Book Review: Treat You Own Back – Robin McKenzie
This book was recommended to me by a patient who claimed it had helped him resolve a long standing, debilitation back problem. Knowing how many people suffer in this way, I thought it was defiantly worth a look.
It is written by a chiropractor from New Zealand who appears to be of some renowned, according to the number of letters after his name and an impressive list of Honours, including one from the Queen.
The book is well written, clear, concise and nicely laid out.
He begins by explaining the anatomy of the lumbar spine, specifically pointing out the lumbar lordosis – the “inward curve in the small of the back just above the pelvis” 1 that is evident when we are standing upright.
He then moves on to discuss what he believes to be the cause of most lower back pain: mechanical strain caused by prolonged over extension of the ligaments and soft tissue of the lower back.
This happens whenever we bend or slouch and lose the lordosis in the lower spine. Initially the damage is minor but gradually the tissue can become damaged or even torn, leading to more severe problems and pain. Weakening of the protective structure of the back can also lead to slipped discs and nerve pain. 2
Common causes of this over extension are poor posture, particularly whilst sitting in badly designed chairs, prolonged bending due to certain types of work, poor lifting techniques and awkward bending and lifting positions. 3
Poor standing posture can also lead to excessive lordosis and causes pain 4
Therefore, the main thrust of the advise given is to be mindful of posture at all times and to continually strive to maintain the lower lordosis. This can be encouraged by the use of a lumbar roll (or a rolled up towel) on chairs and in cars but ideally it should become second nature.
We are told it is also important to regularly and routinely interrupt bent forward or sitting positions by standing up right and banding backwards from the waist (supporting your lower back with your hands) with five or six repetitions at a time 5
McKenzie also tells us that if your work demands that you are in a bent position for extended periods “you are more likely to sustain back problems in the first four or five hours of the day.”6 Ideally you should aim to interrupt the stooped positions with five or six backward bends before pain starts.
Another interesting observation in the book is that lower back problems often seem to come on after vigorous activity. Often this lead people to think it was the activity that caused the problem. However, McKenzie argues that what actually happens is that we warm up and loosen our muscles with the activity and then we go and 'relax' in an inappropriate position. It is this that lead to the problem and the pain. Therefore, the argument goes that after exercise you should (you guessed it!) do five or six backward bends and make sure you strictly maintain the lower lordosis. 7
The remainder of the book covers seven specific exercise that McKenzie recommends. Some of these are yoga poses and others are simple stretches. They are explained clearly with pictures. He gives detailed and specific advise on what to expect whilst following his program and on signs that indicate that the exercises are working. He also explains the symptoms that would be a cause for concern.
MacKenzie then goes on to prescribe various exercises for different stages of back problems. Some are for acute pain and others are for more prolonged use, to improve mobility by gradually extending scar tissue. He also provides a short and manageable daily preventative program.
The level of detail in the book about what to expect and look out for whist doing the exercises, the number of 'special cases' covered and the suggestions about how long you need to wait before you introduce the next set of exercises is very precise, and feels like it is based on a great deal of experience. Therefore, I am not going to try to summarise this for you as I feel I would be doing you a disservice.
In Chinese Medicine the lower back is the domain of the Kidneys and so weakness in this area can indicate a deficiency in Kidney Qi. In this diagnosis the back is likely to get more painful with prolonged standing, walking or bending.
However, as the major pivot point for the body the lower back is also often wrenched or over extended which can lead to Stagnation of Qi. If this is the problem you are experiencing you are likely to be suffering with more severe pain that is particularly bad after you have been stationary for a while – for example in the morning.
In practice diagnosis it is usually not quite so simple, there are other possible causes as well as these and there is also often a combination of deficiency and stagnation -The lack of flow caused by deficiency tends to encourage stagnation and the blockage caused by stagnation leads to deficiency. In these cases the art is in working out what needs to dealt with first.
Unsurprisingly, the only significant contention I have with MacKenzie is his claim that acupuncture can not “correct the underlying mechanical problem[s]” 9 present in lower back pain. Actually in my experience I have seen treatment change the alignment of backs quite significantly. Nevertheless I would wholeheartedly agree with MacKenzie's premise that is is much better to be in charge of your own health than dependant on outside intervention if possible.
Suffice to say, I think this book makes a lot of sense and I would recommend getting hold of a copy or borrowing it from our library if you have recurrent back problems you are ready to tackle.
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Book Review: Sweet Nothing – Why I gave up sugar and how you can too – Nicole Mowbray
I enjoyed this book – it was informative and convincing, but to be honest I found Ms. Mowbray a bit annoying – she spends a lot of time 'brand' dropping and telling you about her fabulous life in the 'oh so posh' parts of London. It isn't particularly well written, but despite this it is worth a read.
The book is a combination of biography – with Nicole telling her sugar free story and a good straight forward explanation of the problem with sugar.
She begins by enlightening us on just how much sugar we are actually eating. According to the NHS, Britons consume an average of 25 teaspoons a day!1 Seems a lot, right? Mowbray goes on to explain that this is because much of the sugar we consume is 'hidden' – often in low fat or even 'healthy' foods, like granola, fruit and sushi.
She is very good at specific examples telling us that a small pot of Rachel's organic low fat rhubarb yogurt has 4 ½ teaspoons of sugar, a can of SlimFast has 5 ½2 and a 330ml glass of Tropicana has a whopping 7 teaspoons3 – almost as much as a can of coke. The premise is that we are misinformed about the amount of sugar in the products we eat and we also tend to eat the same things on a regular basis which exacerbates our poor choices.
So what's wrong with sugar? Obviously it makes you gain weight and the huge increase in sugar in our diets in recent years has mirrored the rise in obesity (a link that has even been made the the World Health Organisation4) but sugar also has other consequences for our health. It is harmful to the liver, in fact, we are told that high sugar diets 'cause similar damage to that done by heavy drinking'.5 It is also linked to sleep problems, premature ageing and can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes and a whole host of conditions linked to diabetes, including increased risk of cancer6
More generally we are told it can just make us feel a bit crap. Mowbray claims that sugar is actually “an 'anti-nutrient' as it gives nothing and leaches out vitamins and minerals from the body”7
In the book nutritionist Ian Marber explains that when we consume sugar it is released into the blood stream. “The body wants to protect itself against too much sugar in the blood, so the pancreas produces the hormone insulin.” Insulin “tells the body's cells to open up to store the glucose”8 This first stage is what gives us the energy surge that accompanies high sugar snacks. However, if there is still too much sugar around, insulin stores as much as it can as glycogen in the muscles and converts the rest to fat. The significant thing is that the insulin response is supposed to be a protective one. Insulin aims to “mop everything up as quickly as possible”9 but all too often in our high sugar world this speedy response actually leads to great consumption. We eat sugar and the resultant insulin spike gives us a boost and makes us feel happier but an hour later our blood sugar has crashed and we are hungry, “panicky and wired”10 The obvious response is to have more sugar. A biological system that is supposed to capitalise on the rare instances that we eat sugar becomes over used and gradually the body starts to ignore insulin. At this stage glucose levels in the blood begin to rise and eventually this leads to diabetes.11
Symptoms of insulin resistance include: “brain fogginess, intestinal bloating, sleepiness, especially after meals, weight gain, fat storage, difficulty loosing weight, increased blood pressure, high cholesterol and depression”12 [among others...]
Blood sugar balance can also affect you mood apparently contributing to anxiety and depression and making it harder for your body to cope with stress13 Unfortunately, due the hormonal response to stress in the body we also tend to crave sugar after a stressful experience14...
Mowbray argues that we can extricate ourselves from this mess by weaning ourselves off sugar. Although she is careful to insist that there is no current evidence proving that sugar is addictive, she warns many people do experience withdrawal symptoms and cravings, but that these gradually reduce with time. Apparently most people feel rubbish for about 3 - 4 days.15
So what do you have to do? Mowbray went cold turkey when she gave up sugar and she suggests this might not be appropriate for everybody. In Chinese Medicine the advise is always to make dietary changes gradually, but eventually you want to end up in a position where you cut out:
All added sugar including honey, agave syrup, maple syrup and the like Cordial and fizzy drinks. All processed foods, including sauces, dressings, stock cubes and jars of things Sugar cured fish such as gravadlax Cakes, biscuits, sweets, chocolate, puddings.
All artificial sweeteners (one long term study of 3682 people showed a 47% higher increase in BMI in those people who drank artificially sweeten drinks compared to those who didn't.16)
In general be careful to check labels to see when sugar has been added. Watch out especially for High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Here's what Nicole has to say about that: “It's a cheap, highly processed man-made type of sugar that's been combined with corn syrup to form a sweeter that is easy to mix into things – fruit juices, salad dressings, baked goods. It's quickly adsorbed by the liver, which turns it immediately to fat. And as another horrible little aside, as it's man-made, your body doesn't recognise HFCS as real food, so it never shuts off the part of you brain that controls huger cravings. You'll just carry on eating more and more and more”18. Definitely one to avoid...
A handy tip I learnt from the book, regarding label checking is this one: whatever the sugar content is in grams, divide it by four and that gives you a rough estimate of the number of teaspoons, this feels like a much easier way of visualising the real amount of sugar.
In Chinese Medicine refined sugar in particular is said to damage the Stomach and Spleen Qi and subsequently causes Damp. Those afflicted with Damp will initially feel tired, stagnant and sluggish, and may feel heavy and foggy. Damp also causes weight gain, excessive mucous, watery accumulations such a oedema and yeast infections such as candida. Eventually Damp can 'condense' to Phlegm which manifests in conditions such as cysts, tumour or mental illness.
Chinese Medicine does not on the whole suggest the removal of fruit from the diet but it does consider some fruits in particular to be Damp forming: pineapples, mangos and bananas for example. It seems to me no coincidence that these fruits are tropical, as food that is health
As I said, I did find this book helpful and would urge you to read it – even if you don't decide to cut out sugar altogether – it is still useful to take and honest look and see just how much of the stuff you are actually eating...
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Last Friday I spent an inspirational day with Dr. Wang at Lupton House in Brixham learning about Qigong and Tuina (a form of Chinese massage.)
Dr. Wang is a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctor, with a Tuina Major. He is also Vice-President of Shanghai's Martial Arts Association, and a first-class Master in the Traditional Chinese Arts of Taiji (Yang and Wu), Xing Yi, Ba Gua & Qi Gong (medical and martial). It was a real privilege to meet and learn from someone so immersed in wisdom.
He began by reminding us of the importance of looking after our own health. Although this may seem almost too obvious to worry about, as is often the way with Chinese Medicine when you look closer it becomes even more explicit. Dr Wang explained that in the end all pain is in fact the lack of flowing energy. In order to heal we must use our flowing Qi to encourage the flow in the patient. If the practitioners Qi is blocked or stagnant, this will lead to tenseness in their movements. The patient will feel the tenseness and they will not improve.
The practitioner will also draw the tenseness of the patient in and make them self ill.
With this in mind we then went on to learnt some very important exercise to awaken the body and keep the vital Qi flowing smoothly.
1.Starting in the same position as the warm up, bend the knees slightly and begin to swing the arms gently from side to side. Move head from side to side too. The movement should come from the upper back. Do not allow the knees or ankles to twist. Once you are swinging comfortably choose one side and use the opposite arm to swing across the body and slap the area just below the collar bone and just inside the the should joint with an open hand. Do this 10 times on one side and 10 to the other side.
2. For the second exercise continue swinging in the same way but this time you are going to make contact with the back of the body. You are aiming for the area just below the lower apex of the shoulder blade. This time use a closed fist. Again 10 on each side. Dr Wang told us this exercise affects all the internal organs because it activates the Bladder channel, which runs from your toes to your head and is closely linked to the nervous system. In Chinese Medicine the Dan Tien which is the area of the Bladder is know as the second mind.
3. In the third exercise we return to the front again. His time we are slapping the side of the abdomen, so that the heal of you fist is level with the belly button, finger pointing down. Open hand, 10 x each side. We were told this exercise warms up the gut and increases circulation to the the digestive system. This is especially important as we age. It also helps to strengthen the legs as in Chinese Medicine the legs are connected to the Spleen which is considered to be an important organ of digestion.
4. For the forth exercise we swing the arms behind the body again and are aiming to hit the outside of the opposite buttock with a closed fist. If you feel the outside of the buttock, there is a dip about a third of the way out from the middle that is often tender to pressure. This is where you are aiming. You may need to swing further for this one, rotating more from the waist but still make sure you do not twist the knees or ankles. 10 x each side. Dr. Wang explained that this exercise is very important for strength. It enlivens the Kidneys – the source of our original Qi. In Chinese Medicine it is Original Qi circulating in the blood that gives us life.
5. For the final exercise swing the arms over the front of the body and hit the area at the top of the shoulders between the neck and the bone with a closed fist. This area is often tense so start a little more gently!
This exercise helps to relax the whole shoulder and neck area.
yes OR no
Where as, in fact nature does not operate this way. As the Yin Yang symbol teaches us, everything is interconnected and relative, which actually leads to situations much more a kin to:
yes AND no
Dr Wang believes that we need to change our thinking and he claims that once internalised this small shift will change everything. This in itself is also vital for our health and happiness, he explained, as every thought that crosses our mind affect our nervous and endocrine systems, which in turn affects our organs, which will also affect our physical body. Changing the way we think can change our entire physiology. You can find out more about Dr Wang on his website: http://www.taijiwang.org/
Also a big thanks to Rita from Natural Tai Chi Devon for organising the event and sharing Dr Wang with us : ) http://www.naturaltaichidevon.co.uk/
Medicinal Properties of Elderberries and Recipes
Here's some of the wonderful stuff I learnt about elderberries... Thanks Dawn...
Throughout history the Elder has always been considered a magical medicine tree. However, recent advances have now been able to show us the science behind these ancient beliefs and prove there validity.
For example traditional herbal medicine has always considered elderberries to be helpful for colds and flu. It turns out that elderberries are indeed a very good anti-viral medicine.
Viruses are like microscopic, spiky balls. Their shapes varies but the characteristic spikes are universal. They get into your body – via the air, in water droplets and by direct contact.
Once in the body the viruses uses their spines to enter healthy cells and then replicate themselves from within the cell. That's what is going on when you get the flu...
The helpful active ingredient in elderberry is an anthocyanin. Anthocyanins are the pigments that colour fruits, flowers and leaves in autumn and there are about 200 different varieties. The one in elderberries is particularly powerful and has been shown in a Petri dish to engulfs virus, breaking off their spines and thus disabling them.
Although elderberries may not stop you getting ill, they can help to shorten illness and stop viruses from really taking hold. This may also reduce the risk of secondary bacterial infections, that are often a greater risk to health.
Studies carried out by Sumbucol - an elderberry syrup that you can buy from health food shops claims that their product is even effective against Swine flu...
As is often the way with herbal remedies the best time to take elderberry mixtures is during autumn / winter, which is also when they are available. It is preferable to take them daily as a preventative measure but you can also take them at the onset of a virus.
How to make Elderberry Syrup
If you need help identifying elderberries I have found a CBBC clip that is short and effective! How to identify elderberries and where to find them
2. Lay your berries outside on some old newspaper or the like for a hours or so, to allow any bugs to escape and then start to pick the berries off the storks. Leave any that aren't ripe or are still green, also avoid any that are particularly dirty.
3. Once there off, give them a good rinse in a colander. (If your making wine miss out this step and be extra careful selecting clean berries, you can't wash them as you want to preserve the natural yeasts.)
4. Next put them in a pan and add water until you can just see it seeping up between the top layer of berries. Put on a medium heat, bring to the boil lower the heat and simmer for around 20 minutes.
5. When it's cooled a little strain the berries off through a sieve, preferable lined with muslin. Crush the berries with the back of a spoon to get as much goodness out as possible. You can leave the whole thing to drip over night if you like and if you are using muslin you can also wrap the whole thing tight and squeeze. Warning – elderberry juice makes your hand/and nail beds go black so if you need to be presentable any time in the next week I suggest wearing gloves!
6. Now you need to measure out your juice. For every 500ml you need to add 250g of brown sugar. You can use honey or argava syrup instead if you like, but don't reduce the quantity as this ratio works as a preservative (If you are diabetic alcohol also works as a preservative so you may be better of making a tincture using vodka... See below)
7. Put the juice in a pan with the sugar and any solid spices that you have to hand e.g, cloves, cinnamon sticks, star anise, cardamom, all spice (This is supposed to help the medicinal proprieties of the syrup as the warming nature of the spices, helps to open up the capillaries, encouraging the distribution of the beneficial agents – It also makes it taste nice!)
8. Stir until the sugar is dissolved an then simmer for another 20 minutes
9. Once that's done you need to put the syrup into sterilise bottles. You you can sterilise using a solution such as Miltons or by putting clean glass bottles or jars in a cold oven. Next, set the temperature at 160°C once it reaches full heat, turn it off and leave the bottle in there for 20 minutes. You need to bottle the whilst both the syrup and the bottles (if using that method) are still warm but not so hot that you'll burn yourself.
And that's it! You can now use the syrup:
like you would a cough medicine – 1 teaspoon full every few hours
If you'd rather make elderberry wine I have found a link to a traditional old recipe that is super easy and doesn't require anything but elderberries and sugar...
Here's a link for making elderberry tincture and advice on dosage. You have to scroll down to find it.
Enjoy : )