Woman sleeping

Getting A Good Sleep

Getting a good sleep, one that’s restful and restorative, is essential for our physical and mental well-being.  Yet many of us are not getting enough sleep to function well.

The UK seems to be a nation of insomniacs, with up to a third of adults reporting regular issues with sleep disturbance.

The consequences of not getting a good sleep are more serious than simply being under par the next day.

Not getting a good sleep regularly, one that’s restorative, can lead to a whole host of health problems. It can age us prematurely if left unchecked.  Chronic insomnia can also lead to weight gain, diabetes, inflammation and even heart disease.

So, what can you do if you seem to spend the night tossing and turning?

Positive steps

What positive steps can you take if you’re wired but tired and suffering from chronic sleep issues?

The answer lies not only in what you do in the evening but what you do in the rest of your day and in the rest of your life.

It is important to think about the usual suspects, such as avoiding screens or cutting down on caffeine as you head towards bedtime.  But the chances are that if you’re not getting a good sleep on a regular basis there is more going on and you’ll need to dig a little deeper to get back on track and restore good sleep patterns.

In most chronic health problems, there is often a perfect storm. Insomnia is no exception.

Types of insomnia

You’re unlikely to connect that skipped lunch with waking up at 3am or link your weight gain with not sleeping well.  It’s only by stepping back and looking at your overall health and well-being, your diet and lifestyle, that you can start to resolve chronic sleep issues.

And the chances are that if you have chronic insomnia you will need some help doing this.

There are different types of insomnia, too, all of which need to be managed very differently. Do you have trouble getting to sleep or are you waking frequently? Maybe you wake up too early or you may even experience all three.

If you have a problem with getting off to sleep in the first place, it might be enough to choose sedative herbs such as valerian, passionflower or hops and use them at bedtime.

Chronic insomnia

For chronic sleep issues, with wakeful episodes through the night, herbs are needed during the daytime, too, but you need to give a more detailed case history before we can join up the dots.

For chronic insomnia, restorative work with deep-acting adaptogen herbs such as withania (also called ashwagandha) or schisandra will help restore your circadian rhythm.

Boosting reproductive hormones like oestrogen or neurotransmitters like dopamine might settle hormonal flux which can be behind not getting a good sleep.

Toning the vagus nerve with digestive bitters will promote rest and digest, and increasing anti-oxidants will help with free radical damage and inflammation.

Signs of restorative sleep

There is no simple answer and no simple remedy, but that doesn’t make getting a good sleep impossible. We just have to put in some effort with some detective and restorative work. The results will be worth it.

If you seek good health and longevity, sleeping well should be equally as important to you as eating well and digesting well.  The three are intimately connected and all need to be considered if you are looking to function at your best.

Check out our herbal medicine clinic if you think you need help with insomnia.

Having a good sleep, waking at the same time every day without the need for an alarm clock and feeling refreshed when you wake up are all signs you are achieving truly restorative sleep.  The beauty of it is it’s totally achievable, too!

 

Mental health during lockdown e

GABA For Mental Health During Lockdown

What is GABA and how can you increase it to support your mental health during lockdown? GABA is short for gamma-aminobutyric acid.

It’s a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, that we produce naturally in the body. We find it in the nervous system, particularly in the brain. It inhibits excitability and slows function without having a sedative effect, so it helps to reduce anxiety, stress and feelings of fear. It may help to improve sleep, too.

There are natural ways that you can boost it to improve mental health during lockdown. Eating certain foods, taking specific supplements or medicinal herbs and exercising or practising meditation can all help to increase GABA.

Amino acids

Eating a balanced diet, rich in whole foods, healthy fats and clean proteins, is a cornerstone of good health and should provide all the nutrients you need to produce GABA.

Make sure you get plenty of these two amino acids – glutamine and taurine. Also check that you’re getting adequate levels of vitamin B6 and magnesium.  It may be beneficial to boost these two key nutrients with a supplement to support your mental health during lockdown. They’re particularly helpful if you’re under chronic stress, not eating well or if you are a woman who suffers from pre-menstrual exacerbation of anxiety and tension.

Healthy diet and lifestyle

My key treatment focus in my herbal clinic is not only to encourage a healthier diet and lifestyle but also to prescribe tailor-made herbal medicines, targeting individual needs.

I usually do this after unpacking a detailed case history. But sometimes there’s no need for depth in order to achieve fast and effective results. That’s especially true if you’re desperate to feel better.

I prescribe several herbs for anxiety that are known to boost GABA levels. These include valerian, ashwagandha and lemon balm. The great thing is that they’re available to buy over the counter. That’s great if you don’t have access to a medical herbalist to prescribe for you. Or you may want to start taking something until you get professional help for your mental health during lockdown.

L Theanine supplement

L Theanine is another great supplement that’s available over the counter in health food shops. This amino acid is extracted from green tea or black tea and has been shown to effectively reduce anxiety.

Studies suggest L Theanine increases serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, so it works on several pathways to support your mental health. It works quickly to boot. I have found personally that there’s a noticeable effect within about half an hour of taking it as a supplement.

If you’re suffering from anxiety, feeling fearful and in need of some mental calm, you might want to put the kettle on and have a cup of tea. Then look up other ways you can boost your GABA levels to support your mental health during lockdown.  Having a cuppa is a good starting point to get you feeling back in control.

Find out more about supporting your mental health by listening to this interview for UK Health Radio now on YouTube.

How to identify a good herbalist

For an in-depth approach, it’s always better to work with a medical herbalist. To make sure you find somebody suitably qualified, look for the letters MNIMH after their name. That signifies gold standard training.

If you don’t have a practitioner to support your mental health during lockdown, rest assured there is a whole natural products industry out there. Some great ethical producers are manufacturing some well-formulated products.

But please do shop with a reputable independent health food store. They have the training and the proven effective remedies you can trust. They also need your support in these challenging times.

Keren Brynes MacLean MNIMH, Medical Herbalist

Post Festive Feast Detox

Your Post Festive Feast Detox

Now we’re in another period of lockdown, many of us are thinking of cleaning up for a fresh start to 2021 and a post-festive feast detox.

Perhaps this year more than any other year, we need a it after over-indulging with festive foods, chocolates, crisps, fizzy drinks, mulled wine and other alcoholic beverages.

After the year we’ve all had we certainly deserved to let loose a little! When the first lockdown hit us in the spring of 2020 many people took on board the suggestion of daily walks and runs or streaming P.E. classes or yoga workouts. We started off well, didn’t we? More people and families than ever before were seen outside enjoying the fresh air. It was such a positive side to the reasons behind it.

This time around we are in mid-winter and a freezing one at that. Many people will be preparing to reinstate that daily run or in those family walks blast out the cobwebs and fill the lungs with clean, fresh air.

As we emerge from our warm and cosy homes, cast off the tinsel and fairy lights, and set off along the coastal path or down to the beach, let’s also have a think about having a post-festive feast detox to cleanse our body and mind.

In fact, what a perfect time to focus on starting the new year with a cleansed gut a shiny newly regenerated liver and a healthy outlook with an uplifted mind and an optimised immune system!

Why Detox?

Common symptoms that clients talk to me about in clinic that suggest a cleanse include brain fog, poor memory, fatigue, chemical sensitivities, skin breakouts and rashes, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, PMS and mood swings. As we look at health from a holistic perspective, naturopathic focused practitioners like me may read this as an indication that the body is overwhelmed with toxins. But what causes a toxic load?

Toxins are waste products, chemicals either produced in the body as by-products of metabolic processes or accumulated from our external environment. Some of the toxins nutritional therapists consider when offering a detox programme include excess hormones, histamine, cholesterol, plastic, plastic-derived toxins, pesticides, car exhaust, cigarette smoke, alcohol, PAHs from chargrilled meat and fish, agricultural chemicals, medications and mycotoxins.

Doing a cleanse needn’t be gruelling and can really help to kickstart energy levels and boost your mood. Just what we all need right now. Although I typically work one to one with clients to design a bespoke nutritional and detox programme, if you are motivated and not tackling a specific health problem or in poor health there is no reason why you can’t embark on your own post-festive reboot.

Here is my simple 4-step approach for a post-festive cleanse to get you on track for more energy, better skin and robust digestion.

Step 1 – Plan

As lists person, this is my favourite stage. Decide which foods and drinks you want to remove from your diet. You can begin by eliminating these. Either consume them (if this won’t be too
excessive), store them (if expiry dates allow), or gift them (e.g. birthday presents or food banks).

Perhaps try removing one a day and for each one you remove, introduce something your body will thank you for. Here are some suggestions.

Remove or Reduce Replace with
Alcohol, caffeine Water, herbal teas
Refined sugar, eg. chocolate, sweets, cakes Fruit, healthy treats (dried fruit, almond butter cups, nuts, coconut shavings)
Unhealthy fats and trans fats, eg. crisps, ready meals, fried foods, excess dairy Healthy fats, eg. avocado, nuts & seeds, fish, coconut
Refined carbs, eg. white rice, pasta, bread Unrefined carbs rich in fibre, eg. brown rice, vegetables (spiralised courgette/squash), whole grains, healthy savoury snacks.

Browse through recipe books and choose some simple favourites, then write your shopping list. Perhaps you might cook a lentil dahl, borscht, vegetable curry, winter stew, a favourite soup or homemade pasta sauce.

Also, select a couple of healthy treats. In our busy house, we love almond butter cups and chocolate and courgette brownies.  Both can be prepared and frozen in portions and to be eaten when you like.

If savoury snacks are your weakness, try making some oatcakes, flaxseed crackers or roasted root vegetable chips and storing them somewhere cool.  Print out a list of rainbow foods and put it on your fridge. I know it sounds like a lot, but, ideally, you’ll be aiming for 8-10 veg a day with two fruit with something from each colour daily.

If you have some at every meal you can soon up your intake. The great thing is you can feel the benefit really quickly when you eat well.

Here’s what to look for:

Orange/yellow Green Red Blue/purple White/beige
Carrots

Pumpkins

Butternut squash

Apricots

 

Oranges

Mangoes

Lemons

Pears

Sweet potato

Kale

Spinach

Broccoli

Brussel sprouts

Cabbage

Green beans

Lettuce

Courgette

Avocado

Peas

Kiwi fruit

Red apples

Tomato

Pomegranates

Radishes

Red cabbage

Strawberries

Raspberries

Red peppers

Red grapes

Aubergine

Blueberries

Blackberries

Purple grapes

Blackcurrants

Plums

Purple broccoli

Red cabbage

dried raisins

Onions

Garlic

Ginger

Chives

Celeriac

Jerusalem artichokes

Mushroom

Turnip

Cauliflower

Step 2 – Detox

Now you have planned and prepared yourself mentally, it is time to focus on this every day for the next few days. Every time you remove something from your diet, be sure to focus on introducing something too.

This helps with the mindset as you are not depriving yourself. You are making way for foods that will cleanse, restore and nourish.  Detoxing also requires gentle exercise to aid the lymphatic system, elimination and oxygenation. Rest is also crucial for detoxification and repair, so remember to take time out for relaxation. Read a book, go outside for sunshine and fresh air, take relaxing baths, meditate or journal.

Hydrate well

The British Nutrition Foundation advises 6-8 glasses of water a day (1.5 – 2 litres). You can include herbal teas in this volume. Unfortunately, caffeinated drinks don’t count. They actually dehydrate the body. We lose approximately one pint of water daily due to normal bodily functions, so keeping hydrated is a cheap and simple essential thing to do to support health.

Eliminate refined sugars and alcohol. These will tax your whole body, impair sleep, lead to energy crashes and promote further intake of the same.

Swap less healthy fats for healthy fats. Providing your body with good fats will support your brain chemistry and will ultimately reduce cravings. Fat is what satiates us so healthy fats will help to reduce hunger.

Eat more nuts. They’re a great plant source of protein, rich in essential fatty acids. These support the brain and help our mood. Brazil nuts, especially, are high in selenium which is important for serotonin and dopamine levels. Selenium is also an essential nutrient for the thyroid.

Also, eat oily fresh fish such as sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon and herring.

Include antioxidant-rich foods in your diet. Follow rainbow food suggestions to ensure you nourish yourself with foods rich in a broad range of essential phytonutrients and antioxidants. It can be tricky to remember which vitamins and minerals come from which foods, but this approach improves your chances of ticking all the boxes.

Some vegetables such as cruciferous plants like kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, rocket and radish, and cysteine-rich vegetables – onions, garlic – help directly with detoxification pathways. You should include them daily.

Other beneficial fruit and vegetables include:

  • Apples (flavonoid quercetin)
  • Beetroot (betaine) assists in dopamine production.
  • Hemp seeds and chia seeds (omega 3 and 6)
Eat more fibre

Fibre will help tone the bowel and assist with stool formation. It supports healthy gut flora and helps eliminate toxins as well as excess hormones, medications and histamine from the gut. Increase your range of vegetables and include fibre in your food and you can positively impact your gut flora within just 24 hours.

  • Whole grains such as oats, quinoa, barley and rye
  • Fruit, especially pears, apples, oranges, bananas and berries.
  • Vegetables: broccoli, Brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes and artichoke.
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Avocado
  • Beans and pulses especially lentils and chickpeas.
Step 3 – Restore

Having eliminated sugars and alcohol and introduced a wider variety of fruit and vegetables, you have already taken the first step to restoring healthy microflora populations in the body. Beneficial bacteria will feed off short-chain fatty acids that the plant foods provide.

The broad range of fruit and vegetables can also provide some natural antimicrobials. As the beneficial strains repopulate, they crowd out less desirable populations and support the mucus membranes in the process. Natural supplements can help to promote this new balance, as can a number of food options.  Try introducing fermented foods such as:

  • Live yoghurt (avoid ones sweetened with sugar) and kefir
  • Traditionally prepared sourdough
  • Sauerkraut and kimchi. Try making your own with water and a little salt.  You can add some rice vinegar or wine vinegar. It is the deprivation of oxygen that encourages the fermentation process thanks to naturally present lactobacillus on the veg
  • Tempeh (fermented soybeans)
  • Kombucha (fermented tea) – a good alternative to beer
  • Miso
How about suporting the mind?

A simple way to help stabilise your mood and your hormones is to eat plenty of dopamine-supportive foods.

Dopamine is our motivation hormone. When we are feeling a little low on dopamine, it is common to crave artificial stimulation such as sugar, high carbohydrate snacks, alcohol and tobacco.

It is important for sleep, mood, memory and pain management and it has a direct effect on the reward centres in the brain. So, it is easy to see why we might feel compelled to reach for the chocolate or wine. However, we can support this nutritionally by increasing the foods we eat that contain tyrosine. Tyrosine is the amino acid that makes dopamine and it is also important for thyroid health.

Tyrosine-rich foods include soybeans, sesame, spirulina, dairy products and good quality unprocessed meats – chicken, turkey, beef and pork. These foods are also high in protein and can support our energy levels and avoid energy crashes.

It is true that meat and dairy can have an inflammatory effect on the body, but it is also the case that grass-fed and organic meat has a more favourable omega 3 to 6 ratio and higher antioxidants than regular meat.

Buying local also means the produce is fresher and unlikely to have been intensely farmed, so the meat is less likely to have as many toxic chemicals, routine antibiotics and excess hormones.

Almonds are high in tyrosine. Leafy greens, broccoli, chickpeas and cauliflower are rich in folate and vitamin B6 which is also important for dopamine production.

Step 4 – Normalise 

This is about reflecting and incorporating your new positive habits into daily practice.  Take time to consider what new foods you have tried and enjoyed, and how your body and mind feel now you have removed some less desirable elements.

We don’t have to be 100% perfect in our choices. How about just 80% of the time? The focus isn’t on what you deprive yourself of but what you nourish yourself with.

There are lots of resources online. You might want to read more about dopamine, tyrosine, detox and nutrition.

If you are feeling stuck, tired, wanting to shift those extra pounds and needing additional support to get your health and your diet back on track I would recommend you work with a nutritional therapist.

By working one to one you not only get support to make positive changes but also the benefit of working with a practitioner who can create an achievable programme for you.

I am available either via Zoom during total lockdown and face-to-face once we emerge from restrictions. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions at all about nutritional therapy.

Rachel Bell, Nutritional Therapist rachelbellnutrition.com.

Take 5 Seasonal Herbs and Spices

We have merged many traditions when it comes to our Christmas celebrations. They range from decorating our homes with holly, ivy and mistletoe to using warming spices to mull our winter wine and give us cheer on a cold winter’s night. Here, we look at 5 seasonal herbs and their medicinal properties.

Christmas herbs and spices

It really is a cultural mishmash when it comes to Christmas. Central to it all are the plants that have been part of our culture for aeons, plants that are central to our whole existence on this planet. Plants provide shelter, clothing, food and medicine and have a worthy seat at the table for any feast or celebration.

As a practising medical herbalist, my particular interest is in the medicinal uses of many of the plants and herbs central to our Christmas celebrations.  Many of those we take for granted have remarkable properties. We cook with herbs and spices like sage, mint and cinnamon not only because they enhance flavours but because they have special health virtues.

As for frankincense and myrrh, integral to the Christmas story, these are two ancient remedies that we still use in modern herbal practice today. In fact, they’ve seen a dramatic revival in recent years. Both are gum resins extracted from trees.  You could think of resin as being sticky plant blood that the tree produces to prevent infection where it’s injured. The resin then hardens like a scab which can be harvested.  Tree resins tend to be incredibly antiseptic and anti-inflammatory and these two have been traded for their medicinal use for over 5,000 years.

Back in the day, in that stable in Bethlehem, the three wise men gifted Jesus these two remarkable remedies because they were literally worth their weight in gold, the third gift they gave.  Of particular interest today is that research now suggests that using both myrrh and frankincense together synergistically offers a more potent effect and alters the chemical structure further. So it looks as if they were very wise men indeed.

Frankincense uses

On its own, frankincense, known botanically as boswellia, can be used both internally as medicine and externally as an essential oil in massage balms and skincare creams.  Medical herbalists use alcohol tinctures to extract the medicinal compounds from the resin. The resin can also be steamed and distilled to produce a rather delightful essential oil that can be emotionally comforting and very cleansing to the lungs when heated with water in an oil diffuser. The essential oil is also very rejuvenating and makes a nourishing and healing ingredient in beauty balms and skin creams.

We use the tincture internally. It’s a key ingredient in bespoke blends for inflammation and congestion and is a remedy that I often prescribe in cases where we have active immune inflammation such as inflammatory bowel disease, endometriosis or arthritis.  There is a vast amount of research that demonstrates it brings about a significant reduction in inflammatory cytokines. This indicates the potential for treating malignancy, auto-immunity and allergy in a clinical setting.

We take frankincense in small doses over a long period of time. This is because big doses of resins can be heavy on the digestive system. The sort of conditions we are managing with this remedy tend to be of a more chronic nature. So the aim is to bring about slow and steady changes to health and the immune system.

Myrrh uses

In my herbal dispensary at Health Food and More, I have two types of myrrh tincture.  One is commiphora mol mol and the other is commiphora mukul or guggul.  They are interchangeable in that they are both antiseptic and help the body to fight infections But I do tend to use more guggul in my prescriptions as it also supports thyroid health.

Guggul for thyroid health

We can prescribe guggul for sluggish thyroid complaints as it aids the conversion of T4, an inactive form of the thyroid hormone thyroxine, into T3, the activated form the body needs at a cellular level.

Put simply, in its T4 state the thyroxine is sitting in the sorting office going nowhere. Guggul helps get it off the sorting shelf ready for delivery! So it’s one to consider when someone’s blood tests show they’re borderline hypothyroid, or if they’re taking thyroxine but still feeling underactive.

It’s also a remedy I consider for chronic or recurrent infections such as cysts, cellulitis, acne or even urinary tract infections.  As with boswellia, we’re looking at low doses over the long term and in a preventative capacity to avoid the need for antibiotics again and again.

Immune system support

Many of the herbs and spices we use in cooking are antiseptic. Those that we traditionally use to cook meats also have potent antiseptic and antibacterial effects.  We think their culinary use comes from the days when they helped to keep meat free from bacteria. Modern science has demonstrated that herbs such as thyme, rosemary and sage can kill salmonella. It’s no wonder we use them in stuffings, along with other delicious antiseptics such as onions. It’s a flavoursome combination that enhances the culinary experience and also helps keep bacteria under control.

Sage and poultry 

Sage, of course, is the most popular herb for stuffing poultry. As well as being a great cooking herb, it’s a great remedy to have in the herbal first aid cupboard. You can make a simple infusion to use as a gargle for sore throats at the onset of infections. If you drink it hot, it is diaphoretic. That means it helps create a therapeutic fever and helps your body fight infection.  The opposite is also true. If you drink it as a cold tea, it has a cooling and drying effect. This means it helps to dry and cool excess sweat. That’s great news for menopausal women who suffer from flushes and night sweats.

Personally, I prefer my sage in tablet or tincture form as cold sage tea is not the tastiest. But it is a really cost-effective way of using sage for the menopause if you’re strapped for cash.

Cinnamon benefits

Of course, at Christmas puddings abound and will include warming spices like nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon.  Our sweet spices have also been prized for taste as well as medicinal treatments. Notable among them all is cinnamon, which has some exciting medicinal properties to boot.

Cinnamon is a sweet and warming spice. Using it in recipes should mean you can use less sugar to sweeten.  But that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to its potential health benefits.

Ceylon cinnamon is the one most commonly used in the UK. It also helps to activate insulin receptors on the cell membranes. That means it makes insulin work more effectively and can reduce the insulin resistance we associate with type II diabetes.  Of course, you need to do more than take cinnamon to improve blood sugar handling. However, using cinnamon as part of a protocol that includes positive dietary changes may net potential benefits. That’s especially as we now understand that it may also help to reduce cholesterol.

Studies show that improving blood sugar also can improve cholesterol. But if you’re taking your cinnamon in a rich Christmas pudding drowned in cream or brandy butter. you’re probably negating any real benefits.

Peppermint for digestion

If you’re feeling bloated after one too many helpings, you could always reach for an after-dinner mint. The humble mint has become the customary end to a filling meal. It aids digestion and helps the liver and gallbladder cope with digesting fats.

Peppermint is a great digestive aid and helps to freshen the palate, too. It is known to help with heartburn, bloating and irritable bowel symptoms.

But it’s worth remembering that gluttony is not a good thing. Enjoy a good dinner but don’t be Mr Creosote from Monty Python. Nothing will really help if you have overdone it and “just one waffer-thin mint” turns out to be just one mouthful too much!

Nature’s beauty and bounty

This year more than any we should take the time to be thankful for nature and what she has provided. Through the slower days of lockdown in 2020, many people reconnected with green spaces and discovered local places of peace and beauty. They reconnected with cooking and baking from scratch, so much so we had a national shortage of both flour and yeast! And some were also lucky to have the time to reconnect with themselves. That’s if they weren’t busy educating children or trying to adapt to working from home.

It is timely, then, to look forward now with hopes of rebirth and moving on into a healthier way to live and connect with the planet. We can also celebrate our old traditions that centre around the natural world as well as the plants that embellish and enrich our lives.