Surviving the Festive Season Part One: What makes it so stressful?


REBLOGGED FROM: London Central Counselling

Originally posted on London Central Counselling:

This is the first in a series of posts about getting through the holiday period. Christmas is the festival I grew up with, and the one that is the hardest to miss in the UK as it approaches, but I think much of this could apply to any other celebration where people come together over a holiday period who might not normally spend time with each other.

Needless to say, if you totally and unequivocally love these festive times, and find my question above odd or incongruous, these posts may not be for you. But you may know someone who might find them useful.

So, why does the holiday season affect so many of us so badly? And why do we continue to let it?

There are lots of potentially enjoyable things about festival periods. I am pro end-of-year (or any other time) coming together in front of fires, candles, dancing and wearing sparkly clothing…

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How is an opera singer like a physicist?

No, that’s not the opening of a joke…

In fact, fun as it is, operatic singing is by no means easy, and opera is not ONLY about singing.*

An opera singer is expected to be (ideally, in equal measures) a musician, a linguist, an athlete (let’s not kid ourselves, opera is an endurance sport in many ways), an actor, a movement artist (no, you can’t just stand there and do nothing, even standing still can have artistry) and let’s not forget the ‘making nice sound with the voice ‘ bit…

“There is a saying in the Neverland that, every time you breathe, a grown-up dies.” 
― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Despite wishing death on adults (though that quote is more about the eternal child living…), one hopes, that in normal everyday life, you tick along not thinking about your breathing.  At all. That’s because the autonomic nervous system takes care of that for you.

When a singer begins training, usually, one of  the first things addressed is breathing, or rather getting control of one’s breathing. This involves the manipulation of some muscles, the relaxation of others, and essentially overriding the autonomic nervous system’s default settings for breathing (or homeostasis, if you like fancy science words).

Having recently started studying with new teacher myself, we went back to the beginning in our first few sessions, as she wanted to check my understanding of how I was using my breath, breath management and the muscles involved in managing the whole show.

As we started discussing the language around breathing and what’s often referred to ‘breath support’ (it’s actually not my favourite term as it’s too easy to misinterpret, but I’ll rant about that another time), we talked about the expansion of body that occurs in parts of the thoracic cavity in terms of both capacity and pressure.

And then it hit me, I was applying…


This was the first time I saw, and quite literally felt my science and singing education(s) come together.

When breathing for operatic singing (or just, you know, respiration), we’re applying PHYSICS, which is so exciting, and specifically for a singer, it’s a deliberate manipulation of that air pressure and rate of expenditure of the respiratory gasses (c’mon, you KNOW ‘respiratory gasses’ sounds sexy).

So what is Boyle’s Law?


Unhelpful to non scientists/mathematicians squiggly equation image via Wikipedia

Very simply, the pressure of a given quantity of a gas is inversely proportional to its volume, at a constant temperature, (and actually ONLY works as an ideal, but it’s a good guideline).

So, even more simply put: less volume, more pressure.

Or more specifically: if volume is halved, pressure is doubled.

Why is this important for singing?

To summarise that second video, breathing (deliberately pwith ‘technique’, or not) alters both the pressure and capacity within the thoracic cavity.

When you inhale you increase the volume of gas in the lungs (obvs), and at the same time this decreases the total pressure within the lungs, the pressure OUTSIDE the body is greater at this point.

When you exhale, muscles of the thoracic cavity relax and the pressure resulting from the muscular activity sends the air out, reducing the overall internal volume.

What a singer needs to do when sustaining long singing phrases (or even short ones) is manage and get in control of the amount of air released and the use of both the increase and decrease of pressure.

HOW one does that from a technique perspective is another kettle of fish altogether (and as my disclaimer says, I’m not giving a singing lesson here…). So instead of going down that road, I’ll just leave you with a fierce example of singing with incredible breath control, Montserrat Caballe’s Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma:


*Disclaimer: this post in no way constitutes vocal instruction, or advice, it’s merely relating my personal collision of opera and science.  As such, anything written in this blog is for informational purposes only!


I’m the worst blogger in like, forever!

Hello readers!

Yes, I’m perhaps the laziest blogger in all of bloggerdom (not really), but I have excellent excuses. I finished my Pharmacology & Physiology degree, started graduate studies in molecular psychiatry (schizophrenia research), started my own business (woop!) and am doing a wee bit more of that there opera stuff.

Despite not blogging much, I did have a wee piece in the Guardian Science section the other week.  So while I try to restart the part of my brain that needs to blog, please enjoy (or not) this:

Demystifying Detox: Can yoga really cleanse the liver?

Schrokit out :-)

Not so innocent?

Food Fruits and Berryes The delicious berries and fruits 222This is probably old news to many you, but I only found out/realised/ woke from a coma yesterday to notice that Innocent Smoothies (among other packaged smoothie brands) are pasteurised. Having been foodless all day due to food poisoning (I may never trust a bramley apple sausage again) I finally decided to brave something late in the day. The Innocent Smoothie had come free with my grocery order the night before, and I thought, well, given I’ve lost a lot of fluid, nutrients etc., that this would be a reasonable option, and easy on the tummy!

At first I thought the smoothie was already past its expiry date (hey, when food attacks you, you pay more attention to things like that), but LO! the expiry date on this FRUIT smoothie was MAY 9th, not APRIL 9th. Clearly, I’m naive to the ways of BIG SMOOTHIE*, as when I examined the bottle more closely it states that it is, in fact, pasteurised. More specifically, flash pasteurised, which relies on heating the juice (or as one paper called it, the SUBSTANCE, mmmmm, I love a yummy SUBSTANCE) at ~ 100 degrees celsius, for shorter periods of time than ultra heat pasteurised (UHT) ‘substances’, so somewhere in the region of 15 – 30 seconds.

From a public health and safety POV, flash pasteurisation is a good thing, killing harmful bacteria and also extending the life of the juice. Quite a few companies have been doing it since the middle of the last century, but it in the wake of the raw foods**, preservative free surge of the mid 1990s, some juice makers, like Odwalla (originally of Half Moon Bay, California, now of Coca Cola) went properly naked, if you will, and sold un-pasteurised juices to be as close to ‘raw’ and ‘fresh’ as possible. This nutritionally well intentioned choice turned fatal when a 16 year old died from the apple juice that was a key ingredient in numerous Odwalla products.

Today in the US, all store bought juices must be pasteurised. The only way to get a properly fresh juice or smoothie is to do it yourself or go to a fancy schmancy fresh juice bar. If neither is an option and you go for bottled what are you getting? The short answer is a lot of sugar and likely, fewer nutrients than you would from fresh.

Manufacturers argue that flash vs UHT is better for the consumer in terms of nutrient retention though the overal benefit seems to be in a better and more ‘natural’ tasting juice/smoothie. A 2009 study from Rutgers University showed a much greater loss of raw materials (antioxidant, anthocyanin and total phenolic content) in juices processed to become frozen concentrate compared to flash pasteurisation (Skahill, 2009) but as the substances underwent further processing to become ‘beverages’, the retention between the two methods was insignificant.

Another recent study hypothesised that it’s more likely the method of extraction and ‘finishing process’ that have a greater effect on the final product than pasteurisation in terms of taste and quality, and should be studied further as many manufacturers search in anger a for closer to ‘fresh-squeezed’ option (Baldwin et al., 2011). Still, some feel that the nutritional loss from any pasteurisation method is worth eliminating where possible and current exploration is focussed around alternate processes like microfiltration, which may further retain the integrity of the fruit and its nutritional value (de Oliveira et al., 2012).

So while flash pasteurisation isn’t a completely evil thing, if you’re a vegan or a rawist (or whatever), it’s likely the pasteurisation process won’t meet your standards of purity and ethics. If you’re going for maximum nutrition, you’re probably out of luck with a bottled smoothie, as the thing that seems best retained is the sugar from the fruits. Sure, it’s OK in a pinch, but I’m hard pressed (fnar) to accept that a 250mL bottle of an Innocent whatsit smoothie *really* gives you ‘two of your five a day’ (another concept that’s problematic, but I digress…) what with any pasteurisation process involved. Your best bet is still homemade or the fancy juice bar round the corner. Or hey, go the totally non fuss way and EAT THE FRUIT WHOLE. Crazy, I know… ;-)

A former personal trainer of mine once gave me the advice of “don’t drink your calories”, and much as I love a smoothie now and then, from a nutritional standpoint, I could’t agree more.

* OK, I don’t really believe in a BIG SMOOTHIE conspiracy, stop sending me tin foil…

** raw foodists advocate not cooking any food above 40 degrees celsius


Baldwin, E. A., Bai, J., Plotto, A., Cameron, R., Luzio, G., Narciso, J., et al. (2012). Effect of extraction method on quality of orange juice: hand-squeezed, commercial-fresh squeezed and processed. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 92(10), 2029–2042. doi:10.1002/jsfa.5587

Skahill, B. A. (2009). Effects of Thermal Processing on Antioxidant, Phenolic and Anthocyanin Levels in Blackcurrant Juice Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 1–67.

de Oliveira, R. C., Docê, R. C., & de Barros, S. T. D. (2012). Clarification of passion fruit juice by microfiltration: Analyses of operating parameters, study of membrane fouling and juice quality. Journal of Food Engineering, 111(2), 432–439. doi:10.1016/j.jfoodeng.2012.01.021

A happy and ‘Fast’ 2013!

Firstly, a big thank you to all the readers, followers and especially comment contributors of Shrokit’s Corner. You’ve driven up my blog stats :-) but more than that, you’ve kept an interesting conversation going both here and on twitter, and that’s been really rewarding for me as a fledgling blogger.

Those of you who found your way here via the BBC Horizon site, hungry for more info on 2:5 fasting after watching the programme Eat, Fast, Live Longer may well know that Dr Mosley has come out with a new book: The Fast Diet


What you may not know, is that this little old blog is featured in it (though I’ve not seen the end product, so I don’t know by how much – if anyone has a copy already, do let me know), and that’s no small thanks to the discussions inspired in the comments section.

As far as my own progress, in early January I’ll be getting back into the Bod Pod and having BGL and cholesterol levels checked. Unfortunately, I’ve not gotten around to checking my IGF-1 levels, for a variety of reasons, but hopefully that will be remedied in the new year (I’m still open to offers of free tests ;-)).

In the meantime, I would like to wish you all a very Happy New Year and I look forward to more discussion in 2013!

I’m so full, I can barely move… Now, what’s for dinner?

I briefly checked in to Twitter during a self-imposed hiatus (because, let’s face it, I’m an addict and when there’s something really cool on io9 I have to share it with my fellow Twitizens) and noticed a tweet by article82, that echoed the sentiment of a lot of folks this time of year:

It’s almost endemic to the festive season what with the abundance of large traditional meals, office parties and a general feeling of eat, drink and be merry. Hyperbolic headlines aside, the British Dietetic Association estimates that the average caloric excess at this time of year is an additional 500 cals per day, which depending on how early the “holiday” eating begins (and continues consecutively) can potentially add up to an extra 5lbs to contend with when the new year starts.

But why do we overindulge, or rather, despite sating ourselves through hedonic eating (that is, for pleasure and not just for nutrition) why do we keep topping up?

Short, lazy, oversimplified answer might be: blame your hypothalamus (naughty, naughty hypothalamus, it always wants something…)

The longer, non-definitive, more complicated, multifactorial explanation involves the hypothalamus, some melanocortins, dopamine, leptin, serotonin, ghrelin, reward centres of the brain that relate to addiction, light-dark cycles, alcohol consumption and host of other external, behavioural influences that will vary from person to person, culture to culture. And maybe tryptophan. Simple, no? (/sarcasm)

OK, there are a lot of crazy words and concepts there, so I’ll try to boil it down a bit and focus on the most prominent bits**, we’ll start with the hypothalamus: The pleasure centre, the passion palace, the seat of seduction (ooh er missus) of the brain.

What’s going on under the hood?

squishy bits in your head via wikipedia

squishy bits in your head via wikipedia

The hypothalamus (meaning, cleverly ‘under thalamus’) resides in the diencephalon of the forebrain in us human types. For such a tiny thing (most descriptions say it’s approximately the size of an almond) it has a huge influence and in some instances, immense control over a myriad of physiological functions, among these are impulses relating to hunger, thirst and sexual desire. The regulating of hunger falls under the remit of balancing the body’s energy needs and keeping the brain powered with glucose. Appetite is largely managed by two parts of the hypothalamus, the ventromedial which tells you when you’re full or satisfied and the lateral hypothalamus from where the sensation of hunger originates [1].

The ‘need to feed’, in and of itself is more intricate than that, but appears to be triggered by neurons in the hypothalamus that detect a drop in the hormone leptin, which is released from fat cells called adipocytes. The inverse appears to be true that with high leptin release levels, the desire to eat gets turned off. There are some theories floating around that when humans are well-fed, the sensitivity to leptin levels becomes dulled, which could be one piece of the ‘overeating’ puzzle [2].

But it’s so yummy!

I bake pies. Conveniently, Mr Schrokit eats pies. And he always has the same reaction to them after eating: MOAR (sic). Now, knowing what I put in them, after a couple of slices, I can’t imagine the leptin levels in his bloodstream are lacking, and one would assume that some anorectic peptides (oversimplified translation: the brain’s in house appetite suppressants) would be saying, “no really, mate, we’re good *burp*. Pardon”. But parts of his midbrain, like the ventral tegmental area, are all, “hey, dude, the party doesn’t have to end, there is more pie, after all…”.

This response to pleasurable and tasty food is not unlike that of potentially addictive drugs, triggering brain reward circuitry by being both rewarding (in taste) and reinforcing (it feels good, why NOT have more), by releasing dopamine from the midbrain.

To quote Mr Schrokit in one of his finer moments, “Dopamine monkey wants more dopamine”. Indeed. While similar to drug addiction, the kind of dependence and tolerance overeating creates, develops over extended periods of time, there is some evidence to suggest that it can also be triggered by binge eating events, and from diets rich in high fat foods [3] [4][5].

Hedonic eating cycle: Adapted from AlsiÃ, J., Olszewski, P. K., Levine, A. S., & Schiöth, H. B. (2012). Feed-forward mechanisms: Addiction-like behavioral and molecular adaptations in overeating. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology,

Hedonic eating cycle: Adapted from AlsiÃ, J., Olszewski, P. K., Levine, A. S., & Schiöth, H. B. (2012). Feed-forward mechanisms: Addiction-like behavioral and molecular adaptations in overeating. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology,

What? My cooking’s not good enough for you?!

Apologies, I appear to be channeling my dearly departed Gran (who perfected ‘guilt’, so the rest of you are merely pretenders). She was also a feeder! Aside from taking it as a (joking) affront on her cooking, having grown up during the great depression, she couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever waste food. If she cooked it, you were damn well eating it (no, not the brussell sprouts again…). So even though you were stuffed full to your eyeballs, nan (or mum or auntie) gave you that “look”, and thus you had the second, third etc. helping.

Maybe the holidays with your family is really frelling*** stressful :-( and that triggered a cascade of ‘emotional eating’ [6]. Maybe your resolve to not have that umpteenth mince pie was weakened by that last glass of mulled wine, and you threw caution to the wind. Whatever the reason, your environment, peer pressure and the mood you’re in can very much have an impact on your eating behaviour. You could just simply be relaxed, feeling deserving of some gastronomy fuelled indulgence… vowing to tackle the Crimbo Bulge on January 2nd, or was it the 22nd? Or maybe it was July 2nd, anyway, screw it, it’s the holidays, baby!

Clear as mud?

Far from a simple pat explanation, it’s clear that the physiology, pharmacology and pyschology of eating is no easy matter. And no wonder finding cures for weight gain, eating disorders and obesity (or the behaviours that lead to these states) is both confounding and compelling. Again, I’m aware I’ve glossed over a good deal of detail in favour of digestible amounts of info, but like i said, if you’d like seconds…

And just cause it’s the holidays, a picture of a brain I drew:

Brain, by Schrokit, age 39 (at time of drawing)

Brain, by Schrokit, age 39 (at time of drawing)

** this is simply to say, yes, it’s very very intricate and complicated, and there are a lot of details/specific pathways I’m leaving out in my summary, however, if anyone wants more, I’m happy to go deeper and geekier for you. Yes, I’m that giving ;-)

*** yeah, I’m finally watching Farscape


[1] Holt, R IG, Hanley, N. A., (2007) Endocrinology and Diabetes 5th Edition, Blackwell Publishing, pp 254 – 255

[2] Bear, M.F, Connors,B.W., M.A., Paradiso; (2007) Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain, 3rd Edition, chapter 16 pp 510 – 515

[3] Berridge, K. C., Ho, C.-Y., Richard, J. M., & DiFeliceantonio, A. G. (2010). The tempted brain eats: Pleasure and desire circuits in obesity and eating disorders. Brain Research, 1350(C), 43–64. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2010.04.003

[4] AlsiÃ, J., Olszewski, P. K., Levine, A. S., & Schiöth, H. B. (2012). Feed-forward mechanisms: Addiction-like behavioral and molecular adaptations in overeating. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 33(2), 127–139. doi:10.1016/j.yfrne.2012.01.002

[5] Wise, R. A. (2012). Dual Roles of Dopamine in Food and Drug Seeking The Drive-Reward Paradox. Biological Psychiatry, 1–8. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.09.001

[6] Doğan, T., Tekin, E. G., & Katrancıoğlu, A. (2011). Feeding your feelings: A self-report measure of emotional eating. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 15, 2074–2077. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.04.056


F words

No, not that F word (though I forgive those who know me for assuming that…).

It’s been quite a hectic couple of months, hence the radio silence on the blog. Final year of a pharmacology & physiology degree takes a lot out of you , who’d have thought?

Anyway, the F words that I am thinking about are: Food, Fasting, and Fat. Aside from the interesting things I’m discovering on a physiological level, I have noticed that discussions of weight and different kinds of “dieting” (though you all know I don’t think this is a diet, per se) really bring out some high emotions and sometimes even defensiveness over deeply held beliefs (regardless of evidence).

I’ve also been ruminating on commenter Pete’s point about compliments with regard to weight loss. The way some people have reacted to me, you’d have thought I was previously a wildebeest stapled to two John Candys. Generally, we’re not commenting on the person’s improved health when we compliment weight loss, socially speaking, but on a perceived improved aesthetic. The attitudes towards fat and fat(ter) people, are pretty horrid on the whole which strikes me that we could use some more body positive attitudes towards weight loss and health, rather than just assume everyone wants to be skinny.

People’s motives and politics aside, I try to take a compliment graciously and assume innocence and kindness on the giver’s part.

What’s been less pleasant are the negative reactions. Everything from, “That’s really a stupid and dangerous way to eat” or “You realise you sound like you have an eating disorder” to “How do you know this won’t make your cancer worse?”. The first two comments are moronic at best, though they belie something deeper and far different from caring about wellbeing. The last one, misguided perhaps though to some degree valid, because we’re still in the dark about many aspects as to what causes and indeed exacerbates cancers. As far as my own cancer goes, I try to stay healthy, stay on top of new tumours (not literally, that would be weird…) and limit my stress.

Anyway, because of this, and some of the more negative attacks I’ve had from diet evangelists (blood-type, paleo-slim, atkins etc.), for the most part I no longer use the F word “Fasting“. When people enquire as to the change in my appearance, I explain (major tip of the hat to commenter Gordon) the strategy I’m employing to reduce my overall caloric intake on a weekly basis. As I mentioned in earlier posts, at the beginning of undertaking the 5:2 (or 2:5 depending which days you count first) I was counting everything I ate. Not to be obsessive, but for the data (mmmm, yummy data), and also to get a feel for what certain foods “cost” in terms of calories.

What a lesson in caloric content! It really does matter more than quick tricks, food group exclusion or endless supplements. Calories in calories out has an incredible amount of biochemistry and physiology behind it. Our body weight is regulated so tightly in terms of homeostasis, that even as little as 100 kcal per day excess intake (or lack of expenditure) can lead to obesity over time[1]. Knowing what’s in my food calorically really does help me make better choices, as does eating in a way that can be sustained over a long time.

Remember the Twinkie diet professor? I’m not advocating a diet of twinkies and I realise he’s a sample size of n=1, but it’s some pretty interesting stuff with regard to what being under a certain threshold of calories despite the nutritional content of the food, does to one health-wise.

Both Mr Schokit and I have stuck to this since 11 August (we faltered once for a family wedding, but planned around it best we could), and aside from weight loss (around 1st for him and just over 2st for me) we’ve noticed a few added bonuses, that whilst being anecdotal are pretty interesting:

  • Over all we both seem to sleep better (though we sleep less on fast days – anyone else have that?)
  • In the first three months, my skin was miraculously clear (winter has since sent that down the crapper)
  • We both, for the most part, now eat less on our non-fast days (don’t get me wrong there is the occasional curry/pig out/why yes a second bottle of champagne WOULD be lovely)
  • The difference between hungry v thirsty; hungry v tired; hungry v bored and hungry v horny (yeah, I went there) is VERY apparent as an intermittent faster
  • Despite already being proficient DIY cooks, we now pretty much make everything from scratch and love it
  • We think we’ll pig out after a fast, exact opposite happens… (I’m actually really curious as to what happens to the hypothalamus with extended fasting)
  • I can live with fewer calories, I can’t live without coffee (that last one has nothing to do with anything, I just thought I would throw it in there)

Non-anecdotally, my cholesterol is down as is my blood sugar (despite all those nasty carbs, go figure…) and I’ll be popping back into the Bod Pod in January to see what my lean/fat ratio is (and have another funny picture taken of me in a swim-cap).

Food wise, we got lazy about experimenting with dishes, as you do, but we have a stock of quick easy recipes to throw together. The greatest life saver? Cup-of-Soup! If you’re a Waitrose shopper, they have a nice range of yummy ones.

Being bread bakers has also served us well, we’ve been able to tweak our usual recipe to get the calorie count down, but still getting fibre (never, ever forget the fibre).

This was my fasting day breakfast, basically a faux Eggs Benedict weighing in at 200 calories:


Food looks more appetising when photographed on a wood surface (may or may not be a fact)

I see this as something I can keep up with, which is what a ‘diet’ is for in the long run. If it’s a quick fix, I’m sure most things will do, but having a strategy of managing my caloric intake and still enjoying my food – yes please.

As some of you may know, Dr Mosley is coming out with a book in January called (I believe) The Fast Diet, which I understand will reference a good portion of the current research around fasting. I have been meaning to do more on the science writing side for this blog, but alas, Uni work has had to take precedence (and I’m not just saying because several of my lecturers are reading…). We’re still also planning to get the Fasting Experiment into our science festival in March. I’ve had quite a few emails asking if I’ll be able to include members of the public in the experiment. It’s unlikely, but if I hear of any other similar experiments going on, I’ll be sure to post here.

Reference [1] Holt, R IG, Hanley, N. A., (2007) Endocrinology and Diabetes 5th Edition, Blackwell Publishing, pp 252 – 253