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With us now a couple of weeks into another year I'm sure many of you have made New Year's resolutions and begun putting them into action. While some of you will no doubt have given up already, right? You won't be alone! But I digress. I thought today I'd draw your attention to the fact that while resolutions are always made with the best of intentions some may actually do more harm than good in terms of those relating to health.
Since the most popular New Year's resolutions tend to focus on health and lifestyle changes such as losing weight, quitting smoking, exercising more and eating a more healthy diet (Time Magazine) - it's a good idea to make sure what you're doing (or planning on doing) is actually going to achieve your goals in a safe and healthy way.
So let's look at five of the most common resolutions and how they may actually do more harm than good if you don't do your research...
1. Using Electronic Cigarettes To Quit Smoking
While resolving to quit smoking is undoubtedly one of the best things you can do for your health, if you use cessation aids to achieve it you need to be aware that some are not as benign as the manufacturers would like you to believe. Worse still, the use of electronic cigarettes (or e-cigarettes) is actually starting to be seen as "cool", just as smoking tobacco was in the 20th century. A whole culture has developed around these seemingly harmless gadgets with the verb 'to vape' even named Word of the Year 2014 by the Oxford Dictionaries.
But while people wishing to quit smoking to benefit their health are "vaping" away their flavoured fluid of choice they are most likely unaware of a growing number of studies that point to e-cigarettes carrying serious health threats of their own. A recent study in Japan found that rather than being a safe alternative to smoking the vapour inhaled from a range of widely sold e-cigarette fluids contained up 10 times as many cancer causing chemicals than tobacco (read more). Hard to believe but the science is solid and has governments and public health organisations scarmbling to get warnings out and put a stop to glamourous advertisements for e-cigarettes and other vaping gadgets.
So, if you are trying to give up smoking (good for you!) but need some initial assistance you may want to steer clear of e-cigarettes or at least do some research of your own so you can make an informed decision. The tried and tested nicotine patch may leave you with nothing in your hand to replace your old friend the cigarette but it is likely a healthier aid to your ultimate goal of being a non-smoker!
2. Dieting for Weight Loss
Since being overweight is a risk factor for many serious health concerns such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes (and let's face it, many of us will be carrying a bit of extra baggage after the festive season!), trying to lose weight is another sensible resolution. However, before you jump on the latest diet craze whether it's Atkin's (a bit "old school" now, I admit), the 5:2 or whatever the new fad may happen to be, it's smart to read up on the potential side-effects of these methods of weight loss.For example, the very low carbohydrate nature of the Atkin's diet can make the body overly acidic (acidosis) which carries a number of risks (learn more) while the 5:2 diet with its alternating fasting and anything goes days (albeit supposedly within reason) may not suit everybody's metabolism and fasting can lead to symptoms of low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia).
A more sensible approach to weight loss is a good old fashioned balanced diet and keeping track of calorie intake / portion sizes... with a healthy dollop of will power!
As any gym owner will tell you, exercising more is another of the most popular New year's resolutions as people want to get fit and maybe lose a few pounds after endulging a little too much over the Holidays. We're always being told to exercise more for the good of our health by the media and doctors so what could possibly be the downside? Well, as with everything it's simply a case of moderation. Yes, regular moderate exercise will almost certainly do you good (unless you have certain existing illnesses), it's when you get too obsessive about hitting the gym hard everyday or running a 10K when you haven't done any real exercise for years that you may in fact start to do more harm than good.
While moderate exercise helps improve immune function, studies show that intense exercise has the opposite effect and actually impairs immunity - potentially increasing your chances of catching that cold or flu that's going around at work or even something more nasty (read more). You're also more likely to injure yourself if your body is not used to high impact exercise like jogging. So certainly exercising more is a worthy goal that will in all likelihood benefit your long-term health but make sure to build up slowly and allow your body plenty of rest periods to recover to avoid overdoing it and unforeseen consequences.
4. Giving Up Alcohol
After having a few too many drinks and experiencing some nasty hangovers during the festive period it's no wonder that giving up drinking is among the most common New Year's resolutions! But rather than going completely teetotal, it's worth thinking a bit deeper about your drinking habits. If you have been a regular drinker then once again, moderation is key. Large studies have shown that consuming 1 - 2 alcoholic drinks per day (particularly red wine) is actually better for cardiovascular health than abstaining altogether, unless you have always been a non-drinker (see this study). Alcoholic drinks often contain substances beneficial to health such as the potent antioxidant resveratrol found in red wine, while Guinness is somehwat of a dark horse (pardon the pun!) as it is made from plenty of whole grains and packed with nutrients such as B vitamins and iron (this study found it is as good for your heart as red wine).
Many people opt for a 'Dry January' but then return to overdoing it and even binge drinking once the month is out, which is obviously not a recipe for long-term health benefits! So consider the above and perhaps consider moderating your drinking as a lasting lifestyle change rather than trying to quit drinking completely...a goal which let's face it, many will find to be an unrealistic goal!
5. Starting New Projects
Finally, a new year is a time when we feel like with have a fresh start and thoughts turn to grand ideas like starting new projects, changing career paths, furthering our education. All of course are worthy resolutions, just be careful not to bite off more than you can chew, so to speak. Give yourself time to really think about whether you have the time and energy to take on big new endeavours and life changes or you may end up simply raisning your stress levels and along with it your blood pressure!
With all this in mind, go into the new year with your eyes open and your research done and it'll be sure to be one to remember - Happy New Year from myself and The Environmental Illness Resource everyone!
This and last week have been bumper weeks for interesting studies related to autism and ADHD.
First, the Lancet published the results of a controlled trial on the use of a few-foods rotation diet on the symptoms of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The link to the abstract for the study by Pelsser and colleagues is shown below:
A break down of the study and the main findings can be viewed here:
In short, a very well conducted and controlled study that showed that diet can affect some cases of ADHD. As to how and why it works is more of a mystery.
Second, a review study has been published looking at the connection between gastrointestinal disorders and autism spectrum conditons. The link to the abstract for the article by Chen and colleagues is shown below:
The results: the studies so far have a number of methodological issues which limit the significance of the findings reported. However, the finding of lymphonodular hyperplasia is consistent across the studies undertaken so far.
What this translates as is something like: we need much more carefully controlled studies looking at GI disorders in cases of autism to ascertain what effect (if any) there is but the studies so far conducted consistently highlight one specific type of GI disorder to be present in the cases included for study.
A quick update:
ESPA Research announces the publication of a new article in the peer-reviewed journal Autism Insights titled: How could a gluten- and casein-free diet ameliorate symptoms associated with autism spectrum conditions?
The article is open-access and free to download for non-commercial purposes via the ESPA Research or publishers website (Libertas Academica). www.espa-research.org.uk
Building on the various pieces of research attempting to determine how such dietary intervention may work in some cases of autism spectrum conditions, the authors detail the various evidence for a direct or co-morbid link between autism and (i) gluten sensitive enteropathy or coeliac disease, (ii) allergy and atopic disease, and (iii) hyperpermeability of the gastrointestinal membrane (leaky gut) and passage of biologically active material to the central nervous system.
All at ESPA Research
For those who suffer from allergies and intolerances, or have a partner that does, Valentine's Day is often not a simple affair. Places to eat, romantic home-cooked meals, and traditional gifts all have their problems.
Food allergies are a particular problem and can cause symptoms including nasal congestion or a scratchy throat after eating a food. They can also cause serious problems such as throat closures, tightness, swelling of the face, breathing trouble and anaphylaxis (a life-threatening blockage of the airways).
I certainly don't want to bring down the mood on what should be a celebration of love however...hopefully the following information will mean that you and your partner can enjoy Valentine's Day in each other's company...despite those troublemaking allergies!
A Romantic Meal
Whether dining out at your favourite restaurant or enjoying a candle lit dinner at home, a romatnic meal for two is often a big part of the way couples choose to celebrate on February 14th. Both scenarios present the same problems and things can be particularly tricky if you are with a new partner who hasn't got to grips with your allergies or the roles are reversed and you are trying to remember a new partner's allergies yourself. Here are a few tips and bits of information that might be useful:
1. Make sure your partner is fully aware of all your specific food allergies, intolerances, or simply foods that trouble you. If your partner suffers from the above make sure you know for sure which foods bother them before making reservations at a restaurant or planning a meal to prepare yourself.
2. If your partner suffers from food allergies and you want to take them out for a romantic meal, be sensible with your choice of restaurant. Rather than going for the most expensive restaurant in order to impress, choose a restaurant that you know your partner likes or one that declares common food allergens on the menu, or if all else fails simply a restaurant with a large range of different foods on offer so your partner is sure to find something safe they like. It's obviously no good making reservations at that expensive new Italian restaurant if you partner has problems with gluten (bread, pasta) and/or cheese!
3. A substantial number of people suffer from common food ingredients and additives known as sulfites. These are often hidden so if you are unsure if foods or drinks contain them ask the staff at the restaurant or supermarket/off license (liquor store). Alcoholic beverages like beer and wine, particularly red wine, are common sources of sulfites but there are sulfite-free wines available so always ask or shop around.
4. Believe it or not if you kiss your partner after you have eaten something they are allergic to the protein residues from the food can be passed to them...and that is enough to trigger an allergic reaction. Not a particular romantic thought but an important issue to consider so make sure you don't eat foods they are allergic to if you expect to take the romance to another level following your romantic meal!
5. Scented candles or even regular candles may cause problems for some people who are chemically sensitive.
Traditional Valentine's Day gifts can also pose problems when your partner has allergies:
Chocolates - Milk/dairy products and nuts are two of the most common food allergies and lactose (milk sugar) intolerance is also relatively common. This makes chocolates a no-no if your partner suffers from these.
Roses/Flowers - Your partner may be allergic to the flowers themselves or may be troubled by artificial scents that are increasingly being sprayed on flowers these days. Make sure you find out beforehand.
Bath/Personal Care Products - Many people are allergic to certain chemicals in these products, particularly fragrances, which can cause skin rashes or many other symptoms in the chemically sensitive.
Of course nobody says that you have to buy your these popular gifts on valentines day so there are literally hundreds of other things they might like...and you are the best person to judge that so I will leave you to it and wish you a happy and romantic Valentine's Day!
While adding the latest research abstracts to the site the other day I came across a very interesting paper regarding the effects gluten can have on the brain and nervous system.
As you are no doubt ware, gluten is a protein found in grains including wheat, rye and barley, which is the trigger for the damage to the tissues of the small intestine in those with celiac disease. In this condition the immune system produces antibodies that attack the gluten consumed in the diet as well as the body's own tissues. As such celiac disease is classed as an autoimmune disease - the body attacks itself (in this case triggered by gluten).
Those with celiac disease frequently suffer from mood disorders and neurological symptoms such as epilepsy, ataxia (coordination problems), and peripheral neuropathy, which results in symptoms including temporary numbness, tingling, and pricking sensations, sensitivity to touch, or muscle weakness in the limbs and extremities.
What interested me about the paper I came across is that its author suggests gluten sensitivity, without the damage to the small intestine seen in celiac disease, can also result in these neurological problems. It is proposed that this occurs due to a number of different mechanisms; the author states "Gluten can cause neurological harm through a combination of cross reacting antibodies, immune complex disease and direct toxicity." It is suggested that this these mechanisms result in numerous symptoms and neurological disorders including ataxia, developmental delay, learning disorders, depression, migraine, and headache.
Indeed, gluten has long been suspected of contributing to the symptoms of autism because when gluten is not fully digested, substances related to opiates (e.g. morphine, heroin etc) are produced, which may cause substantial dysfunction of the brain and nervous system.
The neurological symptoms associated with celiac disease are often considered to be a result of the damage to the small intestinal tissues, since there is constant two-way communication be gut and brain. The author of this paper suggests that since the neurological symptoms can be present without the intestinal damage, gluten must be directly causing these symptoms. The author calls gluten sensitivity and associated neurological symptoms "The Gluten Syndrome."
I was interested in all this because although I don't have overt celiac disease I do experience a lot of problems with gluten grains. After consuming gluten I quickly experience symptoms suggesting neurological dysfunction. These symptoms include disorientation, confusion, brain fog, lack of focus and concentration, and headache. I have also tested positive for IgA anti-gliadin antibodies, indicating my immune system is reacting against gluten and gluten sensitivity is present. Gliadin is the most problematic fraction of wheat gluten.
Do you experience neurological symptoms after eating foods containing gluten? Please share your experiences with us by posting a comment below.
The Gluten Syndrome: A Neurological Disease (the research paper)
Christmas is obviously a time for celebration and partying but for those with allergies it can be like a minefield!
While most people generally eat and snack with abandon the millions who suffer from some form of food allergy, sensitivity, or intolerance must be extra wary. It may be easy to tell which foods contain common allergens such as wheat, dairy and eggs when eating the main Christmas dinner but when it comes to snacks and party buffets with lots of pre-packaged foods things get a little trickier.
If you are planning your own party you can obviously check labels to make sure the foods you buy don't contain ingredients that you, your family members, or your guests are allergic to. If you are cooking or baking yourself there are also a large number of alternative ingredients to the common allergens that can be substituted.
The most common allergens include: wheat, dairy, eggs, corn, soy, nuts, and seafood
Here are a few examples to help you out:
- Rice - Millet
- Oat (certified gluten-free)
- Rice - Coconut
- Oat (certified gluten-free)
- Mix 3 tbsp hot water with 1 tbsp linseed/flax meal. Let stand, stirring occasionally for about 5-10 minutes or until mixture is thick
- Fruit puree. E.g. puree a banana for use in cakes.
- Baking Powder (gluten-free)
- Baking Soda
- Tapioca Starch
- Arrowroot Starch
- Guar Gum
- Xantham Gum
If you are having guests over who have or may have food allergies then the following tips can make things go smoothly and ensure everyone enjoys themselves:
Save every product label. This way, a guest can determine whether a dish contains an allergen.
- Skip nuts if you know someone has a peanut allergy. Peanut oil and dust are easily spread and can cross-contaminate other foods.
- Prevent cross-contamination by having a single container and a single serving utensil for each item. For instance, don't put chocolate-chip cookies and peanut-butter cookies on the same plate. Don't put fruit and cheese on the same platter.
- Keep dishes simple. The more ingredients, the harder it is to determine whether an allergen is present.
- Serve dressings and sauces on the side. Otherwise, fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables are good bets. So are beef, chicken and ham.
- If you know guests who have allergies, talk with them in advance. They may help you discover easy substitutions. And don't be offended if they bring their own food. That's not uncommon among parents of children who have food allergies.
Sources: Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, About.com: Allergies, Culinate.com
Of course food allergies aren't the only problem around the Holidays. Research has shown significant increases in asthma and sinus problems around the Holiday season, a fact attributed in part to the focal point of most family's festive decorations - the Christmas tree.
According to Allergy UK many people are allergic to the pollen and sap of the trees. Mould can also be a major trigger of symptoms. American researchers recorded high levels of mould spores in homes which had a live tree. These spores triggered allergic symptoms that lasted until the tree was removed in the New Year.
The obvious solution is to get a fake tree but for me and I'm sure many others the smell and look of a real tree is a major part of the Christmas experience. Allergy UK has some tips for minimising the allergenicity of a real tree so check those out in this blog from last year: Allergies: Could your Christmas tree be a trigger?
Hopefully these tips will go some way to helping all you allergy sufferers enjoy the festive season.
Have a very Merry Christmas!!
Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is a very common problem and cause of symptoms in those with environmental illness.
Blood sugar levels are usually carefully controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain (a major control centre) which through a series of steps causes the release of two hormones from the pancreas; insulin, which lowers blood sugar by increasing uptake by cells, and glucagon, which increases blood sugar by releasing stored glucose (as glycogen) in the liver and increasing the generation of new glucose from substances such as amino acids (the building blocks of protein).
Unfortunately for those of us who experience hypoglycemia this intricate system of balance is disrupted so blood sugar levels vary more than they should and often dip too low. It is well known in chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) for example that the hypothalamus which controls the whole system does not function correctly. This results in hypoglycemia and a whole host of other problems such as poor thyroid and adrenal gland function.
What happens when we lose efficient control of blood sugar is that when we eat meals high in carbohydrate (sugary and starchy foods) our blood sugar rises rapidly and higher than usual so the pancreas pumps out large amounts of insulin to get the blood sugar level back to normal. Unfortunately it may overshoot the normal fasting level leaving blood sugar too low (hypoglycemia). This is technically known as 'relative hypoglycemia' and is typically what is seen in those with ME/CFS and other environmental illnesses.
What symptoms will I have if this is happening to me?
Initially because blood sugar levels are rising quickly and often reach levels that are higher than is normal you will likely experience sympoms such as:
- Boost in Energy
- Mood Improvement
This stage may actually feel very good, like a high. Those with environmental illnesses may be particularly susceptible to feeling the effects of high blood sugar due to what I will unscientifically call 'sugar sensitivity'. Research has shown that ME/CFS, fibromyalgia, multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), Gulf War syndrome (GWS), autism and others are neurological in origin. Due to damage from toxins such as heavy metals and free radicals those of us with these conditions may feel exaggerated brain related symptoms from high blood sugar.
As a result of blood sugar being too high the pancreas secretes ever more insulin to get it back down to normal levels. This results in levels dropping rapidly and often dipping below the level required to maintain proper functioning of the body's cells. Because the brain relies almost exclusively on glucose (blood sugar) for its fuel the first symptoms to become apparent in this situation are related to the brain and include:
- Cold Sweats
- Weak Spells (especially weak/wobbly knees)
If the symptoms of both stages, but particularly the second, appear familiar to you (especially a couple of hours following a meal) then hypoglycemia may be a problem for you.
You can have this confirmed for you by your doctor by asking for a glucose tolerance test (GTT). This involves drinking a sugar solution then having your blood sugar level measured every hour. This test is also used to diagnose diabetes mellitus where the blood sugar level increases to a very high level and remains there for hours (because insulin is not being produced or cells are resistant to its effects).
What can you do if you have hypoglycemia?
The most important factor is the carbohydrate content of your diet, particularly sugars and refined carbohydrates such as white rice and white bread. These raise blood sugar rapidly and cause the chain reaction described above. Choose whole foods instead such as brown rice and whole grain breads which contain fibre which slows down the release of sugar into the blood. Eat these in moderation however. The ideal diet for hypoglycemia would consist mainly of low saturated fat animal products (fish, chicken, turkey), vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Other foods which need to be avoided include candies/sweets, cookies/biscuits, baked goods, cakes, fast food, packaged foods containing added sugar, sugary soft drinks.
Alcohol and stimulants such as caffeine in coffee and soft drinks also cause blood sugar imbalances.
It may be that as time passes you can introduce carbohydrate-rich foods in moderation and not suffer ill effects. Listen to your body and symptoms to find out what works for you as an individual.
Other tips to combat hypoglycemia:
- Eat small meals
- Eat regularly
- Eat protein with every meal
- Eat lots of high fibre foods
- Exercise regularly (improves insulin action and blood sugar control)
- Avoid Stress/Use Stress Management Techniques
There are many nutrients that are required to maintain efficient blood sugar control. These can be obtained through diet or supplements if necessary:
- Chromium - liver, whole-wheat bread, green pepper, spinach
- Vitamin B3 (Niacin) - brown rice, liver, sword fish, sunflower seeds
- Manganese - pecans, brazil nuts, almonds, split peas
- Zinc - pumpkin seeds, lima beans, walnuts, green peas
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) - lentils, buckwheat, hazelnuts, avocados
- Magnesium - almonds, cashews, brown rice, tofu
- Omega 3 & Omega 6 Fatty Acids - fish, sea vegetables, nuts, seeds
- Biotin - peanuts, barley, oatmeal, cauliflower
Using the above measures I have been able to control my own hypoglycemia so that I no longer experience the major symptoms listed but just the occasional fluctuations in energy levels and concentration.
The adrenal glands are a vital component of the blood sugar control mechanism and those with environmental illness also suffer from poor adrenal function (adrenal fatigue) so it is important to address this issue as well. See the adrenal fatigue page for more information on this.