Confessions of a Chocoholic

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chocolate

Since childhood, chocolate has been my favourite indulgence. Back then it was sweet, milky, cheap and cheerful but since I’ve cut my sugar intake right back, I’ve turned to the dark side.

You know what they say; chocolate with 85% cocoa solids is more intense so you can be satisfied with just a couple of squares. Yeah, right! The thing is, my hunger and my cravings probably are satisfied by a couple of segments; then my greed gobbles up the rest of the bar. You don’t have to be a nutritionist to know that wolfing down family sized bars is not strictly low carb.

I read about someone who had totally kicked their chocolate habit using this hypnosis track. I clicked and bought it without really thinking, then left it languishing unloved on my itunes playlist and settled down in front of the telly with some Green and Blacks and a mug of coffee. I did listen to the opening bit once in the car but it was all a bit wooo, whale music and relaxation, which didn’t seem terribly safe on the A1.

Last month stress, strains and way too much caffeine were keeping me awake all night and in desperation I thought I’d try the relaxation exercises at the beginning of the track to switch off. Well, they worked. I was spark out before chocolate was even mentioned. I used it a few more times, always fell asleep after the first introductory five to ten minutes, never got to hear the pearls of chocolaty wisdom. Then my sleep improved and I didn’t give it a second thought.

But here’s the thing, I walked past Hotel Chocolat in King’s Cross station today without even going in for a free sample. This is UNPRECEDENTED. And, when I think back, I haven’t eaten chocolate, or even thought about chocolate for three weeks or so. Weird.

So is it placebo, hypnosis or coincidence? The truth is I haven’t a clue but my instinct is that the hypnosis made the difference. That is coming from a confirmed cynic. There is evidence that hypnotherapy, properly delivered can make a real difference in the management of pain, anxiety, depression and phobias. The research is less convincing when it comes to smoking cessation and weight management, with trials showing differing results .

And what about the plethora of apps that have sprung onto the market promising to help us lose weight , quit sugar, stop smoking and be generally fabulous? Well, a review looked at those and most of them have little or no research to back up their claims. Even so, quite a few have a trickle of enthusiastic reports on Amazon from satisfied clients. It seems that apps and recordings have the potential to deliver effective hypnosis but technology may have raced against science, with suppliers so keen to get the products out there that it’s difficult for us to tell the great from the gruesome.

Many scientists recommend that there should be an accreditation system so we can spot the rigorously tested and quality assured apps, which definitely makes sense. In the meantime I’m enjoying a chocolate free existence and hoping it helps my chunky little legs become smooth and slim by the summer.

Hmmmm.

On second thoughts, maybe I should look for an app that will hypnotise me to prefer kale and broccoli to white wine and pistachios. Wish me luck!

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Living with lymphoedema

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I’ve spent the last few days on the beautiful Gower coast on an exciting project with Pocket Medic making film-based prescriptions to help patients manage their chronic disease. The time of the boring leaflet, left crumpled in the bottom of a handbag could well be over.

We were working with some extraordinary people from all over Wales who shared their personal stories and experiences so that others can discover the best ways of managing and living with lymphoedema.

Did you just say lympho…what?

If you did, you’re not alone, but it’s a problem that affects at least a quarter of a million people in the UK alone.

What is lymphoedema?

Lymph is the fluid that carries the white blood cells that fight infection around the body and is responsible for whisking any dead or abnormal cells, excess protein and bacteria, off to the blood stream to be chucked out or recycled.

If the lymphatic system stops working and the lymph stops moving for any reason, it can’t drain away and you’ll see swelling. That swelling is lymphoedema.

Why me?

The lymphatic system circulates around the body but unlike the blood there’s no heart to take care of all the hard, pumping work. Instead, it relies on us to keep it moving with our motion and breathing. If we stop moving, the lymph will too. Being overweight and not being active enough is a risk factor-but also some of us are just unlucky to be born with lymph systems that simply don’t work properly.

The lymph system lies under the skin and skin infections like cellulitis, especially if they are recurrent or severe can lead to lymphoedema, even eczema and varicose veins can be culprits.

Many people develop lymphoedema after cancer treatment where the lymph nodes, that work as the body’s drains are removed or damaged by radiotherapy. Without them the fluid can build up leading to swelling. This may be in the arm after breast cancer treatment or in the legs following bladder or prostate cancer.

Lymphoedema can be uncomfortable and unsightly but the patients that were interviewed really showed me that there’s lots that can be done to help manage the swelling and symptoms, ease any discomfort and allow each person with lymphoedema to live life to the full.

What can I do?

Take care of your skin

Skin care is one of the cornerstones of care. Moisturising regularly, keeping the skin clean and protecting from any bites and scratches can prevent the skin breaking and letting infection in. Avoid needles, tattoos, blood tests, razors and waxing in parts of the body that have lymphoedema and be very careful when gardening, thorns and soil can be a tricky combination.

 Infection busting

Any little infection can escalate and cause a severe skin infection called cellulitis, which can cause the skin to thicken and make lymphoedema worse. So clean any cuts or grazes and use antiseptic to bust any bugs. If there are any signs of redness, pus or increased swelling, see your doc for antibiotics.

 Move that lymph around your body

Exercise is a great way to encourage lymph to move, especially if it has got stuck somewhere in your body and you’ve got swelling. If the idea fills you with dread then start gently, there’s no need for lycra and sweat bands. Walking longer distances in the home, short walks outside and climbing steps can be a good start. Ask your lymphoedema specialist about classes in your area.

 Manage your weight

Being overweight can make lymphoedema worse and make it more difficult to get about when you have it. It’s difficult, when you’re unwell or recovering from cancer diet is often, understandably, not a priority. However getting to a healthy weight and moving around more, will help get that lymph moving again.

 Wear it well

Compression garments are really important in the management of lymphoedema. They put pressure on the tissues to stop the fluid building up and encourage fluid to drain. They can seem uncomfortable at first but if they’re properly fitted and worn regularly they can make a real difference.

Sleep easy

Sometimes it can be difficult to muster the energy and motivation to go to the bedroom but sleeping in an armchair can really make lymphoedema worse. Make sure you sleep in a bed so that the lymph can flow more easily.

 Healing hands

A gentle massage process called simple lymphatic drainage can help the fluid drain away and the good news is, you can do it on yourself. Ask your specialist nurse for guidance.

The way ahead?

A super-micro-surgical technique called LVA, or Lymphatic Venous Anastamosis has been developed to connect a damaged lymphatic vessel to a small vein. This bypasses the faulty bit of the lymphatic system and drains the fluid into the blood stream. It’s not suitable for many people and the BMI needs to below 30 but it is an exciting prospect for the future.

Super support

You are not alone. There are specialist nurses, loads of information sources and support groups for people with lymphoedema to learn and laugh together.

Find out more

http://www.wales.nhs.uk/sitesplus/863/page/39315

http://www.lymphoedema.org/menu3/Index.asp

http://ehealthdigital.co.uk/news/

http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/health/pioneering-lymphoedema-super-microsurgery-now-10053216

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Worriers and Warriors

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The way we respond to stressful situations may be written in our genes.

I was researching and writing an article about stress last week and, as ever, the deadline had to loom so close that it could have kicked me up the backside, before my fingers started tapping diligently on the keyboard.

I always thought it was just laziness, or a singular talent for procrastination but it seems  that it might actually be written in my DNA.

Let’s face it, we all get stressed out once in a while but not everyone responds to pressure in the same way. Our lives, upbringing and experiences can all have an impact but it also seems that certain genes can make us more sensitive to life’s stresses and strains.

 Fight or flight

 It’s all down to our inner caveman. When we get shocked or feel threatened, the body responds with a primitive reflex, releasing chemicals designed to help us to survive. These catecholamines (adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine) boost the heart rate, raise the blood pressure and improve respiratory function to help us fight harder and run faster. They also sharpen our vision, speed up our impulses and make us super-sensitive to any threat; we become a sort of super-hero version of ourselves!

This was all fine and dandy when we were facing sabre-toothed tigers. Whether we stayed to fight or ran to hide, the stress hormones would have been safely metabolised. But now when we’re stressed out in a traffic jam, on the phone to a call-centre or facing a deadline, the body gets all revved up with no way of burning off all the pent up aggression and energy.

The genetic difference

 For lots of us, stress can be good, sharpening our focus and helping us perform better. But others just fall apart under the pressure. How can the same level of stress elicit such different physical, psychological and emotional responses?

The answer is down to genetics. We all have differing capabilities of breaking down and getting rid of dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline. This system is controlled by the COMT gene; in some of us, the brain is cleared of the catecholamines super fast, while others have a more slow and steady response.

Worriers

When people with slow COMT genes become stressed, their bodies just can’t get rid of the catecholamines quickly enough. Dopamine builds up in the brain’s frontal lobe causing the classic stress symptoms of anxiety, worry, panic attacks and insomnia. In severe cases it is thought to be associated with mental health problems including OCD and schizophrenia.

Warriors

Those of us with fast acting COMT genes are able to clear the brain of stress chemicals quickly and efficiently and have been shown in tests to perform better under pressure. However in low stress situations, the lack of stimulation means that they could fail to get work done effectively. Errrrrrm, sound familiar?

So, is that just all a bit depressing? Some people are destined to do terribly in exams and others won’t perform without the imminent threat of danger.

No.

It seems that our genes don’t have to be our destiny. In tests under low levels of pressure, those with slow COMT genes performed way better. When they weren’t stressed, or if they were told that feeling anxious would make them perform better, they had bright, alert minds and better memories. So by learning to manage feelings of stress they were able to really harness their true potential.

And if, like me, you know that you need a little extra push, you can set yourself targets and deadlines so that you’re not up burning the midnight oil, again!

My article was for a company called DNAfit, who test individuals’ DNA profiles to develop personalised health plans. I was paid for the work, although I was given free rein on what to write and not expected to blog about it, it just really captured my interest.