How to protect yourself from severe disease if you get COVID-19

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We’re living in stressful times. At the moment, life feels like we’re all actors in the opening scenes of an apocalyptic film. Except it’s real.

I’ve returned to my blog after an embarrassingly long absence because my daughter is away from home and experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. As a mum, I hate being unable to hug, nurse, and care for her. So, feeling helpless, I did what I could do and researched ways of reducing the risk of having a severe infection.

With coronavirus, people around the country are having to self-isolate and self-care- but there’s not much guidance on self-help. Just rest, drink, and hope for the best. However, some things could help you recover from COVID-19.

I found an interesting review from The New England Complex Systems Institute on how to improve respiratory health and improve COVID-19 outcomes[1]. I’ve summarised it, together with other ways of boosting your immunity:

How to help yourself if you have coronavirus symptoms

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Coronavirus is a novel virus that our bodies aren’t used to facing and fighting. There’s currently no cure, but anything that we can do to improve health, wellbeing, and immunity can better equip you to overcome the infection:

Don’t wallow in your virus

When you’re feeling ill, it’s tempting to forget about hygiene. However, good ventilation and keeping your environment clean will stop you from being re-exposed to viral particles, which could infect parts of the lungs that aren’t already affected. Opening a window, showering, washing hands, and changing your sheets will all help get rid of the virus from your surroundings.

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Open a window

Try and encourage outward airflow to clear virus and bring in fresh air.

Breathe through your nose

The nose is an effective air cleanser. The tiny hairs and mucous membranes act as a shield against disease. The nose also warms and moistens air making it more comfortable to breathe.

Breathe deeply

Try and practise deep breathing several times a day. It helps improve outcomes in lots of lung conditions, and although it’s too early to have definitive research for people with COVID-19, it makes sense to keep the air moving throughout as much of the lungs as possible.

Most of us only use a fraction of our lung capacity; breathing deeply can stop virus stagnating in parts of the lungs. If it hurts to breathe deeply, supporting any tender areas with your hand can help. This video from team members from ITU at Queen’s University Hospital, Belfast gives useful advice on breathing exercises:

Get moving

Physical fitness can help boost your immunity and protect you from infection. That’s why the government has encouraged us all to be active once a day during the lockdown. However, moderate daily exercise can also help in the early or mild stages of coronavirus infection. Exercise improves lung ventilation and may support immune function.

If you can, get outside and walk, jog or dance. I know that’s tricky if you don’t have a garden and need to stay two metres away from other people. If you’re in a small space, try star jumps or jogging on the spot on a balcony or near an open window. Let your body be your guide, and don’t push it if you’re feeling weak, dizzy, or unwell.

Temperature control?

Paracetamol can control fever and help you feel better. However, if you’re feeling OK and your temperature is under safe limits (at 39.4 C according to The Mayo Clinic), it may be better to live with the fever. Raising your core temperature is one of your body’s ways of fighting an infection[2]. If you may have coronavirus infection, it’s not advisable to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen. They dampen the body’s inflammatory response, which may be essential for battling the virus.

Feed a fever?

No superfood or supplement will prevent coronavirus infection. However, a healthy diet can support your immune system and help you fight the disease. Low levels of Vitamin D are linked to a reduced immune response. Our bodies can make it in sunlight, but dull weather and being socially isolated indoors can mean that lots of us lack this essential micronutrient, so it may be worth taking a supplement daily.

There’s evidence that vitamin C supplements can improve recovery from the common cold, some strains of which are caused by a type of coronavirus. It’s not clear whether supplementation will affect COVID-19, but I’ve sent my daughter supplies of vitamins C and D, just in case! The British Nutrition Foundation advocates a good multivitamin and mineral supplement, find out more on their website.

Stay hydrated

The social media rumour mill has been errr…awash (sorry) with advice to keep sipping water to stop coronavirus, getting a grip. Professor Trudie Lang at the University of Oxford told the BBC that you couldn’t wash a respiratory virus away by drinking fluids. However, drinking water and staying hydrated is vital for your general health and wellbeing[3]. Drinking enough is particularly important if you’re feverish and unwell, when you may lose fluid and electrolytes from increased sweating.

Rest and recovery

Sleep is your body’s opportunity to rest and repair damaged cells. Sleep is also critical for the healthy function of the immune system[4].So, getting adequate sleep is a vital part of your armoury against the infection.

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It can be tricky when you’re housebound, and your usual routines are disturbed by lockdown. Your body has a natural clock that helps you sleep at night and wake in the morning. Try and make use of this by going to sleep and getting up at a similar time every day, so your body knows what to expect. Cut down on caffeine and other stimulants and limit screen-time, the light from devices has higher levels of blue light, which affects the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.

Hopefully, staying home, stopping unnecessary travel, and practising social distancing will keep many people safe from this new virus. These self-care tips are no substitute for prevention.

If you do develop a fever, a new continuous cough, difficulty breathing, or you’ve lost your sense of smell (which ENT surgeons are flagging as a potential symptom), do not leave your home. To protect others, do not go to places like a GP surgery, pharmacy, or hospital.

The 111 online coronavirus service will help you find out what to do and how to access medical help if needed, and hopefully, these tips may help some people ( including my daughter) have a less severe illness.

 

 

[1] Blake Elias, Chen Shen and Yaneer Bar-Yam, Respiratory health for better COVID-19 outcomes, New England Complex Systems Institute (March 16, 2020).

[2] Sharon S Evans, Elizabeth A Repasky, and Daniel T Fisher. Fever and the thermal regulation of immunity: the immune system feels the heat. Nature Reviews Immunology, 15(6):335–349, 2015.

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-51735367

[4] https://www.health24.com/Medical/Infectious-diseases/Coronavirus/heres-how-quality-sleep-can-help-you-fight-the-new-coronavirus-20200316-2

Brain Food?

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Can the way we eat prevent dementia getting a grip?alzheimers-749616_1920

Dementia has been on my mind recently. A lovely family friend has been diagnosed with the disease, I’ve been writing for a elderly care service and, truth be told, I’ve also walked into the kitchen and forgotten what I came for, one time too many. So, a TED talk by Dr Mary Newton on YouTube really caught my attention. She’s a neonatologist who spoke about her experiences when her husband, Steve, developed early onset Alzheimer’s.

We still don’t fully understand Alzheimer’s. Scientists believe that many factors work together to increase an individual’s risk: genes, lifestyle, and the environment may all combine to allow the disease to take hold. But her investigations suggested that the way we eat could hold the key to finding a cure.

Mary was desperate to find a way of helping her husband, who was in a downward spiral with rapidly deteriorating function. As a doctor, she explored routine treatment options. But when his symptoms became so severe that he was not able to participate in clinical trials, her scientific deductions led to discover early investigations into a medical food that could make all the difference.

Diabetes of the Brain

Scientists have found indications that Alzheimer’s may be a sort of diabetes of the brain. Researchers at Brown University discovered insulin deficiency and resistance within the brains of affected individuals and coined the term Type 3 Diabetes for this form of dementia. They observed that this insulin resistance happened in the very early stages, often many years before symptoms began and then became increasingly severe and widespread as the disease progressed.

There’s been lots of research demonstrating that type two diabetes may predispose to Alzheimer’s. And the truth is, the demographics of people who are affected by both disorders are pretty similar. The two disorders share the same risk factors, features and similar biochemical changes, like insulin resistance. Could this be the key to understanding dementia?

Brain food

Our brain cells need glucose to fuel their function. Insulin acts as the key to unlock the cells to allow glucose to enter. Without properly functioning insulin, the cells simply can’t work properly and can die, as happens in dementia.

But glucose is not the only fuel. Ketone bodies from the breakdown of fat can act as an alternative source of energy. It’s our body’s built-in back-up for times of starvation. But you don’t have to be starved. Ketogenic diets such as the Atkin’s and South Beach encourage the body to burn ketones by advocating a high fat, low carbohydrate way of eating. In fact, these kind of diets are used successfully to help control the fits of children with intractable epilepsy, so we know that they can affect brain function.

I try and stick to a low carb diet, but I understand that this level of dietary restriction can be difficult in the elderly, confused and infirm. But there is another way:

We are what we eat

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Dr Newton continued researching and found that a type of fat called medium chain triglycerides (MCT) are readily taken up by the liver and burned to form ketones. An early trial found that a single dose of MCT produced an improvement in cognition and memory in more than half of those people that took it.

The use of MCT is not new, it’s added to infant formula to help new babies grow and develop. That’s because we know that breast milk is rich in these fats. Maybe our bodies knew what was best for us all along.

Coconut oil is rich in MCT, it makes up around 60% of the content. When Dr Newton gave Steve spoonfuls of coconut oil, everything changed. He described

“the light switch coming back on.”

His function, his memory and his ability to carry out activities of daily living all improved. More than that, his personality and sense of humour returned. This was reflected in dramatically improved scores in his mental testing and on his MRI, which showed that the deterioration had stabilised.

The news about this potential treatment spread by word of mouth and virally on social media and many people across the world have also experienced the benefit. But we are still waiting for proper confirmation in clinical trials, fortunately there are now several underway for the use of MCT oil and ketone esters in the treatment of both dementia and mild cognitive impairment. I’m waiting for the results with interest.

Let food by your medicine

Whilst we’re waiting, could we make a difference today? The low fat diet has been relentlessly pushed to the public, so we choose ‘healthy’ low fat alternatives which are often stuffed full of sugars to compensate for a lack of richness and flavour. Full-fat dairy produce and coconut oil are both rich in MCT, but it’s not found in olive oil or many of the other veggie oils in our diet. By making a move away from a high carb, high sugar diet and introducing more of these oils, maybe we could decrease levels of insulin resistance and protect our bodies and our brains. As Hippocrates said, let food be thy medicine.

I’m still hot, it just comes in flashes now.

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Helping yourself through the menopause.

I woke up in a total lather last night. I was hot, sweaty and dishevelled and sadly not for any fun reasons.

I may have been rather too entangled in the duvet, there may have been an unusually warm spell in our corner of the frozen north, or it may be my poor middle-aged ovaries starting to give up the ghost.

Now one sweaty night isn’t enough to have me scrabbling for the HRT but it has inspired me to see if there is anything I can do to bolster my flagging hormones and stave off any menopausal madness for a little longer.

The usual suspects:

There’s evidence that women who are more active tend to suffer less. Not all types of activity though, oh no, the hard, sweaty, intensive stuff can actually make symptoms worse. The best bet is sustained, steady and aerobic, like swimming or running, basically the sort of stuff I hate. Cutting back on booze and caffeine can also reduce symptoms.

So far, so depressingly predictable, in desperation I decided to dig a little deeper.

You are what you eat:

Did you know that the Japanese don’t even have a word for the menopause? Apparently they glide effortlessly from periods to errrrr past it (sorry, I’m a sucker for alliteration) because of all the soy in their diets. And it’s not just the flushes that they avoid. they also have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and breast, colon, endometrial and ovarian cancers.

It’s down to the fact that soya contains natural plant oestrogens, which have a similar effect to our own female hormones. But it’s going to take a bit more than a splash of soy sauce on your stir-fry to make a difference; you’ll need to stock up on tofu, miso and all other soy products. Phytoestrogens are also found in nuts, seeds especially flax and sesame, hummus and dried apricots.

The natural alternative

If you can’t stomach soy, there are a whole host of supplements available to boost your phytoestrogens. The research evidence is a little mixed as to their effectiveness. However, I told my mother to take soy isoflavone supplements when she was struggling after coming off HRT and she started bleeding again, in her late sixties, so there’s certainly something potent going on! [Quick disclaimer, she had a D and C, no problems found and she’s still talking to me, so all is well.]

The main options are:

Soy: as my Mum found, it can decrease menopausal symptoms but can have an effect on the womb. See your doctor if there’s any bleeding.

Red Clover: may help reduce hot flushes and night sweats

 Herbal helpers

The benefits of herbal remedies haven’t been fully proven by research trials but they may be worth a try.

Black Cohosh: has been shown to decrease hot flushes, night sweat and other vasomotor symptoms.

St John’s Wort: there is good evidence that this works well for mild to moderate depression and it has worked well for me in the past, it may be of benefit if the change of life is bringing you down.

Many women have also told me that they get benefit from other treatments including agnus castus, selenium, vitamin C and herbs such as ginkgo biloba, hops, sage leaf, liquorice and valerian root – there are very few studies to date but much of the research is still in the early stages.

[This is probably the right time to direct you to my ‘covering my butt bit’ and say that supplements and herbal remedies have active ingredients and can cause side effects and interact with medications. Make sure you read all the info and see your doctor or pharmacist if you have any worries]

I’m probably in the early stages of the peri-menopause, so I think my first step is going to be getting rid of the thick quilt on my bed and maybe (sob) cutting down on coffee and wine. I’ll also look into introducing more seeds and soya into my diet. When the going gets tough, I’ll up the supplements and if that’s not enough, I’ll be straight off to my GP to think about HRT.

I may not keep myself fertile and fabulous forever-but I may make the menopause easier for myself, and everyone around me.

Find out more:

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

NickPanay.com -I used to work for Nick way back in the day when I had a proper job, he is now a top menopause consultant so worth checking out.

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Are your guts making you fat?

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belly-2354_1280Could your gut bacteria be making you fat?

We all know why people get fat, don’t we? We’ve had it drummed into us relentlessly that it’s all down to eating too much and moving too little. If the pounds are piling on, it’s just down to us being greedy or lazy. Or maybe not. Scientists are starting to discover that it’s really not as simple as calories out and calories in.  

 We’ve all noticed that some people appear to be able to eat whatever they want, while others have to constantly battle the bulge. Why did they get so lucky? It could all be down to their genetic make-up and the bacteria in their bowels.

 Good and bad bacteria

Our guts are home to a mind-boggling five hundred million bacteria that help us maintain a healthy digestion and break down the fibre in our food. Having the right balance between the good and bad bacteria is vital for our health and wellbeing. Researchers are now discovering that these microbes may also influence our hunger, control our metabolism and affect our sensitivity to insulin; in other words, having the wrong bacterial balance could make us fat (1).

Our bowels contain over 400 strains of bacteria and the cocktail of different varieties in each person is very individual. According to a study in the journal Cell, our genetic make-up can shape the numbers and the type of bacteria living in our gut, which may affect our tendency to gain weight (2).

In studies, slim people had seventy percent higher levels of diverse gut bacteria than those who are overweight. On average people in the United States tend to have a less diverse bacterial colonisation than those from less developed parts of the world. Our gut flora seems to be a key factor in the fight against obesity.

Identical twins, identical guts?

Researchers looked at the gut flora of twins and discovered that identical twins had more similar levels of gut bacteria than non-identical twins did. This suggests that the microbiota is down to nature rather than nurture.  They identified a particular family of bacteria that were highly heritable and were much more likely to be found in thin people. Indeed, if there was a significant difference in weight between twins, the researchers were able to accurately predict which of them was overweight, simply by looking at their gut bacteria (2).

The skinny bug

 So what is this ‘skinny bacteria’ and where can I get some? I hear you screaming. It’s snappily named Christensenellaceae and having lots of it in your gut is linked with being slim, whereas low levels were associated with obesity.

In studies, when the samples containing the skinny bacteria were transplanted into the bowels of mice, it protected against weight gain.

The researchers said

“Our findings show that specific groups of microbes living in our gut could be protective against obesity – and that their abundance is influenced by our genes. The human microbiome represents an exciting new target for dietary changes and treatments aimed at combating obesity.”

The good news is that the vast majority of us (as many as 96%) have some christensenellaceae in our digestive systems. Individual levels are partially written in our genes but there are ways of giving your healthy bacteria a boost, whatever your genetic inheritance.

 How does it work?

 The exact mechanism by which microbes influence weight isn’t fully understood. Scientists have postulated that they may affect the ability to process food, altering the body’s ability to extract nutrients and calories. Certain bacteria may also alter our sensitivity to insulin, so protecting us against diabetes and stimulating the body to burn fat instead of storing it on our waistlines.

Hunger hormone

 Your body produces a hormone called ghrelin, which lets you know you’re hungry and need to eat. Usually after eating a meal, the hormone levels drop so that your need to eat fades. The bacterium Helicobacter Pylori appears to be involved in this process. It’s a microbe that’s been frequently in the health news because it’s linked to ulcers and stomach cancer. Antibiotic treatment has helped slash infection rates by fifty percent, which is great if you’re suffering from indigestion but bad news for obesity levels. Without H Pylori the hunger hormone levels appear to stay high, even after an adequate meal, so that you keep on eating(3).

 Bacteria blitzers

 Activity, diet and antibiotics can all affect your gut bacteria. You don’t even have to be prescribed antibiotics to suffer their effects. The food industry relies on the drugs to keep livestock healthy and infection-free, in fact eighty percent of US antibiotics are used to treat animals not humans. This means that we’re ingesting them daily with the food we eat, which can disturb the delicate bacterial balance in our bowels (4).

The impact of antibiotics has been demonstrated in studies on mice. Mice who were given a high fat diet gained weight, mice that were given antibiotics also gained weight but it was the mice that were given both that got really fat (5). And when we investigate the history of the obesity epidemic, it correlates with the expansion in intensive farming and the use of antibiotics in animal feeds. Looking across the world, the countries that use this approach to livestock farming tend to have the highest levels of obesity.

What can I do?

Don’t panic if weight struggles run in your family. Although your gut bacteria are influenced by genetics, the way you live your life and the food you eat can dramatically affect your bacterial balance, so you can make a difference and lose weight.

Fibre first: choosing a plant based diet, rich in fibre has been shown to boost levels of bilophila, a type of healthy bacteria. Fibre nourishes the microbes in your gut, so choose plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains daily. Food containing prebiotics will allow your bacteria to flourish, so snack on bananas and add garlic and leeks to your meals.

Pick probiotic foods: active and fermented food really pack a probiotic punch. Live yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso and raw cheeses will all top up your gut bacteria.

Take a daily supplement: it can be tricky to get the probiotics your body needs from the modern diet. If you’re struggling with kefir and kimchi then take a probiotic supplement daily – and store it in a cool environment so that it stays active.

Skip the sugar: too much sugar can feed the bad microbes and upset the delicate balance of flora in the gut, leaving you bloated, lethargic and overweight. Cut out refined sugars to look and feel better, inside and out.

Get moving: a session in the gym doesn’t just work your muscles, even your bowel benefits. Being active as a child has a real impact on the diversity of your gut microbiota (6) but it’s never too late to start. Regular exercise as an adult can also make a difference, with studies showing that the stools of rugby players contained more diverse bacteria than their less athletic peers (7).

What next?

 If, like me, you started frantically googling “christensenellaceae supplements” after reading the research, then I’m sorry to disappoint. At the moment you can choose a general probiotic supplement and work to improve your gut health with diet and lifestyle- but you can’t yet pop a skinny bacteria pill. However, there may be another way to boost your levels.

The science of faecal transplantion is developing rapidly with advocates claiming it may be the answer to weight problems. It’s been used to combat bowel superbugs. But one slim woman who received a transplant from her overweight daughter noticed that she subsequently ballooned in weight (8). Sounds far-fetched? Researchers have actually seen similar results in mice, with lean mice gaining weight after getting gut bacteria from obese mice. In a Dutch study, faecal transplants from skinny donors helped individuals with metabolic syndrome became more sensitive to insulin (9)(10)

Could something as simple as poop really help us fight the battle of the bulge? There are loads of internet sites that say that it could as well as giving instructions on how to do-it-yourself. But before you overcome the ick factor and head over to your skinny friend’s house with a potty, a blender and a syringe, think again. You could transfer bacteria that are harmful, damage your bowel or potentially trigger other diseases. The truth is, we really don’t know enough about the procedure yet. It’s safer to wait for the research evidence to build and while you’re waiting use your diet and supplements to give your gut a safe bacterial boost.

This was article was originally published on Intelligent Labs

  1. How Gut Bacteria Help Make Us Fat and Thin (Scientific American, June, 2014)

Claudia Wallis

  1. Human genetics shape the gut microbiome (Cell. 2014 Nov 6; 159(4): 789–799)

Julia K. Goodrich, Jillian L. Waters, Angela C. Poole, Jessica L. Sutter et al

  1. Ghrelin, Helicobacter pylori and body mass: is there an association?( Isr Med Assoc J. 2012 Feb;14(2):130-2) Boltin D, Niv Y.
  1. Long-term impacts of antibiotic exposure on the human intestinal microbiota (Microbiology (2010), 156, 3216–3223) Cecilia Jernberg, Sonja Lo ̈fmark, Charlotta Edlund and Janet K. Jansson
  1. Altering the Intestinal Microbiota during a Critical Developmental Window Has Lasting Metabolic Consequences (Cell, Volume 158, Issue 4, p705–721, 14 August 2014) Laura M. Cox, Shingo Yamanishi, Jiho Sohn, Alexander V. Alekseyenko, Jacqueline M. Leung et al
  1. Science Daily (2016). Early-life exercise alters gut microbes, promotes healthy brain and metabolism.
  1. Exercise and associated dietary extremes impact on gut microbial diversity (Gut 2014; 63:1913-1920) Clarke, S., Murphy, E., O’Sullivan, O., Lucey, A., Humphreys, M., & Hogan, A. et al.
  1. Obesity via Microbe Transplants (Science Daily, September 5, 2013) Ed Yong
  1. Transfer of intestinal microbiota from lean donors increases insulin sensitivity in individuals with metabolic syndrome (Gastroenterology 2012 Oct; 143(4):913-6) Vrieze A1, Van Nood E, Holleman F, Salojärvi J, Kootte RS, Bartelsman JF et al
  1. Not just obesity – faecal transplants’ weird effects (New Scientist 11 February 2015) Jessica Hamzelou

Confessions of a Chocoholic

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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!

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.