Seasonal health: three top tips for living well to stay well

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As the weather gets colder and the nights draw in, the season of coughs and colds begins. Now is the perfect opportunity to build up your body’s natural defences.

Read on to understand the immune system and my three favourite tips for living well to stay well this Autumn and Winter.


What’s the purpose of your immune system?

Protection!  It’s your body’s own natural defence system and it can protect you from getting the common cold and the flu.  And it can also protect you from developing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease, and cancer.  

How does the immune system protect us?  

There are a variety of mechanisms through which your immune system keeps you healthy. The immune system is highly sophisticated when you start to delve into the layers, including the innate and the adaptive systems and their related defence mechanisms.

At a simple level, we can use the military analogy of an army protecting its territory. The immune system comprises an army of soldiers or specialist immune cells that exist in the white blood cells, and they identify enemies and effectively destroy them. The enemies could be a range of things, for example, foreign agents like bacteria and viruses and also defective body cells. 

For the last 100 years or so, western medicine has focussed on drugs designed to destroy invaders on our behalf. Think about antibiotics, antiviral agents, and chemotherapy. These clearly have a legitimate time and place, but only recently does it feel like our attention is turning ‘within’ and back towards the natural methods that strengthen our own defences.

This is really important to recovery from illness and to preventative healthcare, as our ability to react rapidly to a new invader makes all the difference between a minor 24-hour cold or stomach bug, and a week in bed with flu or food poisoning.


My top 3 top things you can do to support your immune system?

With just a little effort, you can integrate some relatively simple things straight away into your daily being to help you build your natural defences:

1. Eat a variety of red foods

There is a vast and wonderful array of foods, herbs, spices which all support the immune system thanks to their wonderful anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties and there are a range of specific nutrients in foods which may help enhance the immune system.

However, what I wish to focus on here is red foods.  Red is not an arbitrary selection, but because in our health red can be seen to symbolically represent the immune system, and many red vegetables and fruits are fantastic sources of antioxidant nutrients which can boost the strength of the immune system and neutralise or disarm potentially harmful chemicals called free radicals in the body which are produced by invaders to fight off the troops of the immune system.

When the production of free radicals overwhelms the body’s need for, and capacity to neutralise them, then cellular damage, inflammation, and chronic disease can result. Antioxidants are molecules that safely interact with free radicals and neutralise them, preventing them from causing damage and reduce the risk of oxidative stress.

There are a variety of antioxidant nutrients your body requires to assist with this process, and they need to be obtained from your diet. Examples of the powerful antioxidant nutrients present in red foods include vitamins C, and E, beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A), and a variety of polyphenol compounds such as lycopene, a powerful carotenoid that gives some red fruits and veg their colour, and anthocyanins which are in the flavonoid family.

Think about the red vegetables and fruits you are eating on a regular basis. How many of these could you name off the top of your head?  

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  • Red Apples

  • Beetroot

  • Cranberries

  • Strawberries

  • Cherries

  • Pomegranate

  • Tomatoes

  • Red peppers

  • Raspberries

  • Red cabbage

  • Radishes

  • Red grapefruit

  • Red grapes

  • Rhubarb

  • Red onion

  • Watermelon

  • Goji berries

  • Red currants

  • Blood oranges                                                     


2. Support your Gut health with probiotic foods

If you think of your digestive tract of one of the main gateways into the body, the mucous membranes that line that tract are one of the first lines of defence against infectious agents or pathogens.

Because our intestines are inside our bodies, most people don't realise that it forms a protective barrier between our bloodstream and the external world. But in fact, your gut and your immune system are very closely linked, and 70 to 80 percent of immune tissue is situated in your digestive tract.  

The vast ecosystem of friendly bacteria that reside in your digestive tract are another key form of defence - they have a powerful, beneficial effect on the gut's immune system, aid in the production of antibodies, and help regulate other functions of the digestive system, for example, stomach acid levels, which is also important for defence.

One of a number of factors which impacts our gut flora is antibiotic usage. Antibiotics do not discriminate well between infectious bacteria and commensal bacteria and consequently lead to more problems.  So, to help ensure you don’t deplete your beneficial microflora, you may wish to try giving your body a chance to deploy its natural defences and do not pressure on your GP to prescribe antibiotics to you without adequate grounds to believe a persistent infection is present.

Overuse of antibiotics is also become a bigger problem for society at large as bacteria become resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics and we are seeing the emergence of super-bugs such as MRSA.

To strengthen your own gut flora defences, I recommend regularly eating one or more probtioic-rich foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, or natto.  And consider taking a multi-strain probiotic supplement. If you are unsure where to start with this, please contact me and I will happily point you in the right direction.
 

3. Maintain gentle movement daily

Physical exercise is important for lymphatic drainage. The immune systems utilises the lymphatic vessels to bring any ‘invaders’ into its ‘forts’ such as the lymph nodes, tonsils, the appendix, spleen, and specialist patches in the digestive tract, from which the invaders can be destroyed.  Since the lymphatic system has no pump, it relies on muscle movement to move lymphatic fluid.

Here are some key thoughts to consider when thinking about how your own activity levels are affecting your immune system:

  • Regular movement in natural daylight

  • Ensure calming forms of exercise form part of your activities

  • Be wary of over-exercising which can increase oxidative stress and create a burden on the immune system if it’s already taxed

Prone to being unwell when the cold weather hits and interested in what else you can do?

I have created an Autumn Reset eating plan which includes a super simple, mix-and-match, flavourful menu, perfect for those in need of seasonal inspiration and want to approach the winter months eating well, feeling well and looking well.
Find out more here >

Low-sugar Summer Sips everyone will love

Summer parties are often filled with sweet, alcoholic drinks that can unbalance your blood sugar levels and lead to weight gain.

Yet I know many clients wince at the idea of only having water on such occasions, and it’s not always easy to know what to drink instead without feeling deprived.

That's why I’ve put together some truly delicious and refreshing alternatives to see you through the Summer... Cheers!

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Strawberry lemonade 

Serves 8

  • 2 litres water
  • 8 lemons, squeezed (around 280 ml)
  • 1/2 -3/4 tsp liquid stevia (try NuNaturals)
  • 250g strawberries, sliced  

In a large jug combine water, lemon juice and stevia. Simply stir in sliced strawberries and serve over ice.


Cucumber, mint + lemon fizz

Serves 6

  • 1.5ltr sparkling water
  • half a cucumber, sliced
  • 10 mint leaves
  • 1 lemon, sliced
  • Put all the ingredients in a large jug, chill and serve. 


Sparkling kombucha

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Kombucha is an elegant, healthy alternative to sparkling soft drinks and is known for being full of naturally occurring vitamins, acids, and beneficial bacteria (yes, it's great for gut health too).

Making it is a real labour of love. Learn how here:  https://happykombucha.co.uk/pages/how-to-make-kombucha.

Alternatively, you can buy it ready-made. (And no, I don't blame you!) I love PJ Kombucha (www.pjkombucha.com) for the purist approach to production they take to ensure a nutrient-rich, flavour-full drink which knocks the socks off other brands. 


Sparkling cherries

Serves 2

  • 4tbsp Cherry Active
  • 500ml sparkling water

Add sparkling water to the Cherry Active and serve with ice.


Sparkling lime water

Exactly as it sounds… Sparkling water with a good squeeze of fresh lime juice over ice. Simple and refreshing – and you can guarantee a pub will have the ingredients (but likely you’ll need to remind them about using fresh lime and not cordial). 


Garden Sour

  • Seedlip Garden (a distilled, non-alcoholic drink*), 50ml 
  • Cloudy apple juice, 35ml
  • Lemon Juice, 15ml
  • Cider vinegar, 5ml  
  • Sprig of rosemary & thyme 

Seedlip is premium distilled non-alcoholic drink. The price may make you wince (it’s no cheaper than buying alcoholic spirits) but it’s hot news this year and making an appearance in all the best bars. Find it at www.seedlipdrinks.com

10 reasons you should care about your digestive system (even if you don’t have gut issues)

If you are struggling with digestive symptoms (such as IBS, bloating or reflux), then reading an article about getting your 'gut' right makes perfect sense. But what if you're reading this and you don't? Should you care? 

Yes. Because the state of your gut affects every aspect of your health, from weight loss and immunity to mood and skin health. 

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Here I reveal ten connections to help explain why an optimal digestive system is important for everyone.  One of the main things I talk about is something called dysbiosis - which is where the levels of bacterial in the gut are out of balance. That might mean there are too many ‘bad’ bacteria in the gut or simply insufficient numbers of the protective, ‘good’ bacteria. 

1. If you have a condition linked to too much oestrogen, such as endometriosis or fibroids, you should know that if you have dysbiosis, instead of the body getting rid of old oestrogen, it is likely to keep recirculating oestrogen tagged for detoxification. So poor gut health may mean more oestrogen and worse symptoms.

But this isn't just relevant to those with endometriosis or fibroids. Oestrogen is an obesogen ie. too much oestrogen may make you gain fat, so if you are eager to get in shape, get your gut in shape first so that it can it effectively process oestrogen.

2. On top of the oestrogen situation, you may absorb 15% more calories from your food if you have an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the gut.  

3. There’s also a growing amount of research that suggests your gut bacteria actually influences food cravings and metabolism too.

4. Listen up if you’re that person who is always ill or gets everything worse than everyone else. About 75% of your immunity is governed by your gut. If your digestive system is healthy, chances are you will be generally healthier, too. 

5. Not happy with the condition of your skin? Eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, acne are just a few skin issues linked to poor gut health. Much of this is down to permeability of the gut wall (sometimes called ‘leaky gut’), where your digestive tract is 'damaged' and things that should not normally pass through are now able to, like bad bacteria, gluten proteins and other undigested food particles, causing widespread inflammation and other health problems. 

6. This is true for hayfever and food intolerance too, for very similar reasons. 

7. The state of your digestive system is important for regulating your mood and for your mental health. The gut is often referred to as the ‘second brain’. That’s because, embedded in your intestinal wall are 500 million neurons that make up your enteric nervous system (ENS). Your ENS plays an important role in the production of 30 different neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters, like serotonin, are chemicals responsible for regulating mood. At the very extreme end of the spectrum, an imbalance of bacteria in the gut has also been shown to be factor in autism, ADHD and other brain conditions like epilepsy. 

8. If you have any kind of autoimmune disease you will want to support your gut as there is potential that “once you have one autoimmune condition, the door is open to all of the others”.  There are over 200 autoimmune conditions but some of the most common include Hashimoto’s disease (under-active thyroid), rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, coeliac disease, type 1 diabetes, systemic lupus, pernicious anemia, and so on. There are a number of potential causes of autoimmune disease, but "leaky gut” or intestinal permeability is considered a front runner. 

9. Bad breath – typically linked to dysbiosis (remember, that’s that imbalance of gut bacteria again) or bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine. Athlete’s foot or thrush are linked to candida, a potentially pathogenic yeast in the gut.

On the topic of Candida, it brings a list of other possible symptoms too - including mysterious aches and pains, that feeling of being hungover when you’re not, depression, fatigue, anxiety and brain fog as well as a host of tummy issues. 

10. If you have baby-making on your mind, you need to know that the little person you grow will inherit your gut immunity. If you have a healthy and balanced gut environment, then they will too.  
As the mother, you are the gate-keeper to your child’s health. That’s because in pregnancy you set your baby’s inflammatory 'set point'.  If your gut flora is out of balance, there may be a 15% increased risk of gestational diabetes and also a higher risk for group B strep.  

So, even if you have no digestive symptoms, here are 10 reasons not to wait until you see 'smoke'.

A happy gut = a healthy body. 

Gut intuition - follow it!

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Last time, we looked at the gut-brain connection and the impact of food on mindset and emotions. Eating to support mood is key in my book in terms of promoting a happier outlook in all aspects of life, as well as fuelling our motivation to continue to eat well. 

Now in my last post in this series, we’ll take the concept of the gut as ‘second brain’ a step further and explore a different take on ‘Gut feelings’ and how it can help support a more ‘intuitive’ approach to eating.

Researchers have determined that the enteric nervous system is constantly providing information to our brains regarding our nutritional needs. But most of us learn to eat by listening to messages coming from outside of ourselves - messages from our parents, teachers, friends, or the media including health claims and marketing messages.

In this context, it is all to easy to overlook, or override, the messages that your own inner source of knowledge is telling you. 

Yet the body is actually very clever at giving us signals about its general health and what it actually needs. For example, food cravings are an example of how the body might be hinting to us to correct a nutritional deficiency. Specifically, cravings for chocolate can be due to the need for more magnesium, while a desire for fatty foods may reflect a need for increased omega 3 fatty acids.

The condition of our skin, hair and nails may signal other nutritional deficiencies; urine colour will flag potential dehydration or possible liver stress; and bowel movements provide all sorts of clues to the functioning of our digestion system. 

So, how to tune in and trust your body’s wisdoms and learn to eat intuitively?

The first state is observation. It’s by starting to notice how your body is really feeling, the messages it’s giving you, and distinguishing the difference between physical and emotional hungers, so that you can more easily recognise your own eating patterns and how well your food choices are actually serving you. 

From this point of recognition, you can start to develop trust in your body’s inner cues regarding hunger and fullness, which sets you up to start making great choices around eating.

To support this, do give yourself a health dose of vitamin T - that’s Time! When you eat while in a rush or being absorbed with other thoughts and activities, this may lead to overeating, bloating, poor digestion and missing out on some of the true pleasure of eating. When you slow down you will be more ‘present’ and able to eat with more awareness of what’s going on in your body as well as savour the sensory experience. 

Undeniably, there may be certain emotions, situations, events which you may find throw your ability to trust your intuition around food including how, what and when you eat. In this case underlying beliefs, habits, or emotions may be getting the better of your gut, and some additional work may be required in order to address them and move forward.

So, do you need to slow down and tune-in? The simple act of listening to, trusting and following gut feelings, can lead to weight loss, improved energy and a better experience of life. What’s your gut telling you?

What's your gut feeling?

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Have you observed how some meals, or patterns of eating, leave you feeling satisfied and uplifted, and others leave you sluggish or even anxious? The direct links between food and moods are increasingly well evidenced but one particular exciting area of research is the connection between the human digestive system and overall mental wellbeing.

There's a reason why the gut is often referred to as the ‘second brain’. Embedded in your intestinal wall are 500 million neurons that make up your enteric nervous system (ENS).

Your ENS plays an important role in the production of 30 different neurotransmitters including serotonin which helps regulate mood and sleep. We associate serotonin with the brain as it plays a role in depression and emotions associated with wellbeing - but it actually exists in the largest concentration in our intestines. It is not surprising then that prolonged stress can disrupt the digestive system.

Furthermore an imbalance in the wealth of bacteria that resides in our intestines, may also be an influential factor in our emotional responses to situations. 

In a recent study from UCLA, a group of forty women was divided into two groups by the composition of their gut bacteria. Researchers then measured their brain activity for emotional responses to negative images and found the brains of women with different bacterial profiles reacted differently to the stimuli, with markedly higher levels of anxiety and distress being reported in the group with higher levels of a certain bacteria group called Prevotella. 

Some other ways your daily food choices affect how you feel physically and affect your mood:

  • You’re cutting out or skimping on essential food groups, which your body needs to fuel itself and produce serotonin, the brain’s “feel good” chemical.
  • You’re forgetting essential vitamins and minerals, which can contribute to depression, inability to concentrate and chronic fatigue. A diet lacking essential nutrients such as b vitamins, zinc, magnesium and iron can disrupt our biochemistry and may alter mood and behaviour.
  • You’re not getting ample omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to a lower incidence of depression.
  • You’re eating many processed foods or high sugar foods, which may contribute to a larger waistline, feeling tired and sluggish and potentially lead to insulin imbalance and inflammation when over-consumed. When weight is gained as a result, this can clearly have further negative effects on mood and self-esteem.
  • You’re not drinking enough water, and dehydration can cause headaches, mood changes, lethargy and poor concentration.


So, the key take-out point here is a well-balanced daily diet based on whole foods that contain a spectrum of nutrients can make you feel happier and calmer, quite simply by making you - and your gut microbiome - healthier.

Go with your gut

In the last blog I talked about the importance of maintaining a healthy digestive system – or a happy ‘gut’. There is one particular dimension of the body’s digestive system that is getting a lot of airtime in the media at the moment. It’s called the gut microbiome and I’d like to share with you why this extraordinary ecosystem of microbes which reside in your gastrointestinal tract is so important in managing a healthy body - and in particular your weight.

 All of our guts are densely populated with roughly 100 trillion bacteria, mainly concentrated in the large intestine. This bacteria weighs in at about 2kg! Because of its symbiotic relationship with the rest of the body, the microbes in our intestines play a critical role in our health affecting everything from our mood, to our mindset to our metabolism and weight.

 

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I like to use the analogy of a gut garden. What we are learning is that positive health outcomes correlate with a healthy gut garden which is populated with a wide diversity and abundance of different strains of bacteria - very much like a flourishing garden full of different plants and flowers.   

Exciting new research shows that the types of bacteria that dominate your gut can determine how likely you are to hold onto excess body weight or have a slim figure. There are many ways in which gut microbes can cause physiological mischief leading to weight gain, and it’s down to the role they play in regulating the hormone insulin, and determining how much energy we actually obtain from the food we eat. And because the microbes in our guts feed off the food we eat, the fewer microflora species in your gut, the more likely you are to be controlled by a species request for its food source, which can in turn lead to cravings.

This may go someway towards explaining why some people seemingly never put on weight, while others can’t keep it off. 

But the good news is it also means diversifying your gut flora may give you the power to turn your gut into a fat-burning machine. If you suspect your gut garden has been taken over by weeds or is looking more like a dessert battered by antibiotics, other medications, chronic stress, chronic infections, alcohol misuse or a poor diet, then it’s time to restore balance.

 A great way to ‘seed’ your gut with beneficial bacteria is to incorporate ‘probiotic’ foods into your diet regularly. There are many foods retaining gut-loving living cultures but three of my favourites are:

  1. Sauerkraut (that’s fermented rather than pickled cabbage) - a generous tablespoon is really a great addition to all your summer salads.
  2. Natural yoghurt – lovely for breakfast with berries, nuts and seeds.
  3. Miso soup – yes the fermented soybean paste which is miso is loaded with active bacteria and this is a fabulous way for people who don’t eat dairy to top up their beneficial bacteria.

 So go with your gut and you may discover that a fringe benefit of restoring gut microbial balance is it also helps with re-setting the body’s metabolism.