The Government’s restrictions on our daily activities over the past year have
been incredibly challenging for everyone. We had to learn how to live with the loss of our normal routine and had very limited interaction with other people. Suddenly most of our time was taken up with focusing on ways to stay healthy not only physically but mentally. If mental health was something we didn’t give much thought to before, being in lockdown will certainly have changed that.
The life changes and uncertainty caused by the pandemic were perfect fuel for anxious thoughts, and many of us found ourselves looking for ways to give our mind a rest from over thinking. Mindfulness meditation is often suggested by mental health professionals as an effective way to help quieten a busy mind. It helps focus our attention and bring us fully into the present moment. Of course, when we are paying full attention to what is happening in the moment, it is impossible to be overthinking or worrying. I would recommend everyone give mindfulness a try, however it takes time, commitment and regular practice and I know it is not for everyone.
So, what else can we do that will help keep us fully in the present moment so we can enjoy the benefits of peace of mind? The good news is that it needn’t be hard work and if you have a hobby or activity, you can fully immerse yourself in you may already be enjoying the benefits it brings to your mental health.
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was the first to recognise a state of mind he named ‘flow’. When we are in a ‘flow state’ we are so completely focused and totally absorbed by the task in hand that we are beyond distraction. Our senses are heightened, we lose track of time and there is a fluidity between our mind and body. Physical sensation such as hunger or tiredness fade into the background and most importantly mind chatter quietens. Csikszentmihalyi found rock climbers, surgeons and ballet dancers all enjoyed being in the ‘flow’ when they were doing their thing. You may have enjoyed being in a ‘flow’ state while taking part in activities, such as, sport, ballroom dancing, playing chess, drawing, painting, or playing a musical instrument.
It appears when we are completely focused on doing something we love, ‘flow’ happens in a spontaneous and natural way. So, if you are unsure if you have ever experienced ‘flow’ but curious to have a go, here are a few pointers that will give you the best chance of enjoying that blissful state.
The great benefit of being in the ‘flow’ is that as well as keeping our mind focused on the job in hand, and therefore away from negative thoughts, it is very enjoyable and brings a great sense of satisfaction and wellbeing. I dare say we could all do with some of that!
‘Stress’ tends to manifest itself in two ways in the body. We either have too much energy running around our system and feel ‘hyper’; with tense muscles, churning stomach and the inability to focus; or we feel a deep lack of energy, fatigued, withdrawn, and a lack of motivation.
Does this sound familiar? When dealing with the challenges of the past year you may have felt your own energy swing from one of the above examples to the other. Here are some suggestions of activities that will help to bring you back into that middle ground and feel more in balance
Our body is able to create a huge surge of energy to get us away from anything we consider threatening. In our daily lives, anxious thoughts trigger this same response, and while this energy remains circulating in our body, it will be more difficult for our nervous system to be able to shift out of the stress response and into a state where we feel calm. One of the most effective ways to release this ‘excess’ energy is exercise. Any form of exercise will be beneficial, so do whatever is possible within your range of fitness and ability. If you have a health condition that means you are not able to exercise, or you don’t have the space at home, then TRE or Tension Releasing Exercise is an effective alternative. A technique created by Dr David Berceli, who first used it to help heal traumatised communities in countries affected by violence and war, it is a technique that is now taught in classes and on a one-to-one basis. Online teaching may now also be on offer.
There is a strong connection between the body, mind and breath. Learning to breathe well is one of the most powerful ways of revitalising your mind, body and emotions, and when practised regularly the benefits of breathing exercises are far reaching. They help rid the body of waste products, increase a sense of vitality, and calm the mind and emotions during stressful times. If you are interested in trying this for yourself ‘The Power of Breath’ by Swami Saradananda is an easy to follow and inspiring book with many different breathing exercises. Conscious use of the breath is practised in hatha yoga which is an excellent way to deepen your connection to your body and another way to build good breathing habits. For local yoga classes in person and online I highly recommend Yoga Crow.
The vagus nerve is part of our parasympathetic nervous system and a great regulator of our body. It helps shift our body out of ‘fight or flight’ and into a calm balanced state. We are not able to consciously control the vagus but there are many activities that influence it indirectly. Breathing exercises mentioned above are one way and here are some more simple ones you can try;
Our digestive system has around 100 million neurons, which is why it is sometimes known as our ‘second brain’. Our gut does a lot more than just digest our food, it supports our immune system, reduces inflammation in the body and most relevant here, influences our mood and how anxious we feel. It does this by working very closely with our brain and our gut bacteria or gut microbiota. Our gut and the bacteria in it are able to produce natural mood regulating substances such a serotonin and dopamine. As you can see, having a healthy and diverse microbiome supports our overall health so if you are interested in learning more about the gut microbiome, Viola Sampson is a reliable source of information on this topic.
Full Body Presence
If you are lacking in energy, feel empty, or physically numb; or if you are recovering from an illness and have post viral fatigue; it can be difficult to find the energy and motivation to do anything at all. If this is how you are feeling right now then guided visualisations and meditations can be helpful, as they only require you to listen and can be done sitting or lying down. Suzanne Scurlock Durana a craniosacral therapist based in the USA has created her own visualisation called ‘Full Body Presence’ that will help you feel more energised and connected to your body. This audio is not free but you can hear a similar shorter version on Suzanne’s website for a taster. If you have a history of trauma, please be cautious when doing exercises that focus on body sensation. Remember you are in complete control throughout and can stop the audio at any time. You may find it helps to lighten your focus if you are struggling but do not continue if you feel at all uncomfortable.
Oils have been extracted from plants, seeds, and leaves for thousands of years. Plant oils have been used as food, in traditional forms of medicine like herbalism and of course in skin care too. Most natural skin care products harness the benefits of the huge array of plant oils available to keep skin healthy and looking good. I am often asked which plant oils I would recommend for skin care so here is a shortlist of some my favourite oils.
A light easily absorbed oil that contains trans-retinoic acid and vitamin C. Rosehip seed oil is very effective at promoting skin cell regeneration, and as a result is helpful for mature skin and in the healing of scars.
A lovely odourless golden coloured oil with the silkiest of textures. Jojoba oil has the ability to permeate the skin and to pool at the base of hair follicles. If the skins own oil is gathering here and blocking the pore Jojoba oil is able to help dissolve this build-up and as a result may help prevent spots. This makes Jojoba oil ideal for oily or combination skin, helping to keep it hydrated without making it greasy. Hazelnut oil is also a good alternative.
Evening Primrose and Borage
Both of these very light easily absorbed oils are rich in Gamma-linolenic-acid, a type of essential fatty acid needed for maintaining cell structure and function. If used in skin care they are anti-inflammatory and help establish and maintain normal skin function. This makes them ideal for sensitive or dry, scaly skin, and eczema, where the skin is not broken.
A beautiful copper coloured oil with a velvety texture and a nutty aroma, Argan oil contains vitamin E and is a powerful antioxidant that quenches free radicals. Ideal for dry, lacklustre skin and skin affected negatively by stress.
Avocado oil is thick and green and unless it is deodorised has a distinctive smell. This is one oil that will still retain its benefits if refined and does not need to be kept too cool as it will start to solidify. A very effective moisturiser, it contains vitamin E and A and is excellent for very dry skin.
Shea butter is actually a fat and not an oil but is well worth including in this list. Extracted from the Karite nut, Shea butter has anti-inflammatory properties, encourages cell regeneration and healing, which makes it ideal for dry chapped skin. It is a little heavy for the face but is very nourishing used as a hand or foot cream or body lotion.
Good quality oils can be costly so you might consider sharing some with a friend or you could try less expensive oils such as Apricot Kernel – great for sensitive skin or Sunflower seed a heavier oil which is good for use on the body.
All of these oils can be used on their own, but you might like to experiment by combining oils. A good combination for dry or mature skin would be to blend an active but readily absorbed oil like Rosehip with a heavier more emollient oil like Argan. This will provide the skin with regenerating nutrients whilst moisturising and nourishing. Apply by massaging into the skin after cleansing at night.
Some things to look out for when purchasing oils:
I think we will all agree that being told to stay indoors during ‘lockdown’ was something everyone found challenging. There has been a alot of research into how our bodies respond to being in nature. Intuitively we feel good when we are in a natural environment and we now have scientific evidence that shows being in a natural environment has a positive effect on our wellbeing.
If you live in West Essex where we have Epping Forest on our doorstep you may already enjoy a walk in the woods, however if you need encouragement to leave your comfy sofa keep reading as I have some facts that may convince you.
The Japanese, many of whom live in densely populated cities, have recognised the health benefits of being ‘in nature’ and taken this a step further by creating Shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing'. This term was first used in 1982 by the director of the Japanese Forestry Agency and refers to immersing oneself in a forest and connecting deeply to the environment through our senses. It is a very pleasurable exercise in immersing yourself in your sensory experience of the forest by paying close attention to the sights, sounds and smells of your natural surroundings.
Forest bathing does not involve strenuous activity so is accessible to anyone regardless of how fit they are. In fact it is best done slowly as the idea is to notice everything around you, both large and small. For example, the quality of light, the different types of plants and insects or wild animals, all of which might be missed if you are walking speedily by. It has been proven so effective at stress reduction that major corporations based in Tokyo regularly send their staff on Shinrin-yoku holidays.
Dr Yoshifumi Miyazaki pioneered studies over many years on the effect of forest bathing on the body and summarises the key results in a book he has written on the subject. The studies found that after two hours of ‘forest bathing’, cortisol, one of the hormones produced profusely when we are under stress, was reduced by 15.8%, pulse rate slowed by 3.9%, blood pressure dropped by 2.1% and parasympathetic nerve activity (the part of our nervous system that is more fully engaged when we feel calm) went up by 102%. (Miyazaki Y 2018). Of course, what cannot be measured is the pleasure and enjoyment we get from feeling so connected to our natural surroundings.
So why not try a little forest bathing yourself this season? Autumn is the time the forest puts on a huge show and the perfect chance for us to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the natural world. Learn more about forest bathing
As you know I practice craniosacral therapy. One of the reasons people seek out craniosacral therapy is for help with managing stress and anxiety. We need a little stress to thrive but if the load is too great it can have a negative effect on the way our body functions. We may not always be aware of it but when we are under stress our inner landscape changes from being balanced into a state of high alert. It is natural to feel a little anxious from time to time, but anxiety is a state of constant worrying and an excessive and persistent state of apprehension. There are many factors that contribute to anxiety, mostly centred around our unique personal history. However, stress creates the perfect environment in our bodies to generate anxious thoughts. When we are under stress the sympathetic part of our nervous system becomes activated and our bodies produce a combination of hormones and neurotransmitters, which all keep the body on the look-out for danger. It is impossible not to feel anxious if we sense an impending threat. It then follows that if we lower our stress levels we will be giving ourselves the best chance to feel less anxious.
Our stress response is in fact the incredible capacity of our body to get us out of a dangerous situation. It is programmed into us for our survival. You may have heard it called the fight or flight response. In human beings something as simple as being late for an important meeting can trigger our stress response. For the majority of us the things that trigger our fight or flight response in our daily lives are not life threatening at all. It is important to recognise how far along the fight or flight path we are, as once we have a sense of this we can seek to address it if needs be. However, this is not always a simple as it sounds. We only know what feels normal for us, so how do we know what a ‘balanced’ nervous system feels like? This is where having awareness of body sensation or interoception is invaluable. Interoception is the perception of the internal state of our bodies. For example, as you are sitting here how does your throat feel, or your chest or gut? This gives a true picture of how we are.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. You may experience your first panic attack during a period of chronic stress, after an accident, surgery, illness, trauma or emotionally overwhelming event.
What does it feel like to have a panic attack?
Panic attacks last on average from 5 to 20 minutes but can last longer.
Anyone who has ever experienced a panic attack will tell you that they are extremely unpleasant. There is an overwhelming feeling something terrible is about to happen, sometimes with an urgent need to get away from wherever you happen to be.
Please note do not self-diagnose, I recommend you check with your GP if you are experiencing symptoms you are concerned about.
Physical sensations of a panic attack may include:
Heart beating very hard and fast
Feeling nausea or wanting to vomit
Chills or hot sweat
Feeling like you are going to faint
Tightness in the throat
Shortness of breath
Dizziness or light headedness
Sense of unreality or detachment
A feeling that something terrible is going to happen
This is a link to a short You Tube film from Mind with a group of people discussing their own experience of panic attacks.
What happens during a panic attack?
Knowing what is going on in your body during a panic attack might help you understand some of the sensations you experience which can be intense and frightening;
Heart beating fast – pumping blood to big muscle groups to help you run fast.
Feeling or being sick – if you have a full stomach you cannot run as fast.
Shortness of breath, – adrenaline increases breathing rate to prepare for action.
Dry mouth – the digestive system shuts down as it is non-essential in a crisis, salivating is the first part of the digestive process.
Feeling faint/dizziness/light headedness/sense of unreality – if we are in a situation where we feel seriously under threat, we ‘space out’ or dissociate.
Preventing a panic attack
In the long-term, stress reduction is vital. This should take into account all aspects of your life and there is a lot of information available about how we can do this. However, there are some targeted stress reduction techniques which are very effective. For example, breathing exercises which are able to directly access the parasympathetic nervous system and take us out of a fight or flight state. Hatha yoga, and the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Programme created by Jon Kabat Zinn. All of these incorporate ‘interception’ mentioned earlier.
Try to avoid highs and lows and maintain balance in the body by cutting down or eliminating caffeine and alcohol. Eat regularly and avoid excess sugar to keep blood sugar levels even. If you know your panic attacks are generated by anxiety or events in your life, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy also known as CBT or counselling may helpful.
During a panic attack
Here are a few simple suggestions that you can try during a panic attack.
We suffer less stress if we feel we have some control over our situation. Knowing you can do a few simple things that help, might take away the dread of having an attack and even lessen them.
Become aware of your needs, wear comfortable clothes which are not too tight and allow you to breath. If you start to feel hot take off your coat, if you need fresh air move nearer to a window. Commuting on packed tube trains I have learned that standing in the aisle gives you more space and air but there is a cooling draft as the train moves if you are squashed against the door!
Remember to remind yourself the panic attack will last a short time and you will feel ‘normal’ again soon.
When you feel those familiar sensations that tell you, you are starting to feel panicky, try to ‘ride the wave’ rather than control the sensations. Trying to control tends to further escalate the attack.
If you can try to be a ‘witness’ to what you are experiencing, notice the body sensations rather than reacting with negative internal monologue which will escalate the feelings of panic.
Mentally reassure yourself ‘I sense danger/a threat but when I look around me, I see nothing dangerous – I feel safe.’ It is ironic that when we are in an activated state, we are less able to discern what might be a threat but obviously don’t lie to yourself here! If you are in a dangerous situation you don’t need to calm down, you need to get ready to run.
If you are with a friend or someone you trust ask them to reassure you, look at their face and ask them to tell you everything will be okay. This is an automatic and human response for most people, but research has shown the importance of social interaction between human beings in regulating their parasympathetic nervous system.
You can try ‘shuttling’. Find a part of your body that feels okay, feet are always a good place to start. Really try to feel all the sensations in your feet – the fabric of your socks, if your shoes are tight and their contact with the floor. Do this for a minute or so, take in all the sensations as best as you can, then give yourself a break for a few minutes, if the unpleasant sensations come rushing in try to stay with them for a minute then change your focus back to your feet. Keep repeating this shuttling back and forth. This may allow you to remain in a situation you can’t get out of until the attack passes.
When we are panicking our breathing speeds up, if you are able to slow your breathing down even a little it will help you get back to feeling okay. It also gives you something to focus on. I really like this animation app for breathing during a panic attack. Looking at the image of a face rather than counting adds to the therapeutic effect.
I hope you have found this helpful.
During winter our skin can become very dry – have you noticed your skin feeling tight or itchy recently? This is most likely due to excessive dryness. There can be several causes of dry skin in winter. We spend more time indoors in heated spaces where the air is dry and when we do venture outdoors our skin may be exposed to low temperatures or a biting wind. Winter colds and viruses dehydrate the body and skin and unless you are fortunate enough to have a water softener, the hard Essex water will also take its toll.
So, what can we do to rehydrate, nourish and bring our skin back to the healthy organ it should be? Before we look at what we put on to our skin let’s approach this holistically and look at how we can treat it from the ‘inside’.
Preventing skin from becoming too dry means ensuring we keep our body well hydrated. We tend to drink less water in winter when hot drinks like tea and coffee are more appealing, however both have a dehydrating effect on the body, so limiting the amount you take in is wise. Drinking cold water may not be to everyone’s liking in the colder winter months, so maybe try substituting it with hot water and lemon or herbal teas that do not have diuretic properties. Soup is another comforting winter food that contains lots of liquid. It is helpful to make sure you have sufficient Omega 3 and Omega 6 in your diet. A lot of research has been done into the effect of omega oils on the human body. Were you ever told as a child to “eat up your fish it will make you clever”?! We now know there is some truth in this as Omega 3 - one source of which is fish - supports healthy brain function. Omega 3 and Omega 6 support skin health too by re-enforcing its natural defence - the lipid barrier. They also play an important role in supporting the body’s ability to soothe and calm itchy and inflamed skin conditions like eczema or dermatitis. Some sources of Omega 3 are salmon, flax seeds and walnuts, and Omega 6, almonds, eggs and sunflower seeds. Omega oils are available in supplement form but as they may interfere with other medication always consult a professional nutritionist or your GP before you take omega oil supplements.
Now onto the outside! Our skin produces its own natural oil called sebum, which helps prevent moisture loss and is part of the skin’s acid mantle – it’s defence system against bacteria. The skin’s natural barrier can be compromised by washing too frequently or using harsh products so bear this in mind when choosing body washes or soap. There are two simple ways to help hydrate dry skin; firstly get rid of any excess dead skin by exfoliating and then moisturise, moisturise, moisturise!
Exfoliating removes dead skin cells. After exfoliating your skin will feel smoother, and any moisturising cream you apply will be more readily absorbed. There are many different types of exfoliator, they work either mechanically, by gentle abrasion, or by dissolving the dead skin cells and its natural ‘glue’. There are literally hundreds of exfoliators on the market, for the face, body and feet (there are even exfoliators for the lips!). You can experiment to find the one you like best. If you have a sensitive skin that is irritated by exfoliating try using a ‘Korean Sponge’ – these are very soft and gentle on the skin but effective at removing dead skin cells. As they are made from plant material they come from a renewable source and are biodegradable.
Seasonal Skin Care
Although you wouldn’t always know it, we have four seasons in Britain and our skincare routine should change to reflect this. A face wash may work well in the summer when we tend to wear less make up and enjoy the refreshing feel of water on our skin, but in winter a creamy cleanser and gentle toner or hydrolat like rose water, will be less drying. During winter use a heavier more nourishing day and night cream and if this still is not doing the trick add a hydrating oil or serum underneath your night-time product. Sometimes making the smallest and most simple change can bring about an improvement;
• If you rinse your face with water make sure you put your products on as soon as you have dried your skin to lock in any moisture. If your skin starts to feel tight it is losing water and drying out fast.
• Hands tend to get exceptionally dry in winter, so try wearing rubber gloves for chores and gloves outdoors when the temperatures start to drop.
• Apply hand cream just before you go to bed – that way you won’t be able to wash it off straight away. If you have very dry cuticles soak them in a little warm almond or apricot seed oil or treat yourself to a professional moisturising hand treatment using heated mitts.
• Excessively hot baths will dehydrate the skin so if you really like to stew, then limit yourself to that treat a couple of times a week!
Products – Mineral oil versus plant oil.
Products sold to moisturise the skin are made from mineral oil or plant oils. Some may be a combination of the two. In my experience the benefits of plant oils far outweigh those of mineral oil, and they come from a renewable source. Mineral oil is a by-product of the petrochemical industry and will generally appear on the ingredient list as petrolatum or paraffin. It works by forming an impermeable layer on the skin preventing water escaping from it – so locks in the water already present. Water loss from the skin into the atmosphere is called trans-epidermal water loss. Mineral oil is very effective at preventing this.
Heavier plant waxes like shea butter can also prevent water loss through the skin but plant oils have many other benefits which help the skin function better:
Many plant oils, for example Rosehip seed, can be absorbed into the upper layers of skin taking their beneficial properties with them. Plant oils also;
• Contain vitamins such as pro vitamin A, vitamin C and E all powerful antioxidants.
• Contain plant phytosterols with anti -inflammatory, moisturising and cell renewing properties.
• Contain omega oils which help support the structure and function of skin.
• Can be infused with potent herbal extracts – for example calendula or comfrey which helps skin heal.
• Are biodegradable and when grown sustainably benefit everyone from the grower to the planet.
I hope this has given you at least a few ideas about how to look after your skin in the colder winter months and prepare for warmer times ahead!
Winter can be a beautiful season: frost sparkling on twigs and branches and even those of us who dread getting out and about in it have to admit there is nothing quite as magical as freshly fallen snow. But it is a time of year when we are more likely to pick up colds, viruses and flu. So, what can we do to give ourselves the best chance to avoid picking up infections so common at this time of year? I am guessing you probably do most of these already but sometimes a timely reminder can be helpful. Eight ways to stay well in winter…
1 At the risk of sounding obvious (or like your mother!) washing hands thoroughly and regularly is one of the best ways of preventing infection. Remember to wash your hands after visiting places with a high volume of people passing through like the supermarket or public transport. When you are out and about try to avoid touching your face, rubbing eyes and especially biting nails as any bacteria on them will be transferred to your skin or mouth. Mobile phones, keyboards and iPads should also be cleaned regularly. Just think where you take them!
2 Our body’s immune response fights off infection. Like many bodily functions that go on without us being aware of them it is complex and impressive. To function optimally our immune system needs vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin E, B6, folic acid and zinc. A healthy diet should provide you with all of these, or if you feel you might be low on some vitamins you might choose to take a multi nutrient supplement. Getting the balance of vitamins and minerals correct is important and it is worth consulting a nutritionist or dietician who can give you professional advice tailored to your specific needs.
3 Stress raises our cortisol levels and high cortisol levels supress the immune system. Use all your own favourite (healthy!) ways to unwind and try to include exercise out of doors. This need not be strenuous but is particularly beneficial if taken in nature, the park, woods or by the sea.
4 We are constantly being told about the next new ‘superfood’, but as with everything in life balance is key. Raw garlic has been known for centuries as an effective killer of bacteria and viruses. Mushrooms, particularly Shitake mushrooms, have immune boosting properties. These ingredients can be found in most supermarkets and can be easily incorporated into the diet.
5 There are many essential oils such as Thyme, Eucalyptus, Ravensara and Pine that are helpful against respiratory infections.The essential oils we extract from plants are full of active chemical compounds that the plants themselves use as a defence against bacteria and viruses. If you feel like you are coming down with a cold try using a pre-mixed blend of essential oils such as Micheline Arcier’s ‘Vigeur’ in the bath or two drops of essential oil in a carrier oil such as sunflower seed oil applied to the upper chest area. It may be enough to prevent the illness from taking hold. A few drops in a bath is also a great way of warming you up if have been outdoors and become very cold.
6 Soluble fibre in the diet has been shown to boost production of a protein called interleukin-4, that stimulates the body’s infection fighting T cells. It also has an anti-inflammatory action so may help achy winter joints. Some sources of soluble fibre include oats, carrots, strawberries, blueberries, apples, nuts, seeds, lentils, barley and citrus fruits. Whoever coined the phrase “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” clearly knew what they were talking about!
7 Negative thoughts supress the immune system so If you tend to feel a bit ‘low’ during the winter months try to include gentle exercise outdoors once a day to get your daily dose of natural light. Whether it is meeting friends for a coffee, watching a film, reading a book or meditating, discover what works best to keep you positive and make sure you are getting enough Omega 3 in your diet.
8 Our microbiome or microbiota is the trillions of microbes that live on and in us and is as unique to us as our fingerprint. This is a fascinating topic that I cannot possibly cover in a few lines but the reason I mention it here is that scientists are discovering more and more about how it contributes our health. Our gut microbiome greatly influences our immune system. It appears a healthy digestive system is the foundation to our overall health. So, look after your digestive system and you might find it will keep you well all winter.
I love the summer but find that with the lighter mornings I wake up much earlier. Lack of sleep is something we have all experienced at one time or another so this got me thinking about what might be keeping us awake.
I should say before I start, that this is a huge topic and I could have expanded on many of the aspects covered. My hope is that if anything here interests you, you can explore it further.
When you think about it sleeping is a strange thing, we get into our pyjamas and spend six or seven hours unconscious before waking up to a new day. Researchers are not entirely sure why we sleep but they do know it is vital to our survival. Amongst other activities, during sleep cycles we transfer memories from short-term to long-term, learn to associate words and it is a time of peak growth hormone, when cell reproduction and repair is carried out. What we all know from experience is that if we have had a good night’s sleep we feel great and if we have had a poor night’s sleep we feel awful.
Lack of sleep impairs our ability to regulate our emotions and we lose our neutrality. Cue drama! So babies and young children apart, what might be preventing us from sleeping well? Some things to consider;
Comfort– It may sound obvious but is your bed comfortable?!
Temperature– A cool well-ventilated room is ideal. Sleep occurs when the core temperature of the body is dropping and when temperature change and heat loss is at its maximum. This is why our body cooling down after having a warm bath can make us feel sleepy.
Light– Melatonin is a hormone made by our pineal gland. When it is dark after sunset, usually around 9pm, the pineal gland begins to actively produce melatonin. This is released into our blood and as the melatonin level rises we begin to feel less alert and more sleepy. Melatonin levels in the blood stay elevated for around 12 hours and then fall back to daytime levels, which are very low by 9am. Bright light inhibits the release of melatonin so even after 9pm being in a brightly lit room may be enough to prevent the release of melatonin. This is also true of the light that comes from phones, laptops and electronic reading devices.
Physical exercise– Research has shown that exercise improves the quality of sleep. We appear to enjoy a more sound and restful sleep after taking moderate aerobic exercise during the day. The amount and type of exercise will vary depending on our age and level of fitness but as a rough guide 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise should be enough to make a difference. Vigorous exercise during the evening may be too stimulating for some people and even prevent sleep, so it is really a question of trial and error and listening to your body to see what works best for you.
Blood sugar– If our blood sugar drops too low, we may wake up during the night. The cells in our body require sugar to function properly and when this falls too low feelings of restlessness and anxiousness will result. Obviously it is not a good idea to eat a heavy meal too soon before sleeping but snacks that keep blood sugar levels steady can be helpful. Food types with a low glycaemic index such as oatmeal and whole grains will help maintain steady blood sugar. Ideally a daily diet containing complex carbohydrates will keep blood sugar levels even throughout the day and into the night.
Hormones– For females the balance of hormones oestrogen and progesterone influence sleep. It appears that a drop in progesterone or an abrupt change in the balance between the two hormones can cause sleeplessness. This is true for women of all ages. As hormonal balance fluctuates on a daily basis this may pass but if not we may choose to influence what is happening by using synthetic hormones or natural alternatives.
The Mind– Our beautiful busy, busy minds; both a blessing and curse! If we are worried or anxious we will find it difficult to sleep. What is occupying our thoughts may be serious or trivial but either way our preoccupation with them is preventing us from sleeping. So how can we find ways to switch off that constant chatter that is keeping us awake?
Reading– This is pure escapism. It helps us switch off, takes us to another place and keeps our mind busy by giving it a job to do. You might like to know that studies have shown that brain activity during sleep is better regulated after reading a book compared with a screen. Just passing on the information!
Visualisation– Harnessing the power of your imagination. This is a proven technique that is now used in sports psychology to train athletes and sportsmen to improve their performance. It works because our brains show the same activity whether we are visualising lying in our hammock on the beach or actually physically there. As our bodies respond to our brain activity, imagining yourself in the happy place of your choice will help your body relax.
Progressive muscle relaxation or body scan– A slow and thorough journey around your body starting from the feet, tensing then relaxing all the muscles one by one. This helps reduce muscle tension. A certain amount of muscle tone is normal but excess muscle tension creates a feeling of alertness. Our bodies interpret the tension in our muscles to mean there is a threat nearby and we need to be vigilant, so our system is not allowed to relax enough to drop into sleep mode while the threat is present. Doing a body scan helps our muscles, body and mind relax which is much more conducive to falling asleep.
Breathing– Breathing, like muscle tension, is inextricably linked to our nervous system. By consciously affecting our breath we can affect how our bodies feel and calm an activated nervous system. There are many types of breathing exercises, Pranayama or breath control used in Hatha yoga is one form. There are many pranayama breathing ‘exercises’ that can be practised depending on your requirements. In this case one to quieten the mind and relax the body would be suitable. Hatha yoga itself is very effective for calming the nervous system and helping promote sleep. It works on both physical and mental levels, by balancing body chemistry, releasing muscle tension and bringing the attention of the mind to our breath and body sensation.
Mindfulness meditation– The benefits of practicing this form of meditation regularly is that we start to notice when our minds begin to wander and are then able to choose to change our train of thought. As one needs to be alert to meditate it is not recommended you do it in bed but if you suffer from insomnia it may be something to try rather than doing the ironing!
CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy– This works in a similar way, bringing an awareness of our thoughts and how helpful or otherwise they might be. Once we are aware of what we are thinking about we are able to ask the question, ‘how does this thought serve me?’ and act appropriately. Both Mindfulness and CBT need to be practiced regularly for us to enjoy the benefits but both are very effective.
It should be possible, even when under moderate stress, to find ways to drop into a more relaxed state and get some sleep. However sometimes the stress is too great or we are just not able to 'switch off'. This requires a rounded approach taking into consideration all aspects of our life style. If this is the case complementary therapies like massage, reflexology and craniosacral therapy are valuable resources to draw on to help us relax and in our quest for a good night’s sleep.
Packed full of useful information, in this guest blog Laura Douglas Nutritional Therapist and Health and Wellness coach kindly shares her knowledge on how to nourish your skin from the inside - of course the rest of you will benefit from this too!
Most people don’t give a second’s thought to their skin – unless they’re scowling at the wrinkles or wobbly bits in the mirror. It’s already doing a fabulous job keeping your insides in, protecting you from infection and radiation, and keeping you warm. There’s also a huge amount you can do to keep your skin looking healthy and fresh and – I’m happy to tell you – stave off the wrinkles without buying that expensive anti-ageing cream. Read on to find out how.
Ditch the bad guys
Alcohol, caffeine, food additives like flavourings and colourings, salt, sugar, and tobacco are full of cell-damaging free radicals, which play havoc with your skin. Ideally, cut them out altogether but certainly reduce them as much as you can.
Essential fats found in fish, avocados, nuts and seeds keep cell membranes soft and smooth – they’re nature’s perfect skin plumpers. Just in case the word ‘fat’ sends a red flag up for you, I want to reassure you that scientists have finally admittedall ‘fat is bad for you and makes you fat’ propaganda was flawed. Eating the right fat is not only not bad, it is really, truly GOOD for your health.
Eat back the clock
Stock up on antioxidant-rich fruit and veg. These arecrucial for your entire body – not just your skin. They reduce the speed of skin aging and degeneration. Eat them raw or lightly steamed as cooking for long periods destroys enzymes, minerals and vitamins and can create skin-damaging free radicals. A couple of simple exercises are these: make a concerted effort to add at least one extra portion of veg every night this week to your evening meal. You should also aim to ‘eat a rainbow’ over the course of the week – that means picking as many different colours of fruit and veg as you can.
As a very general rule, each different colour group contains a different set of plant chemicals. Scientists now know that bringing a variety of different antioxidants into your diet has a synergistic effect, which means the combined result is more powerful than the individual parts.
Keep skin cells plump and full or your skin will look shrivelled and dehydrated – a long cry from that radiant glow you’re going for. Cells also need water to rebuild and to remove the build up of waste products (toxins). It’s a very simple (and free) step that most people don’t prioritise and yet the results can be striking. Aim for at least 2-3 litres a day depending on weather conditions and your level of exercise. You’ll soon see the benefit for yourskin.
Helpful nutrients for skin health
Vitamin C for collagen production. Foods to include: blackcurrants, red peppers, kale, collard leaves, broccoli, kiwis, oranges, courgettes, cauliflower and spinach, citrus fruit.
Vitamins A, C, E and selenium are antioxidants that limit the damage done to collagen and elastin fibres by free radicals. Foods to include (aside from the vitamin C foods, above, and the vitamin A foods, below): sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, swiss chard, papaya, mustard greens, asparagus, peppers, Brazil nuts, fresh tuna, some meats including pork, beef, turkey and chicken, cottage cheese, eggs, brown rice, oats, mushrooms.
Vitamin A helps control the rate of keratin. A lack of vitamin A can result in dry, rough skin. Foods to include: sweet potato, carrots, butternut squash, spinach, kale, collard greens, turnip greens, romaine lettuce.
Vitamin D- skin cells produce a chemical that is converted into vitamin D in sunlight. It’s important for many functions in the body, including immunity, blood sugar balance and bone health. It’s hard to get enough vitamin D from food alone, but do try to include more sardines, salmon, tuna, swordfish, eggs, orange juice and fortified cereals – and don’t forget a daily dose of getting out into the sun!
Zinc for the production of skin cells. A lack of zinc can result in poor skin healing, eczema and rashes. Foods to include: venison, fish, ginger root, lamb, lean beef, turkey, green vegetables, oats, nuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, yoghurt, scallops.
Essential fats for making cell membranes. A lack of essential fats causes cells to dry out too quickly, resulting in dry skin. Foods to include: oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, anchovies, herring), flaxseed, walnuts, soya beans, tofu.
Watch what you put on your body, too
The skin is the largest organ in the body with a surface area about the size of a double bed. It soaks everything up you put on it, and what soaks in ends up in your blood stream. So if your shampoo and conditioner or shower gel (all of which wash over you as you shower), or your bodylotions or creams contain nasty chemicals like parabens or sodium lauryl/laureth sulphate, you are feeding yourself synthetic oestrogens that can wreak havoc with your hormones. Check labels for ingredients – often they may be marked as paraben-free.
Learn how to deal with problem skin
A targeted nutrition plan can work wonders for skin problems like acne, eczema, rosacea, psoriasis and so on. This kind of personalised nutrition is often poorly understood and isn’t really talked about in the media. It doesn’t work to just add to your diet a single ‘superfood’. A bespoke health and nutrition plan takes into account all of your skin and health concerns, which can make a huge difference. If you would like more advice on your skin, or any other health condition, please get in touch. I’d love to help.
Registered Nutritional Therapist & Health Coach
True You Nutrition
There are many clinics offering treatments from firming facials, to Botox to a full facelift. As I only use natural methods I am often asked if there are ‘less invasive’ ways to support mature skin and if they ‘work’. So here are a few suggestions you might like to add to your normal skin care routine at home.
My own approach is to support the skin so it can do its job as well as possible. I am sure you will have heard this many times before – to support healthy skin function we need to have a healthy diet, avoid toxins, manage our stress levels, take exercise and get sufficient sleep. These changes in lifestyle may be much more difficult to make than applying a skin cream but bear in mind the fact that the physiology of all these processes directly affect our skin.
The one thing that is guaranteed to make skin look older is exposure to the sun. Trying to prevent this means wearing a complete sun block or factor 50 on our face, even in the UK from March to October. From a cosmetic perspective this will help prevent pigmentation marks and free radical damage that result in the skin losing its elasticity.
Our faces change as we grow older and the three most obvious signs are; changes in skin texture, reduction in the plumpness of underlying soft tissue and loss of muscle tone.
Lets start with skin texture. As we age our skin becomes thinner, more transparent and fine lines may appear. Vitamin A in its natural and synthetic forms has been used since the 1950s to make the surface of the skin appear smoother. Vitamin A promotes healthy skin cell regeneration and a natural form of it called trans retinoic acid can be found in rosehip seed oil. Rosehip seed oil can be used on its own, and is often included as an ingredient in natural moisturisers. Pure Rosehip seed oil is light and easily absorbed so if you have a dry skin you may need to use a moisturiser in addition after applying it. There are many other plant oils that help promote healthy skin cell growth including argan, which also contains Vitamin A; avocado, which contains Vitamin E; sea buckthorn, which contains Vitamin C, and borage and evening primrose, which contain amino acids that also encourage the growth of healthy new cells. Remember plant oils are sensitive to heat and sunlight so to retain their therapeutic properties store them somewhere cool and dark. Always buy the best quality, organic and as unprocessed as possible.
Hyaluronic acid is a substance our bodies produce naturally. Our bodies contain about 15 grams of it and it can be found in cartilage and synovial fluid as well as our skin. If there is a plentiful supply of hyaluronic acid in our skin it will look plump and hydrated, but the amount present in the skin decreases with age. Hyaluronic acid can be applied topically in the form of gel/serum or in a cream. It is only able to penetrate the upper layers of the skin but it may still have a gentle ‘plumping’ effect if used regularly. In most skin care products hyaluronic acid is derived from an animal source, so if you are vegetarian or vegan you will need to look for animal free sources – algae is often used instead.
We all know that exercising our body helps tone our muscles. Facial muscles can also be toned by exercising them correctly, and if carried out regularly you may even see some gravity defying results! Eva Fraser is one of the best-known teachers of facial exercises and has been teaching her own system for many years.
Frownies – the natural Botox!
These are paper triangles that are gummed on one side. You stick them between your eyebrows before you go to bed. What does this do? It prevents those of us who frown in our sleep from doing so and as a result will soften lines between the eyebrows. It is of course temporary and will wear off during the day depending on how deep the line is, but it may prevent lines from deepening prematurely if used regularly. If you have a partner probably best to explain beforehand what you are doing in case they are worried you have joined a strange cult!
Essential oils are well known for their ability to encourage healing and healthy skin function. Frankincense, helichrysum and lavender are good examples. However, I would advise proceeding with caution if using essential oils on the face, as some skin is not able to tolerate them. Always patch test first to be safe or use pre-blended products.
Face massage has so many benefits, including promoting blood and lymphatic circulation and removing toxins and excess fluid, and what’s more it feels good! So treat your face to a little massage everyday after cleansing your skin or come and see me for a facial!