The other day I was listening to a podcast and letting my mind wander. The podcast was Radio National’s All in the Mind and the topic up for discussion was daydreaming and dementia.
Do you daydream? I hope you do!
Daydreaming has a bad rap, but as it turns out, we should not be so hard on ourselves when we wander off. Daydreaming is a very healthy brain activity and while it may get you into trouble if you are zoned out when someone (like your boss) is trying to get your attention, the fact that you CAN daydream, especially if you are older, is an indication of a healthier brain.
“people living with frontotemporal dementia – a form of younger-onset dementia – lose the ability to daydream. ”
We let our minds wander a lot! Up to 50% of waking time. Daydreaming allows us to explore the unknown, practice conversations and confrontations, escape from reality, plan and problem solve. I know I write my best stories when I am out running! Pity I don’t remember them when I get back! 🙂
People with frontotemporal dementia lose this ability and remain rooted in the present and stimulus bound.
“They become increasingly focused on what is immediately in front of them, such as watching TV, listening to a piece of music, or eating food.”
They lose the ability to create their own internal world.
I have a particular interest in dementia and have done lots of reading on the topic and even an online course through the University of Tasmania. I am concerned about developing dementia (and arthritis!). Being an old chook (a female over 55), I am getting dangerously close to dementia being a real thing in my life. While I can’t change the genetic road map I have been given or do much about getting older, I can do my best to look after the modifiable factors that influence dementia risk.
It turns out that the sorts of things we have been told to do to maintain heart health will also look after the brain and the joints because they reduce inflammation. Inflammation is a big contributor to both these conditions. We need to ensure that we keep our blood pressure at a healthy level, stay active and keep moving, maintain a healthy weight, eat a healthy diet which is based mainly in plants, never smoke and drink alcohol cautiously. Easy!
Just by the by, if you are interested in things to do with the brain and psychology, the All in the Mind podcast is fabulous. I must say I have a bit of girl-crush on Lynne Malcolm, the show’s presenter!
(As this is published I’ll be in an aeroplane somewhere returning home after my epic Scottish adventure)
In modern Australian culture and elsewhere, coffee has reached near god-like status. It’s big business and for some, a life force.
According to many t-shirts, it is imbued with amazing properties.
It keeps some people alive: “I can’t function without my morning coffee.”
It can restore lost speech: “No Coffee – No Talkie.”
It can even prevent murder: Coffee helps me maintain my “never killed anyone streak.”
The science of coffee.
To be precise, it’s the caffeine (and other methylxanthines: see the diagram below) present in coffee that does the trick. Caffeine is classed as a heterocyclic nitrogen compound. Its structure is very similar to two of the important building blocks of DNA, adenine and guanine.
It is water soluble, a critical property because if it weren’t soluble, you wouldn’t be able to drink it in the first place! Caffeine has a melting point of 237°C, another important factor because it doesn’t evaporate away under normal processing conditions. It is an alkaline, white powder when in pure form. Chemically, it’s nothing like cocaine or other stimulants except that it also contains a bunch of carbon atoms joined in a complicated ring shape with a few nitrogens and oxygens and double bonds thrown in.
Caffeine and its biological precursors have been reported in over 160 species of plant. It is found in coffee beans, tea leaves, cocoa, cola nuts, guarana, and plants of the Ilex species such as maté.
Because caffeine is water soluble, the way a coffee beverage is prepared has a significant effect on the amount of caffeine in a cup. It’s all about maximising the solubility. Increasing the temperature of the water, increasing the surface area and making the beans more porous will increase the caffeine content in your daily cup. Hence we roast the coffee beans to make them porous (and tasty) then we grind them to massively increase the surface area before we soak them in hot water. Voila!
The caffeine dose can vary from around 50mg up to 150 mg per 250 mL cup.
The pharmacological effects of caffeine
In plants, caffeine is thought to act as an insect deterrent due to its extreme bitterness. Humans found out about its about stimulating effects a long time ago and have harvested and then cultivated caffeine-rich plants for millennia.
Caffeine does indeed have many well researched pharmacological effects, but most cherished is its ability to perk you up. In 1983 I wrote:
“Caffeine is a stimulant and considered the most widely used of self-administered drugs in the form of coffee, tea and cola beverages. Most people have been exposed to the stimulating effect of these substances and the majority of the population consumes pharmacological doses [~100mg] of the drug at regular intervals throughout the day.”
The list of effects is long.
Dilation of the blood vessels
Increased urine output
Increased gastric secretions
Relaxation of smooth muscle tissue
Reduced the blood supply to the brain
Stimulation of the central nervous system
Increased motor activity and response to sensory stimuli (aka makes you more alert!)
Elevation of plasma free fatty acids and glucose. Some research shows that it can assist in weight loss by increasing fat metabolism while exercising.
Caffeine is absorbed rapidly and appears in the blood within 5 minutes of consumption. In most people, it takes about 3.5 hours to clear the blood and be excreted in urine, but in some individuals (like me!) who lack sufficient metabolic enzymes, it can remain active for much longer. Because it is cleared so quickly from the blood, it does not accumulate in the body.
Too much caffeine can lead to headache, tremors, abnormal heart rhythms and irritation of the gut. In addition, we all know about the effect caffeine can have on sleep. Chronic overconsumption of caffeine results in symptoms that are indistinguishable from anxiety neurosis. It would take about 10 g of pure caffeine to kill you.
Nutritional value of coffee
A cup of black coffee has no nutritional value. It has no fat, no carbohydrates, no protein, no vitamins and only minuscule traces of magnesium. We have to agree the only reason we drink it is because of the caffeine. BUT who drinks coffee black? Not many people! It’s all the stuff we add to coffee that boosts its nutritional status. The data in the table below is taken from Gloria Jean’s website and is fairly typical of the data available.
The energy value of a whole milk cappuccino is going to cost you between 484 kJ (116 kcal) – 725 kJ (173 kcal) depending on size. For skim milk, you are looking at about half that. Soy milk is a little higher than skim milk for energy. The milk is going to provide you with protein, fat, calcium and some lactose. If you add sugar, you can add another 64 kJ (16 kcal) per teaspoon. A large cappuccino could, therefore, represent a fair proportion of your daily energy intake and must be considered if you are avoiding weight gain. If you go for something fancy, like a full cream caramel latte, you’re talking around 1000 kJ (220 kcal) or the same amount of energy in 3 eggs!
So, is coffee good for you?
My thesis is too old to give me good advice in regards to the overall health effects of caffeine and coffee. So a search of the interwebs turns up some interesting information.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in a review on the Safety of Caffeine concluded that moderate caffeine consumption, of around 400mg caffeine per day (the equivalent of up to 5 cups of coffee), can be enjoyed as part of a healthy balanced diet and an active lifestyle. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to limit their caffeine intake to 200mg per day.
It even goes so far as to say that caffeine consumption is associated with a reduced rate of mortality. Is this from the coffee itself or from the social aspect of coffee? That’s a whole other kettle of fish. Once again however we are talking about caffeine not the coffee beverage of choice. Sure, caffeine might have no ill effects, but if you pile in the sugar and cream, that’s a different story entirely!
In my own case, if I have more than one cappuccino a day, I end up with a belly full of gas. I know from anecdotal experience I am not the only one who suffers this consequence. As stated above, caffeine stimulates the production of gastric juices which speeds up digestion, milk contains lactose which challenges many adults at the best of times and with the relaxation of smooth muscle, which incidentally is the type of muscle in your intestines… well … well, you know how it’s going to end!
I guess you need to consider whether your personal circumstances can cope with the increased energy consumption of milk based coffee beverages. If it can’t, you might want to consider black coffee or even a splash of milk in a cup of International Roast!
I sat down with the intention of writing a short piece about coffee and the effect it has on our waistlines and wallets. As I started doing some research and looking at various websites on how many calories there are in various coffee beverages, how much coffee is drunk daily in Australia etc.; it got me thinking.
Where does this coffee come from? How much do we as a nation, spend? What about worldwide? Are there long term health benefits or does it cause health issues? Is it sustainable? All those disposable coffee cups have got to end up somewhere. Can all those corner cafes be supported? Where would you go to meet friends/on a first date if you don’t want to drink coffee and it wasn’t beer o’clock yet? What about tea? Would we solve all/any the issues if we switched to drinking only tea? Is coffee even worth drinking? Now come on, be honest, do you even LIKE the taste of coffee?
My swirling mind became caught in a spiral of ideas worse than being trapped in a Pinterest Vortex! I decided it was way bigger than one post could handle and it needed to be a series of blog posts. This post serves as an introduction and sets the scene. I will follow it up with another 5 posts over the next few months. (It might even grow from that number!)
Part 1 will be about the Waistline Effect: here I will explore the pharmacological, health and dietary effects of caffeine.
Part 2 looks at the economic effects of coffee on a micro (your household budget) and macro (the global economy) scale.
Part 3 investigates the environmental impact: are we burying our cities under a mountain of disposable cups. Are Keep Cups going to save the day? Are we causing rural poverty in those countries that supply our daily fix?
Part 4: What are the cultural differences in coffee drinking. Is Australian the only place you can buy a decent skim cap? I need your help here. Have you ever been able to buy a decent coffee in another country?
Part 5: Tea v Coffee. Does it make a difference? Plus anything else I haven’t been able to fit into the other posts.
I feel like a bit of a coffee expert, not because I drink lots, but because way back in the day when I was completing my undergraduate degree in Food Technology, I wrote my Honours Thesis on “Caffeine and its Derivatives in Australian Foods and Beverages”.
With nothing more than my trusty portable typewriter and correction tape, I banged out one hundred and thirty pages of meta-analysis and lab results about methylxanthines, the chemical group which includes caffeine and other similar compounds. While some of it is outdated, it remains a good starting point.
On a personal note, I’m a tea drinker. I limit the amount of coffee I buy from a cafe to around 1 – 2 cups a week if that. This decision is based on three factors.
Kilojoule intake. I drink skim milk cappucinos. That’s around 120 kcal or nearly 500 kJ which is approximately 8% of my target daily intake.
Lactose intake – I think I must be a little lactose intolerant because milk-based coffee drinks make my belly grumble unpredictably with embarrassing consequences!
I am stingy. $4 a cup every day that’s nearly $1500 a year!
I hope you’ll enjoy these posts and let me know your favourite cafe in the comments below!
If you listen to the health chatter on the TV news, in magazines and on the internet you will have heard about the importance of gut bacteria to health. Gut bacteria seem to be responsible for everything from gastrointestinal health to mental health to reducing high blood pressure. Modern “western” diets which are typically low in fibre and high in processed foods are being linked to the rise of obesity and Type 2 diabetes because of the deleterious effect they have on gut bacteria.
I have been researching and thinking about the microbes in my gut for over a year. I started to read the research, then switched to a mostly plant based diet, deliberately increased the amounts of probiotic and prebiotic foods that I am eating and generally trying to be nice to my gut bugs.
This time, I have put my body (and dignity) forward in the interests of science and bought a uBiome Test kit to check out what is actually living in my gut. It took 3 weeks to get the package from the US and then another 6 weeks to get the results.
The results are very comprehensive and frankly a bit of science-jargon-babble. I am a scientist and I found the data a bit overwhelming and not easy to interpret. I think they could provide a bit more help in unraveling the numbers.
Kombucha is a refreshing, lightly effervescent drink made by fermenting sweetened black or green tea.
Right now it’s all the rage and there are many varieties of it on the shelf in the fridge section of the supermarket. It is pretty pricey at around $4 – 8 per bottle depending on size. The average price is around $12 per litre. Making your own kombucha is easy and it will cost you less than a dollar to make 2L and about $30 in start-up costs. Your start up costs will depend on whether you have to buy your own SCOBY or if you can source one from a friend and how much you spend on a wide open mouth glass jar.
Kombucha has lots of different reported health benefits particularly related to gut health and the gut microbiome. I like it because it is not alcoholic but still feels like a grown-up’s drink.
Fermentation has been around since before Adam was boy. Fermentation occurs when microorganisms turn the sugars in foods, into something else. In the case of kombucha, sugar is turned into acid (acetic and gluconic acid), carbon dioxide gas which gives it a bit of fizz and a TINY little bit of alcohol.
To make wine the microorganism is yeast. For kombucha, it is a SCOBY (which stands for a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.) You don’t really need to know what bacteria and yeast live together in a happy matrix of slime but if your into that sort of thing have a look at this article (it’s only the abstract but there is enough information).
The kombucha you buy in the shops is highly flavoured and often has extra sugar. It’s really not much better than drinking soft drinks (soda) but homemade kombucha is milder in flavour, has a low kilojoule content and as I said is CHEAP to make.
I make about 2 – 3 L of kombucha each week. Less in winter, mainly because it takes longer to ferment and more in summer when you can turn around a batch in about 5-6 days.
Your SCOBY may need replacing after a year or so and if the brew smells funny or gets contaminated by black mould don’t drink it and start again! You can get a free ebook from Cultures for Health which is full of great information and gives much more detail than I have here.
NOTE ABOUT THE VIDEO: Don’t be too worried about the continuity errors, I am no George Lucas! And don’t worry too much about the fact that I say at least three times don’t use metal utensils and then I use a metal strainer (ACKKK). In this case it was ok because it’s the SCOBY that is sensitive to metal and my SCOBY didn’t touch the metal.
In this video I was using some herbal tea as well, but I think one bad batch killed my SCOBY so I don’t use it anymore. These days I just use green tea.
I have become a bit obsessed with the amazing microbiome that is present in our gut. The billions of microorganisms that live inside us and have the potential to do so much good if we look after them.
Gut Microbes and Health.
More and more research shows that this microbiome is essential to our physical and mental health and many of the health problems facing those in industrialized economies could be solved by paying closer attention to what bugs are in your gut.
When your bug population get out of balance (dysbiosis) your whole body is in trouble.
The gut biome has been linked to
Synthesis of vitamins and amino acids in the gut
Digestion of “non-digestible” carbohydrates which therefore affects the amount of energy that is released from some foods
Protection from “bad” bacteria
Irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease
Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes
Eczema and asthma
Most studies of overweight and obese people show a dysbiosis characterised by a lower diversity.
Translation: Obese people have an imbalance of microorganisms with not enough variety present
It’s much better to have a good variety of microorganisms in your gut because:
The association between reduced diversity and disease indicates that a species-rich gut ecosystem is more robust against environmental influences, as functionally related microbes in an intact ecosystem can compensate for the function of other missing species. Consequently, diversity seems to be a generally good indicator of a “healthy gut.”
Translation: Having lots of different species of bacteria makes your body better able to withstand challenges because what one bug can’t do another type can. They can cover all bases by working together.
Fibre is the answer!
So how do you get a good mix of bugs in your gut? The key is consuming a goodly amount of dietary fibre and reducing the amounts of highly processed foods that we eat.
The idea is that we need to feed our gut bugs. Highly processed foods are easily digested and absorbed and don’t make it to the large intestine where most of the bug action is happening. By eating foods high in undigestable fibre, we give the bugs a meal as well.
How much is enough? Australia’s CSIRO recommend between 25 – 35 g per day. Having said that; too much fibre can reduce the diversity of your microbiome and if you suddenly change from a low fibre diet to a high fibre diet you can suffer from abdominal discomfort and flatulence. You should spread fibre consumption throughout the day and drink plenty of water to keep it moving through your intestines.
Types of fibre
There are different types of fibre which have different properties. The main types are insoluble, soluble and resistant starch.
Insoluble fibre found in whole grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts and seeds provides bulk and can help control blood sugar levels.
Soluble fibre found in legumes, veggies and fruits give the bugs something to eat so they stay happy
Resistant starch, which is found in cooked, cooled and reheated rice, potato and pasta, as well has whole grains, legumes and under ripe bananas. Resistant starch increases the amounts of butyrate in the gut. Butyrate, a byproduct of microbial metabolism, is important in keeping the gut walls healthy as well as keeping bad bacteria at bay.
What are probiotics and prebiotics?
Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain living organisms such as yogurt and other fermented foods. Prebiotics on the other hand are foods that help the microorganisms in your body thrive.
A good analogy is that if you think of your gut as a garden, the probiotics are the seeds and the prebiotics the fertiliser.
Some chemicals and medications will damage your gut bugs.
Antibiotics kill bacteria. That’s their job, so they kill the bacteria in your gut too. You may need to take some extra special care of your gut bugs after antibiotics. There is some evidence that the appendix acts a reservoir for the microbiome and in time will help repopulate the gut with good bugs.
Emulsifiers are added to food to make oily and watery components stay mixed together. If you mix oil and vinegar together, they will after time, separate into layers unless you add an emulsifier. Some artificial emulsifiers have been linked to damaging the gut microbiome because they lead to a thinning of the mucous layer in the gut which in turn leads to leaky gut syndrome. This causes inflammation in many areas of the body. The answer? Prepare your own food from scratch as often as possible and avoid things your grandparents would not have considered as food. Be wary of foods with lots of numbers in the ingredient list and not many recognisable as food.
Omnivore vs vegan?
There does not seem to be much evidence that a well balanced omnivorous diet is any better or worse than a vegan diet. (see The BMJ article referred to below) Michael Mosley and others wholeheartedly recommend a “Mediterranean diet“. This type of diet is mostly plant based but does include meat, eggs, some dairy, healthy oils and nuts.
Further reading on gut microbes and health.
This post is only a very short summary of the growing volume of information available. Here are just a few of the articles you could read to if you want to know more.
I took up running seriously a little over a year ago. I have written a bit about this in a few posts (here and here). I run to get some higher intensity exercise, and because once it’s over I feel like a bad-assed grandma! DAMN! I think to myself, I just ran a LONGGGGGG way! And I’m old! (ish!)
I am not super fit and I am a long way off breaking world records. The only person I am keen on competing against is my past-self. My present-self sometimes needs a kick in that bad-ass to get it moving! My goal is to do 10km in 55 minutes. It’s not unrealistic. I can do 5km in 27 minutes so I should be able to do 10 in 55.
I try and train 6 days a week. Monday, Wednesday and Saturday are running days. Five km on Monday with sprints or hill runs; 7 – 8 km on Wednesday. Tuesdays and Thursdays are gym days for crossfit or cardio boxing, Fridays are yoga and Sunday is a rest day. I sometimes switch the rest day depending on my schedule and other commitments.
As I haul myself out of bed at 5:30 AM, I grumble that I should cut myself some slack, but I repeat to myself JFDI!!! (Just f@#$ do it!!) A great mantra! The self satisfaction I feel when I do get up and exercise lasts me all day. When I am travelling or it’s school holidays I am not nearly as disciplined.
My standard Saturday run is 10km. My best time so far is 56:05.
I run on a nicely made bike path that hugs the coast. I can see and hear the ocean. I join the early morning bike riders, walkers and runners who share the path. Running gives me plenty of time to think. I can live in my own head and burble out a stream of consciousness. Typically, my run sounds like this.
0 – 1 km
OMG I can’t breath! I am so unfit! Why did I even think this was a good idea. Come on lungs get it together!
1- 2 km
Oh there you go! My memory brings backs the good old days in the biochem lectures were I learnt about the anaerobic energy system. That’s right….it takes a little while to kick in.
2 – 4 km
I’m hit a steady rhythm; my breathing is not laboured. I should probably go a bit faster. The beat of the music is urging me along. I match my stride to the music. I start to get onto the flow…. I could do this forever! …. Marathon? Yeah, no worries! Easy!
4 – 5 km
When is that bloody running app going to tell me I’m half way so I can turn around. These shoes need replacing! Are they actually any good? I wonder about whether I’m hot or cold… I wonder about whether or not I’m breathing properly… my hip starts to give me a bit of a twinge. Great, I’ll be needing a hip replacement next!
Veronica (the voice on my GPS) tells me my current speed and distance every kilometre. But 5 km is the turning point – literally. If I am under 30 minutes I know I have a good chance of reaching that elusive 55 minutes goal. If not, I may as well take it slowly.
6 – 7 km
My gait has settled back into a good rhythm. Kenny Loggins’ Footloose is almost perfect for my stride (I know I know….) and I pound my feet against the pavement with satisfying synchronised beats. I drift back into the flow and come up with all sorts of good ideas for stories.
7 – 8 km
Veronica breaks into my train of thought unexpectedly…and sends me into a flurry of calculation…can I do it? Should I sprint to the end? No wait… I can’t sprint 3 km!
8 – 9 km
Push it just a little bit harder, old chook. No pain, no gain! Oh no… here’s that little hill that’s always so welcome on the way out but not now that it’s facing up.
9 – 10 km
I can see the car parked off in the distance! Come on! Come on! You can do it!
YOU DID IT!!!
I DID IT!
Darn: 57 minutes and 48 seconds. I begin the self-justification… don’t forget you stopped to do your shoelace up twice, you slowed down to blow your nose at least three times…that should take; what; at least 30 seconds off the time…it’s really 57:18
I feel elated as I stretch on the grass. Not bad for an Old Chook!
I might have 2 minutes to cut off my time. I might need to increase my speed by a full kilometre per hour to average 11kph not 10.