Antibiotic Awareness

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

The development of antibiotics during the last century was perhaps the most important breakthrough in modern medicine, which revolutionized the treatment of infectious diseases, and saved many lives. However, this advantage could one day be lost forever, due to the development of antimicrobial resistance. Last week, the Health Service Executive (HSE) launched a new campaign to raise awareness about the correct use of antibiotics.

Antibiotics are drugs which kill the bacteria that cause various types of infection in the body. However, when antibiotics are over-used, or used inappropriately, bacteria develop ways of resisting their effects. When an entire strain of bacteria becomes resistant to most antibiotics, it is often referred to as “superbug”; the best known example of which is MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureas), which can cause incurable and sometimes fatal infections.

Research published in the Irish Medical Journal last year highlighted the fact that antibiotic use has risen sharply in recent years, and that up to 50% of antibiotic prescribing may be inappropriate. Many GPs have admitted that pressure from patients is often a factor when prescribing antibiotics. However, if antibiotics are being inappropriately prescribed on demand, it really defies the purpose of having them under prescription-only control.

Antibiotics are completely ineffective against the viruses which are responsible for the majority of winter bugs, and they do nothing to support the immune system or to help with the symptoms of the condition.  Recent research has also found antibiotics to be largely ineffective in the treatment of sinusitis and ear infections. Of course antibiotics are absolutely essential in the treatment of serious or life threatening conditions, but they are powerful drugs, which can have some serious side effects.

Antibiotics interfere with the normal balance of microflora, or “friendly bacteria” in the body, causing digestive disturbance, poor absorption of various nutrients, and overgrowth of harmful micro-organisms such as Candida albicans. Antibiotics can also have far-reaching effects on the immune system, and infections which resolve after antibiotic treatment often recur because the immune system has been damaged by the antibiotics.  The most notable examples are cystitis and ear infections, which may return time and time again and take years to fully resolve.  Studies have shown that children who are given broad-spectrum antibiotics before they are 6 months old are almost nine times more likely to develop asthma than other children.

Fortunately, many people are now aware of the dangers of antimicrobial resistance, as well as the potential side-effects of antibiotics: A comment I often hear is: “I tried to do without the antibiotics, but I had to give in the end”. However, in the case of most common infections, what is needed is neither suffering on in silence, nor rushing to the nearest GP for a prescription; but a safer, yet effective approach to dealing with the problem. Patients who attend my clinic for treatment of acute infections are often surprised at how effective herbal treatment can be.

Some herbal remedies have been found to be more effective against a range of bacteria than pharmaceutical antiseptics, and because they are much more complex than orthodox medicines they are less likely to lead to the development of resistant bacteria.  There are also a number of antiviral herbs, which are more appropriate for treating the viruses that cause a large proportion of common infective illnesses, such as respiratory and gastrointestinal infections.

In order to treat the symptoms of the infection, other herbs are used, which help to manage fever, to reduce the production of mucus, to soothe sore throats and coughs, or to ease urinary symptoms or diarrhoea. In addition, herbal medicine focuses on supporting the body’s own immune response in order to fight the infection and to help prevent future attacks.

By visiting a herbalist for the treatment of infections, you can be assured of treatment which is safe and effective for both adults and children.  At the same time you can avoid the side effects of antibiotic treatment and help to ensure that they will be effective if they do become really necessary. 

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Monday, November 21st, 2011

Cancer of the Prostate is the most common form of cancer in men, and around 2,700 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer in Ireland every year. During November (or Movember as it is now called), thousands of men around Ireland sprout moustaches to raise awareness about this condition.

The prostate is a small gland, which is located below the bladder in men. It wraps around the urethra (through which the urine flows out of the body), and is responsible for secreting seminal fluid.

The symptoms of prostate cancer are usually due to pressure on the urethra, and include difficulty starting to urinate, weak or interrupted flow, difficulty stopping urination, and needing to urinate more frequently. These symptoms are virtually identical to those caused by benign enlargement of the prostate, which is much more common than prostate cancer. However, it is always worth getting any unusual symptoms checked out.

Since the prostate gland is located very close to the wall of the rectum, assessment can be carried out by a rectal examination. A blood test to measure the level of Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) may also be used to indicate whether further investigations are necessary, in which case a prostate biopsy may be performed. However, the PSA test is not a specific test for prostate cancer: PSA can be raised due to benign enlargement or inflammation of the prostate, and up to two thirds of men with a raised PSA do not have prostate cancer.

In many cases, prostate cancer causes no symptoms at all in the early stages, and therefore regular checks are important, especially if you are over 50, or if you have a family history of the condition

Fortunately, prostate cancer is usually very slow growing, and it is therefore less likely to spread to other parts of the body than other forms of cancer. However, early detection and treatment are still vital to offer the best chance for a full recovery. There are also many natural ways to help prevent prostate cancer, and to aid recovery for those who have already been diagnosed with the condition.

Avoid wearing tight fitting underwear or trousers, as this restricts lymphatic drainage, which in turn prevents removal of toxins from the area and interferes with healthy immune function.  Make sure you go outside for a walk every day since the main source of vitamin D is the action of sunlight on the skin, and people who are deficient in this vitamin more likely to develop various forms of cancer.

Men who eat a lot of red meat and dairy products have been shown to have a higher chance of developing prostate cancer than those who do not. Therefore it is important to cut down on consumption of red meat and dairy products (such as cheese), and to eat more chicken, turkey and fish, especially oily fish such as mackerel, tuna, salmon and trout.

It is also very important to eat plenty of fresh organic fruit and vegetables, particularly those which are coloured, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, greens, cherries and other berries.  These contain antioxidants and other essential nutrients, which are very important in the prevention and treatment of prostate cancer. One nutrient that has been shown to be particularly beneficial is lycopene, which is found in tomatoes. For maximum absorption, it is best to drizzle fresh, ripe, preferably organic tomatoes with olive oil and grill before eating.

A professional medical herbalist can provide an individually-tailored herbal prescription, and detailed advice about diet and nutritional supplements to help with cancer prevention and improving the chances of recovery.  Of course there is no magic cure for cancer, but taking a holistic approach to healthcare can help to create an environment in the body which does not encourage its growth, and can help to give the immune system the upper hand.


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“What’s Ireland Eating?” – Part Two

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

In last week’s article, I wrote about a documentary that was shown on RTE at the beginning of this month, which posed the question: “What’s Ireland Eating?” The documentary, which is still available to watch on the RTE player, is based on the results of a survey of the grocery-buying habits of thousands of Irish households, and also presents the results of the National Nutrition Survey, which was carried out by Irish University Nutrition Alliance. The documentery raised some very important issues, and in last week’s article, I wrote about the impact our food choices are having on our health. This week I will focus on how the way we shop is affecting our economy.

Once upon a time, people bought their meat from the butchers, fruit and veg from the greengrocers and so on. The food they bought was often locally sourced, supporting not only the local shops, but also local farmers and other food producers. Nowadays, 8 out of every 10 euro we spend on food is spent in supermarkets, most of which are large, multi-national companies who import much of their produce. Over the past ten years, more and more large supermarkets have sprung up, and in the same period, over half of all independent retailers either disappeared or were taken over by chains.

Small retailers struggle to compete with large supermarkets on the edge of their towns. Many people who regularly shop in supermarkets only intend to do part of their shopping there, but would still like to be have access to local shops. However, just a small shift in the shopping habits of local people in favour of large supermarkets often means that local shops can no longer stay in business.

Large supermarkets generally argue that new stores provide jobs to the local area, but studies have actually shown that for every 10 jobs a new supermarket provides, 15 jobs are lost in the area over the floowing 2-3 years. For example, a new supermarket may not only force local butchers and greengrocers to make staff redundancies, or close altogether, but the local farmers and other producers who they buy from will also lose business, and may have to lay off workers or go out of business themselves.

In this country, a small number of large multi-national supermarket chains have become dominant, and they therefore have a great deal of power over their suppliers in terms of prices and terms.

Large multi-national supermarkets generally prefer to stock a few well-known products alongside their cheaper own-brands, effectively squeezing out the smaller producers. This means that most large multinational supermarkets will not stock locally-produced items such as dairy products and honey.

Much of the produce stocked in large multi-national supermarkets is imported from other countries, where production costs are cheaper and standards are lower, and Irish producers are finding it more and more difficult to compete. The real cost to the consumer of this cheap produce is the reduction in quality. For example, cheap imported chicken fillets from Eastern Europe are transported to Ireland in gas-filled packaging and are usually 7-9 days old by the time they reach the shops

Small suppliers, who are dependendent on large retailers to stock their products, are largely powerless to stand up to the supermarkets. The Irish Farmer’s Association estimates that production costs have risen by over 50%, since 1995 yet prices paid to Irish suppliers have dropped by around 7%. Suppliers also have to bear the cost of Supermarket promotions such as “two for one” offers and discounted prices, while the executives and shareholders of the supermarkets reap the all benefits.

So the next time you have a choice between shopping at the supermarket, or at your local butchers, greengrocers or farmer’s market; or the choice between a locally-produced product and a cheap import; remember that you may not be saving as much as you think. Keeping Irish producers in business keeps food closer to home, and keeps money in your local community, and in the country. So the next time you are shopping, make the choice to buy Irish products or local products, or you may find that you ne longer have the choice.

The “What’s Ireland Eating” Documentary is available to watch on the RTE player ( until Tuesday 22nd November.

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What’s Ireland Eating?

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

Over the past few years I have become increasingly alarmed by the number of people I see in my clinic who are suffering from various forms of food intolerance. Problems such as gluten and dairy intolerance, which were once relatively rare, now seem to be affecting more people than ever. Alongside this is the alarming increase in risk factors and incidences of various chronic diseases, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes, and we only need to look around to see that well over half of Irish people are now either overweight or obese. So what is happening to cause such a health crisis in our country?

A documentary on RTE last week posed the question: “What’s Ireland Eating?” and offered some insight into the link between the food we are choosing to eat, and the impact on our health and on our local economy. The documentary, which is still available to watch on the RTE player, is based on the results of a survey of the grocery-buying habits of thousands of Irish households, and also presents the results of the National Nutrition Survey, which was carried out by Irish University Nutrition Alliance.

The survey found that over 40% of the money we spend on food is spent on highly processed food, which is generally much higher in sugar, salt and fat. We buy huge quantities of processed meat, fizzy drinks, and sugary breakfast cereals. Most of the meat we consume is processed, and half of the fish we buy is frozen, breaded and pre-packed. One third of the potatoes we choose are in the form of high-fat, processed products such as chips. And even the “fresh” products we buy, such as salads and other vegetables, are more likely to be washed with chlorine, pre-chopped, and sold in gas-filled packaging to prolong the shelf life. Our consumption of fruit and vegetables is only half of the recommended daily amount, and for every euro we spend on fruit, we spend €1.50 on junk foods such as crisps and sweets.

In Ireland we are consuming on average two and a half times the recommended intake of salt, which is a major contributing factor to higher rates of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Processed pork (such as bacon, sausages and ham), is the highest selling meat in this country, and is a big contributing factor to our high salt intake. Processed meats are pumped with large quantities of water to increase the bulk (and therefore the price) of the product. They also contain numerous additives such as phosphates to help keep the added water in the meat, nitrites to make it pink, dextrose for flavouring, and preservatives such as ascorbate to prolong the shelf life.

Of greatest concern is the result of a study conducted by the World Cancer Research Fund, which found that consuming processed meat significantly increases the risk of bowel cancer, which is the second most common cancer in Ireland. The increased risk is thought to be mainly due to the various additives such as nitrites which make the meat look more pink, and as little as 50g per day of processed meat (which is equivalent to just 2 slices of ham per day), is enough to increase the risk of bowel cancer by 30%.

Addressing the way we shop and eat is not only important for our health, it is also important for our economy, since the annual cost to the health service for the treatment of obesity and obesity-related disease is currently €4billion.

So what can we due to turn this crisis around? Well, it’s really very simple: We need to get back to buying locally-produced, fresh, unprocessed, preferably organic products. Buying cheap processed meat is really a false economy since it can contain up to 50% water. Fresh, unprocessed, meat, chicken and fish bought from local suppliers benefits your health and well-being, as well as supporting local businesses. Likewise, eating plenty of vegetables which are locally-produced, fresh, unprocessed and preferably organic is one of the best things you can do for your health and for the local economy.

There is a huge variety of interesting and delicious types of food available, yet many people choose to eat processed ready meals, or bland chicken fillets or breaded white fish, with boiled carrots and peas every night of the week. Why not choose a delicious moist organic chicken from your local butcher or poultry supplier instead, or some delicious grilled fresh Mackerel or lemon sole from the Farmers Market? How about some tasty parsnips and butternut squash from your local greengrocer or organic farmer, roasted in the oven with some herbs and a little local honey, or some steamed fresh greens such as sprouting brocolli, leeks and kale?

It may sound daunting and time consuming to those who are not used to preparing a variety of intersting meals from scratch and usually just grab lots of processed foods from the supermarket shelves, but local suppliers are generally very willing to offer advice on how to prepare different types of food, and there are lots of ideas and recipes available from books, TV and on the internet. Ultimately, the experience of buying your food in friendly local shops, eating meals made from delicious, fresh unprocessed ingredients, and feeling the benefits to your health, makes it well worth the effort.

The “What’s Ireland Eating” Documentary is available to watch on the RTE player ( until Tuesday 22nd November.

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