Immune Health During Winter

Cold and flu season is here again, along with the extra challenges this year of covid and rhinovirus as the world opens again, increasing the exposure of Australians to illnesses that we’ve managed to avoid for a couple of years. 

In addition to the usual precautions of vaccinations, hand washing and mask wearing as appropriate there are diet and lifestyle factors that you can add into your routine if you haven’t already that will help you sail through these challenges with as little disruption as possible.

Rest

Lack of sleep can decrease your immunity, making you more likely to become sick if exposed to an infection and affecting how long it takes you to recover after getting sick.  During sleep your body releases proteins called cytokines, which are needed if there is inflammation or infection or when you’re under stress.  Lack of sleep may decrease the production of cytokines.  Infection fighting antibodies and immune cells are suppressed when you are not getting enough sleep.

Prolonged stress can also have a negative impact on immunity.  Stress is the physiological or psychological response to challenging circumstances.  The immune system functions in response to stress.  Acute stress over a few minutes rallies the immune system and clotting factors in preparation for injury or infection.  Chronic stress, which can last from days to years, leads to a high amount of these pro-inflammatory substances that are ordinarily meant to protect you in the short-term floating around in the blood stream for days, or years.  This leads to an increased risk of chronic illnesses, such as atherosclerosis, or auto-immune disease, or reactivation of latent viruses.  (That’s why people tend to get cold sores while they’re stressed!)  Also, stress affects our brain chemistry, destabilising happy neurotransmitter serotonin, 90% of which is made in our gut (not our brains).  Around 70% of our immune surveillance occurs in our digestive systems, so a chemical destabilisation on that level in the gut will of course affect our immune systems.

The way to look after yourself and support your immune system, especially in winter and during the pandemic as we ride the peaks and troughs of COVID surges is to really prioritise rest.  Do the things that calm you.  Go to bed early.  Develop practices and routines that nurture your mental and physical health.  Your immune system will thank you.

I have written about how to get better sleep.  Here are my recommendations on Good Sleep Hygiene and I also wrote about tips for better sleep for people who are Wired and Tired

Dietary Suggestions

Starting your day with a meal of complex carbohydrates including oatmeal, whole grains nuts and fruits leaves you feeling fuller for longer, which will stabilise your blood sugar and your mood, enabling you to maintain focus for longer.  Complex carbohydrates include both soluble and insoluble fibre and starch.  Insoluble fibre promotes bowel health and regularity and support insulin sensitivity.  Soluble fibre dissolves in water and forms a gel that moves slowly through the gut, where it is used as a food source for good gut bacteria.  It also has been found to reduce blood cholesterol and improves blood glucose control. 

Oats in particular are highly nutritious, being rich in manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, ion, zinc and Vitamins B1 and B5.  Coats contain beta glucans, a soluble fibre that reduces LDL and total cholesterol, reduces blood sugar and feeds the good bacteria in the gut.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, oats build and regulate qi energy, making it excellent for nurturing people who are nervous, run down or recovering from illness.

Vitamin C and Zinc work together to support healthy immune systems.  Both are used to make healthy mucous membranes and collagen, improving the barrier functions in the body.  Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that strengthens blood vessels, especially if eaten in the form of citrus fruit with some of the white pith still on. 

If you wanted to read more about how elevated blood sugar and vitamin C affects immunity I have written a great article here.

Food sources of vitamin C are citrus fruits, kiwi, berries, broccoli, pumpkin, sweet potato and spinach.  Frozen is fine if that’s what you can get, as it’s often cheaper and snap frozen while at optimum nutrient levels. 
Food sources of zinc – meat, shellfish, dairy, legumes and nuts

Vitamin D deficiency is still quite high among Australians especially in the middle of winter.  It helps the body to absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus, making it very important for bone health.  Vitamin D also reduces inflammation and helps control infections by modulating the innate and adaptive immune response.   Vitamin D levels in our bodies fluctuate with the seasons, with the levels typically being highest during the Summer and lowest during the Winter, which would relate to sun exposure and the amount of skin we have uncovered during those times.  It comes as no surprise then that we are more vulnerable to infections during the cooler months as the Vitamin D levels in our bodies naturally decline.

Sources of Vitamin D – sun exposure as per Australian Cancer Council guidelines and foods such as eggs, mushrooms, fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) and fortified milk.

In winter we are more like to crave more comfort foods that are high in sugar and saturated fat, such as pastries and the good old mac and cheese.  This is because energy dense foods warm you up quickly, but it’s important that we choose energy dense foods that are nutrient dense as well.  Healthy fats such as omega 3’s, omega 6’s and poly unsaturated fats reduce over-eating by helping us feel full for longer and they are very useful within the body for good heart health, healthy cells and maintaining hormone function.  Omega 3’s, omega 6’s and poly and monounsaturated fatty acids are important to immunity as a source of energy, as structural components of cell membranes, as signalling molecules and as precursors for the synthesis of white blood cells and other chemical mediators utilised by the immune system.

Sources of Omega 3 fatty acids are oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines)

Sources of Omega 6 fatty acids – nuts (especially walnuts), seeds (chia seeds) and olives

Monounsaturated fats – avocado, almonds, hazelnuts and pecans, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds

Polyunsaturated fats – flaxseed oil, sunflower oil, walnuts, flax seeds, fish

Fermented foods help populate the gut with a wide range of healthy and diverse microbes, which maintain good digestive health.  This is important in supporting immunity as the digestive system is an important barrier for protecting us from the rest of the world, protecting us from disease and infection, with up to 70% of our immune function, both innate and adaptive, taking place in the digestive system. 

Sources of probiotics – yoghurt, kim chi, sauerkraut, miso, kefir,

There are also foods that specifically support immunity because of the nutrients, antioxidants and phytochemicals they contain which reduce inflammation in our bodies.  These are onions, garlic, ginger, turmeric, chilli (check out my Vege Curry for a recipe that includes all of these ingredient), fresh herbs, spices, blueberries, apples, dark green leafy vegetables, beetroot (Click here for my beetroot Borscht recipe) and mushrooms of all kinds.  When choosing fruit and veg to eat to support immunity, choose those which are brightly coloured and eat a wide variety of different colours to make sure all the bases are covered.

Ethics in the Age of Aquarius

I don’t know about you, but I have been noticing an upswing in the prevalence and practice of New Age modalities over the past couple of years. Crystals are back, so is witchcraft, flotation tanks, moon worship, astrology, numerology, aromatherapy good vibes and so on. 70s boho and 90s New Age pop culture had a baby, and here it is in the 2020s, wearing active wear and being called Wellness.

Which is cool. I’m a 90s teenager who grew up to become a naturopath with her own medicinal herb garden and massage clinic. It’s very much a part of my bones.

I don’t see anyone talking about being eco conscious or sustainable with their New Age practices though, and this is a group of people you could reasonably assume would be into that kind of thing. We’ve eco-ed everything else from drinking straws to park benches, and yet here we are, not paying attention. New Age philosophy has been co-opted by good old post millennium consumerism (buying more stuff will make you a better person!) and greenwashing and not getting examined with the more critical lens that we’ve been taught to look at everything else over the past decade or so.

CRYSTALS

First of all, there is no such thing as an ethically sourced crystal. The person who dug it out of the ground was not paid a living wage, and neither was the person who shaped it. It was then shipped from the other side of the planet (see also: food miles) and a lot of crystals are mined in countries where the people are very poor. Mining is never good for the environment or the local habitat. No-one can grow food over a great big hole in the ground. I used to buy crystals myself until I read this article, and then I just felt so embarrassed and ashamed of myself that I haven’t bought one since. I wouldn’t buy diamonds and I have diligently recycled every bit of single use plastic that comes into my life for years, and here I was, completely ignoring a very glaring, sparkly problem in what I had been consuming.

For alternatives to using crystals for healing (because I am not here to ruin everyone’s good time or talk about problems without offering solutions) might I suggest oracle cards, tarot, meditation, exercise, yoga, reiki, breath work, making mandalas out of found objects (so long as you aren’t in a protected area), exploring sacred geometry, prayer, mindfulness, flower essences or forest bathing (also known as shinrin yoku)

ESSENTIAL OILS

Similarly, essential oils are problematic as heck, and I say that as someone who LOVES aromatherapy, worked for one of the retail companies for years and has used essential oils every day since I was 18 (which is a laughably long time ago now). First of all, they are used as an industry that is driven by profit, just like any other, and there are massive profits at stake here (predicted to hit $11.6B in 2022). The biggest profits seem to be made by companies who use the Multi-Level Marketing sales model, which primarily exploits the social connections of underemployed women, most typically wives of defense personnel and religious women who tend to be stay at home mums. It encourages them to think they are Girlbosses running their own businesses for the company, when in reality they are at best a sales rep, and they are certainly not earning the hourly wage they would get working any other job, where they would also be protected by the local labour laws. These companies tell their sales people (who almost always have had no independent training in aromatherapy and are actively discouraged by the companies from seeking it out, or even reading books not written by someone associated with the company) that only their brand is the one that has therapeutic benefits, and one company in particular tells their hashtag girlbosses and customers that they have this badge on all their product labels to prove it, when no other company has that badge, quietly omitting that they trademarked that badge which they own and made up and that it would be straight up illegal for another brand to use it. I mean, that badge is a good thing, it denotes quality testing, which is essential in a massive global corporation, but it’s the same thing that all good essential oils companies do with less fanfare, usually called a Certificate of Analysis. Perfect Potion has a link on their website where you can enter the batch number and look at it yourself.

If we step away from business and marketing, it takes an absurd amount of raw plant material to make essential oils. Eg: to get a pound of essential oil, you need 10,000 pounds of rose petals, 250 pounds of lavender, 6,000 pounds of lemon balm, 1,500 lemons, and so on, and that’s if the oil is pure and unadulterated. That is a lot of resources used in farming that much product, such as land clearing, water, fertilisers and pesticides, and the cost of human labour, because again these oils can come from some very far flung places so are the workers paid a living wage and are they looked after? Or are the plants harvested from the wild? (which is called wildharvesting or wildcrafting) Then not just the one plant might be harvested, but maybe the entire area where that plant is found could be stripped bare, because obviously the company wants the largest profit in the quickest possible time. Or, if it’s a tree that needs to be cut down to get the essential oil out of its wood or heart wood, is it being replanted? How long did it take for that tree to grow to that size? What happens to the surrounding area even if a new tree is planted every time another is cut down? Old growth forests are invaluable to the local ecosystem, they have more nesting hollows than younger trees, they protect soils, and can supply more water to streams than younger forests. They help forestall climate change by storing more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem. Should we really be chopping them down just to squeeze out the oil into a wee glass bottle to then slosh around in service of our own personal wants?

The owner of Australian aromatherapy company Perfect Potion, teacher and author of several books, Salvatore Battaglia, recently wrote a great article about sustainability and essential oil use, and listed the plants commonly used in aromatherapy that are now so endangered by our overuse that they’re on the Red List.

Here is a big New Yorker long read if you wanted to go deeper into aromatherapy.

So what do we do, as essential oils lovers, now that we’ve taken that information on board? We use less. Fewer drops, simpler formulas, select carefully when we use them. I have noticed that even among aromatherapy teachers, the newer teachers will recommend abundant, lavish use in many different ways and the teachers who have been around since the eighties have cycled through that and now almost unanimously recommend that you choose one oil, and use one drop. When choosing oils, we can choose the oils more easily farmed, more locally grown, from smaller companies, from parts of the plant that are easily re-grown every year (leaves, fruits, twigs, seeds), that require less raw plant material to get the essential oil end product. We can get our floral essential oils as a 3% dilution rather than a much more expensive and harder to use absolute, which is 100%. We can investigate the companies we buy from and look into their labour practices.

We can use the plant itself rather than the essential oil, which is probably safer for us anyway. Lemon wedges instead of lemon essential oil in water, oregano herb in our cooking instead of oregano essential oil, lavender flowers in our baths, cut flowers that we grew ourselves in vases in our houses. Drink herbal teas. Hydrosols, which are the distilled waters left over after that essential oil has been extracted out of the plant material are also aromatic, still have therapeutic effects and are a great, safe, inexpensive alternative to using essential oil. They can be used as mists, sprays, added to body care products, added into baths, in compresses, and in food and drinks. You can even very easily make your own hydrosols at home.

SMUDGING

Smudging is a traditional ceremony of purification or cleansing on the soul of negative thoughts of a person or place. Ceremonies involving smoke or fire are practiced by First Nations peoples all around the world, but the kind most commonly practiced by white girls on Instagram most predominantly uses the accoutrements of North American and Canadian native culture. A chat about cultural appropriation and New Age practices can wait for another day (because hoo boy) but the big problem that we should all have with how smudging is practiced is the plant material used.

White sage is typically used in commercially available smudging supplies, which is native to California, was widely used by the traditional owners and used to cover the land. Used to. You can see where this is going, can’t you.

“Within the last half decade, white sage has started to be used non-traditionally by people outside of Native American culture which is seen as cultural appropriation. Culprits are most commonly millennials and generation Z who are using it to cleanse their homes from bad energy and spirits. It is being sold in large quantities by many corporations including Walmart and Anthropologie, a retail clothing store. This use has pushed the plant to be over harvested and begin to become endangered.”
By Alina Croft in a larger article on the topic

White sage is also one of those plants that gets labelled “wild harvested” (which in this case can mean stolen from a nature preserve by poachers)

So don’t use white sage for smudging. Just about any aromatic plant will do. A lot of them have eons old associations with spirituality and ceremony of their own as well. Rosemary. Lavender. Bottlebrush. Lemon myrtle. Thyme. You can also find white sage plants for sale from reputable herb growers. I found mine at All Rare Herbs. Here is how to make your own smudging sticks. Going DIY with your spiritual practices is surely going to add to your connection to what you are doing, so go grow, gather, pray over them, sing to them, dry them, care for them, get your hands dirty.

WHY DO WE DO THIS?

Now that I’ve been working on this article for a couple of weeks, I’ve had time to climb down from the original frustration that got me started and have had time to listen to other people talking about the same thing. I think the reason why we seek out spiritual practices that involve a lot of objectively environmentally and/or ethically bad paraphernalia is that I think we’re looking for connection and for the sense that we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves. A lot of us are so divorced from the original culture and land that our ancestors came from that we feel the need to reach out for something else instead (and of course the most familiar way for us is to buy it). A lot of our ancestors were also driven by the predominant cultures around them to assimilate, and we just have to see what the differences between first generation immigrants and their children to guess how powerful this must be over several generations. My last lot of relatives got off the boat 150 years ago and until recently I could not have told you what parts of the UK and Europe they were originally from, and I have a genealogist in the family. So of course we don’t have their old stories, superstitions and myths, things that would have shaped who they were long ago, and no wonder non-indigenous people today have lost their connection to the earth.

In closing, I think we do need to be kind to ourselves. I think there’s grief that comes with that loss of connection that isn’t being really looked at. We have all also been raised in a capitalist society and have been brainwashed from birth to believe that if we want the shiny thing, we should have it instantly. We are all raised to be addicted to buying more stuff to try and fix our problems. The entire Wellness industry is based around Buy More Stuff. Learning how to be more anti-consumerist takes a long time and dedicated effort, and it’s something that not everyone is willing to commit to or think much about. If you do want to start for yourself in general, there are a lot of anti-consumerist resources online, and if you live in Ipswich, Queensland, there is my beloved Unconsumers Ipswich Facebook group, where people offer up things that are useless to them that other people might want in an attempt to keep things out of landfill.

If you want to read a scientific paper on the link between anti-consumerism and environmentalism and whether they can be successful in a capitalist society, you can go here.

And maybe you don’t care about all of this and are just going to keep going over-using New Age supplies without paying attention to the further cost of these decisions on the planet. I can’t tell you what to do. But if you’re going to call on the spirits, fairies, fae, energies, Mother Gaia, the Green Man, elements or ancestors to help you, maybe don’t do things that will annoy them first. I am yet to come across any story where a take, take, take mentality pleases any one of them. They might perhaps be more amenable to helping you if you developed a deeper connection to the land you’re standing on and what is around you instead.

Clove oil for killing mould

So it may have a history of being an old wives tale, but oil of cloves (as found in the first aid section of your local chemist), or clove essential oil (these are both the same thing) can be used to help remove or even kill mould in humid environments, such as what we’re experiencing right now. I have personally had great success in using 5 drops of clove oil in a 125ml spray bottle of water, sprayed on and then left for 20 minutes before wiping off with a clean damp cloth. I have used this on walls, doors and the outside of a fridge door. My mother found great success with it on her high ceilings when she lived on an island, where of course mould was a constant problem. I thought I would look further into it

First of all, mould is everywhere. It’s in every breath you take, everything you touch, everything you wear and it is an important part of our environment. The problem is of course that it can cause health problems and property damage in excess so is of course best got rid of when seen and in general we should take steps to minimise the growth of mould around our homes.

To make an ideal environment for mould to grow it must have still air, warmth, moisture and darkness. Obviously good ventilation in our bathrooms really helps reduce mould production, as does getting on top of any leaks in the home as soon as possible. Mould also needs a food source, such as building materials. Spores can lay dormant for many years, so in general it is best to not panic about trying to eradicate mould entirely.

Right now, after a flood and a lot of rain we may be waiting a while to get someone to make repairs to our homes. Clove oil can come in handy when complete removal of the source is not yet an option

Most commercial cleaners rely on chlorine bleach, which doesn’t kill mould spores effectively (1, 2) it will just bleach the visible mould white while the spores will continue to grow under the surface. Clove oil has been found to kill the mould spore, meaning that it will clean the surface and drastically reduce recurrence in the future.

Clove oil is an essential oil extracted from the spice we are all familiar with, cloves. The active ingredient in clove oil is eugenol, at around 83.5%, which is a potent anti-bacterial, anti-fungal agent that has been found to be useful in breaking up biofilms. There has been a study done that have shown that clove oil can prevent growth of fungi (of which black mould is one) 100% over 24 hours – see table 7 and discussion.

I could not find studies for the effectiveness of clove oil against Stachybotrys chartarum, the specific species of fungi that the black mould in our houses is, as most of the research seems to be focused on medical and food applications, from fighting candida to preventing our fruit from spoiling before it gets to us. I did find one review article that examined the anti-fungal qualities of essential oils for improving air quality around us in our homes that is quite interesting. It found within the more robust studies that clove oil had anti-fungal activity comparable to commercial disinfectants, and was the most potent anti-fungal when compared to an extensive list of other essential oils. This review article does not discuss using clove oil on a specific area to treat mould in the way that I have personally used it myself. I found another study that examined the anti-fungal activity of lavender, eucalyptus and clove essential oils that found that clove oil had the broadest spectrum of activity and lasted the longest time. All of these essential oils were found to be more effective than commercially available anti-fungal agents.

So with all of that said, and the research I am presenting just being the fruits of an afternoon’s reading and by no means exhaustive, if you do decide to use clove oil to kill mould in your homes, here are the instructions from cleaning expert Shannon Lush:

  • VERY IMPORTANT! FOLLOW THESE RECIPES AND DO NOT EXCEED RECOMMENDATIONS. CLOVE OIL, LIKE MOST ESSENTIAL OILS CAN DAMAGE SURFACES, MELT PLASTIC AND ETCH INTO METAL IF USED IN EXCESS. THE RECOMMENDED AMOUNT IS ENOUGH. MORE IS NOT BETTER.
  • For HARD SURFACES (excluding marble or limestone) use 1 quarter teaspoon of clove oil per 1 litre of water in a spray bottle shaken well before each use and lightly mist over the surface. Leave for 20 minutes to 24 hours and then wipe over with white vinegar
  • For LEATHER or TIMBER put 1 quarter teaspoon of clove oil in 250ml of baby oil, shake well, put a couple of drops on a clean cloth and then wipe over the mould affected surface
  • To remove mould from SOFT SURFACES like FABRICS, you need to use salty water. 1kg of uniodised salt per bucket of water, stirred with your hand until it dissolves. Soak the fabric over night, hang on the line in the sun while dripping wet and allow it to slowly dry. The slower the better because as the salt crystals regrow it will push apart the fabric fibres, pulling the mould out with it, making it easier for the mould to be brushed off once the fabric is dried
  • If removing mould from CANVAS and AWNINGS, dip a broom in the same salt and water solutions, brush it onto the surface and allow to dry in the sun before brushing off.

Poached eggs over tomatoes recipe

Sometimes, especially after a long day I make a very lazy version of the traditional Turkish recipe called Menemen, which is essentially eggs over sauteed tomatoes and green peppers. I took very loose inspiration from this (though you should definitely try the traditional version at some point) and usually make the following:

Per serve:

Ingredients:

2 eggs
2 large tomatoes, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
Olive oil
Dried oregano
Dried marjoram
Harissa spice mix
2 slices dark rye bread
Salt and pepper to taste

Method:

  1. In a fry pan over moderate heat sautee garlic for a minute or so in olive oil. Add tomato, herbs, spices, salt and pepper and sautee until softened but not until dry
  2. Toast the bread once your tomatoes start getting soft
  3. Crack eggs one at at time and then make a hollow in the tomato mix (one hollow per egg). Pour eggs carefully into these hollows one at a time. Cover pan with a lid to poach the eggs until the white is soft and the yolk is still runny.
  4. To serve, put your toast on a plate, cover toast with some of tomato mixture and then carefully put poached eggs on top. Salt and pepper to taste. Fresh green parsley or basil finely chopped on top if you have them. Enjoy!

Nutritional Breakdown for 2 eggs:

Calories 433
Fat 25g
Carbs 33g
Fibre 6g
Sugar 2g
Protein 20g
Cholesterol 372mg
Sodium 538mg
Vitamin A 3962IU
Vitamin C 36mg
Calcium 140mg
Iron 6mg

Tips for getting ready in case someone in your house gets COVID

With the Omicron variant COVID cases surging again I have spent the past few days preparing in case I get it even though I am vaccinated, so I thought I would come on here and chat about possible ideas that might be helpful for you.

The Queensland government have an excellent resource for how to get ready based on the specific needs of various different groups. They also have a handout for how to prepare a covid-ready kit with emergency numbers on it that can be stuck on your fridge. Add the number of your GP.

Here is the link on how to get the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment in Queensland through the Australian Government, if you or someone in your household has COVID and you’ve been ordered to stay home. Please get tested and get in contact with Queensland Health or your GP if you think you have COVID. Omicron is currently the dominant strain, and yes it is much less fatal than Delta, but Delta is still around 25% of cases and I have concerns about people just staying home and not getting in contact with anyone and being far more in danger than they realise.

In addition to these very helpful pieces of information I have been thinking about specific ways to make dealing with COVID in the home as painless as possible. I also feel less anxious knowing that I have done what I can to be ready, in much the same way that in Queensland we get ready for storm season. I personally don’t want someone I love to be exposed to the virus just because I wasn’t ready. Plus, once you’ve been giving the stay at home orders there’s no popping in to the shops on the way home.

So once you’ve gotten together your thermometer, pain relief meds like paracetamol (which will also bring down a fever), a decent supply of your usual medications, two weeks worth of food for yourself and any pets and your COVID care plan, and if needed a COVID care plan for parents and guardians and children, what else?

I personally like the idea of keeping any prescriptions in a plastic pouch that can be easily wiped down with your covid care plan(s) and put in an easy to find place, like on your fridge, until they are needed. Nobody wants to scratch around in the handbag of a COVID patient looking for prescriptions.

Visualise what would be needed throughout the day if someone in your house got COVID and you had to quarantine there. Would the sick person get the bedroom with the ensuite? Do you need to clear out the spare room? Do you all share a bathroom? If so you have enough anti-bacterial wipes to give it a wipe down after every use? Should you be storing the towels being used somewhere else? I was speaking to someone whose son lives in a share house of eight people and one of them got COVID, meaning two of them had to quarantine. They even put up plastic sheeting dividing the quarantined part of the house off, so if that’s something that might need to be considered at your house you might want to consider picking up some plastic drop cloths and tape.

If it’s you looking after someone who is sick, you might want to get rubber gloves to wear while washing up, and maybe a serving tray so that the food can be left outside their door. Just go through the process of what would need to be done at your house step by step.

Other thought I have had:

  • Clear away clutter to make surfaces easier to wipe down on short notice
  • Hang washing out in the sun to dry
  • Think about things that would increase your comfort if you were sick. Perhaps a thermos. Your favourite tea. A serving tray with legs so it can be sat across your lap (I have seen these both at Tivity and Kitchentopia in town) or a Stable Table.
  • Do a stocktake of your fridge and pantry and see what staples you’re running low on so you can be very specific with your grocery shopping. Do you have enough soap, hand sanitiser, disinfectant, etc?
  • Get new fabric masks. In Queensland we have been under a mask mandate for a lot of 2021, which means if you wear fabric masks the ones you have been using have been washed frequently, making them less effective over time. Omicron being a fresh menace means it’s probably time for a mask refresh. Don’t forget to snip the elastic before they go in the bin so wildlife can’t get themselves stuck.
  • Fill up your freezer with healthy, ready to be reheated frozen meals. I have just made a lot of chicken soup. I will link my recipe here for those of you who aren’t confident in the kitchen. It is inexpensive and easy, it just takes a bit of time.
  • Explain to the kids what would happen if anyone gets sick. Discuss it as a family. Uncertainty only adds to distress, so have a plan. Find out if the kids are worried about anything in particular and discuss that too, rather than leaving them to worry on their own. Discuss it as a household even if there are no kids. You don’t want to be arguing about where someone should quarantine when they’ve already been diagnosed.
  • Take care and please get vaccinated and boosted when you can. As ever, the best cure is prevention.

I hope this helped. Was there anything that I missed?

How do you advocate for your own health?

For most of us these days if we or a family member is diagnosed with a health condition it is up to us to educate ourselves as best we can. If you are unlucky, your doctor may sneer at you about resorting to Doctor Google. Most likely you are going to have to be your own advocate in order to get the health care you need so I personally think being well informed is a great first step.

When you are well informed, you are empowered rather than frightened, it helps you to have realistic expectations about what can be done, and it can make illness be a less frightening and isolating experience. A bit of knowledge also helps you ask the right questions when you do get to see the specialist and it helps you get better value for money if you know what to ask and what is available to you before you go in.

Do not let any health professional treat you like you’re silly for not understanding or for asking questions. It may be something they’ve seen so many times that it’s old hat, but to you it might be new, or maybe the standard treatment isn’t working for you. From the health professional’s perspective, surely it would be better to have patients who understand what is going on, what their medication is supposed to do, what they are not supposed to do while on that medication, and what can be reasonably expected to happen during the course of treatment.

If you’ve been diagnosed with a health condition a good first move is to listen to your doctor. Follow their suggestions, at least initially. If you have doubts seek a second opinion from another doctor. If you feel like there is not enough time to go through all of your concerns, book a double appointment before you go in. Ask the doctor if there’s an organisation that they would recommend that can offer you further support, for example Diabetes Australia if you’ve just been diagnosed as a diabetic. Quite often there will be pamphlets on hand or in the waiting room that will direct you.

Have a look at relevant government health websites and see what is recommended there by way of support services and treatment options, even if you don’t especially trust the government. You need to find out what is readily available to help you in your area, and what your doctors are likely to be recommending to you. There is no point doing lots of research and finding wonderful things that are available in another country if it hasn’t been approved for use for that condition where you are. Your doctor is going to start on whatever the standard treatment options are and work from there. I don’t want you to feel as though you’ve been dismissed by your primary care health professionals when you go in with your heart set on a particular thing and they haven’t heard of it or if they don’t have time to go into the research when the standard treatments haven’t been exhausted yet. If you find a decent selection of research papers that recommend a certain thing that you would like to try, print them out and take them in. Be as thorough as you can. Your doctor will not take action on just one study. At best they will say “that’s interesting” but if they don’t know anything about it and they feel like the data is insubstantial you are not going to get the outcome that you want. Doctors have professional bodies that they have to answer to as well and they will not go off script without very good reason. It may be that they can refer to you someone else who is better placed to help you, so don’t just not say anything if you have particular options in mind. There may be scientific research studies being done that you could be got into. It might be time to go and see a naturopath (If you’re here and reading this I presume that you have at least a passing interest in natural medicine)

Once you’ve seen your doctor, you may possibly go looking further afield online. It is important to still restrict yourself to the experts at this stage. Investigate the qualifications of the person presenting the information. Is it appropriate and relevant to what they’re talking about? Are you watching a video about vaccines from a virologist or a hairdresser? An epidemiologist or a wellness coach? Do they have experience in the field? Are they members of associations? Are they well regarded in their field? What other things have they had published? This critical way of evaluating professional opinions online doesn’t mean you can only consume the content of doctors and academics. There are many massively qualified naturopaths and nutritionists out there who are doing very exciting things in the world of research. (Yours truly can hold her own in most company, being the proud owner of several extra letters after her name, but there’s also naturopaths who have masters degrees, PhDs and are on government boards around the country advocating for better health care.) The qualifications of alternative and complimentary health practitioners are definitely worth scrutinising.

Importantly, someone who is qualified is never shy about listing what their qualifications are. If you don’t see qualifications listed or they become evasive when asked, get out of there.

I think it is also valuable therapeutically to find your peers, the people who are also experiencing the same issues you are. They will help you find what is best to read and which doctors or naturopaths have been helpful. Solidarity and shared experience is so valuable, especially when it’s all new to you and you might not know anyone with the same condition. It will help you to establish what life is going to look like day to day and help you figure out from watching them what adjustments might be necessary in your own life so you can take preemptive action. The experiences of others can save you from having to figure out how to reinvent the wheel yourself, potentially sparing you some distress.

Most commonly these days people do this via a Facebook group. If you go to Facebook groups for support it’s important to establish a few things:

  1. Who is running this group? What are their qualifications? Sometimes they won’t be qualified at all, it might just be a fellow sufferer, which is not inherently a bad thing, but this will be a group to share resources and experiences, not to take health advice
  2. How attentive are the moderators? Is there a code of conduct? Is this a public or private group? This is important for establishing whether this is a safe space for you. Is this a place where people are vulnerable and lean on each other a lot? Is that something you want to get involved in or do you not have any energy left over to support others? Most Facebook groups will have people who just are members but do not post. It is usually perfectly acceptable for you to be one of them too. Just remember when you’re in one, what you post is visible to all members of the group, so be careful of how much personal information you share. A well run group will have a moderator that will gently encourage people to be mindful of over-sharing or to be kind to one another as needed. Do not take it personally if this happens to you. They are trying to look out for everyone in the group and the internet can be a zoo, especially when there’s vulnerable or distressed people involved.
  3. Do you feel empowered or connected, or foolish and judged? If you feel anywhere online negatively impacts your self esteem, get out of there. (Note: this is very different from having your beliefs challenged, everyone should experience that every now and again. This is how we grow.)
  4. You may need to manage how much time you spend in these groups. I spoke to someone with a rare heart condition about this. They have absolutely found Facebook groups to be very helpful. That particular group is run by the Mayo Clinic in the US and fairly often has doctors doing live videos to discuss the latest research, which is fantastic, even though those breakthroughs are years away from being available here (this person has time). Fantastic advice that my client was given, that I will now pass onto you is to only go into that group when you have questions. Don’t make your life about your chronic health condition. Live as normally as you can.

My mother is currently undergoing treatment for a rare (not usually fatal) form of cancer. She’s in a couple of Facebook groups that she found by googling her condition. I’ve just spoken to her about her experience of being in those groups. There’s one that’s based in the US but accepts members from all over the world that exclusively has people with the disease making posts, and there’s one that’s an Australian group that has both patients and medical staff (such as oncology nurses) making posts and taking part in the comments. She has found them very helpful leading up to her surgery in learning what to expect from other people’s experiences. For example, she thought the recommended aftercare from her surgeon was a bit mild, and then learnt from the group that was exactly what was necessary from the people who had already gone through it.

Since she’s had the surgery and has been to see the oncologist for a follow up she doesn’t feel the need to go in the group so much, and absolutely agrees with my client above: only go in when you have questions. She felt like the was being brought down and stressed out by the people in the groups who were more doom and gloom, and found the details that were shared about genetic testing results too much.

So I hope this has helped you. I tend to attract naturopathy clients who have had issues for 10+ years that no-one’s been able to sort out yet and as a group they are very switched on people. They learnt the hard way how arduous advocating for your own health can be, so I hope that if you’re more new to this what I have written will be helpful for you. One of the beautiful things about being a naturopath is that we get to spend time with our clients going over what all the concerns are and making sure they understand what is going on.

List of resources for the vaccine hesitant

Hello! If you are reading this you are probably one of my clients and we’ve been talking about the vaccine during your treatment. I am posting this because a lot of my clients would like more information or still have questions that I know I cannot answer, so I have put together a list of resources from qualified experts, videos explaining how things work and people who work in the field that you can follow on social media for more information. I’ve put this together on the understanding that people take in information in different ways, and I am trying to find sources as wide ranging as possible.

First of all, here is a report of the effects of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia. This features data from 2020, pre-vaccine and back when the earlier variants were dominant and Delta had not yet arrived.

HOW DOES THE VACCINE WORK

Here is a four minute video by the ABC explaining how viruses work and how the delta strain is different.

Here is an article explaining how mRNA vaccines work that gives lots of links to find further information

Here is a review article explaining how mRNA vaccines work, dating from 2018.

Here is a video featuring Brian and Stewie from the tv show The Family Guy explaining how vaccines, and the COVID-19 vaccine in particular work.

THE VACCINE IN THE REAL WORLD

How many people globally have been vaccinated for COVID-19? The New York Times has a great ongoing coverage, maps and additional data to look at, but as of the 6th of October 2021, 3.62 billion people, 47.2% of the entire world’s population have received a dose of the vaccine.

Here is a study that investigates how the vaccine is going in the real world

Here is another study investigating the effectiveness of the vaccine in real world conditions

Here is a weekly 15 minute TV series on the ABC about The Vaccine, which is very helpful as things change so fast,

Here is a Four Corners episode on how vaccinating Australia is going, and how the slow rollout has allowed doubt to creep in amongst the population.

COVID-19 VACCINE INJURY

What is defined as a vaccine injury (otherwise known as a vaccine adverse event)? Do you need to be incapacitated, or is a sore arm at the injection site considered to be a vaccine injury?

The World Health Organisation calls them “adverse events following immunisation” an adverse event following immunization is any untoward medical occurrence which follows immunization and which does not necessarily have a causal relationship with the usage of the vaccine. The WHO then goes on to say:

“There is no such thing as a “perfect” vaccine which protects everyone who receives it AND is entirely safe for everyone.

Effective vaccines (i.e. vaccines inducing protective immunity) may produce some undesirable side effects which are mostly mild and clear up quickly.”

Queensland Health via the Australian Immunisation Handbook continues: “Adverse Events Following Immunisation are any negative reaction that follows vaccination. It does not necessarily have a causal relationship with the vaccine… Mild events, such as fever, pain or redness at the site of injection, tiredness and aches and pains commonly occur after vaccination with some vaccines and should be anticipated.”

The Australian Government also releases a weekly safety report on all of the COVID-19 vaccines available in the country which includes the actual numbers of adverse events and deaths post vaccination, and whether this lines up with what is already known worldwide.

The Australian government have a scheme to compensate people who have been injured by the COVID-19 vaccines.

The American Centre for Disease Control have interesting information about vaccine adverse events.

An interesting study from the US investigating the incidence of anaphylaxis after the Pfizer vaccination, which explains the type of person more likely to experience those symptoms, how likely it is per number of vaccines administered and the most likely time limit that the reaction is likely to occur.

Another interesting study to come out of the US investigates adverse events following one dose of an mRNA vaccine in nursing home residents that have had COVID versus those who have not had COVID found that there was no statistical difference in adverse events between the two groups.

Another study investigates the characteristics and outcomes of the 1842 people who required a visit to the emergency department or hospitalisation within 10 days of their first of second doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, out of a total of 153 726 total emergency department visits at the time. Out of those 1842 people, around 40% required hospitalisation and 43 of them were admitted to the ICU, the incidence increasing with age, and presumably therefore with previously existing health conditions.

“THEY MADE IT TOO QUICK” – THE HISTORY OF CORONAVIRUS VACCINES

No. A lot of the work was already done when SARS and MERS were prevalent, as they are also one of the now seven coronaviruses known to infect human beings. There is no known cure for any of the coronaviruses.

From a review article: “However, vaccine development involves several important steps such as antigen study, selection of effective antigen, antigen stability, screening study (animal model, route of vaccination, adjuvant selection), clinical trials on human, clinical trials data analysis, quality control, technology transfer, easy scale-up, universal approval, and high cost investment ($200–1000 Millions) which take at least 1.5–3 years (or more) to develop the vaccine [[12], [13], [14]]. In case of COVID-19 vaccine, the initial observations about full length genome phylogenetic analysis suggest that genetic structure of SARS-CoV-2 is almost 80% similar to that of SARS-CoV [9,15]. Hence it is expected that, previously available related literature data/experience and existing knowledge about vaccine designing attempts against the coronavirus (SARS/MERS) disease may be helpful to design rapid vaccine against COVID-19″

Here is a cool article by the ABC on how the vaccine got developed so quickly.

Then there is the history of mRNA vaccines, which have been investigated since the 1970s

“I TRUST MY IMMUNE SYSTEM”

Here is an article explaining the difference between how the body’s innate immune system versus vaccination works

An Australian study published earlier in 2021 found that people infected with earlier variants of COVID-19 and still had antibodies were not very effective against new variants, like Delta.

Here is a great article from November 2020 explaining how our immune systems work, how COVID-19 suppresses the immune system, allowing it to evade detection and cause more inflammation.

PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS

It has been found in Australia that more than 70% of Australians who died from earlier COVID-19 variants had pre-existing chronic health conditions, most commonly dementia (between 400 000 and 459 000 Australians), diabetes (1.2 million Australians, or 4.9% of the total population), hypertension (1 in 4 Australian men and 1 in 5 Australian women) and chronic cardiac conditions (1.2 million Australians),

Here is a Australian government website explaining which groups are going to be more at risk of getting and being badly affected by COVID. 73% of COVID-19 deaths have been from those living in aged care. As of 2020, there were 335 899 Australians living in aged care.

A further look at the data in Australia (bear in mind that the author is a co-founder of a travel company in Melbourne)

MYTHBUSTING

The Australian government page on common COVID-19 myths.

The Australian Government page on common COVID-19 vaccine myths.

Johns Hopkins research and training hospitals in the USA on common COVID-19 vaccine myths

The Mayo clinic, another world-renowned research and training hospital in the US on common COVID-19 vaccine myths

An article on CNN that explains more about common covid-19 vaccine myths

ON BREAKTHROUGH COVID INFECTIONS AFTER BEING VACCINATED

A fantastic short video from the ABC in Australia about how yes, breakthrough infections even after being fully vaccinated are expected, why the vaccines are still important even though there will be breakthrough infections and the purpose of vaccine boosters.

Sanjay Mishra PhD is a project coordinator and staff scientist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Centre who has particular interest in how covid affects people with cancer. He wrote a great article recently explaining what breakthrough infections are and why they are happening

LONG COVID

A Harvard University explanation of what Long Covid is

A longer explanation of what Long COVID is and how debilitating it can be.

1 in 3 people who catch the virus will suffer from Long COVID afterwards.

Getting the vaccine after COVID-19 infection may help reduce Long COVID symptoms (research is still very early days).

The vaccine has been found to be safe in people who have Long COVID and has been found to definitely not make things worse.

The personal financial and wider economic consequences of Long COVID are an important concern, with people who need ongoing medical help going homeless and previously young, fit family breadwinners being unable to work.

THE VACCINE AND FERTILITY

Basically, pregnant people haven’t been included in vaccine trials due to ethical reasons (It is incredibly rare for research to be done on pregnant humans full stop.) But doctors and researchers are finding that the pregnant person and their unborn children are greatly at risk from the virus, so the current recommendations are for pregnant people to get vaccinated. This cohort study found that the vaccine was in general well tolerated. Please talk to your doctor about getting the vaccine.

Here is another article explaining what happens to 57 people who accidentally fell pregnant while participating in COVID-19 vaccine trials. Based on that (unfortunately, due to the above ethical concerns, comprehensive data in humans is going to be sparse and purely observational) it was found that the rate of accidental pregnancy in the vaccinated and non-vaccinated was the same, meaning that the vaccine does not affect the rate of falling pregnant. It also found that miscarriage rates was the same in both groups, meaning that the vaccine was non-detrimental to pregnant people.

This article also reports that further studies of pregnant people with COVID-19 are currently underway, and it is being found that they are far more likely to need intensive care, which makes it far more likely for Doctors to elect to deliver the babies early, which does not improve the health outcomes of anyone involved.

Here is a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald exploring myths vs facts of the effect of the COVID-19 vaccine on fertility.

Here is a study published in September 2021 that examined the correlation between spontaneous abortion and the COVID-19 vaccine by searching through data collected by the American Centre for Disease Control and 9 other health systems in the US. It found that the vaccine did not increase the chances of spontaneous abortion, but increased parental age did.

Further data collected from a self-reporting database found that the vaccine did not cause an increase in spontaneous abortions below 20 weeks gestation.

Here is an observational study of over 35 000 pregnant people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine that examined the outcomes of their pregnancy.

A systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies (so a collation and review of the evidence found in 42 different studies, including 438 548 people who were pregnant) found that COVID-19 viral infection increased the risk of pre-eclampsia, pre-term birth and stillbirth, with the severity of infection increasing the severity of outcome

Here is a study from 2014 that investigates the impact of fevers in pregnancy and the health impacts on the offspring as a result. Fevers are a commonly reported side effect of the COVID-19 vaccine. It found that parental fevers do have an increased risk of health concerns in infants, but the risks can be easily mitigated by antipyretic medications, such as paracetamol.

Here is an article from the Smithsonian investigating how frequent the incidence of side effects after the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines actually are, with 3.7% of those who received Pfizer reporting fevers after the first dose and 15.8% of vaccine recipients reporting fevers after their second dose. Again, these can be easily managed with paracetamol.

A study examining the transfer of COVID-19 vaccine antibodies to infants from their birth parent found that not only was the parent’s immunity good against the virus, the antibodies had been passed on through the placenta and the breast milk to the baby.

Another study done on health workers in Israel who got vaccinated and were also breastfeeding at the time had their breast milk before and after vaccination examined. It was found to have good concentrations of antibodies after vaccination and none of the participants or their children experienced any long term side effects.

Here is a study from the Journal of Clinical Investigation that examines the presence of COVID-19 antibodies across the placental barrier in unborn babies of people who have been vaccinated, are currently infected with COVID-19 and the unvaccinated who are not infected with the virus.

THE VACCINE AND CHANGES IN MENSTRUATION

Research is just getting started with the US National Institute of Health, but preliminary data in the British Medical Journal suggests that while it is possible that post-vaccination the first menses may be different, it returns to normal in the next cycle. Changes in menstruation occur frequently in cases of increased stress, weight gain or changes in exercise and as such difference for one cycle is not usually a cause for concern.

Similarly, there seems to be a short-term change in sex hormone concentration and ovarian reserve in people with COVID-19

MALE IMPOTENCE AND INFERTILITY AFTER COVID-19 INFECTION

It has been found that covid affects the fertility and potency of men who have recovered from the virus.

A small pilot study released in July 2021 found that the virus was still present in penile tissue, but there was also widespread tissue damage to the area

A slightly larger research paper also released in July 2021 basically says the same thing

Here is an article from April 2021 explaining in greater detail the six times greater risk of erectile dysfunction in men who have had COVID.

HOW TO HELP YOUR FRIENDS AND LOVED ONES WHO ARE VACCINE HESITANT

Here is an article from the ABC on how to to talk to friends and family who are unsure about getting the vaccine.

Here is an American article by the Cleveland Clinic about how to talk to someone who is hesitant about getting the COVID vaccine

An article by Rotary on how to talk to someone who is vaccine hesitant.

SCIENTISTS, DOCTORS, EPIDEMIOLOGISTS AND VIROLOGISTS TO CHECK OUT ON SOCIAL MEDIA

Very informative as they are likely to have have special areas of interest that may be important to you. Also useful as they address current talking points that may be in the news this week.

Unambiguous Science on Facebook and Instagram

Dr Izzy Smith on Facebook and Instragram who has interesting information on the vaccine and fertility

The Immunisation Nurse (in Queensland) on Instagram

Mamallennial on vaccinating kids on Instagram

Science Biker Chick, one of the scientists who worked on the University of Queensland vaccine on Instagram

The world renowned Mayo Clinic which specialises in research on Facebook and Instagram has great highlights and podcasts

Epiqueeniology in NSW on Facebook and Instagram

Doctor Kat, Epidemiologist on Instagram

Doctor Yas, who has a PhD in immunotherapy and immune regulation on Instagram

Doctor Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN who talks about covid-19, the vaccine and its impact on fertility on Facebook and Instagram

Science Whiz Liz is a scientist, professior and educator who got her PhD in Genetics and Immunology and works to make science easily understandable to everyone on Facebook and Instagram

Dr Risa Hoshino, MD is a board certified pediatrician in pubic health and a vaccine expert on Facebook and Instagram

Dr Sara Marzouk FRACGP, MBBS, PhD and BSc Hons (Immunology) is a Melbourne doctor and educator who is a wealth of information about the vaciine and covid and all things related over on Facebook

Dr Noc PhD (immunology) on Instagram

Nini Munoz PhD is a science communicator focusing on understanding data and statistics on Instagram

Charlotte is a PhD student in epidemiology who appears to be located in the UK on Instagram who gives weekly updates and goes through the latest talking points

Dr Stacy De-Lin M.D. is a board certified physician, a gynaecology and family planning specialist and a COVID science communicator on Instagram

Dr Jessica Stokes-Parish is a nurse and educator based in Melbourne who works to help health professionals navigate science and education, on Facebook and Instagram

And finally,

ANTI-VACKSERS AND QUEUE ANONYMOUS

(Deliberately misspelled) I am putting this up because current affairs are not separate from health concerns at this time, as long as certain groups are trying to affect choices you make about your health and the health of your community. I want to make sure when you watch the news or scroll around online you understand who all the players are.

The Centre for Countering Digital Hate have done a 72 page report on who is making money from spreading misinformation about the pandemic

Here is a Four Corners episode about Q Anon

Here is an article from the Guardian explaining how information about the Freedom Rallies around the country have spread and the group that has been found to be behind it.

Here’s an opinion piece that talks about how strange it is to see wellness women and far right men together at the forefront of the anti-vaxx movement in Australia. Basically, the far right has been organising for years and this is the first time the wellness women have taken part in anything political, and fear is a strong motivator for both groups.

Who are the Proud Boys, the group that gets mentioned a lot as taking part in Freedom Rallies, particularly in Melbourne? The Southern Poverty Law Centre explains.

How far right white supremacist groups are recruiting in Australia through men’s fitness clubs, a trend that has been accelerated by the fallout of COVID-19.

Further information about how the Anti-Lockdown protests spread online from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Here is a study on how vaccine rumours and conspiracy theories increase vaccine hesitancy.

A new study has found that conspiracy theorists lack critical thinking skills, which thankfully is something that can be taught. From the article:

“Critical thinking is the objective analysis and evaluation of a situation – and requires a number of cognitive skills include the ability to think systematically, see other perspectives, change your mind when new evidence arises, identify relevant versus irrelevant information, identify and discard logical fallacies, be aware of biases and avoid them, and look beyond the obvious.”

Which is a good enough place to finish this for now. I hope I have helped bring you more clarity, given you some perspective and have helped put some concerns at rest. I will be adding to it from time to time, as of course this is still a developing situation.

Be safe. Take care out there.

R

Veggie Curry

This is a basic curry I make a couple of times a month. It’s not adherent to any particular cuisine and I adapt it based on what I’ve got on hand. It’s gluten free, dairy free, and vegan. It refrigerates well and freezes well.

Ingredients:

  • Legumes, 1-2 cups, depending on what you’ve got on hand. I’ve used 400g tinned chickpeas, butter beans and kidney beans that have been well rinsed, I’ve used dried red lentils that have been soaked overnight and washed and most recently I’ve used a dried soup mix that also had barley in it, also soaking overnight and rinsing and straining the next day.
  • A large sweet potato or half a pumpkin, chopped into chunks. If you want the meal to cook fast, chop them small. If you are using dried legumes and want your vegies to retain their shape, chop them larger or add in later in the cooking process.
  • A bunch of kale, de-stemmed and chopped
  • 1 tin of coconut cream
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • Olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 5 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
  • 1 tablespoon of finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoons of turmeric
  • 1 tablespoon of coriander powder (you can use fresh coriander if you like. I have that quirk that makes fresh coriander taste like soap, so if fresh coriander is your idea of a good time you go ahead. Add it at the end.)
  • 1 teaspoon of cumin
  • 1 teaspoon of cayenne
  • 1/4 teaspoon of garam masala
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Cooked rice, nigella seeds (I have been using black sesame seeds, but both are not strictly necessary) and a wedge of lemon to serve

Method:

  1. Put the rice on to cook.
  2. Sautee onion in a large pot using about a quarter of a cup of olive oil. Add garlic and ginger once the onion is translucent. Stir frequently to stop the garlic from burning. After a minute, add the turmeric, coriander powder, cumin, cayenne and garam masala. Stir briskly. There should be enough oil in the pan to coat the spices but some will stick to the pan. Keep things moving or they will burn.
  3. After a minute of stirring the spice mix, add the can of coconut cream. Fill the tin with warm water and add this water to the pan. Add the legumes salt and sweet potato/pumpkin. Legumes always soak up a lot of salt so taste as the dish cooks. Add the bay leaves and black pepper. Cover with a lid and cook on moderate heat until nearly done. Stir occasionally to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan and burns.
  4. When nearly finished, add the huge pile of chopped kale. You will think this is too much but it will wilt as it cooks down. I like adding kale to curries because of all the leafy greens it holds its shape and colour best during the cooking process. It’s also very rich in nutrients and fibre and lasts for a good two weeks in the fridge before cooking.
  5. Taste the curry and add more salt if needed.
  6. Serve over cooked rice with a sprinkle of nigella or sesame and a squeeze of lemon juice. Enjoy!

How do you find good information? Becoming More Media Savvy

In this world of Fake News and people online shouting “Do your own research!” who seem to think doing research is sitting online taking in opinions of people who agree with them (known as confirmation bias), how do you find good information?

First of all, it is very important that you realise that the internet is a positive feedback loop that is designed to keep us engaged by feeding us little squirts of dopamine every time we see or click on something that gives us pleasure, or have what we perceive to be a successful social interaction. Our phones are listening to us and tracking the things we click on, so if we click on the fluffy kitten video (for example), the app we’re on will keep showing us fluffy kittens. We get more dopamine in the act of clicking on the link to go and look at the fluffy kitten than we do actually looking at the fluffy kitten. This is called Reward Prediction Error Encoding, something that used to be mainly seen at the gaming tables in a casino, a reason why social media became so wildly popular and changed the world forever. I personally keep seeing animal rescue videos in my news feed. If I didn’t know any better, after seeing months and months of pets getting rescued I could end up thinking that rescuing an animal is the main way for a person to get a pet. We inadvertently create our own echo chambers by clicking on the things that interest us, and if we don’t get exposure to other sources of information, such as from interactions with other people (who just by existing are more contradictory and nuanced than any algorithm can be ready for), we can think what we see online in our news feeds, or from that one tv channel that we watch is the full picture.

Add to this the parasocial relationships we engage in when we go online and expose ourselves to online personalities and social media influencers, who deliberately use language and create intimacy to make us feel as though we’re their friends (even though in reality they have no idea who we are), which gets us invested in what they say or what they want to sell. Parasocial relationships used to be the domain of rock gods and film stars, blowing kisses to the camera, but now it’s available to anyone with a phone.

All of this is not inherently bad, if it’s just for entertainment purposes. Feel good neurotransmitters are nice. Going online to get them is generally a lot more low risk than using cocaine (for example). Modern life can be very lonely, especially in these days of COVID, so it’s not inherently a bad thing to watch someone’s livestream or see their day in the life video. We do however need to see the parasocial relationship for what it is when someone on a screen who says things like “I love you guys SO MUCH!” or if they upload a video of them talking to you casually from an intimate space that you would not normally see, like in their car. (Picture the difference between someone with a set agenda in a professional setting, wearing business attire giving a powerpoint presentation, and then picture someone wearing active wear holding a to-go cup of coffee from which they drink from while they talk, like you’ve met up for a coffee date. Or some bloke talking to you in his ute wearing dirty work gear with his sunglasses on his head. Which makes you feel more comfortable and willing to agree with what they’re saying?) We do need to be a lot more aware that this behaviour is a tactic to increase engagement from you, the viewer. More clicks and engagement means more money from advertising, which is where the profit is online, let alone the merchandising, meet and greets, e-books, memberships, subscriptions, patreons or speaking events that the person you’re watching might be encouraging you to buy or participate in.

So it’s very hard out there to find out what’s up when we’re all just squishy bags of chemicals who want to make more friends. Feel good chemicals aside, how do you find good facts online?

Step 1 always is find the primary source. When it’s for something that’s important, like a health issue, it is not enough to accept the article that you read in the paper or online or see on the news at face value. That doesn’t provide enough information for you to make informed decisions. It’s all very well for a newsreader to say “A new study has shown…” but if it’s for an issue that is important to you, go and find the original study. Or go and ask your doctor. (I will shortly be writing a guide for reading research papers that I will link here). If you are reading a blog post, or someone is telling you about this thing that’s great on Instagram and providing you with links to go and check it out, go and look at those links. Do they provide information on what this thing has been found to do, or is it just marketing bumf with a Click To Buy button at the end? Find other links that have nothing to do with that person. Your click through to that page they recommended counts as engagement, which makes the person you’re following look more successful, potentially getting them more brand deals in the future. Who else is recommending the same thing? Are they someone you would listen to in real life? Are they all sending you through to that one page?

It is an important skill to differentiate between whether you are reading a news article or an opinion article. A news article will be quite dry, you will find the who, what, why, where and how listed in the article and it will start with the important bits and will then have more quotations and general information towards the end. The writer will not insert themselves into the article. If you’re reading a physical paper, these articles will be towards the front. If you’re reading an opinion piece, it will be located more towards the middle of the paper, it will usually be by one particular person whose articles always appear in that one place, say top left of page 14, they will probably talk about their interpretation of an event rather than just reporting an event, and they will probably write about that one topic repeatedly. There will be personal references to the writer themselves, events in their lives and how they feel about things. An opinion piece may be entertaining, but it is not to be treated as factual information.

Every single thing you look at online, on the TV, in the newspaper and in magazines uses hyperbole, clickbait and sensationalism to get your attention. This has been true ever since before the dawn of newspapers, the first time printing presses were used to distribute political caricatures to a mass audience. It is all still designed to catch your eye and make you take action, be it through clicks, likes, subscribing, buying, signing up for their newsletter or becoming a patreon and doing whatever will bring the creator and/or publisher money, and that content needs to be the biggest, the best, the most successful, the most serious, the most shocking, the most frightening, the most valuable and so on. It’s a main feature of advertising and we’re bombarded with advertising every single day, so whatever it is, it has to be made to be more eye catching. That’s why the meteorologist on the news will make rain sound like a significant weather event, like a Rain Bomb, when really we’re just going to get rain; and why the media seems to latch onto something quite benign (such as Safe Schools) and make it out to be a huge threat to society, and then they’ll run a poll on it. More clicks, more engagement. To navigate our way around this it’s really best to get your information from a lot of sources, preferably primary and original sources rather than opinions, and to step back for a bit then evaluate for yourself the importance of what that thing is.

It is important that we don’t get so attached to ideas that we experience cognitive dissonance, which is where someone can hold two beliefs that are in conflict with each other, or when our actions don’t align with our beliefs. We *know* they are opposing, and this causes us to feel uncomfortable, aggravated and stressed. Because we naturally desire to avoid discomfort, cognitive dissonance can affect our thoughts, behaviours, decisions and mental health, leading us to feel anxious, guilty and ashamed. We don’t like this either, so we will rationalise our choices, hide our behaviour from others, avoid talking about it, avoid learning new information that would go against this belief and ignore research, news articles or doctor’s advice that would contradict that strongly held belief.

Now, none of us have always behaved in a way that we’re proud of, and I am sure all of us have experienced cognitive dissonance at some point. Cognitive dissonance can be a useful tool for identifying when it’s time to reflect on what is going on or to encourage us to step away from the screens for a bit so we can re-calibrate.

A way that we can better arm ourselves for the barrage of information and content out there is to develop our critical thinking skills. Critical thinking seeks to identify reliable information and make reliable judgements. This tutorial by the Monash University goes on to explain the inquisitive, open-minded, willing to be challenged mindset of a critical thinker and the skills to develop in order to be one yourself.

So while the things I have written about in this blog post look quite post-apocalyptic and overwhelming it doesn’t have to be. Once we’re made aware of these tactics it allows us to wear the online world and media in general more lightly. We can still enjoy the content we previously enjoyed, but we can stop getting drawn into the drama and addiction of it all, we can decide to look more deeply into a topic elsewhere, we can find it easier to view many different sources before making up our minds on a particular topic, we become more adept at identifying when it’s marketing and then searching for facts. Using these tools we find it easier to develop objectivity about what we see. And then we can go outside.

I hope this helped!

Next up in this series is How to Find Reputable Experts. Coming soon!

Vegetarian Moussaka*

*Probably not a genuine moussaka. This is from a recipe I found somewhere back in 2017 and then recently made from memory. It turned out very nice, but I cannot guarantee authenticity, so don’t serve it to a Nonna and expect a good review. The cheddar cheese is the big clue. That was definitely in there back when I made it previously. Did I find that in a recipe, or did I wing it back then and now it’s sealed itself in amber in my memory? Who can say. (You. You can say. The internet is right there.)

Basically, moussaka are a Greek version of lasagna. There are layers of potato and eggplant instead of pasta (making it safer for the gluten free crowd) and instead of bechamel sauce there’s ricotta and cheddar. It freezes well and a lot of this can be made ahead of time and assembled for the final cooking later on. When I made this most recently I left it for a few hours before putting the dish and baking and I think this allowed the flavours in the tomato mix to develop.

Ingredients:

1 tin crushed tomatoes
1 tin lentils, strained and rinsed
Garlic (loads)
2 grated carrots
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 large eggplant
2 large baking potatoes, peeled
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 cup or a small container ricotta cheese
2/3 cups grated cheddar cheese, with some more to garnish
Salt and pepper to taste

Method:

Cut eggplant and peeled baking potatoes into 1cm thick slices (I prefer discs that are roughly portion sized to make it easier to cut up later, but it doesn’t really matter). Pan fry each slice in a skillet until both sides are lightly browned and the slices themselves are half cooked.

While you’re doing that you can be working on the tomato portion. In a saucepan fry off some garlic. Add tinned tomatoes, marjoram, nutmeg and oregano, fry for another couple of minutes. Add tinned lentils and grated carrots (you can also use grated zucchini). Add salt and pepper. Cook it until the carrot or zucchini is cooked down and the sauce has come together nicely. Season with salt and pepper. It will taste quite sharp. Do not be alarmed. Set aside.

Mix together ricotta and cheddar in a bowl.

Get glass or pyrex baking dish. Add tomato mix, cooked eggplant, cooked potato and cheese mix in layers. Feel free to let it be very rustic.

Finish with a cheese layer on top. Add the last of the grated cheese. Put in oven that you’ve preheated to 180 degrees for about forty minutes. Do not set your heart on the cheese on the top browning . There’s too much moisture in the ricotta cheese for that to happen.

Serve with a leafy green salad.