Nutrition

Home / Posts tagged "Nutrition"
Diet and PCOS

Diet and PCOS

How can diet help with PCOS?

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is one of the most common hormonal conditions amongst women and can put them at greater risk of heart disease due to glucose sensitivity and is also a leading cause of infertility.

Research has suggested that many women are not even aware they have the condition which may be due to misdiagnosis or a lack of awareness about PCOS. There is no cure for PCOS and whilst access to information about the disorder has become more freely available, many women still feel unsupported and confused about the best way to manage the condition.

What is PCOS?

This is a health problem that affects women of childbearing age and is considered to be the most common hormonal condition.  Women with PCOS have a hormonal imbalance and problems with their metabolism which can affect their overall health and appearance.

What causes PCOS?

Exactly what causes PCOS is not fully clear but the majority of experts believe that genetics have a role to play in the development of the condition.  PCOS is linked to abnormally high levels of androgens (hormones such as testosterone that regulate the development and maintenance of male traits in the body) which can prevent the ovulation every month and cause extra hair growth and acne.

The condition is also associated with high levels of insulin which is the hormone that helps to regulate blood sugar levels. Many women with PCOS are resistant to the activity of insulin and so their body compensates by producing more.  The effect of this is that it increases the production and activity of testosterone which exacerbates the symptoms associated with PCOS.  Being overweight or obese also increases the amount of insulin the body produces.

Who is affected by PCOS?

Estimates have suggested that the global prevalence of PCOS falls between 6% and 10%.  In the UK it has been estimated that around 1 in 10 women are affected by PCOS.  Prevalence in the US is thought to be similar to the UK although it could vary significantly by region.

US prevalence figures are tricky to gather effectively as a result of the conflicting criteria used to diagnose the condition.

In a study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology  the authors concluded that women with PCOS are more likely to than those without PCOS to be 25-34 years old, be from the Southern States, be infertile, have metabolic syndrome and have been seen by an endocrinologist (1).

This same study estimated a much lower national prevalence in the US of just 1.6% but admitted that this was likely to be a significant underestimation given the retrospective nature of the study and the fact that PCOS is often undiagnosed.

What are the symptoms of PCOS?

Signs and symptoms of PCOS normally become apparent during late teens and early 20’s and include:

  • Irregular periods (or none at all)
  • Difficulty getting pregnant (due to irregular periods)
  • Excessive hair growth (hirsutism) on the face, chest, back or buttocks
  • Weight gain
  • Thinning hair or hair loss
  • Oily skin
  • Acne

How is PCOS diagnosed?

If any rare causes of the same symptoms of PCOS have been ruled out and you meet at least 2 of the following criteria, then a diagnosis of the condition is normally confirmed as being PCOS.

  • You have irregular or infrequent periods – indicating that your ovaries are not regularly releasing eggs (anovulation).
  • Blood tests indicate high levels of “male hormones” such as testosterone.
  • Scans indicate you have polycystic ovaries.

 How can you treat PCOS?

Fertility medications are available to help treat the symptoms of PCOS such as excessive hair growth, irregular periods and fertility problems.

Making changes to your diet and losing weight can also have a significant impact on the effects of the condition.

Losing weight may help to lower your blood glucose levels and improve the way your body reacts to insulin.  Just a 10% loss in body weight has been shown to improve the regularity of periods and chances of pregnancy in some women with PCOS.

What should women with PCOS be choosing to eat?

The two key ways that diet can help with PCOS is through weight management and blood sugar control (insulin production).  Managing insulin levels is the best way women with PCOS can use food to help manage their condition.

A few different diets are often recommended for PCOS and they all share a similar set of foods which are rich in fibre and protein to help balance out blood sugar levels and lessen the production of insulin.  These diets can also be used as a way of managing or losing weight and are all cardioprotective.

A low glycaemic index diet (GI)

Foods with a low GI are digested more slowly which means they do not cause insulin levels to spike in the same way as they do with other carbohydrate foods such as sugar.

Low GI foods include wholegrains, beans, pulses, lentils, fruits, vegetables, starchy vegetables (sweet potato, yam, corn), basmati rice, quinoa and dairy foods.  Some foods do not have a GI value but are also included such as meat, fish, nuts, oils, herbs and spices.

Many people recommend monitoring the glycaemic load of a food as unlike the GI this takes into account the amount of food eaten (portion size).

The anti-inflammatory diet

This is a balanced diet that includes foods that may help to quell inflammation such as berries, oily fish and extra virgin olive oil.  Many of these foods form a key part of the Mediterranean diet.

Foods that cause inflammation (these foods should be avoided or limited)

  • Refined carbs – sugar, white bread, pasta and pastries
  • Sugary drinks
  • Convenience foods such as chips, crackers and crisps
  • Red and processed meats
  • Spreads and oils rich in omega 6 such as margarine and vegetable oil
  • Alcohol

Foods that help to quell inflammation

  • Vegetables, especially dark green leafy vegetables
  • Fruits, especially deeply coloured varieties such as berries, grapes and cherries
  • Beans, pulses and lentils
  • Wholegrains and psuedograins such as barley and quinoa
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Oily fish
  • Dried spices

The DASH diet (dietary approaches to stop hypertension)

This is a diet designed to reduce the impact of heart disease and as such is often recommended to women with PCOS who are at greater risk of the condition.  This diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, lean poultry, wholegrains and low-fat dairy produce whilst discouraging foods that are high in salt and saturated fat.

Adopting a healthy approach to the way you eat appears to be beneficial for women with PCOS.  Following an anti-inflammatory way of eating such as that illustrated by the Mediterranean diet is a good place for all women with PCOS to start.

References

  1. Okoroh EM, Hooper WC, Atrash HK, Yusuf HR, Boulet SL. Prevalence of polycystic ovary syndrome among the privately insured, United States, 2003-2008. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2012;207(4):299.e1-299.e2997.
The basics of plant-based eating to get you through Veganuary

The basics of plant-based eating to get you through Veganuary

Veganuary is a charity campaign encouraging people to try being vegan for January and, if possible, throughout the rest of the year.  Last year (2019) saw the greatest number of people involved in the Veganuary campaign as over 250K from 190 countries embarked on the month-long pledge.

What were the key findings from last year’s Veganuary campaign?

  • For the first time since the campaign began, health became the main driver (46%).
  • 34% of participants stated animal welfare and 12% environmental concerns as drivers for involvement in the campaign.
  • Most participants were women (87%).
  • The majority of participants were aged between 25 and 34 years old (28%).
  • 47% said they plan to remain vegan after Veganuary.
  • 77% said that while not planning to remain vegan after the campaign, they will try vegan again in the future.

How can you make a smooth transition to veganism?

Findings from last years Veganuary campaign showed that 60% found the challenge easier than anticipated.  The rise of vegan food on the high street (including both take-out and restaurant options) as well as the wide range of meat-free alternatives and snacks now available is likely to have helped many people switch to eating plant-based.

Cooking from scratch is always going to be a healthier option and while this may seem daunting it’s not difficult to ‘veganise’ many of your favourite home-cooked meals using these alternatives.

Seek out your preferred dairy alternative

Oat and soya milk have a richness which is similar to cow’s milk while those made from nuts, seeds and rice tend to be waterier.  Each alternative has its own unique flavour and out of all of them, soya has the highest amount of protein which may be an important factor for some people.

What you choose is a matter of personal preference so try all of them to see which one you prefer but always look for fortified varieties to help maintain good intakes of calcium and vitamin B12.

Soya is a good alternative to dairy yoghurt.  Other options include coconut milk and nut varieties including cashew, but they do come with a higher price tag.

Meat alternatives

There are a number of meat alternatives to choose from which include tofu and tempeh (made from soya), seitan (made from wheat gluten) and Quorn.  These foods are all high in protein and also contain a variety of other nutrients including magnesium, iron, zinc and calcium.

These options are available in many forms including mince, pieces and shredded which can be used to replace minced beef, chicken, pork and duck in many common home-cooked dishes.

You can find marinated varieties of tofu which are easier to use for beginners.  Tofu can also be scrambled as a good alternative to egg for breakfast.

Other interesting alternatives include jackfruit, palm hearts and banana blossom which have been used to emulate the look and texture of dishes such as pulled pork, scallops and breaded or battered fish.  While these options make a convincing alternative, they do lack the same protein content.

Fruits and vegetables

It sounds counter-intuitive to talk about fruit and vegetable consumption given the nature of a vegan diet but given only 30% of the population eat five-a-day (1), it’s worth flagging up for those going vegan for January.

This groups of foods are a key source of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that help to protect the body from disease.  Including above and beyond five daily servings is important on a vegan diet to glean as many of these nutrients as possible.

Given the availability of vegan processed and ready-made meal options as well as the rise in vegan ‘junk’ food it is easy to exist on this type of diet without eating enough vegetables.

Keep it in mind to always add more vegetables to the dishes you cook.  You can boost your intake with smoothies and dishes such as soups, casseroles, stews and stir-fry’s which can be bulked out with plenty of vegetables.   Varieties such as spinach and peas are really easy to throw into many dishes.

Explore different flavours

The absolute key to great tasting vegan dishes lies in the spices and marinades used to make them. Meat alternatives, beans, pulses and grains can be a little bland so make use of dried spices and spice blends, sauces (e.g. cook-in sauces, soy sauce, sriracha, harissa), fresh herbs, flavoured oils and dried fruit to add flavour.

You can create a strong savoury flavour (umami) by incorporating ingredients such as nutritional yeast, mushrooms (especially dried made into a stock), seaweed, miso paste, tomato puree, sundried tomatoes, soy sauce and nuts into dishes.   Vegetables such as onions, garlic, beetroot, asparagus and tomatoes also help to create umami which is often enhanced when they’re cooked.

Shop-bought dressings are great, but you should explore recipes from cookbooks and on the web for homemade options which are bursting with flavour and include additional ingredients such as tahini, miso, citrus juices, pomegranate molasses and umeboshi paste.

Don’t be put-off by unusual ingredients that seem a bit ‘fancy’ as they are all now widely available  in supermarkets and not too expensive.  Many of these ingredients keep for a while and dressings can be made in bulk and kept in the fridge.

Beans, pulses and lentils

No vegan diet is complete without these highly nutritious ingredients which supply protein, fibre, magnesium, iron, zinc and calcium.

This group of foods are available canned or in ambient packs which is more convenient than soaking overnight and then boiling to cook. They’re really versatile and can be used to make vegan dishes such chilli, curries, soups, stews and salads to bulk them out and increase their nutrient content.  Chickpeas and soya beans make a good snack when roasted with spices.

Grains

All grains are vegan and can be used as a base for many dishes.  These foods are a useful source of protein as well as zinc, magnesium and B vits.  Grains such as rice, barley and spelt as well as pseudo-grains such as quinoa can be used to make salads to which you can add anything to and make in bulk to use across the week. You can also add cooked grains to soups or sprinkle over vegetable salads.

Snacks

Some people may find they need to supplement their diet with snacks across the day if they need to eat more food to meet the demands of their lifestyle.

Easy vegan snacks include dips with pitta or chopped veggies,  dried fruit and nut bars, dairy-free yoghurt (topped with nuts, seeds or dried fruits), rice cakes (topped with nut butter, guacamole or mashed banana), edamame beans, nuts, seeds or roasted chickpeas.  Smoothies and shakes are also good and can be made to be high in protein.

Fortified foods and supplements

There’s no reason why you can’t get everything you need on a vegan diet, but it can be tricky to start with for some people.  Seek out fortified varieties of foods, especially those containing vitamin B12 which is difficult to obtain on a vegan diet.Food should always come first but if you’re worried that your diet may not very well balanced then a basic vegan multivitamin and mineral supplement is a cost-effective way to bridge any gaps.  Young children, particularly fussy eaters and also teenage girls are groups that will probably benefit from a supplement especially when going vegan.

It’s not that difficult to switch to a vegan diet once you know what’s available and how to modify your favourite everyday meals.  Don’t rely solely on ready-prepared vegan dishes and stick to the basic principles of healthy eating (it’s just as easy to eat an unhealthy diet when going vegan).

Try and use Veganuary as an opportunity to explore recipes that use ingredients which may be new to you.  This campaign is also a great opportunity for you to commit to new eating habits that can extend beyond January and help you to improve your overall long-term health.

 

Try this simple one week vegan menu plan to kick start your Veganuary.

 

References

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined

How to cater for vegan guests at Christmas

How to cater for vegan guests at Christmas

Planning Christmas lunch can be a huge operation and even more so if it’s your first time at the helm.  So, what do you do when one of your guests tells you they’re vegan?

If you break down the Christmas lunch table then most dishes are actually plant-based and those that are not can easily be adapted without too much effort.

What do you serve in place of roast turkey?

There are many options that can be cooked alongside the turkey for your vegan guests.  

Vegan roasts made from ingredients such as nuts, seeds, beans, pulses and lentils are a good option and you can find many recipes online.  Look for recipes full of flavour which make the most of dried spices and dried fruits. Stuffed butternut squash is also a really nice option and you can make festive fillings using grains and dried cranberries.

Cooking a vegan roast is always going to be full of the key elements of taste including both flavour and texture.  Another option is a meat-free alternative which are normally made using tofu.  

What about the roast potatoes?

The only consideration here is the type of fat that you choose to cook them in.  Animal fats are often used to roast potatoes at Christmas so be sure to switch to olive or rapeseed oil.  Coconut oil can be used and offers an interesting flavour.  You can also roast with garlic and rosemary for something delicious. 

The key to nice and crispy roast spuds is picking a floury variety and giving them a good shake before you put them in the oven.

What about the vegetables?

All veggies are plant-based so there’s no issue here.  Some vegetable options do contain dairy such as parmesan roasted parsnips or cauliflower cheese.  You can adapt these dishes by using nutritional yeast and fortified plant-based drinks made from soy, nuts and seeds.

What about the gravy, savoury and sweet sauces?

No Christmas lunch is complete without a good gravy.  You can make a good vegan alternative using dried porcini mushrooms which give it a strong ‘umami’ flavour.  

Savoury and sweet sauces that use butter, milk or cream can be made using alternatives made from plant oils, fortified plant drinks, soy, nuts and coconut.

What about the Christmas pudding?

Christmas pudding is not vegan as it contains ingredients such as suet, eggs and honey.  You could make your own vegan alternative but buying one in is much easier.

What about the booze?

This is one thing that non-vegans may not even have ever thought about but not all booze is vegan friendly.  

Some drinks may use isinglass (substance obtained from fish bladders), gelatine, eggs white, seashells and other animal products during the filtering process prior to bottling.  Honey may also be used to sweeten certain drinks so worth keeping an eye out for.

You can check out which brand of alcoholic drink is vegan by using the website Barnivore.

Adapting your Christmas lunch to accommodate vegan guests is really not that difficult once you know where to make the changes.  Many of these changes can be used to feed everyone and will likely go unnoticed by your other guests.  

Of course the other option is start veganuary early and go completely plant-based this Christmas!

 

Is Veganuary really worth the effort?

Is Veganuary really worth the effort?

Veganuary is very cleverly positioned at the start of the New Year which is a time when many people are highly motivated to eat a little better and exercise more. 

Veganism is the pinnacle of plant-based eating and often viewed as being superiorly healthy, but is Veganuary really going to make a difference to your health or is it just a flash in the pan?

What are the health benefits of veganism

Meat-free diets have been shown to benefit key areas of health and reduce the risk of diet related diseases. 

Studies have shown that people who follow a meat-free diet have a lower risk of obesity (1), heart disease (2), high blood pressure (3), type 2 diabetes (4) and digestive disorders such as constipation (5) – although lifestyle plays a key role here and this doesn’t mean following a vegan diet will prevent you from developing these conditions.

How does a typical vegan diet differ to that of omnivores?

It has been shown that vegans are more likely to exceed the daily recommended fruit and vegetable intake.  Eating more of these foods means gleaning a greater quantity of micronutrients and antioxidants such as the carotenoids found in orange and dark green vegetables (6).

Veganuary can educate about plant-based eating

Adopting veganism for January is a great way for people to learn more about plant-based eating.  One of the key lessons is learning how to adapt simple everyday dishes such as curries, chilli and spaghetti Bolognese by switching meat for foods such as tofu, beans, pulses or vegan Quorn. 

Given the vast range of alternative foods now on the market it has become easier than ever to go completely plant based and Veganuary is a good opportunity to showcase this.

Should we limit our meat intake?

Many people eat meat on a daily basis and in some cases at every mealtime.  I’m not a vegan but my personal opinion about meat is that we should eat less and choose the very best quality affordable rather than filling our shopping trolley full of cheap over farmed animal products.

Focus on environment as well as nutrition

There are many different foods you can eat in place of meat that supply similar nutrients including protein, iron and zinc.  For me, the focus regarding meat should be placed on the environmental issues over nutrition. 

Findings from a study carried out by Oxford University suggested that if the world went vegan it could save 8 million human lives by 2050, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds and lead to healthcare-related savings and avoided climate damages of $1.5 trillion (7).

Despite these impressive stats there are still other issues that vegans need to be conscious of that can impact on the environment.

Eating with the seasons is important to cut back on food miles.  The supermarket fruit and veg aisles tend to be suspended in a constant summer season but in order to have access to these foods they must be flown in from around the world.  The demand for these foods has also had a huge impact on the landscape of certain countries which are now dominated by the poly tunnels required to grow them.

Eating with the seasons is a challenge and does require some skills in the kitchen, especially in the winter months when it’s mostly root vegetables on the menu.

Cattle farming uses vast quantities of water but this doesn’t mean that plant-foods are necessarily any better.  Certain plant foods such as nuts and soy still use huge amounts of water.

Crops such as maize, soy and grains can also have a damaging effect on the biodiversity of land and quality of soil by way of pesticide and fertilisers.

You can’t cut out foreign food imports completely as this would have a huge impact on the farmers in countries that rely on selling their goods to the UK.  Simply being more conscious about your foods choices to achieve a balance is the best approach.

What do I think about Veganuary?

You don’t need to go vegan to be healthy but eating less meat is undoubtably a good thing. While going vegan for one month may not have an immediate impact on your health or global environmental issues it does help enlighten people to the plant-based way of eating. 

If engaging in the Veganuary campaign led to some people adopting this way of eating permanently or others simply committing to Meat Free Monday, then long term the impact on health and environment would be significant. 

In short, I’m a fan.  Veganuary is a brilliant campaign that raises awareness of the many current issues surrounding the way we eat while also educating people on how include more plants in their diet. 

 

References 

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20622542/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26138004
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24636393
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5466938/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21983060
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26707634
  7. https://www.pnas.org/content/113/15/4146

Summer breakfast salad – Eats and Cheats

Summer breakfast salad – Eats and Cheats

So this is a quick flash back of the cookery videos I recorded with Jackie Wicks.  I had the privilege of working with Jackie on the UK edition of the book.

This is one of the recipes taken from the Eats and Cheats cookbook.

I don’t actually have the recipe from this video but it showcases many of the basic elements to creating a really healthy meal.

The foundations of a salad are the greens so in the summer this may be salad leaves while in the winter you may want to use finely shredded raw kale or cabbage.  Once prepared, massage these leafy greens in olive oil for a few minutes to soften them slightly and make them more palatable raw.

Try and add a few more brightly coloured vegetables in your salad.  My favourites include finely sliced peppers, grated raw beetroot and carrot, and also raw red onion.

Pump up the protein in your salad by adding either lean meat, fish or poultry.  If you’re plant-based then opt for marinated tofu, beans, pulses or lentils.

You may also want to add a carb to give your salad more substance.  Stick to wholegrains (brown rice, pasta) or pseudo grains (quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat), the latter of which are actually seeds and richer in both protein and essential minerals such as magnesium.

Fresh and dried fruits add texture and sweetness to a salad.

Go large on fresh herbs – anything will do, just chuck them in!

Dressing wise – there are many great dressing recipes online.  I like to keep things simple by combining olive oil with lemon juice.  Other favourites include tahini or Asian flavours such as soy and ginger.  My one tips is that olive oil is not always the best oil to use for dressing that include many different flavours.  Good quality olive oil is quite bitter which is OK with lemon juice but can over power other dressings.  My alternative is a light olive oil or groundnut oil.

Chipotle prawn fajitas – Eats and Cheats

Chipotle prawn fajitas – Eats and Cheats

So this is a quick flash back of the cookery videos I recorded with Jackie Wicks.  I had the privilege of working with Jackie on the UK edition of the book.

This is one of the recipes taken from the Eats and Cheats cookbook.

Chipotle prawn fajitas 

Serves 4 

Ingredients

 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

450g raw king prawns

Chipotle sauce to taste

Chilli flakes to taste

2 red onions, finely sliced

1 green pepper, deseeded and finely sliced

1 red pepper, deseeded and finely sliced

80g button mushrooms, sliced

1/2 green chilli, finely chopped

Round lettuce

Salsa (optional)

Avocado, diced (optional)

Black beans (optional)

Method 

  1. Heat a frying pan over a medium heat.
  2. Add the olive oil.
  3. Coat the prawns in the chipotle seasoning then place in the pan and cook for 2 mins.
  4. Now add the chilli flakes, onions, peppers, mushrooms and green chilli.
  5. Take the prawns off the heat.
  6. Create your wraps by loading with the prawns, lettuce and optional items including salsa, avocado and beans.

Find more videos like this on my YouTube page.

Orthosomnia: Is your quest for perfect sleep keeping you awake?

Orthosomnia: Is your quest for perfect sleep keeping you awake?

As with any area of health, there is always the risk that some people may take things a little too far.  Balance is the key to maintaining long lasting behaviours that influence our overall wellbeing.

Some people eat better and train harder than others and this may put them in to top 10% but when diet and exercise become a preoccupation it can have a negative impact on their health.

The same appears to have become true of sleep.

How much sleep do we get?

The topic of sleep has become big news in the world of wellness.

It is recommended that the optimum number of hours sleep is around eight per night.  However, research has shown that most of us do not get enough sleep with most getting seven hours a night while some endure less than five (1).

How does sleep deprivation affect your health?

In the short term a lack of sleep can affect concentration, mood and memory but a chronic lack of sleep over time can have more serious consequences on your health.

Research is ever evolving around sleep and it has been suggested that a lack of sleep is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes, depression and anxiety (2).

A recent study published in the journal Neurology found that amongst the 487K people involved, sleep deprivation increased the risk of heart attack and stroke by almost a fifth (3).

The rise of sleep trackers

Sleep has now become a huge point of interest for many people, especially as it is now widely viewed as one of the key pillars to maintaining optimal health and wellbeing.

The wellness industry has reacted to this interest by offering us a wide range of wearable devices that help us to monitor and personalise our health.  Many of these devices allow wearers to track their sleep by offering biometric data that relates to the key stages in the sleep cycle which includes brands such as Fitbit.

These devices are hugely insightful and a useful way of mapping our sleep landscape.  However, they have also become a source of obsession for some people who go out of their way to try and achieve the perfect night’s sleep as dictated by their wearable device.

Ironically it appears that this obsession with sleep may in fact be a causal factor in someones ability to sleep well.  This new phenomenon has been identified by researchers who have named it as orthosomnia (4).

What is orthosomnia?

Orthosomnia stems from the  Latin terms ‘ortho’ meaning correct and ‘somnia’ meaning sleep.

This term was coined by researchers to describe the potential risks associated with people who develop an unhealthy preoccupation with improving the data from their sleep tracker (4).

How does it develop?

Sleep trackers can offer useful insight into your pattern of sleep, but the data is not always that precise.  For example, many of them are not hugely accurate at distinguishing between the time spent asleep versus the time spent in bed.

Orthosomnia develops when too much focus is put on this sleep data in an attempt to  achieve the perfect sleep score.  Over time this can lead to unhealthy sleep behaviours.

What are the symptoms?

The obsessive focus on improving sleep in this way may actually cause your sleep to suffer.

Orthosomnia may be recognised in someone who has been using a tracker but finds their sleep has worsened as they attempt to make changes to optimize the data (sleep score) to get the ‘perfect’ sleep.

Some of the symptoms associated with orthosomnia include:

  • Difficulty nodding off and staying asleep
  • Early morning awakenings
  • Unrefreshed sleep
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Poor concentration  

Why is it a problem?

The more you think about sleeping the less easy it can be to actually fall asleep. In the quest for sleep perfection people can develop increased anxiety and stress.  These emotions activate the sympathetic nervous system and can prolong wakefulness.

Research has shown how people become reliant on their tracker to tell them whether they got a restful sleep rather than judging to on how they actually felt (4).

It has also been shown how people self-diagnose and convince themselves they have a sleep disorder based on their sleep data even though they may not (4).

Research has also shown how people may spend excessive amounts of time in bed in an attempt to improve their sleep score.  This behaviour only reinforces poor sleeping habits and can condition the body for sleeplessness which may lead to future issues with insomnia further down the line (4).

How can you manage it?

You could get rid of your sleep tracker, but you could also try and use the tracker in a more useful way to help you adopt better sleep hygiene habits.

Establishing general sleep hygiene habits is a good way to try and get you sleep back on track such as:

  • Keeping a constant bedtime and wake time that also allows you to try and get the number of hours sleep to meet your needs.
  • Trying relaxation techniques before bedtime to help ease and calm a busy mind.
  • Create a calming sleep environment that is dark, cool and clutter-free.
  • Wake time is especially important and try to expose yourself to as much light in the morning to optimise your circadian rhythm.

When may more action be requried?

In some cases, someone may need to participate in treatment such as cognitive behaviour therapy for insomnia.

References 

  1. https://www.sleepcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/The-Great-British-Bedtime-Report.pdf
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2845795/
  3. https://n.neurology.org/content/early/2019/11/06/WNL.0000000000008581
  4. http://jcsm.aasm.org/ViewAbstract.aspx?pid=30955
How can your diet help you to sleep well during the winter months?

How can your diet help you to sleep well during the winter months?

Sleep patterns may easily be thrown off course during the winter as the increased darkness impacts on our circadian rhythms.  The result is that it may make it more difficult to wake up and leave us feeling sluggish or lacking in energy.  These effects may also impact on the food choices we make and vice versa our diet may impact on sleep.

How can the winter months impact on sleep?

Darker evenings and mornings can impact on sleep in several ways.  Some of these may be associated with the fact that our basic diet and lifestyle behaviours could become challenged during the winter.

How can mood impact on sleep?

How we feel can affect our food choices and pattern of eating.  In some cases, skipping meals may affect overall nutrient intake, some of which are linked to poor sleep such as magnesium.  Erratic eating patterns can also encourage snacking on foods high in sugar that may also affect sleep.

Low mood can also lead to overeating and weight gain, which may impact on mental health. Any form of anxiety linked to our lifestyle can play on the mind and affect our ability to sleep well.

How does diet play a role?

Comfort eating and alcohol consumption may increase during the winter as we get cosy indoors.  This is even more so during the festive season which can also play havoc with our sleep patterns.  The tendency to choose richer foods may also trigger indigestion in some people which will negatively impact on sleep quality.

So, what can you do to help achieve a good night’s sleep in the Winter months?

Stick to your regular sleep/wake pattern

Establishing a set routine is bedrock to sleeping well. Going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning is key to keep your circadian rhythms in sync.

It’s often tempting to hit the hay earlier than normal and stay in bed longer, but this is not going to help with how energised you feel during the day.

Avoid the stodge

It’s tempting to seek out stodgy foods during the winter months but this may impact on your sleep quality.  Overly rich foods can cause indigestion, especially if you’re not used to eating them.

Heartburn is a symptom of indigestion and something many people experience during the festive season, especially when partnered with more alcohol than usual.

If you’re going to eat more stodgy food then try to eat smaller portions and team them with plenty of veggies on the plate to try and balance out your meal.

Invest in a vitamin D3 supplement

We all rely on sunlight to provide us with adequate amounts of vitamin D but during the winter months it has been shown that many of us are lacking in this nutrient (1).  This essential vitamin helps to maintain healthy bones and supports immunity but inadequate levels are associated with fatigue, muscle weakness and low mood.

Research published in the journal Nutrients has suggested that vitamin D deficiency is associated with a higher risk of sleep disorders (2).

Food sources of vitamin D are limited to fortified foods, oily fish, liver, mushrooms and eggs but will not provide you with everything your body needs.

During the Winter months you should take a supplement containing 10mcg of vitamin D3.

Try and stick to making healthy food choices

The colder months can have an impact on our eating habits and food choices.

The longer evenings can also lead to snacking late at night which will do little for your ability to sleep as eating and digestion can prevent the body from shifting into sleep mode.

Foods rich in carbohydrates are craved more in the winter which may be linked to their connection with serotonin (the feel good hormone) and could be the body’s way of attempting to improve mood.  Always choose wholegrain varieties of carbohydrates as these have less impact on blood sugar levels.

Simple carbohydrates such as sugar are digested much more quickly and may impact on sleep quality (3) as well as doing little for your waistline if eaten in excess.  Obesity has been linked to poor sleep by way of its impact on hormones associated with satiety (4).

Eat a nourishing diet that will provide your body with the essential nutrients required for good health, some of which may be connected to sleep such as magnesium.  It is widely understood that magnesium deficiency can cause insomnia.  Research published in the journal Public Health Nutrition has also shown how adequate levels of magnesium are positively associated with sleep duration (5).

Don’t eat too close to bedtime and keep evening meals light including lean proteins (poultry, fish, tofu) and wholegrain carbohydrates (brown rice, wholemeal pasta, quinoa) as this combination can help with the uptake of tryptophan into the brain which assists with the production of melatonin (the hormone that regulates the sleep cycle).

Try and avoid the classic ‘pick-me-ups’

If you’re feeling sluggish during the day then it can be tempting to reach for a food or drink containing caffeine or sugar to help boost your energy levels. Both caffeine and sugar have been shown to disrupt sleep.  The effect is usually short-lived and often followed by a craving for more of the same creating a vicious cycle of highs and lows.

The first morning coffee is like nectar and a perfect way to get you ready for the day ahead.  After this it may be worth avoiding, especially if you have trouble sleeping. Try alternatives such as herbal teas including ingredients such as ginger and lemon which have an invigorating and refreshing effect without the caffeine hit.

It’s worth remembering that tea, chocolate, energy drinks and even decaf coffee all contain a source of caffeine.

Pay attention to the health of your gut

Early research has suggested that the microbes in our gut (microbiome) may be linked to sleep.  It is thought that while a lack of sleep may negatively impact on our microbiome the diversity of microbes in our gut may also lead to disrupted sleep (6).

The connection is not fully understood but it may be worth taking a probiotic supplement to promote a good diversity of bacteria in your gut.

Try to also include plenty of prebiotic foods in your diet which help gut bacteria to flourish.  Prebiotic foods include onions, garlic, beans, pulses and lentils as well as cooked and cooled potatoes, pasta and rice.

The winter months can pose challenges to many areas of your health.  If you are struggling with your sleep then consider the approaches above while also paying attention to the basic sleep hygiene practices addressed in my new book which focus on behaviour, environment and diet (BED).

References

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6213953/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26156950
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC535424/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5675071/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31589627
Nathan Khider Sleep Podcast 2019

Nathan Khider Sleep Podcast 2019

This is a new podcast hosted by my lovey mate Nathan Khider.

Nathan’s YouTube channel is fantastic and involves him interviewing guests that have many interesting stories to tell to hope to inspire and educate his listeners.

My new book, ‘The Art of Sleeping’ is due out today (14th Nov 2019). I talk with Nathan about the reasons why I chose to write this book which revolve around my own persona interest in sleep and my experiences of sleep deprivation and insomnia.

While some of you may sleep well, the reality is that we are a nation of non-sleepers.  Some people believe they can survive on hardly any sleep, but I disagree.  From personal experience of insomnia, I know first-hand how the effects can negatively impact on every aspect of your life.  I’m also guilty of telling people how tired I am rather than taking the action required to tackle the issue head on.

We all need to take sleep seriously as the long-term consequences of not sleeping well are scarier than you think.  For these reasons I decided to write my new book ‘The Art of Sleeping’.  I share my experiences with Nathan and discuss the positive steps we can all take to improve our sleep which in turn will help us to achieve optimal health and wellbeing.

 

Whats the deal with free radicals and antioxidants?

Whats the deal with free radicals and antioxidants?

The world of nutrition has evolved hugely over the last few decades as interest in the topic has grown.  Basic dietary advice is no longer enough for many people as they seek out other ways to optimise their health, combat ageing, lose weight and maximise exercise performance.

The desire to learn more has helped drive this evolution but has also exposed us to information that may be lacking in reliable science.

One topic that has always been popular is that of free radicals and antioxidants.  These terms are frequently chucked around and often oversimplified as being either good or bad for us but is it really that simple?

A little too much knowledge can be dangerous

One of my old bosses many years ago once said to me that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing and this is something that always rings true when I listen to people talk about nutrition.

How has dietary advice evolved over the last couple of decades?

Not long after I started out as a nutritionist the Department of Health had just launched the five-a-day campaign (2003) to promote the health benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables in the diet.  This campaign was driven by the science which proved fruits and vegetables had a key role to play in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, cancers and diabetes.

The conversation around diet and nutrition at this time was heavily focused on key public health messaging to help tackle obesity and heart disease.

In 2007 the Food Standards Agency launched the ‘Eatwell Plate’ to help people to understand how the five key food groups form the basis of a balanced diet. This has since been replaced with the updated ‘Eatwell Guide’ (1).

When did the conversation start to change?

After this is when the conversation began to change as more people took an interest in the topic of nutrition.

Reporting in the media began to focus more on research findings linking diet to disease (many of which were contradictory), food companies started to coin phrases such as ‘superfoods’ and many books and TV shows on the topic became hugely popular.

During this time the quality of advice given out was questioned by qualified health professionals and authors such as Ben Goldachre putting much of it down to bad science.  This also saw the demise of well-known ‘health experts’ who dominated our screens at this time.

Around this time was also when the food industry became more regulated as they had to provide evidence to support any health claims made on their products (2008).

In 2007 the UK regulator Ofcom introduced regulations banning the advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar on children’s TV channels.  Bans were also introduced on the advertising of these foods on non-children’s channels during, before and after programmes aimed at those aged between four and fifteen.

The UK was the first country to introduce statutory scheduling restrictions of food advertisements to children.

The birth of social media

Around the same time came the social media explosion with the birth of Twitter in 2006 and Instagram in 2010.

These social media platforms are now home to many health and wellness ambassadors who churn out advice and represent food and wellness brands in the media.  This has raised many issues as to the quality of nutrition and diet advice as people turn to unqualified influencers for information over experts (although there are now many trusted voices on these platforms).

The topic of free radicals and antioxidants

As our interest in the nitty gritty of nutrition has grown one of the topics that has continued to come up is that of free radicals and antioxidants.  The terms are chucked around willy nilly and while most people may be familiar with them, very few actually know what they are.

The problem of oversimplification

The science behind free radicals and antioxidants is actually quite complex.  One problem with delivering these concepts to people has been an oversimplification of the science which has led them to be classed as either being good or bad for you.

The idea that free radicals are bad and antioxidants are good is one that is used to sell myriad of products in the wellness market, but the science is not that straight forward.  Antioxidants are normally depicted as the superhero defending our body against ageing and chronic disease risk caused by free radical damage.

There is of course truth in this depiction but unfortunately biology is never that simple.

What are free radicals?

Free radicals are very reactive chemicals, which are created when an atom or molecule (chemical that has two or more atoms) either gains or loses an electron.  The most common type of free radicals produced in living tissue are called reactive oxygen species or ROS for short and these contain oxygen.

We produce free radicals naturally through chemical processes that occur in the body such as the breakdown of food and its transformation into energy used by cells.

We are perfectly equipped to deal with free radicals but they may become an issue when they build up in high concentrations.  This can put the body in a state of oxidative stress (when free radicals outweigh antioxidants), which has the potential to damage every major component of cells when it occurs over a prolonged period of time. The most significant damage is that caused to DNA, which is thought to play a role in the development of many health conditions including heart disease and cancer (2).

The most likely cause of excess free radicals in the body are due to a combination of environmental, lifestyle and dietary factors which include pollution, stress, smoking, alcohol, sun exposure, infection and overconsumption of foods high in bad fats and sugar.

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are essential for the survival of all living things.  These chemicals are able to interact with free radicals and neutralising them without getting damaged or becoming a free radical themselves. Whilst the body relies on external source of antioxidants, which are gleaned from the diet, it’s also able to make some such as the cellular antioxidant glutathione.

Dietary antioxidants are found in fruits, vegetables and grains, which are all a rich source.  Examples of dietary antioxidants include lycopene and beta carotene found in red, orange and green vegetables as well as vitamins A, C, E and minerals such as selenium.  Plants also contain compounds such as polyphenols, which act as antioxidants and are found in foods such as berries and raw cacao.

Are free radicals always bad for us?

Most people equate free radicals to poor health but there is more to the story as they also play an important role in many normal cellular responses.

The immune system uses free radicals to help kill foreign invaders (phagocytes) in the body, which are just one of many ingredients in a cocktail of chemicals released in this defence mechanism, which is known as an oxidative burst.

Another interesting example of where free radicals may be beneficial is linked to exercise, particularly amongst athletes. Free radicals may play a key role in the benefits gained from exercise, which goes against much of the information provided on this topic.

One of the benefits of exercise is that it helps to improve insulin sensitivity, which is a good thing as the body becomes more attuned to maintaining blood sugar levels. Insulin resistance has the opposite effect resulting in higher insulin and blood sugar levels, which form part of the aetiology of diseases such as diabetes.

Research has shown that the oxidative stress (excess free radicals vs antioxidants) induced by exercise actually promotes insulin sensitivity and triggers an internal mechanism to protect the body against the potential damage from free radicals (3).  Interestingly, the same research has also shown that flooding the body with antioxidants (mostly in the form of supplements) may inhibit this health benefit from occurring.

These and similar findings have prompted experts in the field of sports nutrition to question the use of antioxidant supplements as part of their prescribed diet regime.

Are antioxidants always good?

The reputation of antioxidants has evolved over the decades into something of a panacea for good health.  Early research many decades ago identified their role in the ageing process and their association with health has stuck.

There is no doubt that antioxidants have a key role to play in the aetiology of disease and cell ageing, but this doesn’t mean that overdosing on them will help you to live longer, stop you getting sick or prevent wrinkles.

Antioxidant supplements

Supplements containing antioxidants have always been popular but the evidence to support their use in the reduction of disease risk is often lacking and often contradictory.

Supplements have their place and as the name suggests this is to supplement the diet to make up for any shortfalls that may exist when your diet may be compromised for whatever reason.  Public Health England currently recommend we supplement our diet with vitamin D during the winter months in the absence of sunlight and it has long been advised that women take folic acid during the early stages of pregnancy.

Supplements are also useful for young children, older adults and those following strict diets such as veganism.  In such cases there may be a greater risk of deficiency.

In some cases, supplements could do more harm than good and especially high doses of antioxidants.

One example is the link between beta carotene supplements and lung cancer as shown in the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research Third Expert Report Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective. This report found that there was strong evidence to show that taking high-dose beta carotene supplements increased the risk of lung cancer in both current and former smokers (4).

It’s all about balance  

Adopting a healthy diet which includes plenty of plant-based foods, especially brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, will ensure a good intake of antioxidants. Leading a healthy lifestyle which involves being active, maintaining a healthy body weight, not smoking and addressing stress and sleep issues can help to reduce excess free radicals.

I get that this may be easier said than done and behaviour change is a tricky thing that often challenges our ability maintain a healthy way of living.  However, focusing on the information and advice which is supported by science is always going to be a better long-term option than seeking out quick-fix fads.  A faddy approach to your health is  not only likely to be short-lived but may in fact be more detrimental to your health.

References  

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-eatwell-guide
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2231253611110048
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2680430/
  4. https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer