How shorter days affect our health

imgMost of the UK has been enjoying some mild autumn days lately, filled with colour and sunshine. But with the clocks having gone back at the weekend, there’s no denying we’re heading headlong into winter.

Yes, an extra hour in bed on Sunday morning was a nice little treat but it heralded the season of dark evenings. And pretty soon dark mornings will be back again too.

Much has been written about the effect of shorter daylight hours on our health, from Seasonal Affective Disorder to increased weight gain during the winter months.

For many people heading out to work before the sun is up and coming home in the dark is simply depressing. But Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is much more than that. People affected by SAD experience disrupted sleep patterns, lose interest in everyday activities, have a reduced sex drive and crave sweet foods. More women are thought to be affected by SAD than men.

Even if we don’t suffer from SAD, reduced sunlight during the winter months can disrupt our bodies’ normal rhythms. Less light stimulus for the brain can lead to low mood and we all know how much harder it is go get out of bed on dark, cold mornings. We really do need light to stimulate our brains to tell us it’s time to wake up: our internal circadian body clock is controlled by a part of the brain called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN) that responds to light and dark signals. Light travels to the SCN via the optic nerve in the eye, signalling to the internal clock that it’s time to wake up. The SCN also sends messages to other parts of the brain that control hormones, body temperature and other functions that make us feel sleepy or awake.

Dawn simulator alarm clocks, which link to a bedside lamp, can help to overcome the problem of dark mornings by gently increasing the amount of light in the bedroom for 30 minutes before the alarm goes off.

Spending more time indoors during winter often means a lack of exercise, leading to weight gain particularly if you’re tempted to carb up on comfort foods. Children’s activity levels are said to drop by 15-20% during the winter months. Time to go swimming? The whole family can get active together and who cares what the weather is doing while you’re having fun in a warm indoor pool!

Here’s more advice on surviving the long, cold winter:

  1. Spend time outdoors when the weather is good enough. Wrap up to the cold, keep moving to stay warm and get some exercise while exposing yourself to sunlight for that all important vitamin D. You’ll feel so much better for it!
  2. If you work long hours and find it’s dark as you leave the house and as you get home from work, try to spend time outside during your lunch break to get some sunlight.
  3. If you’re a runner but hate running outdoors on dark evenings, head to the gym and use a treadmill instead.
  4. Or, if your routine allows it, take advantage of the lighter mornings and exercise then if you can.
  5. Don’t turn to carb heavy comfort foods during the winter – it’s a sure fire way to pile on the pounds. Try to eat plenty of fresh food to keep your energy levels up and boost your mood. Freshly made vegetable soups and curries are great winter warmers.

We enjoyed this Live Science post on how the change of the seasons affects animals as well as humans.

And if you want to know more about the history of Daylight Saving Time, here’s an enlightening article from The Telegraph.

Can chocolate really be good for our health?

chocolateSince it’s Chocolate Week in the UK this week, we’re bound to indulge in a bar (or two) of the brown stuff. And we needn’t feel guilty: cocoa, chocolate’s main ingredient, is an excellent source of iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous and zinc, and brings numerous health benefits. Here are our top seven:

  1. Blood pressure lowering: A German study found that eating a square of dark chocolate a day lowers blood pressure and reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke by 39%. This is thanks, in part, to the flavonoids chocolate contains, antioxidant compounds that increase the flexibility of veins and arteries.
  1. Cholesterol reducing: Cocoa is reported to help lower bad cholesterol and even boost good cholesterol, decreasing our risk of cardiovascular disease.
  1. Cancer fighting: Studies show that dark chocolate can help lower our risk of lung, prostate and skin cancers. Antioxidant flavonols, polyphenols and proanthocyanidins in cocoa are believed to help slow the growth of cancer cells.
  1. Brain boosting: Oxford University led a study into the long term effects of chocolate on the brain. Studying the diets of over 2,000 people over the age of 70, they found that those who ate chocolate regularly scored significantly higher on cognitive tests.  And in the short term, stimulant substances like caffeine and theobromine in chocolate could help to improve brain function.
  1. Stress relieving: Swiss researchers found that anxious people who ate an ounce and a half of dark chocolate every day for two weeks saw a reduction in their stress hormone levels. This is perhaps due to the theobromine content which triggers the release of endorphins in the brain.
  2. Sun protecting: The flavonols in chocolate are thought to help protect against sun-induced damage, improving blood flow to the skin and increasing skin density and hydration.
  1. And belly filling!: Finally, the darker the chocolate, the more filling it is. Treat yourself to a square or two of dark chocolate to satisfy your chocolate craving without taking in too many calories!

Of course, cocoa is just one ingredient in chocolate, with plenty of sugar, milk and butter thrown into the mix too. The best chocolate has at least 70% cocoa content, so it’s better to savour a square or two of dark chocolate as a treat, and not gorge on bar after bar of the cheap stuff.

As with most things, it’s wise to remember the old mantra ‘Everything in moderation’. As an occasional treat, chocolate can indeed be part of a health diet. Fantastic news for chocolate lovers!

Tackling back pain in children

osteopath-and-childDo you know a child or young person who regularly complains of an aching back? The focus of this year’s Back Care Awareness Week – which runs from 5 to 11 October – is back pain in children. The national back pain association BackCare is keen to highlight the causes of poor posture and associated back pain among young people and offer prevention advice.

BackCare’s research has highlighted that one in four children experience regular back pain, some even daily. Neck and shoulder pain is another common complaint among this age group.

Our osteopaths regularly work with children and young people. Osteopaths have a detailed knowledge of anatomy and physiology and a highly developed sense of touch which they use to detect and release areas of tension or structural imbalance. Osteopaths do not focus on treating conditions but on ensuring that the musculoskeletal framework is physically comfortable and balanced. As experts at assessing posture, osteopaths can also monitor development of the spine.

Older children and teenagers often have poor posture, from spending much of their day sitting, or often slouching, in chairs at school and at home. This can cause areas of tension in the spine. Carrying heavy school bags, as many of our children do every day, can further increase pressure on the spine, contributing to their aches and pains. Indeed, BackCare’s research revealed that half of the 900 secondary school pupils they surveyed felt that their school bags were too heavy for them. Back pain was ten times more common amongst pupils with heavy bags. We have this advice on helping your child choose a backpack as their school bag and carry it correctly, in order to avoid posture problems resulting from a heavy load.

We also have these tips for avoiding poor posture throughout the school day.

Our osteopaths are experienced in treating children and making them feel at ease while in our practice. Osteopathy treatment is not uncomfortable or painful and most children find that they enjoy their sessions. If you’d like to find out more about how osteopathy could help your child, call our reception team on 0113 237 1173.

Find out more about BackCare’s campaign to raise enough money to be able to offer all 8,000 UK secondary schools practical evidence-based preventative guidance to help address this issue of back pain in children and young people.