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Oranges, Honey and Echinacea Tea

Can we really save ourselves from catching a cold?

Day one back teaching and I’m in a stuffy room full of snuffles, smothered coughs, and startled sneezes. And that’s just the teacher training day. I make a mental note to pick up some echinacea tea on my way home to ward off the inevitable cold I’m going to catch. But my head fills with new deadlines and specification changes and I forget. A week later I’m snuffling with the rest of them. I curse myself for not taking more care to avoid getting ill so early in the term, but would it really have made any difference if I’d bought that tea?

Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases

‘You need some Manuka honey’, a colleague advises me as I splutter into two layers of Mansize tissues. ‘I make sure I eat a spoonful a day. Like medicine. It works, I’m hardly ever ill. Are you low in vitamin C? Do you eat oranges?’ Clearly, I could have done more planning before throwing myself back into badly ventilated rooms with swirling germs. Perhaps I should have spent August and September eating oranges and honey and popping vitamins. Now I’m tired and my face aches. I’d only brought some hand sanitiser. And only because it was still in my bag from last term.

According to the NHS website, you are infectious a few days before the symptoms of your cold begin and you remain infectious until your symptoms end. Coughs and sneezes contain the virus which can live on hands, clothing and door handles for 24 hours. If your daily workspace involves lots of sneezy people moving around from room to room, it’s hard to see how you’d escape catching a cold no matter how many prevention methods you deploy. But let’s have a look at some of the suggestions.

Vitamin C or Eat More Oranges

A 2017 study by the University of Helsinki found that increased vitamin C intake was associated with a shorter period of illness for people afflicted with the common cold. This suggests that taking a lot of vitamin C can help you get over a cold much faster than usual. However, this was a clinical trial with controlled dosages of 6-8g of vitamin C per day. The guidelines on supplements usually recommend one tablet a day of 1000mg (1g) with warnings not to exceed this, so the high level of vitamin C intake required for an effect doesn’t seem to be something you can safely do without clinical supervision. To put this further into context, an orange contains about 50mg of vitamin C, so to get 6g of vitamin C, you’d have to eat 120 oranges. According to Public Health England, there are other fruit and vegetables that have greater vitamin C content than oranges: blackcurrants, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, curly kale, horseradish, lemon peel, parsley, both sweet and chilli peppers, and spring greens. A handful of West Indian cherries has the greatest vitamin C content at 1720mg. So there are other options if you want a natural source for your vitamin C boost. But does consuming vitamin C prevent colds? There’s no evidence it helps prevention, but it may improve your immune system so that you don’t feel utterly dreadful and you get better faster.

Manuka Honey or the Magical Every-Cure

Manuka honey is a popular and expensive alternative medicine. Research has found that it may help with infected wounds. In 2011, Professor Rose Cooper found that honey can interfere with the growth of bacteria by preventing bacteria from attaching to biological tissues. However, it’s generally used as a topical agent to treat infections rather than something you eat or stir into your tea. Also, the common cold is caused by a virus rather than bacteria so Manuka honey shouldn’t work in the same way. It seems to have antibiotic properties; while antibiotics treat bacterial infections, they can’t treat viruses. This means that Manuka honey won’t be able to cure your cold. It might sooth your throat though, like any other (cheaper) kind of honey.

Echinacea Tea

I used to drink at least one cup of echinacea tea a day to ward of colds and flu. I really believed in it. And it totally seemed to work. However, there is no evidence that echinacea can prevent colds or flu. In several studies, echinacea was no more effective than a placebo. However, it does seem to stimulate the immune system in some way. Perhaps this means it increases the body’s effectiveness in fighting any infections but doesn’t have a direct effect on the cold virus. And does it even matter? Recent research from 2018 has suggested that placebos do actually have a positive effect even if you know you’re taking them. So as long as you can trick your brain into making you feel better, maybe these natural cold ‘cures’ can be useful.

Pharmacy Trip

In the end I buy two packets of paracetamol, two packets of cough sweets, a box of Mansize tissues, and resolve to get as much sleep as I can – I use an extra pillow to prop my head up at night. After a few days, I’m back to normal bar a few sniffles and I somehow manage not to pass it on to my family. I think that’s thanks to the hand sanitiser.

I bump into my Manuka honey eating colleague. ‘How are you?’ I ask. ‘A bit sniffy’. She’s rueful. ‘I’ve caught the college cold. I know, it’s karma for giving you that advice…’

Image courtesy of Myriam Zilles via Pixabay

10 Common Fixes for Fashion Emergencies

Most of us will mercifully never experience the mortification of a highly public wardrobe malfunction, such as when Cardi B split her pants last month. But our relatively minor clothing mishaps can be awkward and cause us some embarrassment and anxiety. Luckily, there are some easy and accessible items you can use to deal with most common fashion emergencies.

Safety pin

The humble safety pin can save us many blushes in lots of situations. It’s a most excellent tool to use if a button has popped off your shirt at work and you don’t have a needle and thread to hand. You should be able to find bags of assorted sizes of safety pins at the supermarket or the pharmacy. Any fabric gap that needs to be closed can be sorted with a safety pin. It’s also a great fix for broken zippers and snapped bra straps.

Paperclip

Another way to deal with a popped button is by using a paperclip. This little tool is only suitable for buttons with holes and shirts that have something to hook onto, for example, some remaining thread or a buttonhole. By straightening out the paperclip, you can use it like thread to attach the button back in place, then bend or twist the ends of the clip to secure it in place.

Stapler

You’ve split your trousers at work? A safety pin isn’t going to help you with this one. Turn instead to the reliable office stapler. Turn your trousers inside out, then staple the ripped fabric together. If you don’t fancy staples in your clothes, especially ‘down there’, use tape.

Tape

Sticky tape is useful to temporarily fix ripped fabric. Everyday sticky tape will do, but packing tape or duct tape would be better because they’re stronger. Turn the item of clothing inside out, pull the torn fabric together, and then use the sticky tape to cover the edges. You can also use tape to get rid of unsightly pet hair or lint by making it into a loop (sticky bit on the outside) and blotting at your clothing.

Double-sided tape

Double-sided sticky tape is excellent as a quick fix for a ripped hem. If the hem on your skirt has come undone, you can affix a piece of double-sided tape to the inside of the fallen hem and stick it back in place.

Superglue

Have you ever broken a heel or split the sole of a boot? Obviously, if you have time and you want to rescue your shoes, it’s best to take your footwear to a shoe mender. But if you’re stuck at work and you have superglue to hand, you can fix your broken shoes by gluing the parts back together. This will probably ruin your shoes, but you won’t have to work the rest of the day barefoot (unless you want to).

Hand sanitiser

You might keep this handy little item in your bag or, if you eat at your desk, in your desk drawer. Not only will it keep your hands clean, but it can also fix scuffed leather. If your scuffed leather shoes look too scruffy for an important meeting, crack out the hand sanitiser. Rub the fluid onto the scuffed area, then use a paper towel to buff the scuff. It should reduce the appearance of scuff-age.

Clear nail varnish

This is an age-old remedy for laddered stockings or tights. It won’t fix the hole in the fabric, but it should stop it getting bigger. If you snag your stockings and need them to last the day, dab on some clear nail polish and that should hold back the damage.

Bicarbonate of soda

We’ve all accidentally doused ourselves in coffee at some point. Bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) is a great general stain remover. Mix it with some water to make a paste, then rub it on the stain. Leave it for a while, then remove with wet paper towels. However, if your clothing is dark, it’s possible that the baking soda will lighten it a bit.

Bar of soap

This is for blood stains. Accidents happen. If you get blood on your clothes, the best thing to do is wash the stained fabric in cold water with soap immediately. If the blood stain has time to set, it will be almost impossible to get out. Obviously, if you need medical attention, don’t make your priority a sink of soapy water no matter how much you love that skirt.

Hopefully, these items should be easily accessible if you work in an office. But if you don’t work in an office or you don’t have access to the stationary cupboard, you might want to make sure you keep these fashion fixes handy.

Image courtesy of Roland Denes via Unsplash

Your Fitbit: Friend or Foe?

Wearable pieces of tech are motivational and fun, but there are issues of accuracy and privacy that we’d rather ignore.

Penguin March Badge

Writing is ultimately a desk job. Unless we install a treadmill in front of a stand-up desk, the only real movement we do on the job is slouching off downstairs to make tea or fetch a biscuit. Freelancers have an advantage: We can just decide to go for a run halfway through the morning if we feel like it. While writing full-time in a ‘real’ job these last few months, in an actual office with air-conditioning, it wasn’t so easy to maintain any kind of fitness routine. I walked to the job from the train station and I wandered around the town at lunch time, but did that make up for the general sedentary nature of the work?

Enter the Fitbit: Charge 2

To see what my new work pattern was doing to my body, I bought a Fitbit. A Charge 2 to be exact. And I love it! The app sends you cool motivation ‘badges’ when you’ve achieved something significant, such as walking a certain number of miles. You can track your calorie intake and compare it to how many calories you’ve burnt, so you can see if you need to change your eating or movement habits. It’s a connected GPS tracker, a heart rate monitor, and a watch, and you can set it to send you notifications from your phone, or buzz you hourly to make sure you get up and move. It records any exercise you’ve done, any stairs you’ve climbed, and the number of steps you’ve taken each day. You can use it to record your weight and keep a food diary. It also apparently monitors your sleep patterns. For the first week, it was the best toy I’ve ever had.

Sleep Stage Tracking…Really?

It was the sleep stage monitoring that made me suspicious. I’ve taught Psychology for many years, and I know that sleep studies are usually conducted with an electroencephalogram (EEG). As the Charge 2 is a wrist device which is clearly designed to take your pulse rate rather than monitor the electrical activity in your brain, I couldn’t see how it could possibly be accurate. In fact, it soon registered that I’d taken an afternoon nap while I’d actually been reading a book.

On a Charge 2, the GPS tracking only works when it’s synced to a GPS-enabled mobile device. I once forgot to bring my phone along on a run, and my Fitbit recorded that I had run three miles when I had in fact only covered two miles. I think it gave an estimate of distance covered based on my age and gender. It obviously didn’t register how slow I really am! I can’t assess the accuracy of the built-in GPS Fitbits, such as Surge, as I have no personal experience of them, but why does accuracy matter so much anyway?

Murder and a Lawsuit

Recently, data from a Fitbit pedometer was used as evidence in a murder trial in Connecticut. The data contradicts the timeline of events given by defendant Richard Dabate, who is accused of murdering his wife Connie. If the data from technology wearables is going to be used as court evidence, then the accuracy of that data becomes a very important issue.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit was brought against Fitbit last year, accusing the company of using ‘highly inaccurate’ heart rate monitoring technology in the Surge and Charge HR. However, other studies have found these devices to be ‘highly accurate’. I think that ultimately it’s unreasonable to expect a wrist device to be capable of extreme accuracy when monitoring heart rate. After all, consumer wearables are not designed to be medical equipment. Not yet, anyway.

Who Controls the Data?

And how do I access all my data? Easy. I set up a Fitbit account, so the company holds all of the data I produce and they allow me to view it. In fact, I think my data may have been part of this study:

Of course, I signed away control of my data when I set up the account, as we often do online. But it does raise issues of privacy when a private company holds so much personal, health-related data. It might not alarm us as much as it should because it doesn’t feel like we’ve just agreed to disclose private information about ourselves. It doesn’t feel awkward or intimate or liberating, like sharing a confidence might with a new acquaintance. We haven’t passed on our current heart rate to the guy at the bus stop, or let a stranger know our exact whereabouts at any given time. But at the other end of the data stream, processing it all, there are other humans with complex motivations. And while our data seems relatively safe right now, what happens when the company holding it is sold or dissolved? Fitbit’s privacy policy states that ‘We will never sell your data’, meaning your Personally Identifiable Information (PII) such as names, home addresses and email addresses, unless ‘it is necessary in connection with the sale, merger, bankruptcy, sale of assets or reorganization of our company’.

This allows the possibility of our data being sold or transferred on to third party entities at some point in the future. Fitbit also states that it may ‘share or sell aggregated, de-identified data that does not identify you with partners and the public in a variety of ways, such as by providing research or reports about health and fitness or in services provided under our Premium membership.’ Data sharing can run foul of the law; just ask the Royal Free Hospital about its data deal with Google’s DeepMind.

Cool Stuff Is the Best!

Will this make me take off my tech wearable? No, I love it far too much. And maybe that’s a feature of our current relationship with data and technology. As long as we feel that the exchange is equitable, we don’t mind exchanging private information for cool stuff. Perhaps we will eventually move to a point where we value our own information enough to sell it ourselves. But we’re not there yet.

Adventures in Mindfulness

I think have time-anxiety. That’s not a clinical term, if you’re wondering – I’m pretty sure I’ve just made it up. But it seems an accurate description. I always need to know how long things are going to take, and if I don’t know (or can’t make a good guess), I get anxious that I’m going to run out of time. I can trace this back to three years ago, after I had a big operation. I still had deadlines to meet, but everything took me twice as long as it had previously because I was still recovering. Then I had to return to my day job, which is teaching – a stressful enough occupation where there is never enough time to do anything.

I had a few bouts of insomnia, which I attributed to stress and too much caffeine. Break-time chats revealed that most of us were fuelled by stress and caffeine. One of my teacher friends shared with us that she’d found a means to reduce her stress: a book containing an eight week course on Mindfulness by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. She was hesitant to recommend it because she hadn’t finished the course, but she thought it was working for her. I’d heard of mindfulness, of course. I was aware that mindfulness training was being used to treat depression, with some promising results. And I really did need to find a way to get some sleep, so I bought a copy.

Now, you might think at this point that this post is going to be a book review. Nope. As a writer, I have a lot of experience with procrastination. That build-up of psychological obstacles which we intentionally place between ourselves and the thing we want. Perhaps we’re really just empathising with our protagonists who never really want to deal with their obstacles in the first act.

First of all, I wanted to read the beginning chapters because I was interested in the science and the theory behind it. So far, so good. At the end of those chapters, there’s a chocolate meditation exercise – and this is where I got stuck (or rather, I allowed myself to get stuck). The instructions suggest that you should use a type of chocolate you’ve never tried before or rarely eat.

Shelf of Chocolate
I have tried all of these – even the Hershey bar.

I’ve tried almost every type of chocolate available in a supermarket, so this was not an easy task. Eventually, I found something appropriate (actually, in hindsight I don’t think a Cadbury Jelly Popping Candy bar was appropriate for a mindfulness exercise), but I put off the exercise for a couple of days and by that time someone else had eaten it.

However, by this point, I’d become distracted by adult colouring books, which are also supposed to be good for mindfulness, and seemed less work than the Williams and Penman book.

Coloring Book Page
I couldn’t get this finished by Halloween. It even looks annoyed.

Unfortunately, I never seemed to have the time to finish colouring a whole picture in one go, which I found intensely irritating. That was not the desired outcome.

Winter came. I decided to switch from running to yoga because I hate being out in the cold. Yoga, of course, presents another form of mindfulness. It’s basically breathing and counting. I’ve been doing yoga on and off (mostly off in recent years) since I was sixteen, so it was familiar and I already had a yoga mat.

After a couple of weeks, I was sleeping better and felt less anxious. Success! I found a method that works for me. Or at least, it’s working for me at the moment. Spring is coming soon so I’ll probably switch back to running because I like being outside when it’s not cold. I might even give the mindfulness book another go.

This Week I’m Researching … Nutrition and Shakespeare

I like finding out stuff so I’m always researching something. And I love learning. If there was such a job as a Professional Learner (outside the upper echelons of academia), I would be doing that.

Imagine my glee when I discovered FutureLearn. This is an online education site, globally accessible, with free courses delivered by real universities. Currently, I’m learning about nutrition and Shakespeare  (the two topics are unconnected … so far).

I’m also currently behind schedule in both courses, as I’ve taken on too much – kind of like piling a load of lovely food onto your plate then discovering your eyes are bigger than your stomach (figuratively, of course; I know this is factually incorrect because I have been studying the digestive system).

Hopefully I won’t collapse into a gloopy, deadline saturated mess of  writing, teaching and learning, and can at least survive until December.

A List of Reasons Why I Love Lists

Hand List

  • Tickable, cross-out-able, tear-up-able, burnable ( unless the list is on an electronic device – blow-up-able?) – very kinesthetic.
  • Procrastination enablers – especially if the list is colour-coded, frequently rewritten for neatness, or annotated with once meaningful symbols to be puzzled over. Everyone does this, right?
  • The illusion of industry – it looks like you’re working and being organised, without actually having to do anything. Yet.
  • The small explosion of brain chemicals reacting to produce a pleasant sensation when you’ve ticked everything. This is also the time to start a new list, to re-experience that brief neurochemical rush in the near future.
  • Perfect productive activity for bouts of insomnia when your brain is only giving you 50% of usual service.
  • Meta-listing – a list of lists: to-do list, shopping list, Project X rewrite task list, Amazon wish list(s), projects list, films for research list, places to go for research list. A list to prioritise your lists.
  • A list removes that crushing yet vague sense of ‘I’ve got so much to do’ and replaces it with a much more tangible sense of ‘I’ve got so many things to do! And now they’re tick-able!’
  • Blog articles made of lists – not a fan.

Interesting Things – Lake Issyk Kul

Lake Issyk Kul

This peaceful, serene waterscape in Kyrgyzstan holds for me at least two interesting facts.

Not that the water is said never to freeze, despite the lake being surrounded by snow-capped mountains (although that is kind of interesting).

Or that the shores of the lake are full of health resorts (although this will become ironically interesting soon).

I’m mostly interested in its connections to plague (see?) and drowned cities (you can make you’re own guesses as to what kind of story I’m working on right now).

Plague on the Silk Road

Historians think that Lake Issyk Kul, being a popular stopover point on the Silk Road in medieval times, was the place from which the Black Death swept through Europe and Asia with devastating effect in the fourteenth century. Merchants and travellers would come into contact with each other as they paused to rest along the route, picking up additional plague-carrying fleas or flea-ridden rats – not intentionally of course. They would then continue on their journey, bringing the sources of pestilence with them.

Lost Civilisations

Legends around Lake Issyk Kul mention several drowned cities; archeologists in 2007 were excited to find the remains of a 2,500- year-old bronze age walled city hidden at the bottom of the lake. Some of the items retrieved included the world’s oldest existing coins.