Move It!

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Over the past couple of weeks we have been looking at the importance of the ‘basics’ in life. In this week’s article we will focus on the importance of exercise. We all know that exercise is good for us, but most people underestimate just how vital exercise is for maintaining good health, and for preventing and treating a very wide range of medical conditions. A large proportion of Irish people are suffering from illnesses and taking medication for problems that could easily be prevented or improved by regular physical activity.

First of all, exercise can help you to prevent excess weight gain, or to lose weight if necessary. Obesity is linked to numerous health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, liver and gallbladder problems, arthritis, and cancer, not to mention the effects on mood and self-esteem. Being active helps to improve the level of  high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good,” cholesterol, and decreases unhealthy (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides. It also strengthens the heart muscle, and reduces blood pressure and stress levels, thereby decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes. Many people have been able to safely discontinue using medication to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, simply by exercising for at least 30 minutes every day.

Physical activity improves energy levels, and strengthens bones muscles and joints. Exercise delivers oxygen and nutrients to your tissues, and helps your cardiovascular system work more efficiently, thereby improving energy levels. Regular physical activity can improve the strength of your muscles and joints, and increase bone density. This is very important for preventing and treating conditions such as back pain, arthritis and osteoporosis. Regular physical activity can also help you to fall asleep more quickly and help you sleep more soundly. However, it is important not to exercise too close to bedtime, or you may be too wound up to fall asleep.

Physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals, which helps to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. You may feel better about your appearance and yourself when you exercise regularly, which can boost your confidence and may also have a positive effect on your sex life. Exercise also improves the circulation to the genitals, which leads to increased arousal in women and helps to prevent erectile dysfunction in men.

It is important to aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day, on at least 5 days per week. Around 45 minutes per day is ideal. However, it is equally important not to overdo it or to push yourself too hard if you are feeling very tired or unwell. More than one hour per day of intense physical exercise has been linked to hormone changes and infertility in women

It is best to start with aerobic exercise to get your heart and lungs working, and to include exercise that strengthens and stretches your muscles. It doesn’t need to be a chore if you choose an activity that you enjoy. If you don’t like going to the gym, try dancing or yoga instead. However, if you have been inactive for a long period of time it might be advisable to start with something less strenuous such as walking or swimming.

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Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Over the past couple of weeks we have been looking at the importance of the ‘basics’ in life. In this week’s article we will focus on the importance of sleep.Sleep is made up of various different stages: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Non REM sleep is further divided into deep sleep and slow wave sleep. These various different stages occur in approximately 90-minute cycles throughout the night, dictated by our internal circadian rhythm, and managed by the cyclical release of various hormones and neurotransmitters in the body.

Soon after falling asleep at night, we gradually enter the deepest level of sleep, known as slow wave sleep. This is the period when the body carries out growth and repair of all body tissues. The immune system is particularly active during this time, dealing with microbes and abnormal cells. The liver is also busy, removing various toxins from the system. A lack of slow wave sleep leads to impaired immune function, muscle aches and tremors, and increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

The first period of slow wave sleep we experience during the night is the longest. However, this only lasts until around 1.30am, and people who don’t get to bed before midnight are likely to miss out on this important stage of sleep. At around 1.30am our bodies enter a phase of lighter REM sleep. REM sleep is when we may become restless and experience dreams, although these are often forgotten. REM sleep is essential for the development and functioning of the brain, as well as understanding and processing the information we receive during the day. Too little REM sleep leads to developmental abnormalities, behavioural problems and memory loss. While most people will fall back into a deep sleep after a short period of REM sleep, many people may wake up at this point. After another shorter period of slow wave sleep, we enter a longer period of REM sleep at around 3am. Again, this is another common time for people to wake up, and for some people it can be difficult to get back to sleep again as they may feel wide awake.

Although people move between deep sleep and REM sleep several times during the night, the periods of REM sleep become longer as the night progresses, while periods of deep sleep become much shorter, and less deep. The deepest level of sleep (slow wave sleep) is generally only reached in the period before 3 am. Therefore people who habitually go to bed in the early hours of the morning may be missing out on slow wave sleep.

Although sleep is essential for good health, many people experience difficulty in either getting to sleep, or staying asleep for a sufficient period of time. This may be due to excessive consumption of stimulants (such as tea, coffee or fizzy drinks), an inconsistent routine (which confuses the circadian rhythm), a stressful situation, or hormonal changes, such as those which occur during menopause. Many people turn to sleeping tablets when they are experiencing difficulty sleeping, and while these may be helpful for a short period of time, they are highly likely to result in dependency if used long term. Fortunately there are many natural and ways of helping to improve sleep patterns.

First of all, try to keep a regular routine of sleeping and waking. Get up at the same time every day to set your internal body clock, preferably around 7am, and go to bed by 10.30pm every night. Avoid caffeine and other stimulants, and take time to wind down for at least an hour before bed, by dimming the lights and putting on some relaxing music. Try drinking a cup of relaxing herbal tea such as chamomile or lemon balm.

Secretion of melatonin in preparation for sleep begins around 9.30pm, but is easily suppressed in response to bright light, vigorous exercise, stressful situations or stimulating activities. Watching TV or using a computer can also suppress melatonin secretion due to the glare from the screen. Ideally avoid vigorous exercise such as running after 6.30pm. If you usually exercise in the evenings, stick to a more gentle form of exercise such as yoga or tai chi.

There are numerous herbs and supplements, which can help with difficulty sleeping. However, it is important to address the cause of the insomnia, such as reducing stress or balancing hormones. Following a detailed consultation, medical herbalists offer an individually tailored blend of herbs to help with both the causes and the symptoms of insomnia, together with detailed advice about nutrition and supplements to help you sleep more soundly.

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Diet Basics

Monday, January 20th, 2014

In last weeks article we discussed the importance of the ‘basics’ in life – a healthy diet sufficient rest and sleep, moderate exercise, and a meaningful occupation. Over the next few weeks we will take a closer look at each of these, but first, and arguably most important, is a healthy diet.

One of the most important aspects of a healthy diet is to eat regular meals and healthy snacks to keep your blood sugar levels balanced; and to avoid refined sugar, which is found in sweets, biscuits, cakes and desserts. Skipping meals and eating sugary foods leads to unbalanced blood sugar levels, which in turn can cause sugar cravings, anxiety and irritability, which can be severe in some cases.

Complex carbohydrates found in grains such as wheat, spelt, oats, rye, and rice are released more slowly into the blood, so they do not have such a dramatic effect on blood sugar levels, but it is still important to eat these foods in moderation, and only choose wholegrain products such as brown bread, rice and pasta. Unfortunately hybridisation of wheat, coupled with widespread use of white flour and extensive use of flour improvers, has lead to many people being intolerant to wheat. Therefore if you feel bloated or uncomfortable after eating bread and other wheat-based products, it may be wise to try giving up wheat altogether.

As I mentioned last week, an easy way to figure out what is healthy, is to think about what is most natural. If in doubt, try to consider what type of diet we would have without access to supermarkets and industrial food production methods. We would have no processed foods or refined sugar, and we would eat far less grain-based foods, such as bread and cereals, as they would be too difficult to harvest and mill in large quantities.

It is also questionable whether it is healthy to consume dairy products in large quantities, since human beings are the only species that consume milk beyond infancy, and indeed the only species that consume milk from other animals. We are told that we need to consume dairy products for calcium, however the calcium in milk is very poorly absorbed, and we have one of the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world, despite having one of the highest rates of milk consumption. Something just doesn’t add up. Like wheat, dairy products are another common cause of food intolerance, which is a significant cause of ill health. If you suspect you may have a food-intolerance, it is well worth consulting a medical herbalist or nutritionist, as it could be having a serious impact on your health and wellbeing.

So, if we reduce our consumption of carbohydrates and dairy products, what do we eat instead? Seeds and, provided you are not allergic to them, nuts, are a far more satisfying and healthy alternative to biscuits, cakes and bars for snacking. They are surprisingly delicious combined with dried fruits such as apricots, dates and raisins. They are a great source of minerals, including calcium, which is present in an easily absorbable form. They are also rich in healthy oils, and are beneficial for hormone balance and bowel health. Nuts and seeds, together with beans and pulses also provide an alternative source of protein, which is healthier than consuming large quantities of red meat.

Another great alternative to red meat is fish, especially oily fish such as mackerel, tuna, salmon and trout. Although it is normal for human beings to eat meat in moderation, we currently eat far too much. Excess consumption of meat, particularly processed meats such as bacon and ham, worsens many health problems such as arthritis and endometriosis, and has been linked to serious health conditions such as bowel cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Animal fats found in red meat and dairy products tend to increase inflammation in the body. However, fish oils have the opposite effect, and are therefore beneficial for a wide range of health problems such as arthritis cardiovascular disease.  They are also great for healthy skin, hair, and nails.

Finally, one of the very best things you can do for your health is to radically increase your consumption of fruit, and especially vegetables. They are a great source of vitamins, minerals, and fibre, which are essential for good health, and they are full of antioxidants, which help to prevent inflammatory diseases and even cancer. If you are the type of person who just eats carrots and broccoli every day, try being a little more adventurous. There are so many varieties of fruit and vegetables, and local greengrocers and market stallholders in the many farmers markets around the country are often happy to give advice about cooking and serving a variety of vegetables.

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Back to Basics

Monday, January 6th, 2014

After 10 years of helping people to regain their health and well-being, one very important thing I have learned is that there really is no substitute for the basics when it comes to staying healthy. While various medicines and other treatments can help to alleviate all sorts of problems, they are of limited benefit without a healthy diet, sufficient rest and sleep, moderate exercise, and a meaningful occupation.

As the old saying goes: “you are what you eat”, and it follows that a healthy diet is necessary for a healthy body and mind. There is a lot of contradictory information around about healthy eating these days, however an easy way to figure out what is healthy, is to think about what is most natural. If in doubt, try to consider what type of diet we would have without access to supermarkets and industrial food production methods. First of all, we would have no refined sugar or processed foods (including so-called “healthy” alternatives such as low fat spreads), and we would eat far less grain-based foods, such as bread and cereals, as they would be too difficult to harvest and mill in large quantities. We would eat less red meat, and far more fish, eggs, pulses, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds.

Every process in our bodies relies on sufficient quantities of various nutrients, such as protein, carbohydrate, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and trace elements, in the right quantities. There is no disease which is not affected to some degree by the food we eat, and we cannot hope to be healthy without a healthy diet. Headaches, recurrent infections, allergies, digestive problems, joint pain, skin problems, and even mental health problems, such as irritability and anxiety, can be influenced by irregular eating habits, nutrient deficiencies and food intolerances.

Rest and sleep are also extremely important to good health. Electric lights, computers, and other modern inventions have allowed us to extend our working day far beyond what it once was, raising our stress levels and reducing the time we have available to regenerate our energy through rest. Even when we are ill, we tend to take painkillers or other medication to enable us to ‘keep going’ rather than take the time to convalesce. Sleep is particularly important, as it is during sleep that we heal and regenerate our bodies. However many people do not get enough sleep, or fail to keep a regular routine of sleeping and waking, leading to fatigue, irritability and ill-health. It is now widely believed that ADHD in children may be caused or at least exacerbated by chronic sleep deprivation, as a result of overstimulation by television, computer games, or sugar and artificial additives in food.

Moderate exercise is also an essential requirement for a healthy body and mind. Our circulatory and lymphatic systems are largely dependent on movement to function effectively, and lack of exercise can also lead to stagnation, which results in problems such as lack of mental clarity, constipation, painful periods, even heart attacks and strokes. Vitamin D, which is produced in the skin on exposure to sunlight, is increasingly recognised as essential for physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Finally, meaningful occupation is essential to human beings to maintain mental health. We need to have something meaningful to occupy our time, and social interaction with other people. For most people, going out to work, school, or college, also provides the impetus to maintain a regular daily routine, which in turn helps to set our diurnal rhythm or internal “body clock”. This is essential for the proper functioning of our nervous system and hormones. People who are not employed are often able to keep busy with hobbies or voluntary work, and are disciplined enough to maintain a regular daily routine. However, many people who become unemployed through retirement, redundancy or ill health may struggle with severe depression or anxiety as a result.

So if you’re still thinking about your new year’s resolutions for 2014, consider getting “back to basics” and resolve to improve your health and well-being by keeping your mind occupied, eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep.

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Our Daily Bread

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

Cereal and toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and pasta for dinner (with a few biscuits in between), not to mention the many packaged foods that contain added flour, such as sauces, sausages, and taytos. Wheat-based foods now make up a major part of the Irish diet and as a result they have become a major cause of ill health.

Wheat only became such a significant part of the Irish diet relatively recently. For many years, the staple food in this country was the potato and Irish people simply did not develop the ability to tolerate wheat very well. However, in more recent times we have begun to consume lots of wheat-based foods made from refined flour, and large quantities of packaged foods that contain wheat or wheat proteins. The result is that Ireland now has the highest incidence of wheat intolerance and coeliac disease of any country in the world.

Wheat contains high levels of a protein called gluten, which has an irritant effect on the lining of the digestive system. Most of the wheat used today has been bred to contain very high levels of gluten. Furthermore, white flour contains no bran or wheatgerm and therefore the gluten becomes particularly concentrated.

Many people will remember being told that eating bread that is too fresh (or still warm from the oven) will cause tummy aches. This is because the gluten is still ‘sticky’ and therefore more irritating to the digestive system. As the bread begins to go stale (and when it is toasted) the gluten molecules should break apart and become less damaging. Unfortunately the modern use of ‘flour improvers’ keeps the gluten molecules sticky, which not only makes bread seem to stay fresher for longer, but also makes it much more irritating to the digestive system.

An individual’s tolerance to wheat is influenced by many things, such as genetic factors, diet, lifestyle, general health, and levels of stress. If there is poor tolerance, the high levels of gluten present in wheat cause inflammation of the lining of the digestive system, which leads to a number of other problems.

Firstly, the inflammation can lead to abdominal pain or discomfort, nausea, bloating, and chronic constipation or diarrhea. Many people also experience symptoms affecting the mouth such as chronic chapped lips or recurrent mouth ulcers. Secondly, inflammation in the digestive tract leads to malabsorption of essential nutrients, and encourages the growth of unfriendly bacteria and yeasts, which cause a range of symptoms, including digestive problems, sweet cravings, thrush, sinus problems, lowered immunity, headaches, tiredness and poor concentration.

Gluten-induced inflammation may cause the body to become even more sensitive to the offending protein. Individuals can also develop intolerance to other foods that contain smaller amounts of gluten such as spelt, rye, barley and oats. Coeliac disease is a specific type of gluten intolerance, which can be diagnosed by a blood test and intestinal biopsy. However, there is also a condition known as ‘non-coeliac gluten-intolerance’ in which an individual can be highly intolerant to gluten, despite not testing positive for coeliac disease.

Various forms of allergy testing are now widely available with many individuals being given long lists of foods to exclude from the diet. However it is often not necessary or even safe to stop eating many different foods. In most cases it is just one or two foods that are causing a problem. The intolerance to other items is usually a result of the damage caused by the main problematic foods. For some people, cutting out many different foods can lead to nutritional deficiencies, or (in rare cases) to a situation where intolerances develop to the foods still being eaten, leading to an ever decreasing choice of well-tolerated foods.

Fortunately when wheat, and if necessary, other gluten-containing foods are removed from the diet for a period of at least 6 weeks, and appropriate herbal remedies are prescribed to reduce inflammation and heal the damage to the gut lining, the tolerance to other foods tends to increase. Wheat can be substituted with gluten-free grains such as rice, corn, buckwheat, millet and quinoa, which are available from health food stores. If grains such as rye, oats and spelt (which contain lower levels of gluten) are tolerated, they should be rotated to prevent further intolerances developing. Herbs such as chamomile help to reduce inflammation and allergic responses, gotu kola repairs the damage to the digestive system, and goldenseal helps to ensure foods are properly digested and destroys any unfriendly micro-organisms. Many other herbs are available to help with other symptoms such as fatigue, bloating, and constipation.

For some people, removing problem foods from the diet can lead to unpleasant detox reactions which can be severe in a few cases. Therefore, any attempt to address suspected food intolerance should be conducted under the guidance of a qualified medical herbalist or nutritional therapist.

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