June 10, 2017
Thank heavens for our emergency services. When flood waters rise they head out in boats to pull people to safety. Rush into burning buildings. Pull us out of mangled cars after an accident. Keep us alive on the way to the hospital. Keep us safe. So if you are one of the many people in uniform out there, we are immensely grateful.

Those uniforms you wear seem pretty sturdy. Tough-looking overalls, hard hats, protective boots and gloves. I guess each set comes with a helpful washing instructions label like “wash in cold water”. But perhaps there should be an extra tag: “Warning: wearing this uniform will not protect you from emotional trauma. Seek regular support.” Because that uniform can protect you from a lot of muck and mud, but it can’t protect you from the trauma of witnessing the distress of people you're looking after.

It’s now widely accepted that those who look after us are actually human, aren’t immune to the effects of trauma, and can be affected by other people’s distress. But media reports indicate it’s still difficult for many in the helping professions to reach out for ongoing support. Maybe because it may seem like everyone else on the team is coping, not affected. But it’s away from the main event when there’s time and space to think that feelings can surface. Sometimes you can recognise that what you’re feeling is about what you witnessed; and sometimes the feelings emerge just as a sense that you’re not functioning as well as usual, or your relationships are struggling.

Tempting as it is to numb these unpleasant feelings with alcohol or some other unhelpful coping strategy, the sense of feeling affected just returns when you sober up. It doesn’t help that the culture in some workplaces actively deters any need for extra support, deeming it a sign of weakness. But as anyone who has gone through counselling will attest, fronting up to talk over your feelings requires an immense amount of courage.

In many of the helping professions like counselling we are obliged to have ongoing ‘supervision’ through counselling to help us manage our feelings about what we are witness to. And yet, this kind of supportive 'supervision’ still isn’t an mandatory part of the job in other fields, like emergency services. If it were, perhaps more of our heroic helpers would feel comfortable accepting help for themselves so they can keep helping us.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'How To Avoid Developing PTSD'

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Manipulating the neurotransmitters that make you feel good

Saturday, May 27, 2017
Brain produces dopamine and other neurotransmittersDon’t know about you, but I rather enjoy the experience of feeling happy. Whether that emerges just from enjoying a day of glorious weather, or a job well done. When something good happens that makes you feel good your brain shoots out a flash of dopamine, a neurotransmitter designed to create feelings of satisfaction and reward. 

If you didn’t already know that your brain can create emotional feelings this may come as a surprise. But your brain really is running the show when it comes to your behaviour, craftily squirting out a bit of serotonin for happiness, or dopamine for satisfaction, and many other neurotransmitters designed to get you experiencing particular feelings so you’ll behave in certain ways. And you thought you were in control. Not as much: if your brain decides that what you just did was something worth doing again, it will produce happiness neurotransmitters. It has decided that what you just did is worth repeating: job well done, do it again.

There are two problems with this: sometimes those neurotransmitters are produced in response to doing something that really isn’t good for us: like smoking, alcohol, caffeine and recreational drugs. Over-use of computer games and social media (that smart phone you’re carrying can induce a shot of dopamine, making it all too easy for us to get lured back to swiping and liking.) It’s good old self-discipline that helps you control those urges towards self-destructive behaviours that feel good in the moment but less so in the long term.

Brains can get inflamed, too, which inhibits their ability to produce neurotransmitters, including happiness inducing serotonin and dopamine.  If your body is inflamed then it’s possible your brain can become inflamed too, generating mood disorders like depression and anxiety. 

Although some of that dopamine can be re-absorbed and used again, your brain needs a steady supply of nutrients like protein, minerals and glucose to keep producing more. There’s another problem with dopamine: it can be exhausted. This is most evident with recreational drugs, where larger amounts are needed as time passes to extract the same feelings the drug offered.

On the positive side, ordinary helpful day-to-day activities can spark a dopamine reaction too. Exercise, particularly, is well known to produce the class of neurotransmitters known as ‘endorphins’ because they make you feel good. One of the best ways to boost your mood (in a healthy way) is to get sweaty exercising.  

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Natural Mood Boosters'

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Olwen Anderson @olwenanderson


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