Ditching the drinks during Dry July

It’s the start of the month of July. For many in the southern hemisphere that means lots of snow, thermal undies, down jackets and snuggling up to a fire with a glass of fine red wine, while our northern hemisphere friends undoubtably think about beaches, sunblock, ice cream and a frosty lager.

An alternative approach to the month, however, is as a great detox opportunity – this month is also known (in New Zealand, at least) as Dry July, a challenge to go without alcohol for the whole month. To quote the Dry July website, “Dry July is a non-profit organisation determined to improve the lives of adults living with cancer through an online social community giving up booze for the month of July.”

Those who take up the challenge are known as DJ’s, or Dry-Julyers. You can either do it on your own as a personal challenge, or formally sign up and have a go at raising funds for the Dry July charity, thereby potentially helping those living with cancer towards an improved quality of life.

Refrain from pouring your favourite tipple for the month of July. (© All Rights Reserved)
Refrain from pouring your favourite tipple for the month of July.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Dry July started in 2008 as a challenge among friends, but even in its first year close to a thousand people participated and more than $ 250 000 was fundraised. The initiative has gone from strength to strength, and to date more than $ 11 million has been raised.

Even if you only enjoy the occasional social tipple, giving up for a month is not easy – there are always special occasions, social events, parties and more where we typically enjoy a beer or a glass of wine. It’s all about self-discipline, for your own health and wellbeing, and to support a good cause. Not to mention the amount of money you can save by ditching the drink for a month!

So, cheers to a Dry July. I see lots of water, fruit juice, coffee and tea in my immediate future!

Celebrating the invention of Vaseline

It is today, 135 years ago on 14 May 1878, that the Vaseline trademark was registered for the petroleum jelly product developed almost a decade earlier by English chemist Robert Augustus Chesebrough.

Chesebrough initially went to Titusville Pa in the USA during the petroleum boom, and became interested in a paste-like residue that clogged the pumps of the oil drillers. Although a rough and unrefined paste, local oil workers had already started using it on burns to promote healing. Chesebrough started experimenting with different ways of extracting and purifying the paste, eventually finding an effective way of manufacturing the petroleum jelly which he called ‘Vaseline’. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “the name is of mixed origin, being derived from Wasser, water, and elaion [Greek in the original], oil (water-oil), and indicates the belief of the discoverer that petroleum, the mother of Vaseline, is produced by the agency of heat and pressure from the carbon of certain rocks, and the hydrogen of water.”

Moisturising, lubricating Vaseline. (© All Rights Reserved)
Moisturising, lubricating Vaseline.
(© All Rights Reserved)

He patented it on 4 June 1872. Realising the potential of the product, he began selling it through his Chesebrough Manufacturing Company. Vaseline continued to be made and sold by Chesebrough’s company for more than a century, until the company was purchased by Unilever in 1987.

It is quite amazing, when you think about the fact that Vaseline started out as an unwanted byproduct of the oil drilling process, what an incredibly useful and versatile product it turned out to be. Not only is it a great moisturiser, working wonders on dry lips, tired eyes and chapped skin (esp hands, heels and elbows), but it also makes a great exfoliating body rub, when mixed with sea salt. From a medicinal point of view, it can sooth and protect burns, grazes, cuts and sensitive shaved skin (or even new tattoos!).

For the DIY types, Vaseline is great to keep screw-in light bulbs or bottle lids from sticking, to sort out a squeaky hinge or to loosen a stiff bike chain. It can also be used to remove watermarks from wood, or lipstick stains from napkins and clothing. It’s even useful as emergency shoe-shine. Oh, and here’s one you may not have heard – when you carve up a Halloween pumpkin, you can rub Vaseline on the exposed cuts on the pumpkin to keep it from rotting or drying out!

And you may know the story of how Vaseline can be used for sex: simply apply it to the bedroom doorknob – it works great to keep the kids out. 🙂

So here’s to Robert Chesebrough and his Vaseline – lubricating the world since 1878.

Creating awareness about chronic immunological and neurological diseases

It’s 12 May, and today is International Awareness Day for Chronic Immunological and Neurological Diseases (CIND). Diseases included under the CIND moniker include Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), Fibromyalgia (FM), Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS).

Originally known as ME/CFS Awareness Day before it was expanded to include the wider range of diseases above, the date of 12 May was chosen as it is the birthday of Florence Nightingale, who was believed to have suffered from ME/CFS.

A challenge often faced by ME/CFS sufferers is a lack of understanding among those around them. (© All Rights Reserved)
A challenge often faced by ME/CFS sufferers is a lack of understanding among those around them.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While the illnesses included under the CIND banner are all different and unique, they are all chronic diseases with many symptoms in common, including fatigue, headaches, joint & muscle pain, indigestion, insomnia, dizziness, respiratory disorders, sensitivity to light and sound, and memory problems.

The idea behind CIND Awareness Day is to raise the awareness profile related to the diseases mentioned above; to stress the very real and highly debilitating effect that these diseases can have on those suffering from them. The vague nature of the symptoms, the overlap between the diseases, the fact that symptoms can vary greatly from one sufferer to the next, and the fact that no clear biological, genetic, infectious or psychological mechanism exist to define the diseases, combine to make them very difficult to correctly diagnose. Symptoms also overlap with several other illnesses, including Lyme disease, diabetes, depression, lupus, hypothyroidism, chronic hepatitis and multiple sclerosis (MS). As such, diagnosis of these diseases are often done through a process of elimination of any other possible ailments.

One of the greatest challenges posed by diseases like ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia is that, due to the symptoms being so vague and difficult to pinpoint, sufferers are sometimes seen as being hypochondriac or faking it. Non-sufferers find it difficult to relate to the extent of the debilitation, expecting sufferers to just ‘snap out of it’. If the CIND Awareness Day can succeed in helping to dispel this misunderstanding, it will already have achieved a huge amount.

To find out more about the day, and to get involved, have a look at Clark Ellis’ article on the ProHealth website – it gives excellent background to this Awareness Day, and lists specific activities happening in different parts of the world.

Awareness and understanding is a key part of the struggle for people suffering from ME/CFS, FM and other related diseases, so the least we can do is to help spread the word.

Promoting healthy eating on International No Diet Day

Today, 6 May, is International No Diet Day (INDD). Originally created in 1992 by Mary Evans Young, director of the British group ‘Diet Breakers’, the idea of the day is to fight the trend that people, and women in particular, are constantly made to feel embarrassed about their bodies, and always feel they should diet to lose weight and become more ‘socially acceptable’.

In her book, ‘Diet Breaking: Having it all Without Having to Diet’, she speaks about how irritating it became to her that women were forever experiencing little crises about having a biscuit or snack at teatime – “I shouldn’t really”, “I’ll have just one”, etc. She goes on to ask the question “What do you think would happen if you spent as much time and energy on your careers as you do on diets?”

It's not a good idea to starve yourself with fad diets, but it is a very good idea to stick to healthy foods. (© All Rights Reserved)
It’s not a good idea to starve yourself with fad diets, but it is a very good idea to stick to healthy foods.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Since its inception in 1992, INDD has grown to a wider awareness creation movement, addressing the potential dangers of dieting and other extreme steps people take to lose weight such as vertical banded gastroplasty surgery, also known as ‘stomach stapling’.

Many restaurants and food shops have also jumped on the bandwagon, using the ‘no diet’ message to promote the sale of indulgent foods and snacks. This, however, misses the point – the idea is not to promote over-indulgence. The point, I believe, is not that it’s fine to be obese and that you shouldn’t try to stay in shape. Obesity is a major problem in both men and women, and a contributor to an alarming percentage of deaths worldwide. As such it definitely needs to be addressed. The way to address it, however, is not through fad diets an starving yourself, but rather through healthy eating and regular exercise.

In it’s book ‘Weighing the Options: Criteria For Evaluating Weight Management Programs’, the American Institute of Medicine‘s Committee To Develop Criteria for Evaluating the Outcomes of Approaches To Prevent and Treat Obesity states:
“We agree, of course, that there should be more appreciation and acceptance of diversity in the physical attributes of people, more discouragement of dieting in vain attempts to attain unrealistic physical ideals, and no obsession with weight loss by individuals who are at or near desirable or healthy weights. However, it is inappropriate to argue that obese individuals should simply accept their body weight and not attempt to reduce, particularly if the obesity is increasing their risk for developing other medical problems or diseases.”

So, use International No Diet Day as a reminder to stop spending your life embarrassed about how you look, and to stop chasing one fad diet after another. But equally importantly, use the day as a reminder to change your long term eating habits towards eating more healthy food, and to start exercising.

Extreme diets and obesity are not the only two options – there is a healthy, sustainable middle ground that everyone can, and should, work towards.

Getting your Vitamin C dose on International Scurvy Awareness Day

International Scurvy Awareness Day is celebrated on 2 May. Scurvy, a condition typified by tiredness, muscle weakness, joint and muscle aches, rash on the legs and bleeding gums, is caused by a lack of Vitamin C. Interestingly, Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, got it’s name from ‘scorbutus’, the Latin name for scurvy.

Citrus fruit is full of scurvy-fighting Vitamin C. (© All Rights Reserved)
Citrus fruit is full of scurvy-fighting Vitamin C.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Scurvy used to be a common ailment suffered by sailors, soldiers and others who did not have access to fresh fruit and vegetables for extended periods of time.

These days, with most people having ready access to fresh fruit and veges, or alternatively Vitamin C-enriched processed fruit, scurvy is usually only found among people on very restricted diets, people who are under extreme psychological stress, chronic alcoholics or heavy smokers. Babies weaned from breast milk and switched to cow’s milk without Vitamin C supplementation may also develop symptoms, including swelling of the legs, fever diarrhoea and vomiting. Once symptoms of scurvy manifests in a patient, it can be effectively treated with a daily dose of between 300 and 1000mg of ascorbic acid (or 50mg taken 4 times a day, in the case of infants). Left untreated, however, the condition can result in death.

The amazing thing is that, despite the cure for scurvy being so simple, and well-known, there are still hundreds of cases of scurvy reported each year.

So, on International Scurvy Awareness Day, the message is to treat yourself to regular helpings of fresh fruit and vegetables, and preferably to also take a daily Vitamin C supplement, especially if you are under stress, on medication, or regularly smoke or use alcohol.

Avoiding scurvy is as simple as anything. To quote Limestrong.com, home of International Scurvy Awareness Day, “This goal is made even easier by the fact that Scurvy is one of only two diseases known to modern medicine that can be easily cured by drinking a wide variety of readily available cocktails. Just enjoying a Bloody Mary, Margarita, fruit tart, or even just a cool glass of lemonade twice a week will ensure that you stay fit and healthy.”

Unfortunately no mention is made of the other disease that is curable by cocktail… 🙂

Celebrating garlic, super-food, medicinal wonder and fighter of evil spirits

It’s April 19, Garlic Day!

Then again, in my household, every day is garlic day – I just love the taste of these pungent cloves, and the fact that it’s good for me is just another reason for celebration.

Garlic, a close relative to onions, shallots, leeks and chives, has been around for a long, long time, dating back about 7000 years, and it has been used for culinary, medicinal and religious purposes in Asia, Africa and Europe. Over the years it has spread to become a truly global herb (or vegetable, depending on your classification).

Hanging garlic to dry after harvest allows it to keep for a long time. (© All Rights Reserved)
Hanging garlic to dry after harvest allows it to keep for a long time.
(© All Rights Reserved)

From a culinary perspective, garlic, both raw or cooked, adds a distinct, pungent flavour that lifts many a dish from the ordinary to the sublime. A staple in mediterranean cooking, it is also popular in many other cooking traditions. Mixing garlic with olive oil, lemon juice and egg yolks produce aioli, a delicious, mayonnaise-like sauce traditionally served with seafood, but also used as an accompaniment to many other dishes.

An interesting, fairly recent development in garlic cuisine is ‘black garlic’ – garlic that has been subjected to an extended fermentation period under high heat. During the fermentation, melanoidin is produced, which is responsible for the garlic cloves turning black. The resultant black garlic , which has a tender, almost jelly-like texture and a rich, tangy molasses-like taste is said to contain double the antioxidants of normal garlic, while not causing the dreaded ‘garlic breath’.

The medicinal benefits of garlic is well documented. It is used to lower cholesterol levels and reduce high blood pressure, and is said to strengthen the body’s immune system and fight fatigue. It has even been credited with preventing some cancers and increasing longevity, and it has been suggested to help regulate blood sugar levels. Garlic is rich in Vitamins A, B1 and C, and contains calcium, magnesium and iron, as well as a range of amino acids.

In addition to it’s medicinal benefits, garlic has also been believed to have spiritual powers. Europeans in the Middle Ages ate garlic to ward off the Black Death, and legend has it that garlic, worn around your neck, hung in windows, or rubbed on chimneys and keyholes, keeps vampires, werewolves and other evil spirits at bay. I suppose this means all vampires and werewolves suffer from ‘Alliumphobia’, which is the fear of garlic.

Delicious in a range of dishes, good for your health and effective at warding off evil spirits – what more can one ask for?

World Haemophilia Day, marking 50 years of advancing treatment for all

Today, 17 April, is World Haemophilia Day, the day shining a spotlight on the global bleeding disorders community. This year, 2013, marks ’50 Years of Advancing Treatment for All’.

To quote Wikipedia, haemophilia “is a group of hereditary genetic disorders that impair the body’s ability to control blood clotting or coagulation, which is used to stop bleeding when a blood vessel is broken.” The most common type, Haemophilia A, occurs in about 1-2 in 10 000 male births, while Haemophilia B is about half as common. Both forms are more likely to occur in males than females. It is a recessive sex-linked, X chromosome disorder, and since females have two X chromosomes while men have only one, the defective gene will manifest itself in every male who carries it, while it may not manifest itself in a female carrier.

Everybody bleeds, but while this is may be a minor issue for most of us, it can be a matter of life and death for those suffering from haemophilia. (© All Rights Reserved)
Everybody bleeds, but while this is may be a minor issue for most of us, it can be a matter of life and death for those suffering from haemophilia.
(© All Rights Reserved)

People suffering from haemophilia do not bleed more vigorously than a healthy person, but they are likely to bleed longer due to the lack of coagulation or blood clotting. Thus even a rather minor injury can result in excessive blood loss. In some injuries, such as injuries to the brain, and injuries to the insides of the joints, this can be fatal or permanently debilitating.

No cure yet exists for haemophilia, but it can be treated with regular infusion into the body of the deficient clotting factor. Sufferers also have to adapt their lifestyles and activities to minimise injury risk. Exercises to strengthen the joints, and to increase flexibility, tone and muscle strength are also recommended. There are indications that hypnosis and self-hypnosis may have some effectiveness at reducing the severity and duration of bleeding, but much investigation is still required in this regard.

As with many diseases and disorders, haemophilia impacts most severely on people living in developing countries, people who do not have access to proper care and/or treatment. It is estimated that globally 75% of people living with bleeding disorders receive very inadequate treatment, or no treatment at all, with the majority of these people living in the developing world.

Through World Haemophilia Day, it is hoped that increased awareness and support can be gained for people living with bleeding disorders, and that this can help inch us closer to the goal of quality treatment for all.

It’s the International Moment of Laughter, so grab the opportunity with both hands.

Today, Sunday 14 April, we celebrate the International Moment of Laughter, an opportunity for everyone to laugh loudly, freely and openly, without holding back. The day was initiated by American motivational speaker and ‘humorologist’ Izzy Gesell to encourage people to laugh more.

Laugh long and hard enough, and eventually the world will laugh with you. (© All Rights Reserved)
Laugh long and hard enough, and eventually the world will laugh with you.
(© All Rights Reserved)

I’ve posted a couple of times before about the benefits and value of laughing and smiling, and generally having a positive attitude. After all, “laughter is the best medicine”, as the saying goes.

So let’s just say that today is yet another chance to cash in on some free medication – smile, laugh and be positive, and feel the benefits flowing back to you, reducing your stress, relaxing tired muscles, and strengthening your immune system.

Watch your favourite funny movie, share some jokes, or simply get silly. And if you really want to optimise the benefits, share the laughter with those around you! As the great Mark Twain once said, “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.”

Celebrating liquorice, sweet or savoury, strong or mild

Today, 12 April, is the celebration of National Licorice Day, an unofficial US holiday thought up by US licorice company Licorice International. As I tend to do with these regional days, I will again simply disregard the ‘national’ and internationalise the day for the rest of us – why, after all, should our US friends have the exclusive right to celebrate this amazing candy? So let’s just standardise the English, and celebrate (international) Liquorice Day.

Liquorice is made from the root of the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant, a legume native to southern Europe and Asia. As a legume, it is related to beans and peas, and despite its flavour it is not related to the similar tasting and smelling aniseed or fennel. Interestingly, in many liquorice flavoured sweets, the liquorice flavour is in fact enhanced with aniseed oil (in some cases, there may not even be any liquorice in the candy!). The liquorice extract from the the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant is created by boiling the root of the plant and evaporating most of the water.

Liquorice candy comes in all shapes and sizes, with some types really tempting you to play with your food! (© All Rights Reserved)
Liquorice candy comes in all shapes and sizes, with some types really tempting you to play with your food!
(© All Rights Reserved)

Flavours and styles of liquorice differ vastly between different parts of the world. Most liquorice produced and sold in the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand tend to be sweet, ranging from very mildly flavoured to medium strong. Continental Europe, on the other hand, prefer their liquorice strong and robust, in both sweet and salty varieties. Dutch liquorice is sometimes flavoured with mint for a different taste sensation. Italian and Spanish liquorice is often enjoyed as small pieces made from unsweetened, 100% pure liquorice extract. In China, liquorice is used as a culinary spice for savoury dishes.

Beyond its use as candy, liquorice is also consumed for medicinal purposes. Liquorice contains glycerrhizic acid, which, among other things, increases mucus production and decreases acid secretion. These properties make liquorice useful as an aid in the treatment of mouth and stomach ulcers, and the general treatment of an upset stomach. It is also used to treat irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease. Liquorice is also used to relieve a spasmodic cough. In Japan liquorice extract is used for the treatment of chronic viral hepatitis, while the Chinese use it to treat tuberculoses.

(Note that, while it has beneficial properties, excessive liquorice consumption may cause hypertension, hence it is recommended that liquorice products should be consumed in moderation.)

Whether you prefer your liquorice sweet or salty, strong or mild, and whether you eat it for medicinal purposes, or simply because it is so irresistibly yummy, I am sure you’ll agree that it is worthy of a day of celebration!

Raising awareness about hypertension on World Health Day

It’s 7 April, which means it’s one of the big days on the World Health Organisation (WHO) calendar – it’s World Health Day.

The day marks the anniversary of the founding of the WHO in 1948. Each year a theme is selected to highlight an area of public concern in world health, and in 2013 the theme is high blood pressure or hypertension.

Internationally, high blood pressure is a major cause of death – it is a causative factor in heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure. Left uncontrolled it can result in blindness. According to the WHO, one in three adults worldwide suffers from high blood pressure (ranging from about 10% in their 20’s to 50% and higher in their 50’s). While high blood pressure is definitely not a condition only affecting those in the developing world, its prevalence is highest in low-income countries in Africa, due mainly to inadequate diets.

While high blood pressure is a global problem, its prevalence is greatest in poor countries in Africa and other parts of the developing world.(© All Rights Reserved)
While high blood pressure is a global problem, its prevalence is greatest in poor countries in Africa and other parts of the developing world.
(© All Rights Reserved)

In developed, higher income communities, other factors influence high blood pressure – these include high salt intake, excessive alcohol use, obesity, lack of physical activity, smoking and stress.

The goal of World Health Day 2013 is a global reduction in heart attacks and strokes caused by high blood pressure. Specific objectives include:

  • Making available information and raising awareness of the causes and consequences of high blood pressure;
  • Encouraging adults to have their blood pressure checked regularly (part of this involves making blood pressure measurement more affordable to all); and
  • Inciting local and national authorities to create enabling, healthy environments, and to promote healthy behaviour among it’s people.

High blood pressure is a health danger that can affect us all, and it is something we can each address through healthy lifestyle choices. For more info, have a look at this Q&A on hypertension from the WHO. Let’s use World Health Day 2013 as the necessary kick in the backside to get each of us to opt for a healthier, more active lifestyle.