Category Archives: Family and health

Why ‘good’ sleep is so important

UnknownIn today’s society we are expected to fit more and more into our lives. Yet this work-life balance struggle is causing many of us to trade in precious sleeping time to ensure we complete all the jobs expected of us. Sadly this is a ticking timebomb for our health.

Scientists now believe that if we sleep less than six hours a night and have disturbed sleep we stand a 48% greater chance of dying from heart disease and a 15 per cent greater chance of developing or dying from a stroke. So our ‘work hard, play hard’ society encourages us to sacrifice sleep to the detriment of our health.

More than 3.5million of us suffer from excessive sleepiness usually caused by poor sleep. Everyone has experienced the occasional night without sleep. It makes us feel tired and irritable the next day but won’t harm our health. After several sleepless nights however, the mental effects become more serious.

Brain fog, difficulty concentrating and inability to make decisions follow. Some people drop off during the day causing injuries at home, work and on the road. Long term lack of sleep affects our overall health. A recent Sleep Alliance Report showed how excessive sleepiness is damaging the health and economy of the nation. Sleep disorders are a major contributing factor to fatal road accidents, heart disease, strokes, lost productivity and the breakdown of marriages.

A recent Dutch study in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology showed that good quality sleep can reduce 57% of heart related deaths each year. It looked at the risk of chronic disease in 14,000 people over a 12 year period and showed that poor sleep is as important a risk factor for Cardiovascular Disease as other lifestyle factors such as being overweight or smoking.

Over 3.5 million people in the UK suffer from excessive sleepiness but what’s the answer. If you have trouble sleeping your first port of call should be your GP who will be able to advise you about what you can do at home to help you sleep. This is known as good sleep hygiene and includes:

  • establishing fixed times for going to bed and waking up (try to avoid sleeping in after a poor night’s sleep)
  • trying to relax before going to bed
  • maintaining a comfortable sleeping environment (not too hot, cold, noisy or bright)
  • avoiding napping during the day
  • avoiding caffeine, nicotine and alcohol late at night
  • avoiding exercise within four hours of bedtime (although exercise in the middle of the day is beneficial)
  • avoiding eating a heavy meal late at night
  • avoiding watching or checking the clock throughout the night
  • only using the bedroom for sleeping and sex

Disturbed sleep may be caused by snoring with more than 3.5 million of us being regular snorers. Snoring occurs because of the vibration generated as air rushes past the tissues of the mouth, nose and throat. When most people think of snorers they picture an overweight, beer drinking bloke. Yet snoring is not confined to men. Older women and children also snore. In fact after the menopause women catch up with their male counterparts.

Snoring can be caused by a number of factors. Being overweight often means you have extra fat around the throat which can stop air flowing smoothly. Sleeping on the back causes the tongue to fall back into the throat narrowing the airway. Colds and allergies can also trigger snoring as sufferers end up breathing through the mouth. Drinking too much alcohol or taking sleeping tablets at night can cause the throat muscles to relax.

‘People with respiratory disorders such as asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) are also more prone to snoring’ says Dr Matthew Hind who runs the Sleep Clinic at the Royal Brompton Hospital, London. Lifestyle changes such as losing weight can sometimes improve the problem. There are also a range of anti-snoring devices such as mouth guards and nasal strips which can help prevent snoring.

The health consequences of snoring can be serious. Around 6-7 per cent of men and 3-4 per cent of women have obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) where they repeatedly, stop breathing at night (see above). As well as daytime sleepiness and concentration problems, the condition is linked to a raised risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

‘We have to stop treating snoring as a bit of a joke. Snoring can affect all aspects of life if left untreated. It can cause excessive tiredness, poor concentration and relationship problems’ explains Dr Hind.


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Goodbye Asthma!

stock-photo-a-conceptual-look-at-asthma-and-the-problems-it-brings-145677698OK. It’s time I let everyone into a big secret. I have cured my asthma! Yes that word cure is a funny one isn’t it? Doctors don’t like it at all. When I told my GP I no longer wish to be registered as asthmatic and she could stop prescribing me inhalers she was genuinely shocked.

How had I done it she asked. Buteyko Breathing I replied. The look on her face was a picture. Clearly she had never heard about this alternative treatment for asthma (and incidentally, a whole raft of other health problems).

So who was Buteyko? Konstantin Buteyko was a Russian doctor who, in 1952, was the first scientist to discover the major cause of a number of diseases of the respiratory, hormonal, cardiovascular and nervous systems which were incurable by modern medicine.

Scientific trials of the method in the treatment of asthma in Russia during the 1960s and in Australia in the 1990s showed amazing results.  The secret of the method is correct breathing.

Sounds too good to be true but it is based on good science. Most of us breathe too deeply so we don’t take in enough carbon dioxide to enable our systems to absorb the oxygen we need. The Buteyko exercises aim to reprogramme our breathing and get rid of asthma forever.

In the only clinical trial carried out outside Russia, on 40 people in Australia in 1994, asthma sufferers who tried the Buteyko method reported a 90% reduction in their dependence upon medication. The results however were deemed controversial and the trial considered too small to be conclusive.

Well now I can report that it has worked for me. I have been doing the exercises for more than two years and can honestly say I have not used my inhaler in all that time. The exercises are tricky and need real persistence but once you get the hang of them, any time you feel that familiar wheezing start, simply find somewhere quiet, sit down and do the exercises and the wheezing will pass.

It can be frightening to begin with as it is not the quick fix an inhaler gives. But if you persevere it is a fantastic feeling to know that your own body has the ability to sort the problem out. As time goes on the attacks have grown fewer and fewer until now I very rarely have one and am confident I could deal with one if it did occur.

So how can you find out how this amazing breathing method works? One of the best known Buteyko therapists is Patrick McKeown who has a website at: There you will find everything you need to know about the method including YouTube clips of how to breathe correctly. It has been the best thing I have done in a long time and wanted to share this with my faithful SurgeryCat followers!

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How to be dementia friendly!

I am now officially a dementia friend.  Dementia Friends is a joint initiative between Alzheimer’s Society and Dementia UK to try and raise awareness of what exactly Dementia is. I duly registered online and turned up at the local library where Josette Simon (a very beautiful and talented actor) was ready to tell us all about how we could help.

I was a little bit nervous I would be asked to befriend someone with dementia. Both my parents lived with the condition and it was a very difficult time for all the family. However Josette had a lively way of describing why ‘there is more to a person than the dementia’.

She explained the five things we should all know about dementia. Firstly it is NOT a natural part of ageing. It is caused by diseases of the brain, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s. Dementia is more than just losing memory, it can affect thinking, communication and undertaking everyday tasks.

However, it is possible to live well with dementia-especially if everyone in society plays their part in being more understanding of those who have it and trying to make people with dementia feel included in their communities.

Josette, being a brilliant actor, had a fabulous way with words. She explained how dementia affects two main parts of the brain-the Hippocampus which is where we store our memories and the Amygdala which is really ‘who we are’.

She compared the Hippocampus to a rather shoddily built bookcase which when dementia strikes rocks back and forth displacing all the books. The books on the top shelves represent the most recent memories and the bottom bookshelf represents childhood memories.

She then compared the Amygdala to an extremely well built and solid oak bookcase which represents the ‘who we are’ bit. That does not change when dementia strikes. She then told a poignant story about someone whose mother was living with Alzheimer’s. Often she would wonder if it was worth visiting because her mother would soon forget her visit.

But once she understood about the ‘bookcase’ she realised that although her mum may have forgotten her visit she she still knew her daughter and what she meant to her. So although her memory might have been going she never forgot her family and the warm feelings they all evoked.

If I took away one thing from that meeting it was that dementia is not the frightening thing I once thought but that with a little help and understanding we can all be ‘imagesdementia friends’.

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Rubella as bad as measles

UnknownThe number of cases in the Swansea measles epidemic has reached 620, with health officials warning there is no sign of the outbreak coming to an end. The figure released this week is up 32 on last week, with up to 20 new cases being confirmed every day.
However, one grandmother is also warning young mums to immunise their babies with the MMR vaccine to prevent a new outbreak of rubella which caused her own son to be born blind, deaf and dumb.

Sufffolk based Liz Royle’s son Bruce is now in his forties but has the mental age of a small child and Liz has to provide 24 hour care for him because of his disability. ‘I caught rubella very early on in the pregnancy and was told it was too early to affect my unborn baby’ Liz explains.

When Bruce was born however it he spent the first three months of his life in hospital with cataracts and a heart condition. ‘In those days there was no vaccination against rubella-these days young mums have a choice and I do urge them to get their children vaccinated’ says Liz.

Experts are worried that just like measles, rubella could also re-emerge in the community. Takeup of the MMR vaccination currently stands at around 81% which is not enough to give what is known as ‘herd immunity’. ‘The effects of rubella on the unborn child include impairment to eyes, ears, heart, brain and nervous system’ says Royle.

SENSE-the charity which supports people who have disabilities caused by rubella-also warns of the risks. ‘Immunisation is the only way to protect against rubella. Avoiding people with rubella is not an effective way of protecting yourself from the disease and passing it on to your unborn child. The more children vaccinated the less chance rubella has of circulating’ a spokesperson said today.

Since the MMR vaccine was introduced in 1988 the numbers of children affected by rubella have fallen dramatically. However, the disease is still common in countries which do not have effective immunisation programmes. According to SENSE outbreaks can still occur especially if uptake levels of the MMR jab drop too low. ‘To prevent an outbreak it is essential most of the population are immune. The maths is easy-if the numbers of children who are immunised start to fall then rubella will reappear in the community’ says the charity.

One young mum left in no doubt about her decision to immunise both her children is Liz Royle’s daughter Sarah Speers. Sarah was pregnant with her own daughter when the MMR story first broke in the media and found it difficult to get the information she needed to make an informed decision. ‘The choice for me was never whether to vaccinate but whether single jabs were better for my baby’ she says.

Box copy/What is Rubella?

Rubella-also known as German measles-is a mild disease caused by a virus. Symptoms include swollen glands, sore throat and a slightly raised temperature-there may be a rash or discomfort in the joints.

The danger is catching it when you are pregnant because it is passed on to the unborn child. The disease then affects the ears, eyes, heart, brain and nervous system. Many children have hearing loss in one or both ears. Some babies are born with cataracts in one or both eyes.

Box copy/The Rubella controversy

A study published in 1998 suggesting there may be a link between MMR and autism was put forward by Dr Andrew Wakefield who was later drummed out of the NHS by the General Medical Council. However the repercussions of his research have been far reaching with many parents refusing to have their children immunised with the MMR vaccine for fear of them contracting autism or bowel disease.

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Healthy gums mean healthy arteries

Discussions about the link between oral health and heart disease has been rumbling on for many years. A study of over 11,000 people in Scotland in 2010 showed that poor oral hygiene was associated with higher risks of cardiovascular disease.

And now, new research shows there may be a connection between serious gum disease (periodontal disease) and the build up of fatty deposits on the lining of artery walls which can lead to blood clots causing atheroscelerotic disease (ASVD).

There have been more than 50 studies looking into whether periodontal disease puts people at greater risk of ASVD. In a recent assessment of all the literature the American Heart Association stated that the relationship between periodontal disease and ASVD is potentially a massive pubic health issue of because of the growing prevalence of gum disease in the general population.

Dr Brian Clapp from Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital London says the gum disease/heart disease link is interesting and complex. ‘Some argue that it is a direct effect of bacteria being involved in both processes. Most people including myself think that this is an epiphenomenon or a secondary symptom which may be unrelated to the original disease or disorder’ he says.

‘Nevertheless, there is no doubt that poor dental health correlates with an increased inflammatory state within the body (probably by a causal relationship) and this increased level of inflammation which can be measured by the increased levels of C-reactive protein in the blood, leads to increased atherosclerosis’ says Dr Clapp.

New research from Bristol University has recently shown that dental plaque may actually trigger blood clots in other parts of the body. Researchers found that streptococcus gordonii which normally inhabits the mouth can cause problems when it enters the bloodstream via bleeding gums. The theory is that the bacteria mimics the clotting factor, fibrinogen which in turn activates platelets causing them to clump together inside the blood vessels.

Signs of gum disease include:

Gums that bleed when you brush your teeth

  • Blood in your saliva
  • Red, swollen gums
  • Bad breath
  • Wobbly or loose teeth
  • Abscessed teeth
  • Tooth loss

The good news is that brushing your teeth properly and looking after your gums can prevent and treat gum disease, improve your overall health and help reduce your risk of health problems, such as heart disease. It’s important to have a routine of brushing your teeth for a full two minutes twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, plus cleaning between your teeth with floss or interdental brushes.

Chief Executive of the British Dental Health Foundation, Dr Nigel Carter, says: ‘The link between oral health and overall body health is well documented and backed by robust scientific evidence. Despite this, only one in six people realises that gum disease may place them at an increased risk of stroke or diabetes. And only one in three is aware of the heart disease link.’

Dr Carter recommends visiting your dentist and dental hygienist regularly for cleaning and check-ups. It’s especially important to look after your teeth and gums if you’re pregnant. NHS dental care is free for pregnant women and during the 12 months after you’ve given birth.

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Why seaweed is good for you

The humble seaweed is enjoying a renaissance

Most people associate seaweed with the crispy, salty appetisers served up at Chinese restaurants but seaweed was also once an important part of the British diet and was certainly used by herbalists to cure a variety of ailments from ulcers to cuts and grazes. Now thanks to the interest in artisan foods the wider health benefits of the humble seaweed are beginning to register.

Anecdotes abound about the healing properties of seaweed. Breton legend has it that the earliest seaweed farmers never worried about the cuts and abrasions they sustained during handling the knotted tangles of seaweed and kelp they were harvesting. They  knew that the wounds healed up with little or no treatment. Today nurses still use certain dressings which are impregnated with seaweed because it is known to promote rapid healing.

In North Ronaldsay the northernmost part of the Orkney Islands a particular breed of sheep have been found to suffer exceptionally low levels of disease. Their hardiness and resistance to disease has been attributed to their almost exclusive diet of seaweed. For years farmers have understood the nutritional benefits of seaweed in animal fodder. It is added to poultry feed to produce thicker eggshells and yellower yolks and is fed to some farmed mink as a fur conditioner.

The fact that animals are quite prepared to graze on seaweed has led researchers to investigate its nutritional qualities. Seaweeds are a rich source of vitamins such as carotene, fucoxanthin (a precursor to vitamin A) thiamine, riboflavin and vitamin B12. They also contain trace elements such as chromium, zinc, iron, potassium, manganese, boron and magnesium.

Because of their gelatinous quality they are frequently used as gelling agents in a variety of foodstuffs such as hamburgers, ice creams and yogurts. Carageenans which come from certain types of kelp are even used to maintain a frothy head on a pint of beer. Dulse is still popular in Ireland where it is often mixed with potatoes and butter adding a salty, savoury flavour to fried potato. In Brittany it’s boiled with kelp to make pain d’algues-seaweed bread which you can now find in many an artisan bakery.

There have been umpteen clinical studies on the possible uses of seaweed in obesity, cholesterol and blood pressure lowering and even cancer. A US study showed that a diet containing kelp lowers levels of the potent sex hormone oestradiol in rats and raised hopes that it might also decrease the risk of oestrogen-dependent diseases such as breast cancer in humans.

The results, published in the American Journal of Nutrition shed new light on the Japanese diet-10% of which is comprised of seaweed. It may also explain why Japanese women have such a low incidence of oestrogen dependent cancers such as breast, ovarian and endometrial cancer. Prior studies have shown that Japanese women have longer menstrual cycles and lower oestradiol levels than their Western counterparts and it has long been accepted that longer menstrual cycles are linked to lower risks of breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers.

The type of seaweed used in the US study was Fucus Vesiculosis or bladderwrack-the sort of brown seaweed so common on the beaches of Wales and the South West coast of England. It is closely related to its Japanese cousins wakame and kombu. ‘The most profound discovery was that women with endometriosis and severe menstrual irregularities experienced significant improvement in their symptoms after just three months of taking 700 mg of seaweed capsules a day’ says Dr Chris Skibola of the School of Public Health University of California, Berkeley. ‘In the past soya has been cited as the key player in why Japanese women have such low rates of breast cancer. However this new study suggests it could be the seaweed which plays a protective role’ she adds.

For more than twenty years Japanese scientists have run more than 500 clinical trials to discover whether there are elements in seaweed which could suppress the growth of tumour cells. As long ago as 1996 researchers at the Japanese biomedical group Takara Shuzo discovered the polysaccharide known as U-fucoidan which appeared to cause cancer cells to self destruct. Their research showed that when a small amount of fucoidan was added to a culture of colon cancer cells half of them died within 24 hours and the rest were completely eliminated after 72 hours.

Fucoidan studies have been reported in a range of highly respected journals such as the Journal of Molecular Immunology and the British Journal of Pharmacology and Infectious Immunology. Fucoidan has been shown to have a chemical composition closely resembling human breast milk and may also work on other levels to enhance immunity, fight allergies, inhibit blood clotting, decrease cholesterol, lower blood pressure and improve liver function.

In June 1998 the same Japanese researchers discovered that another oligosaccharide found in red seaweed could not only cause human cancer cells to self destruct but could suppress cancer when administered orally in mice. Recent Canadian research shows that certain types of seaweed may inhibit the absorption of lead, cadmium and strontium which could have applications for patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Author Mary Beith who wrote Healing Threads-a book describing the traditional medicines of the highlands and islands of Scotland says that Dulse which is one of the most common seaweeds in this area has long been used in childbirth, to cure goitres and for ulcers. She also tells a marvellous anecdote about an army officer who developed terrible stomach ulcers. ‘They became so painful the army doctors could do nothing for him. In fact eventually he was sent home to Scotland to live out his last few months. A local herbalist fed him on a diet of dulse and he went on to live for many decades afterwards and became a local legend!’ she says.

There may even be an application for seaweed in the ongoing fight against obesity. Native Hawaiians who tend to be stocky and overweight experience very little heart disease or other health problems and attribute their good health to a diet containing plenty of their native kelp known as Limu.

It is worth noting however that kelp contains high levels of iodine which can be toxic at high levels. So don’t rush down to the shoreline to harvest your own supply of seaweed- better to rely on the stuff you buy in your local health food store!

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Why I have a tiny umbrella in my heart

One in four at risk of little known heart defect

One in four people in the UK has a heart defect known as a patent foramen ovale or PFO. In most people it causes no problems but in some people it can put them at risk of a stroke as I discovered two years ago.

I have to admit I had never heard of this particular heart defect but I am really glad I found out that I had one. Two years ago I was enjoying a well deserved holiday on a Greek island when I had a stroke totally out of the blue. It happened in my sleep so I had no idea until I awoke to find I was paralysed down my left side.

Being treated in a Corfu hospital was a hell of an experience. When we arrived in the lobby it was teeming with all humanity and so noisy we could barely make ourselves heard. Nevertheless I cannot fault the doctors there who followed all the correct procedures and ensured I fully recovered apart from a numb thumb!

On my return to the UK exhaustive tests showed no obvious cause which meant it was branded a ‘cryptogenic stroke’. I was lucky enough to finally be referred to the top stroke physician in the UK, Professor Tony Rudd at St Thomas’ Hospital, London.

He was immediately on the case. He told me my stroke may have been caused by atrial fibrillation-where the heart beats erratically. Stroke is believed to be up to 17 fold higher in those with this condition. I was duly fitted with a 24 hour heart monitor but all was found to be functioning normally.

Next Professor Rudd wanted to see whether I might have this heart defect which is present in one in four of the general population. This was the first time I had ever heard of a patent foramen ovale and I was a bit skeptical that it could have caused my stroke.

All babies in the womb have a small tunnel in the heart wall that divides the two upper chambers known as a foramen ovale. This hole usually closes up soon after the baby is born but sometimes it fails to do so and is then known as a patent foramen ovale or PFO.

Usually it causes no problems but where someone has had a stroke with no known cause, doctors sometimes look for it. Professor Rudd recommended I have a ‘bubble’ test to check.

And so it was I found myself in a room hooked up to a computer and being injected with agitated saline. One doctor pumped the bubbles into my veins whilst the other watched on the screen to see if the bubbles crossed through this possible hole in my heart.

It was clear from both their faces I was a textbook case-hundreds of bubbles were crossing freely through the hole. The theory is that I may have had a tiny clot from the plane journey which would normally have dissolved in the lungs, but because of the hole travelled to my brain.

So what next? I was told there was a procedure known as percutaneous PFO closure which would close the hole in my heart permanently. Although there is no evidence to show it would prevent another stroke it seemed likely that had it caused my first one it would at least be preventative.

I was frankly terrified of having the op but logic told me that the hole was not meant to be there and had already caused me problems so why not close it? I agreed to have the op and was booked in for the day after my birthday.

I was taken down into the bowels of the hospital where the cath lab is situated. This is where they do all these marvellous things with minute wires which they pass through the groin and up into the heart. I was lucky enough to have the very best the NHS can offer. Dr Brian Clapp consultant cardiologist at Guys and St Thomas NHS Foundation Trust, London.

He is an expert in all types interventional cardiac procedures and uses the very latest cutting edge technology to perform what appears to be cardiological wizardry.

The procedure itself is normally done under X-ray guidance as a catheter is passed into the femoral vein in the groin. Then a wire is loaded with a device which looks like two tiny cocktail umbrellas, each the diameter of a 2p piece.

This is then passed through the catheter whilst tracked on screen and into the defect. When it reaches the defect the umbrella is deployed either side of it and once everything is positioned correctly the tubing is removed.

The Amplatzer device is the one Dr Clapp used in my op. It is inert and over time the body’s own tissues grow over it healing the hole. It usually takes around six months following the procedure. Although the procedure can be done without general anaesthetic some patients like me prefer to be knocked out!

The operation lasted about an hour and a half. When I woke up in my room my groin felt a bit sore but I felt fantastic. Apparently all had gone well and the device had implanted successfully. I got a wonderful night’s sleep and the next day I was able to walk out of hospital and get the bus home – I felt truly glad to be alive.

What is the evidence for PFO closure?

Although one in four adults has a PFO the prevalence of this particular defect amongst patients who have had a stroke with no known cause (cryptogenic stroke) is more like 60%.

Normally blood travels out of the right side of the heart through the lungs which filter out any debris and clots in the blood before it returns to the heart on the left side.

However, in people with a PFO when the hole opens up it allows the blood to travel straight from the right to the left side. Blood clots can then get through this opening to the brain potentially making them more at risk of stroke.

There is no clinical evidence to show conclusively that PFO closure has more benefit in reducing the recurrence of strokes than medication alone. However, there is a body of opinion which believes that in some cases where there has been no cause found for a stroke that there may still be a good reason to carry out percutaneous PFO closure.

The largest and most recent study into PFO closure was known as Closure 1 and compared stroke patients who remained on blood thinning medication alone and those who had PFO closure.

There was no significant benefit shown in those who had the PFO closure although the trial was limited to 2 years of follow up and used a device which has since been withdrawn. The RESPECT trial which is similar to Closure 1 is due to report towards the end of October.

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