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Andrew Gwynne

How to stay healthy from the inside

By Blog

Nearly 2,500 years ago, a wise Greek man died in old age. He was at least 80 years old, perhaps even 100. We can’t be sure. But we know that Hippocrates, the father of medicine, thought deeply about health and wellbeing. He advised others to, “Leave your drugs in the chemist’s pot if you can heal the patient with food.” These days, we’re beginning to realise just how profound this guidance might be.

Hippocrates believed that all disease began in the gut. Could he be right? To find out, we need to learn more about microbes, the tiny living things that are all around us. The most common types are bacteria, viruses and fungi. These microbes are too small to be seen by the naked eye, but they’re powerful when they get together. Our bodies contain around 100 trillion of them. Yes, trillion. Some microbes (less than 5%) make us sick, but most are important for keeping us well. 

Listen to those gut feelings

Modern techniques are revealing that the microbes in our guts may be as important as Hippocrates suspected. Perhaps deep down we’ve known this all along. All of us have experienced butterflies in our stomach before an important event. We talk about gut reactions and gut feelings. Boxers show gutsy behaviour and sometimes we all have to make a gut-wrenching decision. In our culture, there’s a relationship between the gut and our moods that’s been around long before we had electron microscopes. 

The organ you didn’t know you had

Experts call the gang of microbes in our digestive system the ‘gut microbiome’. Many even think of the microbiome as an organ in its own right. That’s partly because it contains as many cells as there are in your own body. It’s also because they’re vital for managing many aspects of your health, including your digestion and immune system. A poor balance of unhealthy and healthy microbes will push you towards gaining weight, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol.

So what can we do to improve our own gut microbiome? I’ve listed some tips below. But keep in mind that this is a new and complicated subject. Much of our knowledge is based on research that was made possible only after the human genome project, which was completed less than twenty years ago. 

These new methods allowed scientists to study which microbes we have inside us, and what they do. They began to see that some could be linked to conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. They also learned that we each have a microbiome that’s unique – like a fingerprint. So much more research is needed to understand its role in keeping us healthy.

Tips for eating well

By now you know that eating isn’t just fuel for your own body. It also feeds the trillions of bacteria that live in your gut. Everyone’s microbiome is different, but if you want to improve your digestion, lose body fat, or look after your general health, try these tips:

Increase your range of foods

There are countless species of useful bacteria in your gut microbiome. Each needs different nutrients, so be good to them all by choosing different types of food. Next time you’re shopping, seek out something new you’ve never tried. Try to steer away from the typical modern Western diet, as it leans towards fat and sugar. 

Eat lots of vegetables, legumes, beans and fruit

All of these are high in fibre. While you can’t digest it, fibre will stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut. Foods that are good for this include:

  • Artichokes
  • Beans (kidney, pinto, white, black and red)
  • Broccoli
  • Chickpeas
  • Green peas
  • Lentils
  • Raspberries
  • Whole grains

Experiment with fermented foods

These foods are altered by microbes before they reach you. Bacteria or yeasts have been used to convert sugars in the food to acids or alcohol. Some exotic-sounding examples include:

  • Kefir – a cultured, fermented milk drink
  • Kimchi – pickled vegetables
  • Kombucha – a fermented, sweetened black or green tea
  • Sauerkraut – finely cut raw cabbage
  • Tempeh – a source of protein, made from soybeans

Many of these foods are rich in lactobacilli, a ‘good’ type of bacteria. It’s not certain these bacteria reach the gut, but, in countries where these foods are common, people appear to have less bowel disease. Some kinds of yogurt may also help people with irritable bowel syndrome, but stick to plain, natural versions.

Go for whole grains

Whole grains contain lots of fibre and carbs you can’t digest. So they’re not absorbed in the small intestine and instead make their way to the large intestine. Once there, they promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. As a bonus, they also help you to feel fuller for longer.

Seek out polyphenols

These are plant compounds that help reduce blood pressure, inflammation and cholesterol. We absorb them inefficiently, so most end up being digested by our gut bacteria. Good sources include:

  • Almonds
  • Blueberries
  • Broccoli
  • Cocoa and dark chocolate
  • Grape skins
  • Green tea
  • Onions
  • Red wine

Choose extra-virgin olive oil over other fats if you can, as it contains more polyphenols.


If you thought bacteria were the bad guys, I hope this has made you think again. Along with other microbes, they’re often thought of as sources of disease. But in fact many play an essential role in keeping you healthy. Look after them by choosing a range of fresh, whole foods like fruits, veggies, legumes, beans and whole grains. And treat the little fellows with respect. At 3.5 billion years old, they’re the world’s oldest resident. So they’ve earned it.

Learn more:

Blog: How to escape the shops with a healthy trolley

Blog: Healthy eating for children

Understanding the performance inside

By Blog

You may remember the name Charlie Unwin from some of my other blogs. He’s a sports psychologist who works with top athletes and other peak performers. Many of his ideas can be applied to daily life, and I thought I’d explore one of them here.

Let’s start by using your imagination. Picture walking on a pavement, along the granite kerbstones. They’re wide enough to walk on, so you won’t worry about toppling over. But what if the edge was a steep cliff face down to the ocean? You’d probably freeze. Yet you’ve been walking all your life. Practising more walking won’t help. The only fix is to deal with the fear and discomfort that’s playing out inside your mind.

This focus on what’s inside our heads is what Unwin calls the ‘performance inside’. And the reason it’s so important is that the way our minds work is relatively constant over time. Our goals will change over the years, as different parts of our life become more or less important. But the more we get to manage our thoughts and emotions, the more consistently we can apply ourselves to every challenge. The benefits stay with us forever. 

I find this useful because it helps us see beyond the short-term. It also encourages us to stop judging only on outside appearances. If appearances are our yardstick, then we may value things like big biceps, a narrow waist or a six-pack for summer. These can be handy goals, of course. But long-term success on the outside will only come from building consistency on the inside. 

So what things can we do to improve our ‘performance inside’? Here are five ideas to play with:

Find time for recall and reflection 

Training for skills and fitness is great, but be careful not to focus only on ‘doing’. If you don’t carve out time for reflection, you won’t be able to judge the quality of your efforts. That gets in the way of making changes for the better. 

Most of us will get better results by substituting quality for quantity. That means focusing on first principles, correct form and more planning. Then you can train with real intensity and will see the results. We are creatures of habit, and some people find it scary to pause and consider what it actually takes to improve.

Practise being brave in small doses

To maintain your confidence under pressure, you must practise dealing with your emotions. So challenge yourself little and often to do something a bit uncomfortable. It might be as simple as adding some hills to your next run. Or perhaps there’s a fear you’d like to overcome, such as learning to speak up when you disagree or need help.

These small inoculations will give you a healthier relationship with fear and excitement. It’s easy to avoid situations that make us feel uncomfortable, but dealing with this stress makes us more resilient. 

Work on your self-awareness 

We all do things without thinking. Do you tell white lies for an easier life? Or slump in your favourite chair? When you open an email, do you hold your breath? Most people do. Even tiny events create stress or discomfort we’re not consciously aware of. By deliberately watching yourself, you may pick up parts of the ‘performance inside’ you hadn’t noticed. That can help create more predictability and confidence in how you behave. 

For some bad habits, see if an internal conversation works: “Jess, you should calm down. Next week’s job interview is not the end of the world.” Psychologists call this trick ‘distanced self-talk’. It’s a simple way of finding some calm and emotional perspective. It may also let you re-frame what seems like an impossible challenge. Never under-estimate the power of your own encouragement.

Feeling like you belong

You may have heard about imposter syndrome. It’s a label for the self-doubt that leaves people fearing they will look stupid or be exposed as a fraud – especially at work. It tells us that being comfortable with our identity is a big part of the ‘performance inside’.

The issue is that a bit of success can challenge these identities. The move from rookie to champion, or apprentice to boss, is hard. You’re no longer the underdog, so now much more is expected. As a rookie, you were trying to master something. You felt the rewards of day-to-day progress, building your skills and experience. Now you’ve stepped up, the risk is that you think more about how you’re seen by others. 

One approach is to always keep that focus on learning and personal development. It’s necessary for high performance and will feed your confidence, too. Don’t pretend to be Superman or Superwoman – being authentic actually makes us more trustworthy and influential.

Harness the power of routine

A friend of mine enjoyed guitar lessons, but noticed that they made him nervous. Why? Because his tutor, however relaxed, was still an audience. Our brains know when there’s a performance and someone judging it. So the journey to the guitar lesson can bring the same kind of emotions as an athlete waiting for the starter’s pistol. 

This shows us that you’ll find high pressure situations everywhere. To manage them, it’s often wise to develop habits and routines. You can then anticipate when you might feel uncomfortable, and do something practical about it. A routine might mean visualising the positive outcome you’re looking for. Or simply packing your kit in the same way, the night before a race. Perhaps you have a ‘lucky’ watch or bracelet you can’t forget. Find what works for you and turn it into a routine that requires zero thought.


We all have things around us we can’t control. Life will throw many things at us – highs and lows, achievements and disappointments. So remember to train the ‘performance inside’ as well as your body. It will give you the intrinsic motivation you can apply to everything you do, paying dividends in the long-term. Consistency on the outside only comes with consistency on the inside. 

Learn more

Blog: Making stress your friend

Making stress your friend

By Blog

Over the years, we’ve been taught that stress is unhealthy. Google the word and you’ll see lots of articles on its dangers, how to avoid it, and tips for coping. But what if that was only half the story? What if this enemy to our wellbeing can actually become a friend?

I’ve been learning more about stress recently, and wanted to share some things I’ve picked up. Among them are new ways of thinking about stress, and some surprising health benefits. It turns out that bits of controlled short-term anxiety are good for you.

What do we mean by ‘stress’?

When we bend a twig, it snaps when we apply enough force, or stress. From the 1940s, a researcher named Hans Selye took this term from physics, and applied it to the human body. At medical school he’d spotted that patients with different illnesses showed some common symptoms. These were caused by an imbalance in the problems they faced and the resources they had to deal with it. This is what we now call stress.

The two types of stress

Dr Selye was a pioneer, and the first person to describe how our bodies behave in challenging situations. He also showed us that our ‘stress response’ is the same – whether its cause is negative or positive. It’s useful to make a distinction between these two types:

  • ‘Distress’ is the unpleasant stress we try to avoid. It can be generated by life events such as losing a job, a relationship break-up or grief. It will often cause severe anxiety and get in the way of us functioning normally. 
  • Positive stress, or ‘eustress’, can be a real motivator. It’s mostly short-lived, but boosts our mood and productivity. Our pulse quickens, but this time there is no real threat or fear. We feel this stress when we ride a rollercoaster, start a new job, or go on a first date.

The key is working out which of these stresses apply in our daily lives. Then we can take the ‘eustress’ and tame it to our advantage. As sport psychologist Charlie Unwin puts it, we can invite stress on our own terms. Being good with stress is better for us than trying to keep it away.

Treating stress as a skill

What does this mean in practice? We have to believe that we can get good at ‘eustress’. To do that, we’ve got to practise it like any other skill. 

Charlie Unwin recommends using a ‘stress ladder’. Firstly, think about a challenge you have where stress will be an obstacle. For English footballers, that might mean going to a major tournament and taking a penalty in a shootout. For you, it could be physical stress, like achieving a personal best in a running event. Or it might be a mental challenge like making a speech or a Zoom presentation.

Now write down all the things that might cause you stress. Planning a presentation, perhaps you’re worried about your posture or body language. You might be anxious about looking nervous, what to do with your hands, or your laptop going wrong.  

When you’ve got this list, you isolate one stressor at a time. Do this by adding each one to an imaginary ladder. Those easiest to deal with sit on the bottom rungs, with the toughest at the top. Now we invite in some stress by dealing with each stressor one by one, climbing from the lowest point. 

For a presentation, this might involve filming yourself on a smartphone to get your gestures and timing right. You could rehearse in front of your partner to fix any bad habits. You could look out for tips and advice on YouTube. If your challenge is a physical one, are you following a plan to introduce the stressors you need to adapt and improve? Our minds respond well to these bite-sized, daily chunks of controlled stress.

Let’s take a personal example. Right now I’m following an 8-week training plan to run 10k in under 40 minutes. The stressors I invite in will develop my physiological fitness so I can run faster for longer. This concept is also known as speed endurance. One of the central pillars is ‘interval training’, running hard then resting. The interval refers to the recovery period, which we can reduce over time. Each session, each week has a specific aim and the cumulative effect will deliver my goal.

Some experts call this process ‘hardening’ but I prefer ‘stress inoculation’, a phrase from the military. This reminds us that having a skill is not the same as being able to deliver it consistently under challenging conditions. To do that, you’ve got to get really comfortable with stress. That’s why the army trains recruits when their hands are frozen, their kit’s wet through and they’ve hardly slept. They use the stressor of repetitive drills to hardwire the right pattern into reflexes.

What’s the real health hazard?

Another thing I’ve learned is that it’s not stress alone that harms our health, but our attitude towards it. In the video I’ve linked to below, Charlie Unwin talks about a large-scale survey in the US. Over many years, those people who thought that stress was good for them had better health outcomes than those who did not. So our relationship with stress is very important, as are our beliefs about it. 

When you give it a little thought, a life without stress wouldn’t be any better. Many things that make us proud and bring purpose to our lives are hard. If we could wish away the stress, we’d say goodbye to a lot of the meaning and feelings of accomplishment that keep us going.

Stress is so often seen as a negative sensation. Work can pile up, family commitments wear us out, and it’s sometimes hard to relax. But it’s worth taking the time to re-frame that view. As the father of stress Dr Hans Selye taught us, we…

“…should not try to avoid stress any more than we would shun food, love or exercise.” 

Learn more

Video: Inviting stress on our own terms – Charlie Unwin

The volunteers

By Blog

I’ve often written about individuals – people who have faced tough lives and shown great resilience. But whole communities can be heroic, too. Think of the little ships of Dunkirk, rescuing thousands of men from the beaches of northern France in 1940. Or the countless examples of neighbourliness during our own coronavirus crisis. When communities come together, good things happen.

I learnt about one of them when visiting the North Yorkshire coast around Robin Hood’s Bay. These days the village is a popular beauty spot, often busy with tourists. With Whitby close by and a National Park to the west, it has a rich history to discover. The clifftop walks are wonderful, and it’s a dramatic and isolated place. Even on a sunny day, it’s easy to imagine a big storm rolling in from the North Sea. 

That’s just what happened in the winter of 1881, one of the worst England has ever seen. In January, a blizzard paralysed the country. Roads and railways were blocked by snowdrifts, often dozens of feet high. Then there was the extreme cold, with temperatures as low as -30C in some places.

In the early hours and darkness of January 19th a local ship, Visitor, was struggling in severe weather off the North Yorkshire coast. She broke up in the storm, forcing the terrified crew to their tiny lifeboat. They battled the mountainous sea, biting cold and blizzard conditions. The treacherous surf and rocks stopped them from landing, so they were stuck offshore. 

With daybreak, the six crew were spotted. But local fishermen could not set out in such a wild sea, and the village’s own lifeboat had seen better days. A telegram was sent to the harbourmaster in the nearest town: “Vessel sunk, crew riding in open boat by wreck, send Whitby lifeboat if practicable.” Prevailing winds made this impossible. So it was decided to carry the lifeboat Robert Whitworth overland to reach the desperate crew in Robin Hood’s Bay.

In the 1880s, horsepower meant exactly that. There would be no motor vehicles or electric winches to help cover the six miles through the blizzard. Everything would rely on old-fashioned muscle power and word of mouth.

Up on its carriage, the lifeboat was coaxed up steep hills and through seven-foot snowdrifts. An army of over 200 volunteers worked to clear its way, with their sweat freezing whenever they stopped. Even with a team of powerful horses, it must have seemed hopeless. They met people coming the other way, urging them to turn back from their impossible task.

Yet the men, women and children of Whitby wouldn’t give up. Farmers turned out with horses and shovels. They were helped by others who cleared the path from the Robin Hood’s Bay side. Narrow lanes meant that garden walls and bushes had to go to make way for the lifeboat carriage. 

Word had spread and a huge cheer was heard when they reached the steep hill down to the sea. It had taken just two hours. Now they had to steer the boat down the tight winding streets of the fishing village. Instead of hauling, they had to hold the boat back. If it broke free on the icy cobbles, it would be a disaster. But they succeeded and soon the lifeboat carriage was crunching over the shingle, pointing at the wall of surf.

The first rescue attempt failed, as several oars were snapped in the rough seas. So the coxswain returned the lifeboat to the beach. He launched again, with fresh crew and new oars, two men on each. This time they saved the stranded men, who were numb with exposure and must have given up all hope. Landing on the beach was overwhelming, with a huge crowd gathered to celebrate the good news. It had been a miraculous rescue.

One local man’s story is remarkable, and his name now appears on a plaque above the village. Henry Freeman was the coxswain in charge of the lifeboat. Twenty years before, almost to the day, he had been the sole survivor of another rescue. Several lifeboatmen had lost their lives helping to rescue people from five vessels in one day. Freeman was awarded the Silver medal from the RNLI, the national lifeboat charity.

Brave heroes like Henry Freeman are often the ones who get remembered in museums and memorials. But the Robin Hood’s Bay rescue involved hundreds of men, women and children. They all did their bit. They cleared the snow and hauled the icy ropes so that six strangers could be saved. Together they achieved one of the greatest rescues in the history of the RNLI.

I find it interesting that such stories are so memorable. They clearly reach something ancient and deep-seated in all of us – an instinct to work together with a common purpose. With the pressures of modern life, it’s understandable that people feel alone and overwhelmed. Self-induced pressure can add to this sense of isolation. As we consider the positive New Year changes we wish to start, remember that shared goals can be just as rewarding and powerful as individual ones.

Find out more – the RNLI:

The story of the Visitor shows the incredible efforts that coastal communities made to save those in distress at sea. But our coastline is steeped in countless brave sea rescues, with voluntary crews leading the way. The lifeboat charity was founded in 1824 by Sir William Hillary. Living on the Isle of Man, he felt compelled to do something about the number of ships being wrecked around the coast. After years of lobbying, he won support for the idea of lifeboat stations we know today. A few years after his death, those first RNLI lifeboats were stationed at Douglas, in his honour. “With courage,” he had said, “nothing is impossible.” 

Video: the origin of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution

Watch: RNLI video on the Robin Hood’s Bay rescue

Website: the Royal National Lifeboat Institution

“A very little key will open a very heavy door.”

By Blog

Two years ago I read about an extraordinary event in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. At auction, a local man paid around £30 for a tray of bits-and-bobs. These included a small, faded portrait. About to throw it away, something told him not to. It turned out to be the famously lost painting of a young Charles Dickens, missing for over 130 years. 

You might think this is just one of those charming stories that pops up now and then. But it’s interesting to look a little deeper. The painting was done in London in 1843, the year Dickens wrote his most well-loved novel. It’s a portrait of a man younger and more energetic than the bearded gentleman we’re used to seeing. 

Every day Dickens’ eyes would take in the streets of London. Remarkable changes in recent years had made the city the richest and largest on the planet. Immigration saw the population soar, with living conditions for many beyond description. Rivers ran with filth, and medical care was basic and limited to the few. If you looked up from the street, the air was choked with sooty fog. 

The famous book he wrote this year is, of course, A Christmas Carol. It tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, an elderly miser who cares for no-one. Scrooge is visited by the unhappy ghost of Jacob Marley (a former business partner), and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. The ghostly night softens him into a kinder, gentler man – not just at Christmas, but for the rest of his life. 

It’s a story that’s always been popular and never out of print. Readers are drawn to sympathetic characters like Tiny Tim, whose family can barely support his needs. Dickens shows us how the poor were treated in Victorian London, and how a selfish man can redeem himself through warmth and generosity. He reminds us to take more notice of the lives of those around us.

Part of his genius was to see that he’d reach more people with a deeply-felt story. For years he’d been a letter-writing machine, campaigning hard for children’s rights, education, and other social reforms. But a story can sometimes be more ‘true’ than any number of letters, essays and pamphlets. It would give him a wider audience. This included the illiterate poor, who paid to have episodes of his other novels read aloud. 

Dickens was appalled at how working-class people lived. Earlier in 1843, he saw first-hand the awful conditions for children in the Cornish tin mines. Closer to home, he spent time at one of the ‘Ragged schools’ set up to support the capital’s illiterate and half-starved street kids. He could see that  impoverished children were turning to crime, and that learning could provide a better life.

His anger stemmed from his own childhood, too. As a youngster, his father was sent to a debtors’ prison. So young Charles had been forced to leave school and work at a dirty and rat-infested factory. He understood what happens when society ignores the poor, especially children. The Poor Laws of the day fueled his rage, as the workhouse system delivered extra misery to those least able to cope.

Nearly two hundred years later, we have related challenges to grapple with. It’s clear that the current pandemic is driving both poverty and inequality, as did disease and pollution in Dickens’ lifetime. Like today, these had a bigger effect on those at the bottom of society – acting like a tax on the poor. Those with the fewest resources always suffer most from poor health and job insecurity.

Driven by his message, Dickens raced to get the book done in six weeks, just in time for Christmas. That included long night walks of up to 20 miles, “when all sober folks had gone to bed.” The good news is that it’s only a two-hour read. If you can dig out a copy, you’ll feel further echoes down the generations, because so many parts of a modern Christmas are linked to this period. 

Dickens was writing when the British were exploring old traditions like carols, and starting new ones – such as Christmas trees. The first commercial Christmas cards appeared in the week his book was published. A little later a confectioner, Tom Smith, invented a clever new way to sell sweets and called it the Christmas cracker. As the book became popular, it fuelled enthusiasm for Christmas and helped to spread the traditions we enjoy today.

Several phrases from the book are still going strong. “Merry Christmas” was used long before A Christmas Carol, but the book made it popular. It also introduced us to “Bah! Humbug!”, and of course everyone knows that a “Scrooge” is a miser. 

Something that often surprises people is that the first collection of carols was only published in the 1830s. Just as the singing of carols spread joy, it’s said that Dickens called his story A Christmas Carol because he expected it to bring people together. It certainly did – there was nothing better to bring out the spirit of Christmas, and there’s nothing better now. 

Dickens was a master of observing real life and reflecting it through stories. So although Ebenezer Scrooge was fictional, his traits of greed and ignorance were common among the privileged. Through him, Dickens showed that having empathy for problems like poverty was more noble than simply blaming the poor. 

Scrooge is the best example we have of someone who realises it’s never too late to change. Whether sudden or gradual, deciding to take action is key, with small changes chained together delivering significant achievements. That’s something we can apply to every challenge we have in our modern lives. In the words of Scrooge’s creator, “A very little key will open a very heavy door.” 

I re-read A Christmas Carol every year to remind myself how I can improve in the year ahead.  It’s a good way to honour Christmas, and aim for a generosity of spirit and understanding all year round – as Scrooge learned to do. 

There are many excellent film versions. If you don’t have the peace and quiet to read the book, why not watch one of my favourite three with family or friends over the holidays? I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Find out more:

Book: A Christmas Carol

Film: A Christmas Carol (1951)

Film: Scrooged (1988)

Film: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Charles Dickens Museum, London

Website: Lost portrait turns up at auction