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December 24, 2016

Christmas shadows, Christmas lights. How to survive the festive season if you’re just not feeling it.

At no other time of year do we fall so deeply for the image of how life is "supposed' to look. We are bombarded with images of amazing feasts, expensive gifts, happy families and buzzing social lives. The Christmas lights are dazzling.

But the brighter the lights, the longer the shadows. Some of us have different Christmas stories. The ​lights show in stark relief our Christmas ghosts, and the cracks in our Christmas picture.

It might be that you have a loss, or many losses, in your life which sting most at this time of year. Someone whose place at the table is empty this year. The child you thought you'd be hanging a stocking for, who Santa does not visit. The parent who in their absence is felt even more than they were in their presence. The partner you were going to spend a life with.

Or it may be that you feel your story doesn't measure up. Family fights. Money too tight for the gifts you wanted to give. Stress and overwhelm.

​Here's how I roll with Christmas, perhaps one of these ideas will help:

  1. Go with the flow. Christmas often brings together so many people that it is impossible for it to live up to everyone involved's ideals. If there's too many cooks in the kitchen, observe this and take a step back. Allow yourself to just go with what is if that's easier.
  2. Manage your expectations. ​If Uncle Fred is an alcoholic and second cousin Betty finds something negative to say about everything... then it's likely that's exactly how they will be on Christmas too. We tend to want the best from people and put particular pressure on our expectations at this time of year. Take a few minutes to reflect on who you will be spending Christmas with this year. Put aside how you believe everyone "should" behave, and instead take stock of how they actually do behave. Prepare how you would like to respond. Imagine yourself shielded and protected. Walk into Christmas knowing who they are and responding accordingly, to look after your own peace of mind.
  3. Take a moment of alone time. Allow yourself a few minutes before bed or between busy-ness to reflect on YOUR spirit and the meaning this time of year has for you. You may wish to say a prayer or blessing to the loved ones you miss. You may consider the values of Christmas and how you will embody them. Meditate on some pretty lights and acknowledge that the real light of Christmas is found within. This is where peace is.
  4. Reach out to someone less fortunate. It's a wonderful time of year to take on the spirit of Santa and do a random act of kindness for a stranger or a friend. Bonus feel-good factor that will keep you glowing long after.
  5. Have gratitude. Gratitude is always possible. And it always helps. If you're stuck, check out this free gratitude gift for you.

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to you my friend! And no matter the size or form of your Christmas shadows, may you always find the Christmas lights within.

December 9, 2016

I’m taking iron, so why am I still exhausted? How to make your supplements work.

I bet you've been there before - you feel exhausted, find the supplement that promises to give your energy back... and, nothing. "Maybe it's true that supplements are just formulas for expensive urine" you tell yourself in frustration, and give up. But don't listen to the naysayers. I've seen the transformation the right natural prescription can have on my own energy levels, and many others. It's not subtle, it's radical. It just takes some detective work. Here's what could be going wrong:

  1. You've got the right supplement in the wrong form. AKA you get what you pay for! Most nutrients that our bodies require are formulated in various ways when in the supplement form. However, these formulated are not created equal. Some are difficult to absorb. Some can be absorbed, but not used effectively by the body. Any time you purchase a supplement make sure you ask a qualified nutritionist or naturopath the best form for absorption.
  2. You're taking the right formulation but it's interacting with something else. Did you know that almost all the nutrients we need pass through little channels from our small intestine into our blood? So cool. The thing is, the channels aren't there all the time. The channel is specific to certain nutrients, like a lock and key. Sometimes when our blood is full of a nutrient, our body doesn't keep the channels for that nutrient open. And sometimes we need co-nutrients to unlock the channel for the nutrients we need. For example, vitamin C helps iron through these channels into our blood. Calcium and magnesium fight to use the same channels, and so decrease our iron absorption. When you take supplements, ask a practitioner what they interact with, beneficially or detrimentally.
  3. You're taking the wrong supplement, or you're taking a right one but missing others that you need. One of the troubles of using guesswork with choosing supplements is that we may not actually address the underlying root cause of our symptoms. Often we jump to a conclusion that exhaustion is due to iron-deficiency anemia. It can be one cause, but there are many more that need ruling out too. 

A better way to take supplements is to start by considering all the possible contributing factors to your exhaustion or other symptoms. This is best done through blood tests where available, and the guidance of a nutritionist or naturopath to guide supplement choices to address deficits.

Where energy comes from.

In order to establish why you feel exhausted, it’s helpful to know some of the major bodily processes that keep our energy levels healthy, and the nutrients that support these processes.

  • All of the blood in our body passes through our liver for cleansing - the liver has to remove bacteria and chemicals such as medications and environmental toxins and pesticides and break them down into harmless substances that can then be excreted. The catch is that many substances are broken down into more harmful ones before being broken down further into safe molecules, which means the liver must be able to keep up with the load we give it or we get reactive substances in our blood until it catches up. This can make us feel sluggish and tired. Substances which helps the liver process the secondary substances into harmless excretions include vitamins C, B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, iron, amino acids, copper, magnesium, zinc, molybdenum, selenium, and lipoic acid
  • Our bodies are a complex balance of chemicals called hormones that send messages to key organs to control our internal environment for functioning. Our insulin controls our blood sugar to keep stable amounts of muscle energy and mental alertness. Eating simple carbohydrates causes spikes and troughs in insulin levels as a response, whereas regular protein intake keeps sugar and insulin levels - and therefore our energy - stable. Oddly, cinnamon has been shown to help stabilise sugar also. Constant stress keeps our adrenaline (“epinephrine” for us nerds) pumping which gives us an energy burst to get through an immediate situation but is ultimately exhausting. Most of the vitamin C we store in our bodies is stored in the adrenal gland, which could be why long periods of stress often end in a bout of colds or cold sores. Our thyroid hormones manage much of the metabolism of the body - our thermal regulation, moods and energy levels. We need iodine to support the hormones our thyroid produces. And of course our sex hormones - which can be responsible for a monthly wave of fatigue and emotions when not well balanced. The best thing we can do for just about all of our hormones is to get enough sleep. If you struggle with this you can read more here.
  • Our cells contain tiny energy-making factories called mitochondria, which are the places where the carbohydrates, fats and protein that we eat are turned via a complex multi-step process into the chemical - ATP - our body uses as energy for all its functions. Each step requires specific nutrients, and if any are missing the process halts and that step and energy isn’t made, potentially causing lactic acid to build up in our muscles. The nutrients we need are vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B12, folate, iron, lipoic acid, magnesium, manganese, CoQ10, copper and specific amino acids
  • We depend on having enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen around our body to our muscles, organs and brain. Any challenge to our red blood cells leaves us feeling weak and lethargic. Red blood cells require iron, vitamins B12 and B6 and folic acid to function well.
  • Did you know that we have more bacterial cells than human cells? So cool, am I right?! It used to be believed that gut microbiota (bacteria) was a minor contributor to our health and energy, but imbalance in the bacteria can lead to fatigue, poor absorption of all those nutrients we've just been talking about (leading to the above causes of fatigue), brain fog and weakened immune function. A healthy microbiota relies on plenty of prebiotics in the form of fibre to feed the bacteria, plus probiotics which are live bacteria found in supplements or specific cultivated fermented foods.

So with all of the above contributors to our sensation of energy or exhaustion, where should we start? I suggest, start here:

  • Get enough sleep. This improves most hormone balances, particularly those related to stress. If you struggle with this, there’s more info here.

  • See your GP and discuss your symptoms to rule out any more serious issues. Ask for a blood test of iron levels, iron stores, vitamin B12, vitamin D, thyroid function, liver function, white blood cell counts (this will show if your body is fighting off an underlying infection)

  • If your iron stores are less than ideal (even if they’re still within range), or if your B12 is low, an iron, folate and B complex can make a huge difference. My friend put me onto this iron and B vitamin herbal drink and it’s made a huge difference to me. Bonus points for being easily digested and yum!

  • Most of us don’t have enough magnesium. It’s a mineral our body uses in over 300 processes, including recover from stress, muscle recovery after exertion, prevention of migraines, heart protection and manufacturing energy. The awesome thing is, we can take magnesium as a powder as magnesium glycinate or citrate and these can be in mixed formulations with other nutrients we need - it’s worth taking to a nutritionist or naturopath in a health food store to find the formulation most effective for you. Can you tell I’m a nutrition nerd and magnesium is one of my favourite nutrients? Magnesium can also be absorbed through the skin via bath flakes or oil. Magnesium is very safe and harmless to use when following instructions. About as therapeutic as a bath can get!

  • My other favourite is CoQ10. As well as being indicated for many burnout symptoms such as chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, migraines and depression, it is also protective of our heart and brain. It can be taken on its own or in formulations with other nutrients for our energy factories such as lipoic acid, magnesium and B vitamins. Make sure you talk to a professional to get a good quality product.

  • Drink plenty of water. Our bodies are roughly 70% water, and we need it to maintain health, for example in keeping our blood circulating well, supporting our kidneys to flush out waste and generally maintaining our energy levels. If you struggle to drink 2 litres per day, some of this can have herbal tea or slices of lemon, cucumber and mint to add interest. Coffee doesn’t count! Eat loads of fibrous vegetables and fermented foods such as saurkraut, kimchi, kefir and kombucha. Make sure they have live bacteria mentioned on the label, or make your own.

I hope that this crash course in energy systems gives you some ideas of where to start looking in both determining some contributors to your energy, and places to start to feel better. Let me know below which tips you will be taking on and any questions you have in the comments  below. Remember, while I have a degree in Applied Science (OT), I am mid-way through my naturopathy degree so this information is for stimulating your conversations with trained health professionals and your own research, not to be considered individual prescriptions. Links are affiliated, I only ever link to products I love and use myself. If you'd like to get in on the resilience conversation, join my cosy and kind Facebook group, Sisters With Heart.

December 8, 2016

If you’re exhausted… get better sleep. Here’s how.

Sometimes the simplest and most obvious solution is the one to go for. We don't always need to make life more complicated - it takes care of that for us! When we're burnt out and depleted, sleep is not the only tool we need. There are likely to be nutrient deficiencies, lifestyle changes and mind shifts required to get our sparks back. But sleep is foundational - nothing in our bodies works without it. Not too surprisingly, some studies show that people experiencing occupational burnout are more likely to have disturbed sleep. Even worse, loss of sleep results in increased cortisol levels... which continue to burn us out further.

When you're tired and wired at the same time, it's not that easy. These 9 strategies for better sleep will help:

  1. Herbal remedies: look for something with valerian and a selection of other herbs such as passionflower, lemon balm, chamomile or hops. Herbs are not recommended during pregnancy; and if you take other medications or have significant health conditions, check with your health practitioner about interactions before starting on herbs. For most people they are gentle and beneficial and well worth considering.
  2. Hot malted milk: I'm not a milk drinker myself, but if you do drink milk, a warm cup in the evening will supply you with tryptophan (the heat is important to activate the tryptophan), adding malt will provide hops. A lovely combination to induce sleepfulness. Tryptophan is an amino acid that promotes calmness and sleep and modifies the production of serotonin, the feel good hormone, and melatonin, the body clock hormone. Tryptophan is a precursor to niacin or vitamin B3, so increasing your intake of B vitamins will prevent you from depleting your tryptophan levels. Hops is a natural food based medicine that helps with restlessness and anxiety, insomnia and supports the liver in metabolism. Hops should be avoided in pregnancy and for anyone with tumours in breast or reproductive tissue.
  3. Magnesium baths, oils and powders: most people in modern times consume under the recommended intake for magnesium; and lifestyles of stress, alcohol intake, sleep deprivation, medications and health issues increase our requirements. Magnesium supplements are best absorbed in the form magnesium citrate or magnesium (di)glycinate, and topical applications are best as magnesium chloride (this form is not for internal use). As a bonus, magnesium is known to reduce blood pressure, PMS, cholesterol, fibromyalgia symptoms,  and migraines and is protective of heart and brain events. Not bad for a bath! Our body uses magnesium to recover from stress and to turn our food into energy (amongst other nutrients), so magnesium is a must for sleep and energy levels.
  4. Melatonin: this is a hormone that occurs naturally in the body and helps us adjust our body clocks to a healthy sleep-wake cycle. Takes melatonin supplements can be helpful in the short term, but it is not suitable for pregnancy or trying to conceive, diabetes, depression, bleeding disorders, high blood pressure and certain other conditions. It also interacts with several medications, so be sure to check with your health professional before taking it. Because of this, it is preferable to encourage the body to create its own melatonin by keeping the bedroom very dark at night or taking a supplement that helps the body produce its own melatonin, such as S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe).
  5. Bedroom setup: ideally, arrange your bedroom to be very dark while you are sleeping or trying to sleep - this increases your body's melatonin and regulation of your sleep-wake cycle. Ensure your mattress and pillow are supportive and you are not waking up with muscle or joint pain from poor bedding. Avoid technology in the bedroom - yes I'm addicted too, but it doesn't help our brains wind down! 
  6. Evening routine: We know how important a wind down routine is with children. You know - bedtime story, glass of milk, 10 minutes of mind games and reminding them that it's too late to be hungry, followed by sleeping like a log. But somehow we magically believe that at a certain age, it's better to watch stressful stories on the TV, then get wired on our screens, stay up too late then flop into bed with our minds whirring. Amazingly unsuccessful strategy! Instead develop a routine that includes relaxing media (not news or adrenalin-inducing), a warm drink and if there's time a bath or applying magnesium oil, relaxing creativity rather than social media. And if you're in bed and finding it hard to sleep, instead of becoming agitated, choose to see this as a good thing and remain in bed and meditate instead. Meditation is the closest activity to sleep, so you will still chemically and physically rest your body by meditating if you are unable to sleep. And, you know, you could become more enlightened.
  7. Stress management: for many of us, insomnia is a symptom of an underlying stress, depression or anxiety. Developing useful strategies for these issues will help to improve our sleep as a result. Depending on what is on your mind, implement a tool box that includes expressing yourself through talking it out, journalling and creativity, professional support as needed, meditation, practicing mindfulness, and learning great self care. If you don't know where to start, grab the free guide 7 Steps to Self Love.
  8. Exercise: OK, I am not one to talk on the benefits of exercise. Hey, we're all works in progress, right? But exercising in the earlier 2/3 of your day helps reduce stress, balance hormones, create healthy tiredness that prevents insomnia and improves emotional well being. Right now my sleep routine needs review, and exercise is a strategy I'll be sure to implement too.
  9. Pharmaceutical review: if you are on prescribed or over the counter medications or natural remedies, take them all down to your pharmacy in a bag and discuss how each one or the interaction between them could be affecting you. Many medications - natural or otherwise - have effects other than those they are taken for, and it's important for you to understand what you're putting into your body. If you do find that some are affecting your sleep, discuss with the prescribing health practitioner whether the medication can be adjusted or taken at a different time of day.

One word of caution when it comes to sleep - too often I see someone implement just one or two strategies and then say "it didn't work". You don't know which of these - or more likely which combination - is right for you. So implement as many as you can, remembering to discuss any supplements with your health practitioner for the appropriateness in your situation first, and consider their use for short term adjustment rather than long term. Once you find yourself sleeping soundly, you can then determine which strategies are key for you. So I'd like to hear from you - which of these are you going to implement? Let me know in the comments below! And, sleep tight.

​Most of the research above is provided in this book (affiliate link):