Why does running make you feel so good?

Ok, ok, not ALL the time, but the runner’s high is a real thing, and with over 858,000 people downloading the NHS couch to 5k app in lockdown 1, there must be something going for it! There are many elements that make running positive for your mental health, and it is increasingly being seen not only as great for the body, but for the mind too. So what is it about running that makes it so good for your brain and mood? Let’s look at the science.

The runner’s high is a real thing!
  1. brain imaging study on endurance athletes and healthy controls at rest showed an increase in coordinated activity in some brain regions involved in executive functions (decision making) and working memory. They also found a reduction in ‘default mode’ activity – what our brain does when distracted, i.e. nothing very useful. This part of the brain is also linked to clinical depression, showing one pathway by which consistently running may reduce depressive tendencies and improve brain health. Interestingly, these are similar results to those seen in meditation – while running you’re turned into your surroundings, and what your muscles and breath are doing, not worrying about work, family or other stressors. So, running could be seen as a form of ‘active/moving meditation’.
  2. Another study in mice showed that exercise breaks down a stress-inducing molecule Kyneurenine. The molecule itself builds up when you’re stressed, and can enter the brain, causing stress-induced depression and anxiety in some people. During exercise, there is a build up of an enzyme able to break down this molecule in the muscles, meaning it’s unable to enter the brain, protecting it against stress-induced depression. 
  3. Beta-endorphins are released in running, improving mood post-run. The hormone is generally used by the body to reduce stress, and, as an endogenous opioid, is also linked to reducing pain. This happens not just over the course of one run, but also over the space of several months, meaning that the effects can last long after you’ve ended a run. This is potentially the source of the elusive ‘runner’s high’, which usually starts to kick in after 30 minutes of running. It’s also one of the reasons that runs can feel very hard at the beginning but get easier throughout – pain relief and a reduction in anxiety are both side-effects of our body’s reaction to exercise. 
  4. While endorphins have long been credited for the runner’s high, it is likely that endocannabinoids play an even larger role. These are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier (unlike endorphins), and act on the same receptors and systems that THC (the active ingredient of cannabis) does. This triggers feelings of euphoria, a sense of calm and reduced anxiety. There’s still a lot of research in this area and the mechanisms in humans still aren’t quite ironed out, but it looks promising!
  5. Running (and exercise in general) also acts as a buffer to life’s stressors. In the same way that stressing out the body through exercise can lead to physical adaptations to cope, it can also lead to mental adaptations associated with resilience, which are then transferrable to other areas of life. Regular runners tend to be better able to cope with stress, thanks to the effects of
  6. In rats, high intensity aerobic exercise such as running has been shown to literally create new brain cells. Up to a limit, running stimulates an increase in grey matter in the brain (beyond that limit, grey matter temporarily decreases, e.g. in extreme multi-stage endurance events – not surprising if you’re running 4,487km like those in the study!).
  7. There are other endogenous benefits of running that may benefit the brain through indirect means, such as improved insulin response, improved immune function, improved circulation (including to the brain), increased energy levels, better sleep and improved focus (including the ability to multitask better!). 
  8. Tangential mental health benefits of running include having a feeling of community (the running community is like I’ve never experienced before), having quantifiable goals and the sense of accomplishment that comes with that, which is transferrable to other areas of your life. Running has been shown to improve your self-esteem – placing the focus on what your body can accomplish and how it feels rather than what it looks like is one of the best to move away from being sucked into diet culture and the constant drive to lose weight. 

Evolutionarily, this all makes sense. As hunter gatherers, we would have had to chase prey for any miles, and having adaptations to a) make that feel good and b) reduce pain on long runs would have meant we were able to run further. And enjoying the chase/run would have meant more food for everyone, so better survival.

It’s important to note that many of these studied were either done on animals, or in small numbers of volunteers. However, anecdotally the benefits of running for the brain are multi-fold and substantial, and it’s great to see this backed by multiple studies. Hopefully we’ll start to see more of this in the coming years as the link between physical and mental health becomes increasingly clear. 

While these benefits mainly pertain to running, it’s also possible to get many of the same benefits through other forms of aerobic and anaerobic exercise. The benefits may be to differing degrees, but the important thing is that you find a form of movement that is enjoyable and sustainable for you – there’s no point in overdoing it on a sport that you hate. Moving your body in whatever way feels best is a good place to start! And if you’re just starting your running journey, keep it up! It is always hard at first (and at second, and at third), but the benefits are SO worth it. If you enjoy this topic, check out the book Endure by Alex Hutchinson. It’s fascinating and delves into the science further without being hard to read. 

If you regularly read and enjoy my articles, please consider making a small contribution to the running of my blog. If you’re looking for a little challenge to focus on for your training, why not join in our 5k time trial challenge at the end of March?

World Environment Day – increasing biodiversity from home

Biodiversity loss has been highlighted as the third biggest risk to the world both in terms of likelihood and severity this year, ahead of infectious diseases, terror attacks and interstate conflict. Let that sink in. 

As we sit in the midst of a pandemic, it is easy to look only inwards, turning our backs on the changes that need to be made in our world for humans to continue thriving. However, now, more than ever, it is outwards that we need to look and wonder how we got ourselves here in the first place.

Biodiversity is the abundance and variety of life on earth. Humans are entirely dependent on biodiversity for the air we breath, food we eat and water we drink. Almost half of global GDP – around €40 trillion – depends on nature and the services it provides.

The recent COVID pandemic has brought to light just how much this is true, with scientists positing that the increased incidences of viruses such as Ebola, Bird Flu, Dengue Fever and COVID are exacerbated, if not caused, by biodiversity loss, deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade.

Today is World Environment Day, an international awareness day built to engage and motivate environmental action within governments, businesses and the general public. Each year WED has a theme, focussing efforts on one element of environmentalism in an effort to educate, share resources and make a difference.

This year’s theme is Biodiversity, a term which has seen the light of day more and more in recent years. The United Nations even labelled 2010 to 2020 the ‘decade of biodiversity‘, implementing strategies to improve it worldwide. However, a recent report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), found that nature is being eroded at rates unprecedented in human history, leading to the acceleration of climate change and demise of our natural world. Businesses are also not doing anywhere near enough, with most countries on track to miss the targets of the Paris Agreement.

“The more one thinks, the more one feels the hopeless immensity of man’s ignorance”. Charles Darwin, More Letters of Charles Darwin, 1903.Apt, but today we don’t have ignorance as an excuse.

Climate change, biodiversity loss and our own wellbeing are all intrinsically linked. Biodiversity loss in Europe alone costs the continent around 3% of its GDP each year, around £400m pa. It is in our best interest to do as much as we can to prevent further loss of the natural world, and start rebuilding where we can.

Biodiversity loss is not only an environmental issue, it also impacts upon many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including those tacking food security, poverty, peace, justice and development. As mentioned by Sir Robert Watson, chair of the IPBES, biodiversity is “a security issue in so far as loss of natural resources, especially in developing countries, can lead to conflict. It is an ethical issue because loss of biodiversity hurts the poorest people, further exacerbating an already inequitable world. And it is also a moral issue, because we should not destroy the living planet.” (Guardian, Nov, 2018). Closer to home, biodiversity in green spaces is inextricably linked to mental health and wellbeing for all of us.

“This is the assembly of life that took a billion years to evolve. It has eaten the storms – folded them into genes – and created the world that created us. It holds the world steady”. E O Wilson, The Diversity of Life, 1992.

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This destruction of ecosystems has led to a million species (500,000 animals and plants and 500,000 insects) being threatened with extinction, potentially many more (UN). Figure from Guardian 2018

 

But what can we do from home?

I would argue that most of us interested in the natural world generally already know ways in which we can help, from changing to a green energy provider, cutting back on travel, switching to an ethical bank and changing to a meat-free diet, and it’s just a case of enacting this. However, there are many more small ways to improve biodiversity from home.

Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic has turned our sights away from many parts of the world where threats to biodiversity are greatest, from illegal bycatch in fishing vessels and the deaths of those who regulate this, to the deforestation of sacred indigenous land in Sierra Nevada, Colombia, to make room for tourism (you can support a petition to end this illegal activity here). Because of this, it is important to look not only in our own backyards, but also what we can do to support efforts across the globe.

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While many backs are turned due to COVID, sacred regions within Sierra Nevada, Colombia, have been invaded and damaged by tourism projects and mining. Sign a petition to end this.

Close to home:

Leave wild spaces around your home.

  • If you have a lawn, leaving it for longer between mowing, or avoiding mowing patches altogether. This will not only improve the biodiversity of the plants, but also provide shelter for small mammals and insects.
  • Consider piling up wood, stones and garden cuttings to provide homes for more types of insect and mammal, as these are becoming rarer with the loss of woodland and increased obsession with ‘clean’ spaces. Composting organic matter also increases bacterial, fungal and other decomposers, providing a healthier garden all round.
  • Providing bird feed and water in your garden will also provide vulnerable bird species with a better chance of surviving harsh winters and being able to raise more young. Offer a mix of food for the widest variety of birds and provide protection from cats where possible!
  • Planting a window box with flowers that pollinators love can help maintain biodiversity in urban spaces. Having greenery at home is also great for your mental health!

Shop eco friendly.

Understanding how food and other crop production impacts the environment is a huge topic that deserves an entire literature review of its own. However, there are a few small steps we can make to ensure everything we buy is as biodiversity-friendly as possible.

  • Buy organic where possible. This does not always make a difference, but many of the farming practises that are intrinsic to organic farming (prohibition/reduced use of chemical pesticides and inorganic fertilisers, sympathetic management of non-cropped habitats and preservation of mixed farming) benefit local flora and fauna. On average, organic farms have 12% more biodiversity than equivalent non-organic farms. Look for the Soil Association label to make organic shopping easier. 
  • Buy shade-grown or bird-friendly coffee. This is vitally important as coffee is grown in some of the most biodiverse but rapidly changing environments, meaning that it can either support or harm endemic wildlife. Here’s how you should choose your coffee.
  • When buying furniture, only buy FSC certified wood. The FSC holds businesses to a standard that helps them carry out sustainable management practices to ensure forests thrive today and in the future (FSC).
  • Buy from ethical clothing brands. The fashion industry is immensely polluting, encourages deforestation, and if the fashion industry were a country, its emissions would rank almost as highly as the entire European continent. This is evidently bad for biodiversity. Buying less and choosing ethical companies can reduce your impact. Brands such as Veja are leading the way in supporting, rather than exploiting, the ‘guardians of the forest’ in the locations they source their materials, working with locals to promote biodiversity, instead of simply deforesting as many other brands do. Have a look at Good on You and EcoAge for other brand recommendations.

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Further afield:

Donate, support, fund, share.

We can make changes in everyday life and do what we can to maintain diversity, both close to home and further afield. However, the work of charities, NGO and certain businesses takes this a step further, keeping an ear to the ground to call out environmental injustices, hold governments to account and support local communities around the world. Here are just a few – comment your favourites below!

NGOs

  • Traffic, a NGO, supports efforts to end the illegal wildlife trade and combat wildlife crime. They focus on educating governments on sustainable wildlife management and regulation systems, reducing reliance on poaching and unsustainable trade. Donate here.
  • Amazon Watch works with indigenous people to protect large swathes of the Amazon rainforest. Recent research demonstrates that while the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples make up less than five percent of the total human population, they manage or hold tenure over 25% of the world’s land surface and support about 80% of the global biodiversity. Protecting Indigenous people is protecting the environment they live in and vice versa. Donate here.
  • African Biodiversity Network (ABN), a UN accredited NGO, accompanies Africans in voicing their views on issues such as food and seed sovereignty, genetic engineering, agrofuels, biodiversity protection, extractive industries and the rights of small-holder farmers. They ‘focus on indigenous knowledge, ecological agriculture and biodiversity related rights, policy and legislation’. I cannot find anywhere to donate but do check out and share their work!
  • National Biodiversity Network works closer to home (UK) to record and analyse data collected about UK wildlife, enabling conservation efforts to be focussed on areas that really need it. Knowledge is power! Donate or join here.
  • Cool Earth work to end deforestation and environmental degradation in rainforests, some of the most biodiverse places on earth. Rather than exerting top-down control, they work with local people to help them benefit from protecting their surrounding forests. Donate here.

Businesses

While NGOs and charity organisations are excellent, some estimates suggest they receive only 10% of the funding needed to avert a biodiversity crisis. Engaging the private sector to fill in the gaps is a necessary and productive next step.

  • Treedom supports biodiversity by allowing people to purchase native trees and plant them in small, sustainable agroforestry systems around the world. Trees contribute to biodiversity by providing shelter, food and homes for animals, insects and other plants, increasing the number of pollinators and natural pest predators, like birds (thereby supporting the pollination of the world’s crops), capturing CO2, preventing soil erosion and much, much more.
    The trees people sponsor with Treedom support smallholder farmers and their families, providing either food or an added income source. For transparency, all of their trees are geolocated and photographed, and customers receive regular updates about their tree and the project where it is planted.
    Treedom have planted over 1.1 million trees across 16 countries, offsetting over 340 million kgs of CO2 and providing food security and income for over 66,000 farmers. If you’d like to purchase a tree or two, the code FLORA10 gets you 10% off! Please do let me know if you buy one, as I’d love to share 🙂
  • There are many re-wilding projects also happening in the UK, returning deforested woodlands to their former diverse glory. You can learn more about rewilding projects here.

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Trees are vital for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem health, but also are excellent for your mental health too! Photo Johny Cook.

 

Nature provides us with everything we have, and we cannot afford to lose more biodiversity on this planet. While we may have long ago destroyed much of the biodiversity in the UK, there is still a chance to make an impact with our actions and reverse some of the damage, both close to home and further afield. The best time to at was yesterday. The next best time is now.

Many thanks to Hattie Webb for helping research this post – there was SO much more I could have put in, but in the interest of people actually getting to the end, I have saved this for another time. I hope you enjoyed reading! Please share it if you found it useful, tagging @foodfitnessflora and @hattie_eco on Instagram. Do add any ways you have found of increasing biodiversity, as well as any charities you like to support. Thanks for reading!

Exhausted – The effect of air pollution on running

It might be just me, but it seems that air pollution has risen on the agenda of Things To Worry About in the last few months. Plastic pollution was one of the key phrases within eco-conscious circles in 2019, with laws coming into place this year in a bid to control the problem. The term pollution, however, refers not only to plastic, but also the introduction of any contaminant into the environment which may cause harm. This can take the form of noise, light, chemicals or even heat – most of which we cannot see.

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Pollution is an issue in cities (and even many rural areas) around the world

Air pollution has a devastating impact on those living in the cities. While the pollution usually cannot be seen, the impacts are felt by all, with it shortening lives and contributing to a number of health problems. In the UK, pollution is a bigger killer than smoking, and costs the UK economy over £20bn per year. The biggest culprits are Nitrogen dioxide, emitted mainly by diesel vehicles, and PM2.5, fine particulate matter linked to adverse health effects. In the EU the toxic air is causing more than 1000 premature deaths each day from PM2.5– a figure which is 10 times higher than the number of deaths from traffic accidents.

Because of this invisible nature, it has been easy for people (and thus governments) to ignore the issue, focussing instead on highly visible, highly publicised issues and ‘buzzwords’, such as banning straws (good, but of limited benefit to the plastic pollution problem). However, in October 2019, it was announced that the UK would introduce an Environment Bill to “help ensure that we maintain and improve our environmental protections as we leave the EU”, including focussing on air quality and PM2.5 in particular.

For runners and cyclists, an immediate concern, however, is how we can actively work to improve our health (and continue doing what we love) without inadvertently harming ourselves.

Unfortunately, running in heavily polluted air has been linked to inflamed lungs, increased risk of asthma (I experienced this firsthand at the age of 18, when I moved to Paris), and instances of heart attack, stroke, cancer and death. Needless to say, these risk factors are enough to put people off, and encourage them to run on a treadmill (boring), or worse still, avoid exercising outdoors entirely. But is this entirely justified?

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Live pollution meter of London (18/02/2020 10am)

Even the scientists admit the problem is complex. Andrew Grieve, Senior Air Quality Analyst at King’s College London, says “when you’re running, you’re breathing a lot more than you are just walking along the street and your inhalation rate is massive so you’re bringing in more pollution.” In fact, someone running a marathon will inhale the same amount of oxygen as a normal person would sitting down over two days. Most people also tend to breathe through their mouths, bypassing the nasal filters, which can work to reduce pollution intake. The carbon monoxide alone can inhibit the body’s ability to transport oxygen around the body, thus making running that little bit harder too.

On the plus side, running is really good for you. Although I couldn’t find any studies looking directly at the effect of running in polluted areas (other than this, for elite athletes over marathon distance), a study on people walking in polluted areas up to 16h a day or cycling up to 3.5h per day suggested that the benefits of activity outweighed any harm from pollution in all but the most extreme of cases.

Conclusions

The benefits from active travel generally outweigh health risks from air pollution and therefore should be further encouraged. When weighing long-term health benefits from PA (physical activity) against possible risks from increased exposure to air pollution, our calculations show that promoting cycling and walking is justified in the vast majority of settings, and only in a small number of cities with the highest PM2.5concentration in the world cycling could lead to increase in risk. (Tainio, Marko, et al. “Can air pollution negate the health benefits of cycling and walking?.” Preventive medicine 87 (2016): 233-236.)

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Photo by James Purvis

However, there are things we could be doing to both decrease our risk of being negatively affected by air pollution, and also improve the air quality where we live.

  1. Choose lesser polluted routes when walking, running or cycling around cities. Choosing to walk or cycle on a quiet road instead of a busy one can sharply reduce the amount of pollution you take in. Even using a parallel road one block over from a traffic-clogged one can reduce your exposure by 50%. If you’re looking to run or cycle around London, consider downloading Clean Air Run Club on your phone to score routes by air quality.
  2. Run in the morning. Pollution increases throughout the day, especially in summer.
  3. Aim to find green spaces, or roads lined with trees – these are havens from pollution, and even a small amount of greenery between you and the traffic can dramatically reduce pollution levels!
  4. Take note of particularly bad air days using a live air quality monitor. These will often be on hot and humid days. If you can, avoid running/cycling outside on these days, perhaps getting in some cross training indoors, or a run on the treadmill.
  5. Take public transport. Although particulate pollution in tube lines is up to 30 times higher than roadside, Prof Frank Kelly, chair of Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP), said people should continue to use the tube given the relatively short time spent underground and lack of evidence of harmful effects. Using public transport also reduces fumes expelled by cars, cleaning the air above ground that we breathe for the rest of the day.
  6. Eliminate wood burners and fireplace usage. Wood fires are sold as ‘eco’ or ‘clean’ alternatives to electric heaters or gas fires, but are far from it, and are a big contributor to wintertime pollution across Britain. Reducing wood burning reduces deaths and pollution-related ill-health.
  7. Switch to clean energy sources and aim to conserve energy at home and work. By switching to a renewable energy that is generated by natural sources such as solar, water and wind, you can help to fight harmful levels of air pollution.
  8. Lobby governments. For real change to be seen, governments need to prioritise pollution and other environmental issues (which go hand in hand), and now is the time to pressure them.
  9. Stop driving (especially around urban areas) unless absolutely necessary. Although you may believe driving a car protects you from the worst of the fumes, pollution levels inside cars are usually significantly higher than directly outside the car on the street, due to exhaust fumes being circulated around the enclosed space.

The good news is that we know the impact of pollution and we know what we can do to reduce it. We also know that even small improvements have substantial and immediate benefits for us all. What is needed now is for global governments to step up and reassess funding priorities. Pollution is the biggest environmental health risk in Europe, and it’s time something was done about it.

 

This article was adapted from a piece I wrote for EcoAge. For more of a deep dive into the issue of pollution, head on over. 

Come and find me on YouTube and Instagram for more running content!

Dharana Wellness Centre, Hilton Shillim Estate, India

Travelling has always been something I love, and spending too much time in one place gives me itchy feet to explore anywhere else, be it the Surrey hills or half way across the world. For a long time, I have wanted to visit India. The cuisine is one of my favourites, focusing heavily on vegetables and plant-based foods, exquisitely flavoured and perfectly balanced.

I recently had the privilege of being able to travel to the Dhahran Wellness Centre (the Dharana at Shillim estate near Mumbai), partly as a birthday present to my partner, and partly for work. With its focus on wellness and conservation, I knew it was the perfect fit!

Shillim was originally a conservation project by two brothers, who bought land to protect it from slash-and-burn, the practise of cutting down forests and burning them in the summer to create more fertile land for agriculture. Over time the brothers were able to buy and reforest more and more pieces of adjacent land. Now the site is around 3000 acres, within which sits the 330 acre eco retreat (of which 70 acres is the wellness facility).

Location & accommodation

We travelled from another local retreat, but the drive from Mumbai airport is around 3 hours. It’s long considering the distance, but compared to some of the other local roads, the journey was smooth and seamless! The hotel provides airport transfers for a fee.

The surrounding forests are what make this retreat so special for me. It creates a supremely idyllic setting, somewhat more humid than the surrounding areas, and brimming with local wildlife. The rooms are tucked away off the road that winds through the centre of the site, and thanks to the fact that they are all low-rise, all of them are quite well hidden in the forest. We were lucky enough to be placed in one of their pool villas, although all the rooms look spectacular – the spa villas have beautiful balconies with views over the surrounding valley.

The villa was gorgeous and spacious, sleeping 2-3 (a spare bed can be added on request). Ours had a private pool and was situated close to the wellness centre – perfect for guests on any wellness programme.

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Not a bad place to enjoy the sunshine! Swimsuit from Davy J

Wellness programme

Dharana seeks to help guests reconnect with nature and their bodies thorough a range of wellness programmes. Whether your stay is 3 nights or 2 weeks, programmes are available for all health goals.

Each stay commences with a questionnaire (completed in advance) and a Ayureveda/naturopathy consultation to determine the best diet, treatments and activities each guest should take on. Once drawn out, the guest is given a daily plan complete with activities, massages, treatments etc., and after the stay there is a departure consultation aiming to provide each guest with simple steps to continue the dharana way of life at home (both dietary recommendations and naturopathic suggestions).

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Treatments are incredibly varied and are planned for you after your initial consultation

Since both Fiann and I already eat healthily and enjoy staying active, our programme was focussed around relaxation (plenty of treatments), increasing focus and enjoying the nature reserve. I couldn’t think of anything better!

Food

One of my favourite parts of travelling is the food! However, in the past I have struggled with ‘healthy’ or ‘wellness’ menus, which provide watered-down versions of dishes, or portions so small they are finished before you know what’s happened. Thankfully, after speaking with our doctor, we were assured that the food would be healthy, but in line with our desires – that is to say delicious, traditional and filling.

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The food was incredible – one of my favourites was the traditional (but healthified) thali

The food certainly did not disappoint. Although the individual dishes were sometimes smaller than I would help myself to (not hard, considering my normal portion sizes), I never came away from a meal feeling like I hadn’t had enough. In fact, I was full for almost our entire stay! This was some of the best food I have ever eaten and a wonderful introduction to all the dishes India has to offer!

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My favourite breakfast was dosa and paratha

One thing I would say is that if you want traditional, large, ghee-filled Indian meals, this isn’t the place – the meals are delicious but delicate. In the Green Table, the dharana (wellness) restaurant, traditional ingredients are cooked using modern culinary knowledge to create traditional-tasting food based on Ayurevedic traditions with modern-day health benefits. All I know is that it tastes blooming amazing.

The hotel has one more restaurant, Terrazzo, which serves a combination of Indian and global cuisine. We ate here once (from the buffet) and it was delicious, but does not compare to the home-grown, fine dining feel of the Green Table. However, if you’re looking for somewhere that serves alcohol or coffee, this is your place (or head to the Mountain Bar & Bistro – bruschetta pictured below). The Green Table is for wholesome ingredients only!

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The Green Table gets many of its ingredients from its on-site organic farm (complete with friendly farm cat).

Activities

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Hike to Shillim peak – we hiked up in 18 minutes and ran down in 9!

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You can also practise yoga on the peak

I was amazed when I found out that most of the activities held at Dharana are privately run. From bird-watching to block painting or pottery, if you choose to sign up you can guarantee a personalised feel. We loved every single activity we tried – I’ll let the photos speak for themselves, but so you know, we did:

  • Forest Bathing
  • Birding trail
  • Sunrise hike
  • Hike to shillim peak (above)
  • Cycling trail (below)
  • Block painting (below)

Our only problem is that we didn’t stay longer! We heard about a 6 hour hike on our penultimate day, but didn’t have time to fit it in, which was a real shame!

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We cycled at 6:30am to see the sunrise!

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Our birding trail didn’t just involve birds!

I adored our stay at the Dharana Wellness Centre, and would love to go back for longer after the rainy season sometime, where the activities are focussed around the rejuvenated forests, waterfalls and rivers. I can imaging coming back here over and over again and never getting bored, which is what I now plan to do!

Have you ever been to India? Would you like to visit somewhere like this? Comment below!

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Too many photos, not enough space

This trip was very kindly gifted by Dharana at Shillim, but as always all views are my own.

nb/ I offset my total carbon footprint from general living monthly, and offset the flights from this trip. Although not a perfect alternative to not flying at all, you can read my thoughts on Carbon Offsetting here.

 

Seven Worlds, One Planet – what can we do to help?

The latest episode of BBC’s Seven Worlds, One Planet left viewers devastated and reeling, after the true impact of poaching was seen so starkly on screen. Mountains of confiscated tusks were piled up, representing just half of the elephants killed in Africa in just one year.

“Elephants have used their great intelligence to help them survive Africa’s driest times for millennia, but today they face an even greater threat,” said David Attenborough, before appearing next to the two last remaining Northern White rhinos in the world, destined for extinction.

This series has been one of the first BBC-Attenborough collaborations to lay out, from the very beginning, the plight of the many incredible animals shown, thanks to climate change. They even showed the filming process, where the effects of anthropogenic climate change are evident to each and every film maker. Viewers’ hearts were in their mouths when the team were able to finally capture some footage of elephants in a clearing, before being shot at by nearby poachers. The result of the shooting was an elephant’s death, showing all too clearly how stricter regulations and more anti-poaching patrols are needed to make an impact on the incessant desire for elephant tusk, rhino horn and numerous other animal body parts, especially in the East.

So what can we do from here? Other than never buying products originating from the wildlife trade (furs, many traditional medicines, ivory jewellery etc) there are many charities doing great things to make an impact, and with a little more funding from each of us, real change could be made.

 

The best conservation charities around the world

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

I applied to volunteer at DSWT in my final year of school, for my year off before university after seeing them in a programme about elephant conservation. Unlike many ‘rescue’ centres, DSWT is guided by real biologists and works with locals to find what is really needed on the ground. Despite the fact they never responded (I don’t think they work with gap year students, probably for good reason), I’ve been a massive fan since.

The DSWT doesn’t only work to protect elephants. Understanding that species don’t exist in isolation is key to conservation efforts, and DSTW work to safeguard habitats known to house many animals, not just umbrella species like elephants and rhinos.
Donate now. 

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International Rhino Foundation

The International Rhino foundation has been working to protect rhinos for around 25 years to ensure the survival of this impressive yet heavily persecuted animal. They work across Africa and Asia where the primary conservation efforts are needed. The charity works with local anti-poaching efforts, who personally protect each remaining population of rhinos. Here the problem is multi-fold – not only are the rhinos being hunted, they are also unable to regrow their population due to increasingly fragmented habitats and tiny population sizes. Just a few weeks ago, the last remaining Sumatran rhino in Malaysia died out. These conservation efforts are sorely needed.
Donate now.

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Recognise this lonely Sumatran rhino from episode 2? Its species has since become extinct in its native Malaysia.

WWF

The World Wildlife Fund is one of the oldest and most popular conservation charities out there. They work across the world and across species, aiming to maintain species diversity (more important than any one species) and habitats, from preserving the health of waterways to protecting forests globally. Their impact is extensive and thorough – a good choice if you want to make a difference wherever scientists decide it is needed most.
Donate now.

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WWF works with political parties globally to tackle wildlife loss

Marine Conservation Institute

While the plains of Africa and rainforests of South America do require significant help when it comes to conservation, marine wildlife is also severely threatened by climate change. Previously thought of as untouchably vast, people are now realising that our oceans are not only incredibly vulnerable, but also key to ecosystems on land and the survival of life on Earth. The Marine Conservation Institute uses science to catalyse international conservation efforts, and aim to have protected at least 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 (currently the level is under 5%).
In December, Patagonia is matching every donation made to the MCI, so now is the time to donate!

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Currently, only 5% of the world’s oceans are protected. MCI suggests over 30% is required to have significant positive impacts on biodiversity.

Jane Goodall Foundation

Jane Goodall is a conservationist and biologist who ventured into Africa in the 1960s to learn more about great apes. In 1900 there were more than 1 million chimps living in the wild. Nowadays there are fewer than 340,000, and that number is rapidly declining. Using the vast amount of data collected by the Jane Goodall institute, the charity is able to inform conservation efforts and restore important habitats for our close cousins. I am a fan of the JGF because it is evidence-based, and uses chimpanzees – our closest living relatives – to protect areas that may otherwise be exploited, thus protecting countless other species at the same time.
Donate now.

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A graph taken from Jane Goodall Foundation, showing how conservation efforts have helped increase Chimp habitat.

RSPB

Conservation is not only required for large, fluffy animals half way across the world. Here in the UK, many birds, both endemic and migratory, require all the help they can get to survive and thrive. With the loss of almost all forest cover in the UK, as well as an increase in extreme weather events, the RSPB works to conserve rare species and lead on policy change. Donating to this charity closer to home could have noticeable impacts in your own back garden or local park.
Donate now. 

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Nature documentaries have the power to be a huge force for good. Past documentaries have been criticised for glossing over the human impacts on nature, and showing solely the most beautiful, untouched parts of each ecosystem. However, watching documentaries such as these can increase willingness of viewers to make lifestyle changes for the better and increase public awareness of the issues, even encouraging policy change and charitable donations.

People in the UK can watch Seven Worlds, One Planet here.

If you’d like to make more of an impact, why not consider learning more about fishing, ethical banking and green energy?

What is green energy and can it save the planet?

There are lots of ways we can reduce our impact on the environment, from cutting out meat and fish to moving our money to an ethical bank to using less fossil fuel. However, when it comes to changing energy provider to live a little greener, the whole industry can be a minefield!

A Which? survey in early 2014 found that energy tariffs are too confusing, despite the reforms brought in earlier that year. For me, changing energy company appeared complicated, not least because of the myriad of tariffs and providers available (known to confuse the consumer into paying more than they have to), and the fact that some providers don’t provide to certain locations. However, I recently switched from Shell to Bulb and it took me all of 2 minutes (via a short online form, since they only have one tariff) – it’s not as complicated as it seems if you choose the right provider!

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I plan to help with each of these aspects! (From 2000+ respondents to a MoneySuperMarket survey)

As most Brits turn their heating on around this time of year, it’s the perfect time to look for a cheaper way to get your energy – and there’s no reason you can’t make it friendlier on the planet, as well as your pocket.

What makes energy green?

Traditional energy suppliers rely primarily on non-renewable resources, such as oil, coal and gas, which are major contributors to climate change through the release of CO2. Ninety-seven percent (or more) of scientists are certain the climate has been warming over the past century and that the pace of warming is accelerating due to human activities — particularly the burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels. As such, the reduction in our use of fossil fuels is of utmost importance.

Green energy uses renewable resources (e.g. wind power (big in the UK), wave, solar (esp US), hydroelectric, etc.). The amount of renewable electricity used by UK households has increased to overtake fossil fuels this year for the first time, partially because of growing concerns over fossil fuels, and partially because green energy has become much more efficient to produce. In addition to slowing climate change, switching to a green energy provider can help fight harmful levels of pollution, meaning we can all live longer (and healthier). However, we still have a long way to go to make a significant change.

“Renewables are already the world’s second-largest source of electricity, but their deployment still needs to accelerate if we are to achieve long-term climate, air quality and energy access goals,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director.

“As costs continue to fall, we have a growing incentive to ramp up the deployment of solar PV.”

It is important to remember that when you switch to a green energy company, a certain amount of energy sourced from non-renewables is used to fill gaps in supply of renewable energy. However, a proportion of what you pay will be matched by the equivalent amount of energy being fed into the national grid from renewable sources, with the result being a much cleaner way to get energy.

Conversely, whilst many major energy companies can sell ‘green’ energy tariffs, these are not necessarily helping the problem. Big companies are able to buy green energy from smaller companies and sell it on to the customer, without actually having any renewable sources of their own. This article explains it much better than I can – just don’t be fooled when a big company tries to sell you ‘100% renewable energy’.

It is clear that we all need to be making a switch to cleaner, greener energy companies – companies that care about the environment at least as much as their own profits.

To make it easier for you to change over, I’ve compiled some of the most popular providers on the market. All of these companies supply 100% renewable electricity, so you can rest assured that whichever you choose, you’ll be doing plenty of good!

The suppliers

Bulb

Bulb energy was one of the most popular energy providers with my followers when I was doing research for this piece. It’s a fast-growing company that promises to make energy ‘simpler, cheaper and greener’. It rates higher than any of the Big 6 energy companies and 95% of customers have joined in the last 2 years, showing its increasing popularity. It’s also a B Corp (a very highly-regarded certification of sustainability)!

Best for: All round customer satisfaction, referral credit (mine is www.bulb.me/foodfitnessflora if you’d like to use it!).

Octopus

The only company that fared better than Bulb on customer complaints was Octopus. This innovative company invests in sustainable tech, including tariffs that allow customers to run their homes off their electric car’s power during peak energy times, removing some pressure off the national grid. Unlike Bulb, Octopus offers a variety of tariffs, which are some of the cheapest in the UK.

Best for: Innovation and cheap tariffs

Ovo energy

OVO energy has recently published its first sustainability strategy, including plans to reach net-zero by 2030 (10 years ahead of the government deadline). This, partnered with the ambition to halve customers’ total carbon footprint by 2030 make it an appealing option for anyone interested in the environment.

OVO currently has 1.5 million consumers across the UK and is looking to expand (in line with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C trajectory, of course). However, OVO has recently come under fire for not producing its own green energy, and instead purchasing it from other providers.

Best for: Making a political statement

Good Energy

Good energy was the first dedicated 100% renewable electricity supplier, with all of its energy being sourced from solar, wind, hydro power and biofuel from British energy generators. Reviews online appear to be middling, although still better than the Big 6 energy providers. All the above companies provide renewable electricity, but Good Energy was the first to also supply carbon neutral gas, and also owns its own sources of renewable energy.

Best for: Clean gas and ethics

TL;DR

As fossil fuels become more and more scarce, we will have to find new, more efficient ways of getting energy. Already however, the excessive use of fossil fuels is harming the planet and our health. Divesting in your own home as much as possible will help reduce your impact.

Hopefully this shortlist will help you find a way to lower your environmental impact, and your bills too! It is clear that there need to be more transparency about companies’ energy sources, but switching to any of the above companies will be beneficial to the environment.

If you enjoyed this article please do share and tag me on Instagram or Twitter.

This article is an edited version of one I wrote for Eco-Age

Running essentials – supplements

Supplements are a bit of a contested issue, thanks to the flogging of many, many supplements that have no evidence of improving anything. Because supplements aren’t registered as drugs, they are often allowed to be sold even when they do not have any strong evidence of their effects, and are only removed if deemed unsafe. However, there are a few supplements (especially if you include sports supplements) that have some proven benefits, and others that are strongly recommended for certain groups of people. I try to stick with supplements that have proven benefits, although with sports supplements the evidence is usually a bit mixed, if if you’re looking to take something new make sure you’ve done your research!

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Some supplements are necessary if you live a certain lifestyle. Pic by Caylee Hankins.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is produced in our bodies when our skin is exposed to sunlight, but sometimes in northern latitudes (hello UK) the amount we can get during the day is not sufficient to keep reserves topped up. It is recommended that everyone in the UK (or further north) takes vitamin D to contribute to bone and muscle health. The darker your skin and the less sunlight your country gets, the more likely you are to be deficient in vitamin D. Supplements are not strictly necessary if you have a varied diet, but for me I find vitamin D supplement helpful, especially in winter! I also have a sun lamp that I use to work under in the morning. Don’t fancy supplements? Beanies have produced a coffee with vitamin D in it! Liquid sunshine 🙂

Iron 

Iron supplements have been recommended for people who choose a vegetarian or vegan diet, especially women. It is possible to get all the iron you need from these diets, but a supplement can help, especially if you are prone to anaemia. Foods such as pulses, nuts, left green vegetables, wholegrains and fortified cereals are high in iron. Even though I have a varied diet I find it helpful to take iron supplements to support my very active lifestyle.

B12

Vitamin B12 is a little contentious in the vegan community with some saying it can be found in adequate amounts in foods such as seaweed, and others saying vegans should definitely supplement their diets. Even according to the Vegan Society, “The only reliable vegan sources of B12 are foods fortified with B12 (including some plant milks, some soy products and some breakfast cereals) and B12 supplements”. Since the effects of chronic B12 deficiency are so severe (e.g. irreparable nervous system damage), I find it helpful to supplement with B12. Some plant based milks and cereals are fortified, but I’d rather be safe than sorry!

Beta-alanine

Not a vitamin supplement but a sport performance booster. Purported benefits include improving exercise capacity, building lean muscle mass and improving physical functions in the elderly. I swear by beta alanine in my shorter distance races and strength-based exercises, but only take it very infrequently. Read my post on sports supplements and the evidence behind them if you’re looking to try any!

Sleep supplement

After a busy day and late events, I often (always) find it very difficult to switch off and go to sleep. Even knowing I have to get up early doesn’t always deter me from staying up late. I started taking Motion Nutrition’s ‘Unplug’ supplement a couple of months ago and found a marked difference when taking it around 30 – 45 minutes before I wanted to sleep. I go into the ingredients and how they could be helpful in this post if you want to read up on the science behind it.

 

Knowledge is power.

5 health tips for the New Year

I’m not a fan of New Year resolutions – I think everyday is a new beginning, and there’s no better time to start something than the present. However, for many, New Year brings the promise of new beginnings and a fresh start. So whilst I don’t think we need the new year to start going to the gym or eat more healthily, it’s as good a time as any, and starting a health kick alongside so many other people may just help you stick to it.

Here are some of my top tips for living that little bit healthier in 2019. Wellness is about making small decisions everyday that improve your health, not drastic changes that you can only maintain for a month. Why not give these a go – they may just become part of your daily routine!

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Spending more time in nature can improve mental health considerably

Walk more

I’ve left this very generic, because there are so many ways to fit more walking into your life, and what works for one person might not work for another. Whether it’s walking to the gym instead of driving, taking a 20 minute walk on your work lunch break or simply just using a loo further away from your office, walking more day to day can improve your health considerably. Going to the gym is great, but it’s what you do the other 23 hours of the day that can really impact your health, and moving more is one of the best ways you can help!

Eat more types of veg

When asked her top tip for living healthier, Dr Megan Rossicalled for more variety in the plant based food we eat. We all know about eating our 5 a day, but more important is eating a wide variety of plant based foods every week. The diversity helps our gut health, which is directly linked to our mental health. So, rather than trying to cut out foods this New Year, why not add a bunch instead?

Take time out in nature

Physical health and mental health are inextricably linked, and we should all be taking time to improve both to get the most out of the other. With our hectic lives, it’s sometimes incredibly difficult to learn how to stop and take time out, but spending time in nature has been shown to markedly reduce stress and anxiety levels. Since stress affects our mental performance and physical health, taking time out could really improve productivity, mental andphysical health, so it’s really a no-brainer!

Cut out/down on red meat

In the West, red meat has become a main-stay of our diet. No longer reserved for the rich or for special occasions, the average UK citizen eats more than the recommended maximum of 70g of red meat per day. Since multiple studies have found that red and processed meats increase the risk of colorectal cancer, cutting out these items can have a positive impact on your health. Paired with the negative environmental effects that red meat production has, giving it up (as many UK citizens are starting to do) can do wonders not only for your body but also for the world we live in.

Find a sport you love

Too many people put a vague ‘go to the gym more’ as their New Year resolution. What frustrates me is that so often these people don’t wantto go to the gym, and find no pleasure in doing so, so slog away 5 times a week, hating every second for about 3 weeks before giving up. Whilst it’s true that you can definitely learn to love it even if you don’t initially, choosing to partake in a sport instead can have a multitude of benefits that gymming doesn’t have. Finding a sport you enjoy means you’re more likely to stick to it, leading to longer term results and a more positive mental attitude towards fitness. See why I think everyone should train like an athlete. So your challenge this year (if you think you don’t enjoy exercise) is to find something you dolove – there’s something for everyone!

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Boxing is my sport of choice! Flora Beverley vs Sophie Grace Holmes at charity boxing match The Rumble hosted by The Lady Garden Foundation, on November 17, 2018 in London.

I hope this post was useful for you! These are all changes that I have made in my life that have seriously positively impacted both my mental and physical health, and studies suggest they can help you too. If you give any a go don’t forget to let me know so I can support you! 🙂

Train like an athlete

Health and fitness is everywhere – from your food being marketed as ‘high protein’ or a ‘post workout bar’ to your favourite influencer dancing around in an Ivy Park tracksuit. It’s inescapable, and as someone who used to be teased for eating healthily and enjoying the school PE classes, it’s exciting.

However, I find myself questioning more and more how much these people and brands are actually focussed on fitness and health. I 100% believe that brands focussing more on health is generally a good thing, even if that’s just jumping on the bandwagon in an effort to look ‘cool’ or sell more products, but I worry about the amount of people buying into things that will make them LOOK more #fitness without actually providing them the actual fitness to back that up.

I am probably biased – I have been doing ‘fitness’ since I was about 15, always in the form of functional training, whether training for the national schools squash championships, BUCS cross country or my latest boxing match. But seeing people take part in a 12 week plan to ‘grow their booty’ (without any focus on actual fitness/strength) and then give up is frustrating for me. The amount of emphasis placed on looks (often at the expense of performance) leads me to worry about the longevity of the West’s ‘passion’ for fitness. It reminds me of when I was growing up and the Kate Moss ‘heroine chic’ look was in – you didn’t have to take heroine, as long as you looked like you hadn’t eaten in 3 weeks (thinking about it, this was probably for the best, but since fitness is actually very good for you, it would be nice if people were as dedicated to BEING fit as they are to LOOKING fit). 

It’s easy to imagine my view comes from a place of ‘I was here first, everyone else is just pretending’ but that’s genuinely not it. There are a number of reasons for my concern, and all (I believe) are legitimate. 

  1. When you train for aesthetics, the emphasis gets placed on your looks and how much working out can make you look a certain way. For every person who sticks to fitness after discovering the other benefits, there is someone else who quits after they become disillusioned about the lack of a six pack they were promised after 90 days. Fitness isn’t looking a certain way, it’s about a bunch of internal factors that we can’t even see. 
  2. There are a lot of actual, real life athletes on Instagram, whether they’re competing for the country or working overtime to allow them to self-fund their training and competition fees. However, brands are often choosing to work with people who ‘look’ a certain way over those who actually DO a sport. As someone who works in the fitness modelling world, I see this all too often. Of course, aesthetics are important, but I’ve been told I’m ‘too muscly’ for a job that literally requires lifting weights. Who could look more like a person who lifts weights than someone who got the body they have by literally doing just that. It would be nice to see a little more championing of people who actually DO a sport. 
  3. I like to think that we’ve moved past the point of extremes, because health is sort of by definition ‘balanced’. However a number of fitness guides and classes encourage plenty of extreme behaviour to look a certain way. Sure, they work, but are they ‘healthy’? Training like an athlete (i.e. functional training) focusses on performance and all-round fitness. Runners lift weights, rugby players practise sprints and everyone works on mobility and balance. Training purely for aesthetics can lead to serious physical problems further down the line, especially from poor form and over training certain areas. This is something I’m still working on too – it’s the only way to make training sustainable.

Thankfully training purely for aesthetics often becomes the gateway drug for all the other benefits of exercise, and those who start working out to lose weight can discover a plethora of other benefits. Other factors become the driving force behind working out, and at this point a person’s fitness becomes way more balanced (I’m sure a number of you can relate)!

It’s not entirely necessary to want to run a marathon or to achieve a triathlon PB, but training like an athlete can leave you feeling mentally healthier, accomplished and physically sound well into your older age. Rest and recovery is a key part of an athlete’s training plan, and whilst reducing workout intensity might not give you THAT body in 90 days, it sure as hell will keep you motivated enough to continue working out long, long past then. 

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Alcohol and fitness

Alcohol and fitness. How do these words fit together in your mind? Are they compatible? Or does one exclude the other? It’s interesting how often people ask me if I drink – I would have thought that the amount I talk about gin would have answered that question years ago. 😉 I thought I’d make a post about it, since a huge number of my followers are of university/early work age but also interested in health and fitness. Since health can be a total minefield I thought I’d clear a few things up.

Alcohol has calories

Because alcohol is essentially a carbohydrate, it can contain a lot of calories – plenty more than you might expect for a drink. It also interrupts how our bodies deal with other foods, slowing down the absorption of nutrients and reducing the amount of fat our bodies burn for energy. A pint of beer contains around 200 calories, while a glass of wine (175ml) contains around 125 calories. However, if you take these into account when thinking about your daily diet, it is very possible to work around this fact! I enjoy drinking a couple of times a week and do not find that it affects my weight whether I have them or not. I just factor in the calories of alcohol (very roughly) and have fewer snacks that week. Simple!

Alcohol can lead to bad decision making

Drinking can lead to cravings for sugar and carbohydrates. Most of us have felt that post-night-out craving for chips/burger/kebab, and this can have serious consequences on our healthy intentions. When I was at university I used to keep a bowl of porridge or sweet potato fries at home to eat after a big night out. After drinking and dancing for a long period of time, your body craves nutrition, so it is best to feed it something with a little more nutritional value than Bobby’s kebab shop can offer. Pre-plan before a night out to make sure you’re prepared. Another favourite late night snack is toast with olive oil or a large bowl of granola. Find what works for you and stick to it – your body and bank will thank you!

The aftermath

Obviously excessive alcohol can leave us a little worse for wear the morning (and let’s be honest, the entire day/2 days) afterwards. When we are hungover, it is mainly because our bodies are severely dehydrated which actually makes your brain shrink, pulling away from the sides of your brain case. This is because alcohol is a diuretic, making you wee more than you would usually in order to flush out more toxins from your body (yes, alcohol is a poison). Pretty much anyone who drinks has had a hangover, but there are ways to reduce your likelihood of getting one!

  1. Drink a glass of water for every glass of alcohol you consume.
  2. Opt for lighter alcohols – the darker the alcohol (red wine, rum, bourbon), the more congeners they have, exacerbating headaches the next day.
  3. Take electrolyte salts and/or an aspirin (with lots of water) before you sleep. I drink minimum 500ml right before bed if I’ve been drinking.
  4. Avoid caffeine on your night our and in the morning. You may feel like you need it but your body won’t thank you. Caffeine is also a diuretic and will make you even more dehydrated! Just give yourself water and time to recover.
  5. Take ibuprofen and eat anti-inflammatory foods in the morning. Alcohol triggers inflammation in the body which can make hangovers feel worst, so getting swelling down is key.

When hungover we can be tempted to eat alllll the foods in my opinion it’s OK to have that greasy fry up you are craving if you’re hungover, especially if you’ve factored it in to your weekly diet. However, after a night out our bodies are craving health, so opting for something more nutritious might actually make you feel better (and has less of an impact on your fitness goals).

My favourite drinks:

I am a sucker for a gin and tonic! Slimline or full fat, depending on how many I’m having. Gin will always be my go to spirit, but some people cannot handle it at all. Find what works for you and don’t overindulge (or it might not work so well next time).

For a dinner party I like white wine. Red wine is said to have some health benefits but the sulphites don’t agree with me hugely, so it’s not my go to. However a glass here and here is absolutely fine for me. Of course I also love a good champagne, but the sugar and bubbles make me hyperactive and drunker faster, and also leave me with a worse hangover if I have to many.

If I’m planning on having more than a few drinks, I might opt for something fairly plain, like a vodka lime soda. Tastes delicious and fresh without having the added sugar and impurities of other drinks.

On special occasions (picnics in the park) I’ll drink Crabbies, an alcoholic ginger beer. It’s spectacularly bad for you but to be honest, life is for enjoying, and Crabbies makes me happy because it reminds me of summer.

Summary

I think it’s important to know how alcohol affects your body and your mind – both biologically and for you, personally. Everyone reacts differently, and some people decide that drinking is incompatible with their fitness goals. In my opinion, as with pretty much everything for me, I think it’s all about moderation. Live life, enjoy yourself and know your limits.

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