“Not the Answer…

not the answerThis statement appeared on the day of the budget in my Twitter feed.  The person tweeting was referring to the ‘Sugar Tax’.  There was heated debated about how futile it was, or what a good idea, or how it was taking the heat off other more important issues (are there many more important things than our children’s health and well-being?)

I got a bit foot-stompy and this blog is the result.  Well, no, of course it isn’t ‘the’ answer, or not the whole answer anyway.  No one is that naïve, not Jamie Oliver, not the general public, the nutritionists not even the politicians who approved it.  But here’s the thing, maybe things are so bad, with our own health, our children’s health and the health of our environment, that there is no single big ass solution – maybe there never was. Big ideas, high level strategic solutions are for governments and world organisations.  As people, we identify with the practical; what’s meaningful for us.  We feel irritated and overwhelmed by policy, policing and projects.  Most of us I suspect want to engage, but when the message is: ‘you must do this’ or ‘you can’t do that’ – negative dictates from above – we feel quite the opposite: disengaged, disenfranchised, and if you’re me, down right rebellious.

We long to be inspired by a vision of something we can achieve, something positive.  The carrot being infinitely better than the boot (to mix metaphors). We need to see results of the steps we’re taking and to take them one at a time, each one leading inexorably to the next until we’re on that journey towards making a difference. Thankfully there are trail blazers, eco warriors, impressive environmentalists and campaigners for the health of the planet and the health of the human race. And we need them to inspire and encourage us to take action.

However, there are people who struggle to survive now, people in this country who have to work out where the next pay packet, the next meal, the school books, the bus fare, the money for the electricity is coming from, and people in other places in the world who are far worse off than that.  It’s not always a lack of care that stops us from taking action as much as a sense of priority.  Ironically it is the people least able to take action that poor health and climate change impact first, and to a greater degree.

No one wants to see the earth burn; no one wants their children to be morbidly obese and unfit.  We have to deal with challenges at all levels: personal, societal and political to start making a difference to anything.

So, no, the sugar tax won’t cure childhood obesity, but it has raised awareness of the issues involved, it has raised the political profile of an insidious, damaging and costly epidemic.  There is much more to be done to rescue a generation of children from bad sugar and bad advertising, and a great deal more to be done to save the world for them.

And we all have a part to play.  We are all part of the jigsaw which will give us the panoply of answers required.

The Plan – Jamie Oliver https://www.jamieoliver.com/theplan/


To Sleep, Perchance to Dream..

Sleeping CatWe all know the line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and we view sleep itself with the same worn familiarity.  Like many things in life, sleep is something we take for granted, that is, until we don’t get any.  When something becomes unobtainable we are more likely to re-assess how we value it.

As children most of us sleep routine hours without a thought for what else we might be doing with those hours.  Sleep is natural and necessary.  We all know ratty children who’ve stayed up beyond their bedtimes.  Being under the duvet can have its attractions, however, and  our relationship to sleep, and our sleep patterns themselves, often change when we are young adults.  We want to live life to the full and squeeze every moment from the day, burning the proverbial candle at both ends.  At college late night sessions doing last minute submissions, and conversations into the wee small hours, were almost mandatory.  And why not?  We’re only young once!  I have never been good at late nights however, even when I was at college.  I knew I needed my sleep, even if it was only five or six hours, and everyone else knew it too!

Starting a family is another time that we tend to pay attention to our relationship with sleep, mostly when we’re not getting any.  The disturbed nature of  our sleeping patterns can have huge impacts on our lifestyles, and relationships, especially if our tempers fray.

We do need our rest.  Science has proved it.  Many leaders, famously Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, claimed to not need sleep, but the reality is that they probably obtained their quota at different times, or in different ways to the norm.  Cat-napping is a good example of this.  I have a friend who can cat-nap anywhere.  He can even decide to sleep for ten minutes, and then wake up refreshed.  It’s an enviable skill, although when he’s fallen asleep on the train after one too many glasses of afternoon beer, and missed his stop, I do have to smile!

Lack of sleep, even disturbed sleep, has an impact.  The list of possible long-term effects from not getting enough sleep is impressive, and includes a potentially reduced lifespan.  People who work night shifts are prone to a number of illnesses, and are even more likely to have accidents.

When you begin to look into the subject, you can see why sleep deprivation was used as a torture.  We can only go a maximum of 11 days without any sleep.  In 1965, Randy Gardner, a 17-year-old high school student, set this apparent world-record for a science fair. Several other normal research subjects have remained awake for eight to 10 days in carefully monitored experiments. 1 None of them suffered lasting ill-effects, but after  2 or 3 days, most  of them showed progressive and significant deficits in concentration, motivation, perception and other higher mental processes; after a relatively short time we start to notice deterioration.

I’ve not had a regular sleep pattern in over 18 months now, and my ability to deal with normal day-to-day stresses is definitely diminished.  My memory is worse than it was, especially short-term memory, and there is some research which suggests that we actually need sleep to lay down memories.  Sometimes I feel like someone’s wiped my hard disc over the last year or so, and that I’ve somehow lost a chunk of life.  Living with sleep disturbance certainly robs you of your capacity and energy, and can make normal functions seem far more difficult.

We know very little about our need for sleep, and what causes disruption, and though there is some research, and a rise in the number of so called ‘sleep clinics’, there is very little real information around considering the importance of the subject, and the scale of the problem.  It is thought that up to 1 in 3 people in the UK suffer with insomnia.  For some it’s a short blip in an otherwise regular sleep pattern, but for others it’s the scourge of years, decades even.  In the UK the  NHS  spend around £50 million a year on prescriptions for sleeping pills, that’s 15.3 million prescriptions and up to 1 in 10 people taking them. In itself, this can lead to long term issues, not least addiction;   diverting some of the spend to research and alternative therapies, could prove to be a more effective solution.  There are several sleep clinics now in the UK, but being referred to one is a lengthy process, variable across the country, and with no guarantee of a successful outcome.

As we age we may sleep less.  We may need to sleep less, or it may be one of the curses of ageing.  Again, there’s not a  whole heap of data to draw conclusions from.  What is certain is that sleep is crucial for our mental and physical well-being, and that a healthy relationship with sleep is every bit as important as a healthy diet.  Some research even suggests that our sleep patterns can influence weight gain.

Make a regular date with your bed.  It is not time wasted; rather it’s necessary to who we are and how we function.  If you think you have an issue with your sleep patterns seek some advice from your GP and/or look at one of the many support groups available on line.

Zzz  Sweet dreams Zzz

1 J. Christian Gillin, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, conducts research on sleep, chronobiology and mood disorders

2 Sleeping Pills, Britain’s Hidden Addiction. The Guardian On Line (Guardian.com) Lifestyle Article August 2012.

For Further Help and Information see:

NHS Sleep Problems

British Sleep Society

Mood Juice, Self-Help Guide to Sleep

Photo credit Remigiusz Oprzadek  Dreamstime Stock Photos

A Thing About Trees

IMGP1446I was going to begin with the line ‘I’m not a tree-hugger’ as if it were some kind of criticism, but actually, I am, and it isn’t!  I am not your classic eco-warrior, protesting about trees being destroyed for roads, although sometimes I wish I had a bit more courage!  I do have a ‘thing’ about trees though, and I think always have had.  I was a tom-boy when I was younger (a lot younger) and climbing trees was one of my favourite things to do, partly because it was viewed as something slightly daring and ill-advised by my parents, but also because I liked the scuff of bark and branches, and the different perspective that height gave. 

We had a huge garden at home, but sadly there were no trees.  My mum was, and still is, intimidated by large growing things.  I’m not quite sure why, but I think it’s partly a control thing.  Like our Victorian forebears, she has a need to control nature, to make it conform to what she needs and wants from it, perhaps because there is so little else she controls in her life.

As a species we have a history of exploiting the natural world for our own gain.  Scotland’s barren landscape is testament to that.  The ancient forests may have been decimated before warfare took its toll, but the desolation is still manmade.  There have been moves in recent decades at restoration, and education, and all to the good.  I can’t help feeling that having more of a love of our natural world, in general, and trees in particular, might do more good.  ‘Project Wild Thing’ is tackling one of the fundamental issues – our lack of connection with the natural world-and is encouraging young people in particular to engage with nature: to get muddy, to climb trees, to look in ponds, to realise that there is much more to life than an illuminated display and keyboard.  Simply being outside is good for our health, and conversely, there is a good deal of research that now suggests the disconnect we have with our natural world is actually damaging our health.

I was at a workshop at the weekend, entitled ‘words for health’.  Lapidus, the organisation running the event, believes that creative writing promotes mental well-being, and as a writer and artist, I would agree.  The weekend workshop was about their new project ‘writing place’ which embraces writing where we are, and has real connections for those of us who live in the stunning scenery of the highlands.  A sense of place has always been evident in highland writing, and the landscape informs our creativity in an elemental way.  We did a lot of writing this weekend, and much of it was inspired by the stunning venue, Anam Cara, high above Inverness, set on the edge of forest.  We were lucky to have a real ‘tree lady’ taking one of the workshops!  Mandy Haggith is a writer based in Assynt, in the north-west highlands of Scotland. Her current project is ‘ A-B-Tree’and celebrates the link between trees and writing.  It was an interesting and energising day, encouraging us to engage more with ‘outside’ and the words, and health, that being there promotes.

Currently about 13 million hectares of forest are cut down each year 1.  Although there is some re-forestation, the net loss is massive, and includes some of the world’s remaining unique and pristine habitats: the five countries with the largest annual net loss of forest area in the period 2000-2005 were Brazil, Indonesia, Sudan, Myanmar (Burma)  and Zambia.  These forests cannot be replaced, and the systems they support are likely to be lost.

 Even in the UK, the rate of loss is greater than the rate or replanting, and the truth is even we need more trees.  We all know intrinsically that trees are good for us. Their leaves improve the air we breathe by trapping particles and releasing oxygen. Their roots help water travel deep into the soil, capturing pollutants and reducing flooding. By planting more trees we can capture more carbon and help species move in response to climate change.  The world’s forests have been described as the ‘lungs of the world’, and I think that description aptly conveys their importance to life on earth.  Without them we cannot survive long term.

 OK, you may not want to go and hug a tree – though personally I would recommend it, it’s a life-affirming experience- but you could certainly plant a tree, or support one of the organisations who are currently engaged in replanting schemes.  Wherever you live, your environment will benefit from a tree or two.  I would also encourage you to get out there into the outside. Whether you live in a town, city or the countryside, there are green spaces where you can re-engage with your natural environment.  Getting out of the office at lunchtime is a lot more beneficial to your well-being than playing Angry Birds, or updating Facebook! If you really can’t spare a few minutes, then make a point of getting out at the weekend with your family and appreciating the natural world.  Trees are amazing natural sculptures, and some of them have been around for centuries.  I guarantee you will be enriched by your experience.

 If you want to be more involved with re-forestry, or need an excuse to get outside, there are lots of organisations who would welcome you as a volunteer.  The Woodland Trust, Forestry Commission, and Trees for Life all have schemes you can get involved in.

 For more information on Mandy’s project see her website: https://mandyhaggith.worldforests.org/a-b-tree.asp?pageid=336781

 If you want to find out more about Lapidus, their website can be found here: https://www.lapidus.org.uk/  look at their ‘regional networks’ section for more information about what’s going on in your local area.

 If you want to be inspired by some tree images, take a look at my pinboard: https://www.pinterest.com/drnaturegirl/trees/  and https://onebigphoto.com/worlds-most-beautiful-trees-photography/

 Happy Tree hugging!



1 United Nations Environment Programme ‘Forests’ https://www.unep.org/forests/


The Power of a Smile

Smile small Intuitively we all know that smiling is good for us, and good for the wider world too – don’t we?  It costs so little – the energy required to turn the mouth upwards- a few muscle movements less than a grimace, mere seconds- and yet it can mean so much.

A cheeky boy who I’d never seen before, sitting on the station platform as my train passed, raised a hand at me and smiled.  He winked too; it was a mischievous gesture, but it still made me smile. I laughed out loud in fact!  I was coming home from work, moody and half asleep, but a smile from a stranger made me laugh!

A smile can be so many things: conspiratorial, affirming, sympathetic, friendly, or simply joyous.  It’s an exclusively human facial gesture and something we should do more of in my view.  Making the effort to smile at another human being, engaging a stranger, or even a familiar face, can be very life-affirming.  Not only does it benefit the person receiving it, but it benefits us too.  It’s hard to be crabby when your face says otherwise!

Psychotherapists tell us that what’s inside affects what happens externally, but a smile can turn that wisdom inside out.  Wearing a smile instead of a scowl can actually improve how we feel inside.  Go on, give it a try! May be it’s because we have to make a conscious decision to do it.  Smiling may not change our circumstances, but it shows we can change our attitude to things by choosing to be more positive.  I’m not talking about a false, sycophantic, half-hearted for-the-camera effort here, but genuine warmth of feeling that we can display on our visog with a tiny adjustment of muscles – and attitude!

Such is the power of a smile, telephone sales technique trainers insist that you can ‘feel’ someone smiling at the other end of the phone.  Science also tells us that laughter can improve the outcomes for patients being treated for cancer, so the old adage about laughter being the best medicine isn’t far wrong.

Give it a try, what have you got to lose?  You may not cure the world of all its woes, but you may make someone’s day, even your own!