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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

How Dogs Can Help with Mental Health – Mind Boosting Benefits of Dog Ownership – Part 1

 “The human-animal bond bypasses the intellect and 
goes straight to the heart and emotions and nurtures us in ways that nothing
else can.” – Karin Winegar

An amazing 95% of us see our dogs like family, and it’s not hard to see why that is the case. For thousands of years, we have lived side by side with them, and they have become an integral part of life for so many of us.

Similarly, a good number of people suffer from mental health issues, and it can be hard to go through it alone – hence we have dogs in our lives. As someone who suffers from crippling anxiety that affects my everyday life (amongst other mental health stuff), the comforting presence of my dog throughout each day has been a constant I never truly knew I needed until he appeared in my life.

It’s because of him that I am able to get out of bed every morning and face the day – because he needs me to do these things for him in order to live a happy life, and my husband works odd hours so I am the only one who can do it. 

With him, I have comfort at all times, and the knowledge that he is only ever a stretch of my arm away if I need to pet him. The thing is, dogs can be the greatest boon to our mental state, and in many ways, they allow us to live a life that is a little more normal and structured than it would be without them. 

There are so many ways that they can benefit your life, each of which can give your mental health the boost it needs. In this guide, we take you through the amazing ways in which dogs can help us in their own amazing way. 


Can Dogs Improve Your Health?

It is often wondered if dogs can really improve our health, and while there are many studies still ongoing, there are also plenty that have provided us with clear results. Before we move onto how dogs can help specific mental illnesses, here is a general look at the ways in which they can help to improve our health.

Lower Blood Pressure

There have been many studies – with the earliest dating back to the 1980s – to show that owning a dog (or other pet) is linked to having lower blood pressure when compared to those who do not own any animals.

Similarly, a study was also conducted on married couples in 2002 that showed couples who owned a dog (or other pet) also displayed lower blood pressure levels than couples who had no pets. Other studies have also shown that heart attack survivors are eight times more likely to live another year if they own pets, showing what a great boost they can provide our health.

Fewer Allergies for Kids

It has been shown that infants who are raised with dogs are far less likely to develop allergies and wheezing by the time they were three when compared to infants who were not raised with animals. This is because the early constant exposure can help to build up a form of immunity to things like pet dander – which is great news for the whole family.

Can Help to Boost Overall Wellness

Dogs have such a positive effect on our moods, and this can have an equally good effect on your overall health as well. Those who own animals often suffer less from common ailments than those without, and they can also provide the positive boost we need when faced with more serious illnesses like cancer.

Patients who receive visits from dogs (their own or otherwise) often feel more positive after the interaction. While a positive mental attitude is certainly not a cure, it has been shown to have an effect on recovery and wellness.


How Dogs Help Lifestyle Changes

Dogs are also able to help us with lifestyle changes, something else that can positively impact mental health (something we look at further in the next section). Here are some of the ways in which dogs can change the way we live.


Owning a dog means walking a dog, and studies have found that 60% of those who walk their dogs regularly are meeting daily exercise quotas to maintain a fit and healthy lifestyle. This is good news for both your mental and physical health, as exercise not only boosts your mood (and sense of accomplishment), but also ensures that your body is kept in good shape.

Those who walk their dogs well also show higher levels of activity outside of walking the dog, often taking extra steps to squeeze a little more into their day. They also encourage you to do more than you might have without a dog, which is good news in a world that is growing ever larger in terms of waistlines.


Many people who are depressed are incredibly lonely, and mental health issues, in general, can leave you feeling incredibly isolated. Dog walking usually means that you meet others who are walking their dogs, which results in a casual hello or even a quick chat.

Over time, you often see the same people regularly and will build a level of small talk between you when you meet. Whether you just want to say hello or build an actual friendship, dog walking allows for all levels of friendly interaction between you – something we all need.

Giving You Routine

Having a dog means that there are certain duties you must fulfil each day, including feeding and walking. While it can be hard to take care of yourself when you are low, owning a dog means that you can get some form of routine implemented in your life – forming a pattern in your day and giving you a sense of purpose. Routine can help make life easier and completely change the way you live.


Mental Health Statistics

Before we move onto how dogs can help with mental health, here are some interesting statistics for you to look at, displaying how many people (roughly) in the USA and UK suffer from mental health issues.

Mental Health Problem

UK Statistics

USA Statistics

Generalised Anxiety Disorder

5.9/100 people



3.3/100 people



2.4/100 people


Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

1.3/100 people


Panic Disorder

0.6/100 people


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

4.4/100 people


Psychotic Disorder

0.7/100 people


Bipolar Disorder

2.0/100 people


Antisocial Personality Disorder

3.3/100 people


Borderline Personality Disorder

2.4/100 people


Mixed Anxiety and Depression

7.8/100 people


Suicidal Thoughts

20.6/100 people


Suicide Attempts

6.7/100 people



7.3/100 people

4% (adult) 15% (teen)

Never feel as though you are alone if you are struggling with your mental health. There are people you can call for help, and you can find the key ones below:

Australian Assistance: Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636; Lifeline – 131114; 

UK: Samaritans – (24/7) 116 123

USA: Suicide Prevention Lifeline (24/7) 1-800-273-TALK (8255)


How Dogs Can Help Mental Health

“Most of all, when your confidence is at its lowest, when you feel battered – by life, death and (especially) other humans – a dog will shove her nose in your hand and tell you, with conviction and feeling, what a really good person you are.” – Julie Myerson

Sometimes, the ways in which a dog can help your mental health is the same for one condition as it is the other, and other times they vary. Regardless, it is never nice to have to read through blocks of text, anxiously searching for your condition to see what kind of advice is there. In this section, we have gathered information for a number of mental illnesses to show how dogs can help you out.

Anxiety (Generalised Anxiety Disorder)

This is often classed as a feeling of unease or fear that can vary between mild and severe. It manifests itself differently for everyone, often resulting in an increased heart rate and feelings of despair. Just hugging your dog causes the body to flood with oxytocin, the hormone that lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and stress levels.

The same goes for stroking them, as this also releases the calming hormone throughout your body to help you feel calmer and more relaxed. They also get you outside for a walk, and gentle exercise combined with fresh air can really help to alleviate feelings of anxiety, something multiple studies have proven, especially as it helps to lower your blood pressure and take your mind off things.

When you are in the middle of a severe anxiety attack, they know what is happening, and the comforting touch of their body against yours can help to calm your heart rate and mind incredibly fast. They create a distraction, but also give you validation as a person and a sense of worth. This creature needs you as much as you need it, providing you with acceptance and purpose.

Social Anxiety

This is commonly described as a pervasive disorder that can affect almost every aspect of a person’s life. In many ways, it can be seen as a fear of being judged and negatively evaluated by others, and there is a fear of social interactions with other people. There are a few ways that dogs can help those who are struggling with social anxiety.

Of course, they have a very soothing presence, one where many of our fears and thoughts melt away as we give them the attention that they both crave and deserve. However, when it comes to social situations, they are also able to act as a way to break the ice and get involved in a conversation with another person.

You see, when you meet people with your dog they are unlikely to ask much (if anything) about you – they are more interested in your dog. The questions and casual conversation are the perfect way to start building your confidence, but the other person is often so focussed on the dog that they won’t notice if you have a little trouble with your words. They are social magnets that ease you into things.


There are many different levels of depression, but it tends to be classified as persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of energy or interest for the things that you used to enjoy. It’s something that affects many of us, and can often couple itself with anxiety. There are many ways that dogs can help get you out of your depressive rut.

One of the hardest things to do when you are depressed is get up every morning. Dogs force you into a structured routine that means you need to get up so that they can be fed, watered, let outside, and walked. A structured day means that you are able to give meaning to your time, providing you with a sense of purpose when it comes to your existence.

The fact that you are able to successfully care for them also adds to feelings of self-worth and validation, increasing your confidence and sense of achievement. They also get you outside to exercise and socialise, two things that boost the serotonin being produced by your body, increasing your overall feelings of happiness and worthiness.

Depression often comes coupled with loneliness and anxiety, so it is essential to get out every day with your dog. They offer you unconditional love no matter how low you feel, and a simple lick on the hand or face can bring on a smile that you didn’t even know you could muster. Even petting them can increase your sense of joy, helping you to start (and continue) your recovery.

BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder)

This is also known as Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (EUPD), and its symptoms can be placed into four main categories: emotional instability, disturbed patterns of thinking or perception, impulsive behaviour, and intense but unstable relationships with others.

It is common for those with BPD to suffer from an intense fear of abandonment, which can lead to the intense relationships with others. Dogs will never purposefully abandon you, and their unconditional devotion to their owners is something that many people with BPD find incredibly comforting in their daily lives, something that can also reduce feelings of depression.

Their soothing natures can help to alleviate stress and calm periods of instability when it comes to moods – reducing the number of angry or upset episodes that they suffer from. They don’t judge like people do either, leaving a feeling of acceptance and validation in place of worthlessness and fear. You can open up to dogs as well, and they make for the perfect confidant when you are suffering.

Bipolar Disorder

This was formerly known as manic depression, and it is a disorder that tends to cause dramatic swings between intense periods of depression and abnormally high levels of joy – known as mania or hypomania, depending on its severity. It can sometimes be confused with BPD, but the two disorders are actually very different.

Like many mental health issues, bipolar disorder can leave you feeling very lonely, but it also has many similarities with depression when the low mood phase is entered. It can leave you feeling empty and hopeless, but your dog will ensure that you get outside to exercise and take in some vitamin D – which can actually be very effective at combating low moods.

It is also common for sufferers to experience hallucinations during both high and low periods, which can be frightening to experience. A dog acts as a comfort during these times, helping your brain to produce calming oxytocin, but also giving you the reassurance that everything is going to be alright. The security they bring also reduces feelings of fear and anxiety, making you more comfortable.


This is something that can affect us all, and sometimes on a chronic level. It’s a psychological pain that leaves you feeling strain and pressure on a mental level. We all have a little stress, but for some, it is more severe and constant than others.

Dogs provide a sensory comfort, simply touching them and stroking their fur reduces the level of cortisol (the stress hormone) in your blood, and instead releases oxytocin to help you feel calmer and more relaxed. It also lowers your heart rate and blood pressure so that you can think clearer and start feeling better about yourself. Put simply, they are just incredibly relaxing to be around.

Going for a walk with your dog can also reduce the amount of stress you are feeling, both due to the physical activity and fresh air, as well as giving you a distraction from the things that are causing you stress. It’s a good way to clear your head so that you can return to the problem later with a fresh and rested perspective.

As an interesting side note, studies have shown that when they are being petted, stress levels in dogs are also reduced. So, when you are trying to stay calm by petting your dog, you are actually doing them a massive favour as well – it’s a method that works both ways.

OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)

You see it a lot where people will claim they are “a little OCD”, but it is actually a serious condition that often causes a person to have obsessive, and often invasive, thoughts against their will, as well as a set of routines (rituals) that they need to complete in order to feel calm and as though they can continue on with their day. Of course, there are variations, but these are the most common.

OCD can cause panic, anxiety, and unpleasant thoughts that you cannot get out of your head, and many people subconsciously resort to picking their bodies or fiddling as a way to cope. Having a dog to stroke not only provides a great solution to unintentionally hurting yourself, but also releases oxytocin in your body to bring you a sense of calm and order when the world feels like chaos.

They don’t judge you for your rituals either, allowing them to become a part of your routine, and one that doesn’t mind doing so. They provide someone to confide in, as well as the ideal distraction from any obsessive thoughts or feelings that you are trying to fight. In many ways, there are there to help you fight the battle and provide you with the unconditional love and affection you need.

PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

This is an anxiety disorder that is caused by very stressful, disturbing, or frightening events – most commonly from childhood trauma or witnessing war (such as soldiers or civilians caught in the crossfire). They often relive the traumatic events through nightmares and flashbacks, and often have triggers that can cause them to occur in seemingly normal situations.

Dogs can help those who are suffering get through the toughest time, especially as treatment and therapy can be very hard in the early stages. Dogs are vigilant creatures that will let you know if something is wrong, allowing you to be able to tell if you just had a nightmare or if something is actually happening, and their protection can lead to you feeling more secure in your environment.

They offer unconditional love and support, sensing when you need them to comfort you, ensuring that they are always there for you to hug and pet – releasing a calming dose of oxytocin in your body so that you can try to relax. Additionally, they can help you to relearn trust in people through the trust that they give you (and you them), as well as remember deep feelings of love and affection.

The road to recovery is not an easy one, and you may never get over your PTSD, but with the love and companionship of a dog, the world will feel like a less lonely and isolated place to be – regardless of the form of PTSD that you are suffering from.

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)

This is often defined as a group of behavioural symptoms that include (but are not limited to): inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. Usually, it is spotted at a young age, but it is still possible to be diagnosed as an adult. It can be hard to concentrate on this, even when you reach maturity, and you might be surprised how much dogs can help adults with ADHD.

They give you a sense of consistency and routine in your life, allowing for structure to be added to your day. It means that you have to plan ahead, which can help with issues surrounding organisation as well as make it easier to achieve and plan any goals that you want to achieve. Having a dog can even help you improve things like consistency – like making a plan and sticking to it.

As dogs need to be walked every day, they provide you with the perfect chance to burn off excess energy (for both of you) and get yourself focused for the day. You see, exercise increases the flow of oxygen to the brain which can lead to better concentration levels throughout the day. This is ideal for those who really find it hard to focus on work or studies.

Dogs are always happy to see you and offer a level of love that no one else can. It is often difficult to cope with the outside world and judgement of others, but a dog will always love you for who you are. This can boost your confidence, self-worth, and even help you to become a stronger person – as well as one who is less bothered by the opinions of others.

Autism and Asperger’s

Autism and Asperger’s are essentially the same, but also different. They are both part of the autism spectrum, but every person on it is different, and there are so many different levels to it. Put simply, autism as defined as a developmental issue that affects the way people perceive the world around them and interact with others. Some have difficulty processing information, whereas others appear to function as regular people in everyday life.

Like many people with autism, dogs live in a world that is based around the senses. They understand sensitivity to things like sound, and they also use patterns to sniff things out and track. Additionally, touch is important to them as many dogs like to be close. They relate, and that can be so important to an autistic person as you often feel very isolated from the rest of society.

Anxiety and depression are common feelings among people with autism, and having a dog around means that you have someone to confide in, but also to hug and pet when you are feeling low. These simple activities help to boost your levels of oxytocin and serotonin, leaving you with an overall feeling of calm and pleasure when you are embracing your furry friend.

Autism often contains routines and structures to make life an easier thing for a person to get through. Dogs also love routines, and this can be a great comfort. They follow the rules and can be trained easily, making them both a reliable and rewarding companion for anyone with autism to have.

Some people have meltdowns, which is when everything becomes too much (whether triggered by sensory overload, stress, or something else), and it can result in yelling, hitting themselves, as well as a general feeling of distress. Many service dogs (or even your own dog) are trained to deal with these – offering a comforting paw or licks to help calm their owner down; a method that works well.


How Dogs Can Help Older People

Older people suffer from mental health issues as well, although the most common one is depression, which is often caused by severe loneliness. While the above (and below) issues can affect anyone, here are some of the ways that dogs can help older people in particular.

Loneliness and Depression

Many studies have found that people who have dogs are less lonely, and for the ageing population, loneliness is often the biggest contributor to mental health – and leads to depression. They help you to rediscover meaning in your life, especially if your children have left home and you aren’t sure where to go from there.

The fact that you get to care for them and love them often causes your sense of self-worth to increase or return, bringing optimism and a boosted mood along with it – as well as increased morale. It is fulfilling as well, looking after a creature that is dependent on you, but can also offer so much in return.

They help you to stay connected with the outside world when they go for a walk or to the vet, but they in themselves provide you with companionship. Getting older can be hard as you lose touch with friends or they pass away, and a dog can be the most essential lifeline that there is. It’s not always easy to maintain your social life as you get older, and a dog is a perfect way to fill it.

Those who have a dog often feel more obligated and encouraged to care for themselves, as they depend on you for everything. It’s the boost you need to look after your own health and try to pull yourself out of your depressive state – something that is more possible than you might think when combined with the above statements.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

There are a variety of behavioural issues displayed by those who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s, many of which are actually caused by an inability to deal with stress of any kind. Researchers have found that those who have dementia or Alzheimer’s and have a therapy dog in the care home suffer from less stress and have fewer anxious outbursts than those who do not.

They help to soothe patients, reducing aggression and outbursts. However, much of this stress in patients is caused by the stress the primary caregiver is suffering from as well – something else that dogs are able to help with. They can reduce the stress that both parties are suffering from, creating a more relaxed and calmer environment for everyone.

Just because they communicate nonverbally does not mean that it is not a positive interaction or experience either. Even the playful touch of their nose on a patient’s hand has been shown to massively reduce stress and soothe all feelings of anxiety. Petting them is incredibly therapeutic, just as it is for many mental health conditions.


How Dogs Can Help Children

Kids and dogs are often the best friends there are, and if your child is struggling with their mental health, dogs can be the ideal (and most effective) way of helping them cope. Much like with adults, there is something about the bond between them that is different than it is for two humans. Dogs can help children, and here are some of the ways.

Introducing Kids and Dogs

If you do not have a dog already, it is important to understand how to introduce your new family member to your children – especially if you have toddlers. You must teach your kids how to behave correctly around dogs.

This includes where to pet them and how gently to do so, not to wake them when they are sleeping, and also to understand that they feel pain and when to leave them alone. While older children are likely to pick this up relatively quickly, toddlers do not understand the concept of pain when it comes to other living creatures, and so you may need longer to teach them the right way to behave around animals.

As for your dog, ensure that all interactions when around the children are positive ones so that they grow to understand how to behave around the children, and teach them to remain calm and gentle when the kids are in the same room. Using treats and positive reinforcement (as well as commands like “sit” and “stay”) it won’t take much time at all for them to understand.

Improving Social Skills

When children start interacting with a dog, it helps them to build the foundations for communicating with other people as they begin to learn about emotional attachments and friendship. In fact, studies have shown that children who grow up with dogs often have better social skills than those who do not. Dogs teach them respect, how to share, and also how to behave kindly and with empathy.

Emotional Support

Unlike parents, teachers, and other figures in the life of a child, dogs are not critical and don’t give them orders to follow. They are an equal in the household, and they do not judge your actions – something that many children crave. They also act as a confidant, someone a child can tell everything when they feel like no one else will listen or understand.

Having a dog that is always around can also help to decrease separation anxiety in children when their mother and father are not around. The love and companionship they offer can also build a positive self-image and give confidence. It gives them someone to play with, stimulating the imagination, as well as bringing an immense form of joy when they successfully teach them a trick.

Helping Kids with ADHD

Often, children with ADHD have incredibly high energy levels that can lead to bouts of aggression because everything, including increased stress levels, is so pent up inside them like a coiled spring. Combined with difficulty concentrating and potential ridicule from classmates, it can be a difficult thing for a child to cope with.

Dogs have been shown to incite calm in many children with hyperactivity conditions, including ADHD. Gentle interactions, and the general presence of the dog, are engaging for a child, producing both a physical and emotional comfort. Playing together can also increase the bond, as well as help to reduce energy levels for both parties.

If a child with ADHD walks their dog in the morning, or spends time outside playing with them, it increases the flow of oxygen through the blood and to the brain – helping to improve concentration levels throughout the day. The interaction also helps to reduce stress, helping them to feel more relaxed over the course of the day.

Dogs can help them to build new social skills as well, both through positive interactions with their pets and using them as an icebreaker when a friend comes over to play. Both children will be engaged with the dog, giving them something to bone over. The routine and care that a dog requires can also help children to learn how to plan ahead, an essential life skill for when they become adults.


“Many children with autism can’t relate to a human, but they can relate to a dog.” – Pris Taylor, Autism Service Dogs of America

Helping Kids with Autism

Regardless of where a child is on the spectrum, dogs can be a great help to them. There are some autism service dogs that are trained to sense and diffuse a meltdown, offering comfort and a sense of calm so that the child does not feel overwhelmed and can calm themselves faster.

Many autistic children are able to concentrate for longer periods of time just by having a dog in the room, and the fact that the dog communicates without words often leaves nonverbal children feeling more accepted and understood. Those who are not able to communicate well tend to have more things to talk about, even if they are mostly centred around their new dog.

They are better able to form social bonds with others due to the connection that they have with their dog, and the presence of their pet usually leaves them calmer as people and much less anxious. They can also provide a positive sensory experience, with many autistic children enjoying things that are soft to touch and stroke.

This article was written by:

Will Tottle and was originally published by Dogowner.co.uk

Part 2 will be published on Sunday10th June

Traditional Aboriginal healers should work alongside doctors to help close the gap

 Indigenous Australians have a strong relationship 
with the natural world. from shutterstock.com

The wellbeing of Indigenous people is based around having the freedom and resources to practise cultural ways of being. While some of these can seem removed from those in the West – such as the lack of materialism, primacy of kin and a close relationship to the natural world – including them in mainstream culture can contribute to everyone’s wellbeing.

One way Aboriginal culture differs from the West’s is in its healing practices. These involve mindfulness and attention to relationships with all living things, as well as seeking the advice and treatments of traditional healers.

Yet Aboriginal traditional medicine has been neglected in Australia. This is out of step with international instruments, such as Article 24 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states:

Indigenous peoples have the right to their traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices, including the conservation of their vital medicinal plants, animals and minerals.

To close the gap, we must address the construction that the cultural ways of Aboriginal people are shallow, meaningless or even toxic. Such colonising tropes are a barrier to creating the kind of freedom necessary for Indigenous Australians to live healthy lives.

How Aboriginal healers work

Ngangkari are Aboriginal healers of the Anangu of the Western Desert in Central Australia, which includes the Pitjantjatjara, Ngaanyatjarra and Yankunytjatjara peoples. In some places, particularly South Australia, ngangkari are increasingly being brought into Western health settings to work beside doctors.

Their skills come from a lifetime of immersion in cultural ways of being. Ngangkari are recognised as having particular facilities for healing in their infancy or childhood and are then encouraged to develop their skills. They often talk about being taught by their grandparents.

Ngangkari are immersed in Aboriginal ways of being and cannot easily translate what they do to a wide audience. And the way they work cannot be explained through the scientific framework Western understanding demands.

Ngangkari methodology for healing includes techniques such as observing, listening and touch. With massage and rubbing they release “blockages” from the body and apply various herbal tinctures and ointments where required.

Ngangkari heal through observing, listening and touch. ANTAC

There is an understanding that the spirit can become dislodged through trauma, causing mental and physical disorders. Ngangkari bring it back into place. They are particularly adept at treating psychological disorders.

As the ngangkari Naomi Kantjuriny said:

Depressed people can feel a lot better within themselves after a ngangkari treatment. That’s one of our specialities. Their spirits are out-of-sorts, and not positioned correctly within their bodies. The ngangkari’s job is to reposition their spirits and to reinstate it to where it is happiest.

My experience with ngangkari treatment

I had my first consultation with two ngangkari Pitjanjatjara women, Debbie Watson and Margaret Richards, in 2016.

Their diagnostic process was simple and low-key – very different to any other medical examination I’d had. It involved assessing my whole naked body. I was aware of the deep scrutiny applied to posture and movement.

Both women were touching me, a very delicate touch. As one massaged my abdomen and removed a “blockage” there, they entered into conversation in language. They then spoke to me of my state of mind. They described a personal dilemma causing me a great deal of sadness, that they had no way of knowing.

Debbie said: “There is a man far, far away. Too much worry. No, too much sadness.”

My partner was on the other side of the world and not well, but I had pushed this to the back of my mind. I was surprised they were able to recognise that I had pushed my personal needs aside and this was affecting my health. This brought home to me that I needed to be more proactive in attending to my wellbeing.

Later I felt the benefit of the removal of the “blockage” in my body. I felt lighter, had more clarity of thought and a sense of relief.

Traditional Aboriginal healing practice

Individual doctors who have worked with Aboriginal people have long recognised the value of ngangkari. In 2008, the anthropologist Brian McCoy wrote of the demand for the services of maparn, the traditional healers of the Kimberley region. He explored the benefits of traditional and Western models of health care working together to improve desert people’s health.

Italian researcher, and now CEO of the Aṉangu Ngangkaṟi Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation(ANTAC) based in Adelaide, Dr Francesca Panzironi, has spent the last decade working with the ngangkari to help them bring their services to the broader community. She conducted research and produced a report on Aboriginal traditional healing practices. This explored how ngangkari healers work alongside doctors and medical staff in community clinics and often visit Adelaide to attend to Indigenous hospital patients.

Dr Panzironi says that ngangkari accept the benefits of both Western and traditional methods when a person is ill. After treating a person spiritually and psychologically, the ngangkari might treat the person’s physical problems as well, but will often recommend they also see a Western doctor.

But the ngangkari aren’t recognised in the Australian health system. While other health professionals can expect to be paid, they cannot. There is no category for “ngangkari services” in government payments for health care as well as in the private health sector. And Australia’s drug regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), has not listed ngangkari medications as either safe or beneficial.

What ngangkari seek is the right to practise in the same way as any other paramedical service in the Australian system. While various societies around the world recognise the value of healers who are culturally rather than scientifically based, Australia is lagging behind.

This article was written by:

Image of Victoria GrievesVictoria Grieves – [ARC Indigenous Research Fellow, University of Sydney]




This article is part of a syndicated news program via


The faster you walk, the better for long term health – especially as you age

 OK, you don’t need the poles. But you should 
pick up the pace. from www.shutterstock.com

Some of us like to stroll along and smell the roses, while others march to their destination as quickly as their feet will carry them. A new study out last Friday has found those who report faster walking have lower risk of premature death.

We studied just over 50,000 walkers over 30 years of age who lived in Britain between 1994 and 2008. We collected data on these walkers, including how quickly they think they walk, and we then looked at their health outcomes (after controlling to make sure the results weren’t due to poor health or other habits such as smoking and exercise).

We found any pace above slow reduced the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, such as heart disease or stroke. Compared to slow walkers, average pace walkers had a 20% lower risk of early death from any cause, and a 24% lower risk of death from heart disease or stroke.

 Australian Science Media Centre.

Those who reported walking at a brisk or fast pace had a 24% lower risk of early death from any cause and a 21% lower risk of death from cardiovascular causes.

We also found the beneficial effects of fast walking were more pronounced in older age groups. For example, average pace walkers aged 60 years or over experienced a 46% reduction in risk of death from cardiovascular causes, and fast walkers experienced a 53% reduction. Compared to slow walkers, brisk or fast walkers aged 45-59 had 36% lower risk of early death from any cause.

In these older age groups (but not in the whole sample or the younger age groups), we also found there was a linearly higher reduction in the risk of early death the higher the pace.

What it all means

Our results suggest walking at an average, brisk or fast pace may be beneficial for long term health and longevity compared to slow walking, particularly for older people.

But we also need to be mindful our study was observational, and we did not have full control of all likely influences to be able to establish it was the walking alone causing the beneficial health effects. For example, it could be that the least healthy people reported slow walking pace as a result of their poor health, and also ended up dying earlier for the same reason.

Fast walking for some might not seem it for others. from www.shutterstock.com

To minimise the chances of this reverse causality, we excluded all those who had heart disease, had experienced a stroke, or had cancer when the study started, as well as those who died in the first two years of follow up.

Another important point is that participants in our study self-reported their usual pace, which means the responses were about perceived pace. There are no established standards for what “slow”, “average” or “brisk” walking means in terms of speed. What is perceived as “fast” walking pace by a very sedentary and physically unfit 70-year-old will be very different from a sporty and fit 45-year-old.

For this reason, our results could be interpreted as reflecting relative (to one’s physical capacity) intensity of walking. That is, the higher the physical exertion while walking, the better health results.

For the general relatively healthy middle-aged population, a walking speed between 6 and 7.5 km/h will be fast and if sustained, will make most people slightly out of breath. A walking pace of 100 steps per minute is considered roughly equivalent to moderate intensity physical activity.

We know walking is an excellent activity for health, accessible by most people of all ages. Our findings suggest it’s a good idea to step up to a pace that will challenge our physiology and may even make walking more of a workout.

Long term-health benefits aside, a faster pace will get us to our destination faster and free up time for all those other things that can make our daily routines special, such as spending time with loved ones or reading a good book.

This article was written by:
Image of Emmanuel StamatakisEmmanuel Stamatakis – [Professor of Physical Activity, Lifestyle, and Population Health, University of Sydney]




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New vitamin supplement study finds they may do more harm than good

 Yes, we need vitamins and minerals. But getting them 
from supplements isn’t the same as eating them in food. 
from www.shutterstock.co

In Australia’s most recent nutrition survey, 29% of people reported having taken at least one dietary supplement. This proportion was even higher in the United States at 52%.

new study out today aimed to examine the benefits of vitamin and mineral supplements for prevention of heart disease, stroke and premature death (termed “all-cause mortality”). This found the most commonly studied ones had no effect, while some less common ones did have an effect. The review also found some supplements can be harmful.

What did the study find?

The study was a systematic review, meaning the team of researchers examined all relevant research papers (179 in total) and combined the results. The supplements examined included vitamins A, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folic acid), C, D, E, beta-carotene, and the minerals calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium and selenium. Multivitamins were defined as including most of these vitamins and minerals.

In studies testing the four common supplements of multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium and vitamin C, there was no reduction in incidence of heart disease, stroke or premature death. This means there was no benefit from taking them, but also no harm.

They also evaluated less common supplements that did have positive impacts on early death, heart disease and stroke. Here they found folic acid supplements showed a reduction in heart disease and stroke.

It was calculated that in order to prevent one case of heart disease or stroke, 111 people needed to be taking folic acid supplements (this is termed the “numbers needed to treat”). For stroke, 167 people would need to take folic acid to prevent one case, and 250 people would have to take B-complex vitamins (which contain folic acid, which is vitamin B9) to prevent one case.

Folic acid was found to have beneficial effects in China where their food is not already fortified. from www.shutterstock.com

Before you rush out to buy folic acid supplements, there are a few cautions. First, there are some concerns that high levels of folic acid in the blood may increase the risk of prostate cancer, although the results are mixed.

Second, of the studies testing folic acid supplements, stroke was reduced in only two of the seven gold-standard studies (called randomised controlled trials). One of these was a very large study of 20,000 people in China. China does not have a folic acid food fortification program, whereas in Australia and the US, it’s commonly added to breads and breakfast cereals.

While a small benefit for taking folic acid was found, researchers also found some adverse effects from supplementation. Among those taking statin medication to lower blood cholesterol, slow or extended release vitamin B3 (niacin) increased the risk of early death by 10%, with a “number needed to harm” of 200. This means 200 people would have to take statins and niacin before we would see one case of early death.

For studies testing “antioxidant” supplements, there was marginally significant increased risk of early death, with a “number needed to harm” of 250 people.

The most studied supplement was vitamin D. Researchers found no benefits for heart disease or stroke prevention, but also no harm. This was a surprise, given vitamin D is commonly taken for other conditions, such as diabetes. But there was no benefit seen for early death, although the study’s authors acknowledged longer follow-up may be needed.

What does it all mean?

The authors concluded there is low-to-moderate quality evidence for taking folic acid for the prevention of heart disease and stroke, and also for taking B-complex vitamins that include folic acid for stroke.

Most people in Western countries don’t have an optimal diet. This review shows taking supplements as an “insurance policy” against poor dietary habits does not work. If it did, there would have been a reduction in early death.

Taking supplements is very different from eating whole foods. Complications or health problems due to nutrient intakes are virtually always due to taking supplements, not eating foods. When you concentrate on one vitamin, mineral or nutrient in a supplement, you miss out on the other phytonutrients found in plant foods that contribute to overall health.

The increase in early death for taking some categories of supplements should be a wake-up call that stronger regulations are needed around supplements, and people need a lot more support to eat better.

The bottom line is we need to eat more nutrient-rich whole foods, including foods high in folate such as green leafy vegetables, legumes, seeds, poultry, eggs, cereals and citrus fruits. Many breads and breakfast cereals in Australia are fortified with folate. Good food sources of niacin (vitamin B3) are lean meats, milk, eggs, wholegrain breads and cereals, nuts, leafy green vegetables and protein-containing foods.

This article was written by:

Image of Clare CollinsClare Collins – [Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Newcastle]

Further Reading: 




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Science or Snake Oil: what is black salve and why do people think it can cure cancer?

 Black salve doesn’t only destroy cancerous cells. 
from www.shutterstock.com

You might’ve heard the name black salve floating around in the media lately, accompanied by horror tales and even worse photos. But a quick google of the term will find just as many glowing reviews of miracle cancer cures.

Black salve is a product derived from the plant Sanguinaria canadensis, a perennial flowering plant native to northeastern America. It’s known colloquially as “blood root”, “Indian paint” and “red root”. The specific ingredients vary but commonly include zinc chloride (a destructive agent, which is corrosive to metals) as well as sanguinarine (a toxic plant extract).

Blood root was used by the American Indians, who harvested the plant from which they drained a red liquid. They thickened this into a paste, which they used to treat infected wounds. Early European settlers in America also used blood root to treat a variety of skin conditions including warts and moles.

Blood root is a strong escharotic, meaning it is a caustic and destructive material. The zinc chloride and sanguinare are corrosive, but dealers claim when it’s applied to damaged skin the healthy skin will separate and not be damaged. There’s no evidence to support this.

Instead, there’s evidence all tissue that comes into contact with the material is damaged, causing profound inflammation and eschar (a dry, dark scab or falling away of dead skin).

This can reasonably be compared to the result that would be expected from burning tissue by applying a strong caustic substance such as hydrochloric acid.

Its use in contemporary society dates back to the 1930s when researcher Fred Mohs used a preparation containing a low concentration of blood root to stabilise a tumour so he was able to examine it under a microscope.

This historical use has been used to give credibility to the use of black salve to treat skin malignancies, despite the fact Mohs publicly renounced its use for this purpose.

The salve doesn’t only destroy cancerous tissues, but all tissue. Flickr/Eli Christman,

What is claimed about black salve’s benefits?

In the 1930s-50s Harry Hoxley, a self-proclaimed cancer specialist, sold salve to treat a variety of internal and external cancers in clinics in America. By the end of the 1950s, due to a lack of scientific evidence and concerns by medical authorities, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had prohibited its sale.

One brand of black salve, Cansema (manufacturer Omega Alpha Labs), is marketed on the internet as:

a miraculous product with a miraculous history with roots that go back to the late 19th century.

The advertisement goes on to state:

Only suppression and greed have prevented its enormous benefits from being made available to the mainstream.

Many testimonials praising the results of Cansema are also listed on the internet. Within Australia, black salve has been marketed for the treatment of basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and melanoma. Multiple websites provide testimonials supporting its use in this way and there are claims it’s not harmful to normal cells.

Cancer cures at bargain basement prices? Screenshot http://www.blacksalve.biz/

Is there any evidence black salve cures cancer?

Salve appears under a variety of trade names including Cansema (Alpha Omega Labs), Black Ointment (Dr Christopher’s Original Formulas) and Herb Veil 8 (Altered States). No manufacturers have published detailed information about the specific ingredients.

There is, however, emerging laboratory evidence sanguinarine does have therapeutic anti-cancer effects. This evidence is based on studies on cells outside the body. These found beneficial effects, with selective destruction of malignant cells, but at much lower concentrations than in existing salve products. Higher concentrations result in destructionof normal tissue as well as cancer cells.

At the time of a recent review there were no studies comparing salve to conventional treatment so the safety and effectiveness remain unknown.

Is black salve dangerous?

Documented adverse effects of black salve include direct damage to the skin, as well as disease progression where users eschew evidence-based therapy. In a recent review there were nine cases of biopsy-proven skin cancer treated with black salve and then documented.

All of these cases reported adverse clinical outcomes, including severe pain or discomfort, and seven reported significant adverse cosmetic outcomes. In six of these cases the cancer worsened. Two cases reported no worsening.

In one case colleagues and I reported there was progression to metastatic disease, meaning the cancer spread to lymph nodes and other organs, after seven years following treatment of a thin melanoma with black salve. The prognosis for 20-year survival of the primary melanoma at the time of black salve treatment was 97%. The patient died shortly after our manuscript was published.

In 2012 the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration banned the sale of black salve in Australia due to a lack of evidence for its benefit. But it and its ingredients continue to be available for purchase through the internet and overseas.

In the future laboratory studies and ethical clinical trials might discover a beneficial role for blood-root products. But at present the use of black salve has no justifiable place in medical practice.

This article was written by:
Image of Cliff RosendahlCliff Rosendahl – [Associate Professor, The University of Queensland]




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What causes chronic fatigue? What we know, don’t know and suspect

The term chronic fatigue underemphasises  
the full scope of symptoms sufferers face. vladislav muslakov unsplash

Around 200,000 people in Australia suffer from a debilitating illness often branded with the unfortunate name of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). I say “unfortunate” because this implies patients are simply tired, run-down, burnt-out or overly stressed.

But myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME/CFS as it is now more commonly called, is a serious and incapacitating disease that can have a devastating impact on a patient’s life. Symptoms include:

  • profound and unexplained fatigue for more than six months
  • memory or concentration difficulties
  • muscle pain (myalgia) and weakness
  • joint pain
  • sleep disturbances
  • flu-like symptoms
  • light headedness, palpitations, breathlessness
  • headaches
  • heightened sensitivity to light and sound
  • tender lymph nodes, sore throats
  • new sensitivities to food, medicines or chemicals.

Initially bewildered by their incapacitating fatigue, many ME/CFS patients continue trying to go about their daily lives. But such efforts come at a severe cost. Even small amounts of activity can trigger “crashes” called post-exertional malaise that worsen symptoms, sometimes for many days.

Simple activities such as showering, grocery shopping or meeting a friend for coffee become difficult, if not impossible. Sadly, for around 25% of patients, symptoms are so severe they remain bed-bound or house-bound, and suicide risk is elevated.

Most patients face a major challenge getting a diagnosis. One UK study found less than half of doctors were confident with the diagnosis or treatment of ME/CFS and more than 85% of patients go from doctor to doctor for over two years without a diagnosis.

What we know

The underlying causes of ME/CFS have proved difficult to pinpoint. For many patients, blood and pathology testing are entirely normal.

This has led some to suggest ME/CFS is a psychological condition. In 2011, the findings of a clinical trial suggested patients could recover through psychological therapy (cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT) and graded exercise therapy. These findings have fuelled debate as to whether ME/CFS might be a disease of the mind.

But a landmark US study examining nearly 10,000 research publications suggested otherwise, concluding that ME/CFS is a serious, chronic, complex and systemic disease.

Criticisms of psychological and exercise therapy for ME/CFS have been widespread, with over 50 published letters in leading scientific journals (BMJJournal of Health PsychologyNatureLancet) raising serious concerns about the robustness of the claims.

Australian guidelines continue to recommend exercise and CBT therapies despite the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discontinuing these recommendations.

While exercise can clearly benefit patients with a wide range of illnesses, physical activity can cause a rapid deterioration of symptoms in patients with ME/CFS.

What we don’t know

There are no laboratory tests available to categorically diagnose someone with ME/CFS. But Australian research is playing a leading role in the discovery of possible diagnostic markers. For example, inflammatory blood proteins such as activin B and interferon are increased in ME/CFS. Other studies have shown metabolic waste products from some gut bacteria accumulate in ME/CFS patients and so may also provide diagnostic information in the future.

Women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with ME/CFS than men, but the reason for this is unclear. Also, having a first-degree relative with ME/CFS more than doubles the risk of developing the disease, but the role of genetics is not known.

For some, the onset of symptoms is slow. In others, ME/CFS begins with infections causing glandular fever (infectious mononucleosis), respiratory or gastrointestinal illnesses.

For some, chronic fatigue is preceded by infections such as glandular fever. from www.shutterstock.com

While ME/CFS patients have immune disruptions and abnormal inflammatory responses, the underlying causes remain elusive. The vicious cycles of tissue damage typical of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis or lupus don’t seem to occur in ME/CFS.

One theory is that ME/CFS patients have a “chink” in their immunological armour, possibly leading to persistent “smouldering” infections and chronic inflammation.

But it’s remarkably difficult to find direct evidence for such ongoing infections in most ME/CFS patients. And antiviral drugs or antibiotics seem to have very modest activity in ME/CFS despite their life-saving activities in many other infectious diseases.

ME/CFS patients also have metabolic defects in the way energy is generated in their bodies – pointing to one reason why they rapidly succumb to muscle fatigue during exercise. But whether this metabolic defect is due to immune attack, chronic infection or some other cause is unknown.

With no approved treatments or cures for ME/CFS, more research is urgently needed. So far, clinical trials examining the effects of immunosuppressive drugsantibody therapiesanti-viral drugsattention deficit hyperactivity disorder therapies and anti-depressants have not led to major improvements.

Diets and nutritional supplements also seem to provide little help. While some dietary supplements involved in generating metabolic energy seem to improve some ME/CFS symptoms, larger and better studies are required.

reboot of ME/CFS research is now underway. Sufferers are hopeful the recent establishment of a National Health and Medical Research Council ME/CFS Advisory Committee will reinvigorate Australian biomedical ME/CFS research to find new treatments and possibly a cure.

ME/CFS patients should always consult their medical doctor before taking any medication. More information can be found at Emerge Australia. Anyone seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline on 131 114.

This article was written by:
Image of Mark Guthridge Mark Guthridge – [Senior Research Fellow, Monash University]




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Health Check: why do we yawn and why is it contagious?

 Yawning increases our alertness. 
from shutterstock.com

Consider the scenario. You’re driving on a long, straight stretch of country highway at about 2pm on a sunny afternoon, and you’re desperately keen to reach your destination. You’re trying to stay alert and attentive, but sleep pressure is building up.

In response you yawn, sit up straighter in your seat, possibly fidget around a little and engage in other mannerisms that may increase your level of arousal.

Is this the purpose of yawning? Yawning is generally triggered by several things, including tiredness, fever, stress, drugs, social and other psychological cues. These are generally well documented and vary between individuals.

The question of why we yawn evokes a surprising amount of controversy for what is a relatively minor field of study. We don’t have evidence that can point us to the exact purpose of yawning.

But there are several theories about the purpose of yawning. These include increasing alertness, cooling the brain, and the evolutionary theory of alerting others in your group that you’re too tired to keep watch, and someone else should take over.

1. Helps us wake up

Yawning is known to increase with drowsiness. This has led to the arousal hypothesis of yawning. Associated with the yawning are increased movement and stretching behaviour. The increased fidgeting behaviour may help maintain vigilance as sleep pressure builds.

Also, specific muscles in the ear (the tensor tympani muscles) are activated during yawning. This leads to a resetting of the range of movement and sensitivity of the eardrum and hearing, which increases our ability to monitor the world around us after we may have tuned out before the yawn.

Yawning is usually accompanied by stretching behaviour. from shutterstock.com

Additionally, the opening and flushing of the eyes will probably lead to an increase in visual alertness.

2. Cools the brain

Another theory for why we yawn is the thermoregulatory hypothesis. This suggests that yawning cools the brain. Yawning causes a deep inhalation that draws cool air into the mouth, which then cools the blood going to the brain.

Proponents of this theory claim a rise in brain temperature is observed prior to yawning, with a decrease in temperatureseen after the yawn.

But the research report that gave rise to this theory only shows excessive yawning may occur during an increase in brain and body temperature. It doesn’t suggest this has a cooling purpose.

Increased yawning rates are seen when fevers have been experimentally induced, which does suggest a correlation between body warming and yawning. But there is no clear evidence it leads to body cooling – just that body warming seems to be a trigger for yawning.

3. Sentry duty

Yawning-like behaviour has been observed in almost all vertebrates, suggesting that the reflex is ancient. The evolutionary based behavioural hypothesis draws on humans being social animals. When we are vulnerable to an attack from another species, a function of the group is to protect each other.

Part of our group contract has included sharing sentry duties, and there is evidence from other social animals of yawning or stretching signals when individuals are becoming lower in arousal or vigilance. This is important for changing activities to prevent the watch from slipping, or to indicate the need for another sentry.

Neuroscience explanations

The yawning reflex involves many structures in the brain.

One study that scanned the brains of those who were prone to contagious yawning found activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex of the brain. This brain region is associated with decision-making. Damage to this region is also associated with loss of empathy.

Stimulation of a particular region of the hypothalamus, which contains neurons with oxytocin, causes yawning behaviour in rodents. Oxytocin is a hormone associated with social bonding and mental health.

Injecting oxytocin into various regions of the brain stem causes yawning, too. These include the hippocampus (associated with learning and memory), ventral tegmental area (associated with the release of dopamine, the happy hormone) and the amygdala (associated with stress and emotions). Blocking the oxytocin receptors here prevents that effect.

Patients with Parkinson’s disease don’t yawn as frequently as others, which may be related to low dopamine levels. Dopamine replacement has been documented to increase yawning.

Your dog could be yawning on long car trips because it is stressed. from shutterstock.com

Similarly, cortisol, the hormone that increases with stress, is known to trigger yawning, while removal of the adrenal gland (which releases cortisol) prevents yawing behaviour. This suggests that stress might play a role in triggering yawning, which could be why your dog may yawn so much on long car trips.

So, it seems yawning is somehow related to empathy, stress and dopamine release.

Why is it contagious?

Chances are you’ve yawned at least once while reading this article. Yawning is a contagious behaviour and seeing someone yawn often causes us to yawn as well. But the only theory that’s been suggested here is that susceptibility to contagious yawning is correlated with someone’s level of empathy.

It is interesting to note, then, that there is decreased contagious yawning among people on the autism spectrum, and people who have high psychopathic tendency. And dogs, considered to be highly empathetic animals, can catch human yawns too.

Overall, neuroscientists have developed a clear idea of a wide range of triggers for yawning, and we have a very detailed picture of the mechanism underlying yawning behaviour. But the functional purpose of yawning remains elusive.

Back to our road trip, the yawning may be a physiological cue as the competition between vigilance and sleep pressure begins to favour drowsiness. But the overwhelming message is that sleep is winning and encouraging the driver to pull over for a break, and it shouldn’t be ignored.

This article was co-authored by:
Mark Schier – [Senior Lecturer in Physiology, Swinburne University of Technology]
Yossi Rathner – [Lecturer in Human Physiology, Swinburne University of Technology]




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My cancer is in remission – does this mean I’m cured?

 We only know if a cancer has been cured in hindsight. 
Photo by Kaylee Eden on Unsplash

So you’ve been through cancer treatment and your doctor has called you in for “some good news”. Satisfied, she tells you your cancer is “in remission.”

What does this mean? Are you cured? Is the cancer gone forever? And what about all those stories you’ve heard of someone who thought they’d “won the battle” – but then their cancer came back?

Detecting cancer

Your cancer is in complete remission when, after treatment, no cancer can be detected. The term “cure” can only be used in hindsight. Commonly, years after the cancer has gone into remission, if it has not returned (or relapsed), it is said to have been cured.

However, a secondary cancer could occur if the same conditions that triggered the first are present.

When a cancer can no longer be detected, it’s cured only if the treatment has killed every cancer cell. But it’s difficult to know if that’s the case due to our inability to detect small amounts of cancer.

A skilled specialist may be able to feel a breast lump that is half-a-centimetre wide. A plain chest X-ray can be expected to detect cancers from 1cm wide. And a CT scan will detect smaller cancers to a few millimetres.

But a cancer 1cm across on a scan has about 100 million cancer cells; even a 0.5cm cancer has about 10 million cells. A 1mm cancer, which would not show up on scans, has 100,000 cancer cells.

So, even when a cancer can no longer be seen and is no longer causing symptoms, there can still be millions of cells remaining. They can keep growing and eventually the cancer will be large enough to be detected again. That’s when the cancer is said to have relapsed.

We don’t always know if all the cancer cells have been killed. from shutterstock.com

Some cancers, like testicular cancer, produce proteins (alpha FP and Beta HCG) that can be measured in blood. Measuring these is more accurate than scans in detecting small amounts of cancer.

Better still, chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) – a rare form of leukaemia – has a characteristic genetic abnormality, which a very sensitive blood test can detect. This is helpful in determining whether a treatment has eradicated microscopic disease. The holy grail would be to develop such sensitive blood tests for every cancer.

Additional therapies

Because we can’t tell whether remission means cure for most cancers, treatment strategies have been devised to increase the likelihood of cure. If a cancer is being treated with chemotherapy and becomes undetectable, further courses will be given to continue to reduce the remaining microscopic disease.

Some cancers, like breast and bowel cancer, where there is no visible disease after surgery, are given additional treatment in case some cells are still present near the operation site or have spread more widely through the bloodstream. Radiotherapy is given after the cancer has been removed by surgery to kill any remaining cells in the breast.

When it comes to brain cancer, it’s difficult to know if it has been completely cleared. The extent of surgery is limited because of the damage to normal tissues and function, and we don’t have very effective therapies to follow up the surgery. This is why it’s so difficult to cure.

Chemotherapy, hormone therapy (for breast cancer) or both are given to kill any cells that might have escaped to more distant sites. Although we can’t see the cancer shrinking with the additional (adjunct) treatment, we know from trials comparing patients who receive additional treatment with those who do not that the additional treatment results in more patients being cured.

Chemotherapy, hormone therapy or both are given to kill any cells that might have escaped to more distant sites. from shutterstock.com

It is common to use multiple types of treatment – surgery, radiotherapy or drug therapy – to improve the chances of a cure.

Chemotherapy may not be able to kill all of a cancer because it kills cells only when they are dividing, which means resting cells escape. Only a percentage of cells are dividing at any one time. In cancer that percentage is higher than in most normal tissues, so cancer suffers more damage than normal tissues with chemotherapy. Multiple doses might catch the resting cells when they begin to divide.

Another problem is that, after initially shrinking some of the cancer, some cells are found to be resistant, or become resistant, to the chemotherapy and are left untreated. Drug combinations are given as cells resistant to one drug might be susceptible to another.

Five-year outcomes

It’s common when reporting cancer outcomes to compare the five-year survival rate, which is the percentage of patients who survive five years after diagnosis. Five years is a convenient interval at which everyone can collect statistics so comparisons can be made between cancers – or the outcomes of cancers between treatment centres, states or countries.

As it happens, with many cancers in remission, to have survived five years does mean they are probably cured. But there are differences for different cancer types.

A person diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma whose cancer achieves remission is most likely to have been cured if the cancer has not returned in two years. This is because any residual lymphoma would be expected to regrow rapidly.

The opposite is the case for breast cancer. Although the chance of relapse after complete remission is greatest in the first two years and becomes smaller over time, and the five-year survival rate is 90%, relapses have been recorded up to 20 years later.

It is important to note, though, that survival rates have greatly improved over time and are always improving. In the 1970s, only one cancer patient in three made it through the first five years after diagnosis. Today, this figure is around 70%, and exceeds 85% for some cancers that were previously fatal.

So, remission might mean cure but we only know that over time.

This article was written by:
Image of Ian OlverIan Olver – [Director, University of South Australia Cancer Research institute, University of South Australia]

Further Reading:
Every cancer patient should be prescribed exercise medicine
Research Check: will eating ‘ultra-processed’ foods give you cancer?
What causes breast cancer in women? What we know, don’t know and suspect
Why are we more likely to get cancer as we age?



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Acupuncture during IVF doesn’t increase chances of having a baby

 Acupuncture might alleviate stress for women 
undertaking IVF. from www.shutterstock.com

Acupuncture has become a frequently used treatment prior to and during in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). Women hope it will increase their chances of having a baby, but also provide support with reducing stress, and feeling relaxed and well while undergoing treatment.

Several small clinical trials have previously suggested acupuncture improved outcomes of stressful and unpredictable fertility treatments. But our new study has found this is not the case.

The study of more than 800 Australian and New Zealand women undergoing acupuncture treatment during their IVF cycles has failed to confirm significant difference in live birth rates.

The findings published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) support recent guidelines from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and two high-quality meta-analyses (which combine data from multiple studies to identify a common effect).

What the study found

We examined the effects of a short course of acupuncture administered during an IVF cycle. We were not able to show that acupuncture increased live births, clinical pregnancy or having fewer miscarriages.

Undertaken across 16 IVF centres in Australia and New Zealand, the randomised controlled clinical trial (that compares the effects of an experimental treatment on one group with those of a placebo or alternative treatment in another group) aimed to increase live births and pregnancies among 848 women aged 18 to 42, undergoing an IVF cycle using fresh embryos, over a four year period.

The first acupuncture treatment was given at the start of the IVF process when medication is given to stimulate the ovary to produce follicles.

Following successful fertilisation, acupuncture to recognised acupuncture points was performed prior to, and immediately following, the transfer of the embryo to the woman’s womb.

The control group in this study was sham acupuncture. This looks like real acupuncture but does not involve insertion of the needle through the skin. For both groups the needle is held in place by a plastic tube, but as the practitioner places the needle on the skin, for the control group the shaft of the needle disappears into the handle, while in the treatment group the needle pierces the skin.

The results showed a clinical pregnancy was achieved in 25.7% of women who received acupuncture and 21.7% of women in the sham control, and that a live birth was achieved for 18.3% of women who received acupuncture compared to 17.8% who received the control.

While a 4% increase might sound hopeful, given the low percentage of successful IVF births to begin with, this is not a big enough increase for scientists to conclude there is a difference. This means the study does not support that acupuncture can improve pregnancy or live birth rates for women undergoing IVF.

However, in clinical practice, acupuncture may include more sessions prior to an IVF cycle starting. Whether this would make a difference hasn’t been tested.

Why is this important?

Despite recent technological improvements to IVF, the success rate is still low. Consequently, new drugs, laboratory techniques and other treatments need to be developed and rigorously tested to explore their effects on producing healthy babies for women undergoing IVF.

Acupuncture has long been used for gynaecological and obstetric problems. In 2002, the first randomised controlled trial of acupuncture administered a specific form of IVF acupuncture at the time of embryo transfer. The results indicated the chance of achieving a pregnancy from acupuncture was twice that of women undergoing IVF treatment alone.

Further clinical trials were conducted to examine if these results could be replicated. Some trials found acupuncture had some effect and others found it had none.

IVF is an emotionally tumultuous time. k b unsplash

Where did the acupuncture belief come from?

An adequate blood flow to develop immature eggs, and the endometrium (the lining of the uterus), is important to female fertility and pregnancy. Studies on a stronger form of acupuncture, electro-acupuncture, found it may influence central sympathetic nerve activity, and may increase blood flow in parts of the body, including improved blood flow and oxygenation to ovarian and uterine tissue.

Stress is thought to play a role in infertility. Among women undertaking IVF treatment, previous research has found an association between lower levels of stress and anxiety and increased pregnancy.

In our earlier research, acupuncture was shown to reduce the emotional stress and burden experienced by women during IVF treatment.

We hope the new findings will enable women and practitioners to make evidence-formed decisions about the use of acupuncture to achieve a pregnancy and live birth.

But unpublished findings from our trial highlight a supportive role from acupuncture with reducing stress, increased relaxation and improving how women feel about themselves while undergoing the demands of IVF treatments. These findings suggest while it probably won’t improve a woman’s chance of having a baby, acupuncture could help women deal with the emotional turmoil of IVF.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Caroline Smith
Caroline Smith – [Professor Clinical Research, Western Sydney University]
Image of Robert NormanRobert Norman – [Professor of Reproductive and Periconceptual Medicine, The Robinson Institute, University of Adelaide]




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A Guide To Understanding The Full Ramifications Of Autism Spectrum Disorder

With more and more children and adults being diagnosed with autism, people have many questions. What is autism? What are signs that a person is autistic? What is the “autism spectrum”? Can a person outgrow autism, or is it for life? Are there different kinds of autism?

With so much information, and misinformation available, it can be an extremely difficult task to know what is true. To make matters more confusing, psychologists and psychiatrists are still learning more about autism and are often updating their research and classification methods. Knowledge of autism can in some cases become outdated or irrelevant with time.

This article will work as an introductory guide to what autism is, and hopefully will answer some of the more pressing questions and concerns associated with this disorder.

What is Autism Like?

If you’re just learning about autism, you may wonder what it’s like. How do psychologists and psychiatrists diagnose autism? What criteria do they use to diagnose autism?

Doctors use something called the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) to determine if children and adults match certain symptoms that are most closely associated with certain disorders.

Below are some of the major indicators they use to assess Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

What Are the Major Symptoms of Autism?

It’s important to point out that no two people who are on the spectrum exhibit autistic traits in exactly the same way. While there are often commonalities between ASD people, it would be in error to say that ALL autistic people have all the same symptoms or attributes. However, below is a list of symptoms that are often associated with ASD.

Social Difficulty

When it comes to social interactions, most ASD people have some difficulty. The degree of social difficulty varies, but it’s something that most people on the spectrum have in common.

ASD individuals may have trouble making friends or interacting with people around them. They often will not initiate play or conversations with others, often prefer to be alone, and may not show affection. In fact, they may be resistant or uncomfortable displaying or receiving affection.

Many ASD individuals have trouble expressing emotions and may seem detached. They consequently also have trouble relating to other people and other people’s emotions emotions, which may appear as a lack of empathy for others. In many cases, it may not occur to them to show empathy.

Another common sign of autism is trouble making eye contact, and inappropriate facial gestures or facial gestures that don’t match their emotions.


When it comes to speech, ASD people often struggle to understand tone, humor, or sarcasm. Children may have speech delays as an early indicator of autism. It’s not uncommon for them to use repetition of words of phrases. The repetition of phrases is not meant to communicate, but rather to self-stimulate or calm themselves.

Often ASD people have difficulty expressing their needs which may turn into a meltdown or tantrum, especially in children. Adults and children may struggle to keep a conversation going with people around them.


As with speech, sometimes ASD people will display repetitive body movements like hand flapping, rocking, or spinning. They may be clumsy, have unusual posture, or move in an unusual way.

People on the spectrum often have sensory processing issues that are either a hyper or hypo sensitivity to input. People who are hypersensitive may overreact to things like loud noises or uncomfortable clothing. People with hypo-sensitivity underreact to stimuli.

This may manifest as having an unusually high pain tolerance or seeking extra stimuli to regulate their system. Many ASD people show signs of both hypo and hyper sensitivity.

Additional behaviors

People on the spectrum may become obsessed with certain objects, or a primary field of interest. For children this may be about a certain subject (trains, for instance is a common one). For adults it may be a particular field of study or career. When something becomes of great interest, they will learn everything they can about it, and often repeat facts to anyone around them.

Many people who are on the spectrum have a difficult time when their routine or schedule is disturbed. When plans change too abruptly they can struggle to “go with the flow,” or to transition. For children especially this can lead to a tantrum or meltdown.


Children who are on the spectrum do enjoy playtime, but they do not always behave the same way as neurotypicals. ASD kids tend to not play with toys in an imaginary way or participate in make believe games. They may have a fascination with spinning things like the wheels on a toy, or they may spend a lot of time lining up toys or objects.

Some ASD kids become attached to inanimate objects like a key, a string, or a rubber band. Because ASD kids often struggle with communication and social skills, they may struggle to do things like sharing toys and taking turns.

Can Autism be Outgrown?

A simple answer to this question is no. Whether Autism is mild, moderate, or severe, it is something that people on the spectrum are born with. It is the way that their brains are wired.

While there are some small studies indicating that some children who have received intensive therapy have “outgrown” autism, the studies are extremely limited and the outcome is rare. Still in the beginning stages of research, it’s almost impossible to know whether the treatment had that significant of an affect on the children, or if they were possibly misdiagnosed from the beginning.

While this new discovery can offer some hope for parents, it can be equally damaging. Parents should understand that even if they receive the earliest intervention, with the most support and therapy, it is highly unlikely that a child will outgrow ASD.

What can offer hope is that many people with autism are able to adapt and learn to manage some of their symptoms. Early intervention is extremely helpful in managing symptoms that make life more difficult. It is also helpful in aiding children who have more severe symptoms become more independent and function with less support.

It’s also important to note that while autism offers drawbacks and many challenges, people on the autism spectrum also offer many unique gifts. Even referring to autism as something that could be, or should be, “cured” is offensive to some.

Some autism advocates believe that people should be more open to “neurodiversity,” and should not want or expect people with autism to be cured. Elizabeth Picciuto writes, “‘Neurodiversity’ advocates are not interested in finding a cure for autism. Rather than changing autistic people so that they fit into a narrow stripe of acceptable behavior in the world, they’d like to see the world expand its concept of acceptable behavior to include people with autism.”

What are the Different Types of Autism?

As psychiatrists and psychologists seek to understand and categorize autism, their definitions change over time. Pre-2013, autism was defined in 5 categories:  Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs): Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, Rett’s Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

Post 2013, for simplification, autism is now defined as “Autism Spectrum Disorder” and no longer categorizes individuals the same way.

Below will outline how autism is defined today, but will also include former categorization since these terms are still sometimes used.

What is an Autism Spectrum?

Post 2013, people who are autistic are included in the “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Because there is so much diversity among ASD individuals, it becomes almost impossible diagnostically to categorize people based on specific symptoms alone.

Instead, today, there are three levels of autism. These levels are not as much based on specific symptoms, but rather the severity of the symptoms. They are also used to help explain how much assistance, or what level of support, is needed for an individual to function.

Level 3

ASD people within this category typically require significant support. Someone in this category may have very limited speech or communication and they will have severe impairments in functionality. They may be inflexible, struggle with interruptions in routine, and will most likely exhibit repetitive behaviors. They will be highly unlikely to initiate interaction with other people, or to respond to interaction from others.

People in this category will exhibit these traits “across all spheres.”

Level 2

ASD people in this category will need moderate support. They are described as needing “substantial support.” Level 2 ASD people will have many of the same attributes as level 3, but less severely.

These individuals will have more communication abilities than those in level 3, but they will probably still have limited verbal skills and odd non-verbal skills. They will likely be inflexible, struggle with schedule changes, and exhibit repetitive behaviors.

Level 2 ASD people will experience difficulty in functioning in “a variety of contexts.”

Level 1

Level 1 ASD individuals are described as “requiring support.” People in this category will likely be verbal, but will still struggle with social skills like back and forth communication. They will struggle to initiate interactions with others and may lack interest in the feelings or interests of others. They may struggle to make friends and may come across as odd or unusual.

They may experience difficulty in functioning in “one or more contexts.”

What is Aspergers?

While Asperger’s Syndrome is now diagnostically considered an outdated term, it is still used in some contexts. It is understood to mean a person with “high functioning autism.” A person who had formerly been referred to as having Aspergers Syndrome will now likely fall into the category of “Level 1.”

Someone with Aspergers will likely be able to function in life independently, but will probably struggle socially. Because most people with autism lack typical social skills, they often struggle to gain and maintain friendships and relationships.

People within this category could also exhibit repetitive behaviors, irregular body movements, and have trouble making eye contact.

A person with Aspergers may be very intelligent and express great knowledge about a particular field of interest. It is most common that they would have an intense focus on one or two subjects of interest.

What is Mild Autism?

“Mild Autism” is not a diagnostic term, but it is a term that people use. This term is not very helpful in describing the level of someone’s autism. An individual might be considered “high functioning” under certain circumstances, for instance very verbal and highly intelligent, yet also have severe sensory processing issues making it difficult for them to live normally in public settings like school or a physical work space.

Alternatively, an individual with poor verbal skills might have less severe social or sensory restrictions, meaning that they would be more comfortable in social settings. It would be difficult to determine which of the two is exhibiting “mild” autism, in this case.

While the term is meant to express low severity, it can be misleading and is often connected more to the situation or setting that a person finds themselves, than it is to the specific individual.

What is Pervasive Developmental Disorder, not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)?

PDD-NOS is another outdated diagnostic term meaning autism that is more severe than Asperger’s Syndrome, but less severe than “Classic Autism.” It is sometimes referred to as “atypical” autism because a child or adult diagnosed with PDD-NOS may not exhibit all the traits of classic autism.

For instance, someone who had been diagnosed with PDD-NOS might exhibit autistic traits socially, but may not exhibit other common signifiers like sensory issues or repetitive behaviors.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD), sometimes referred to as “Heller’s Syndrome,”  was sometimes considered part of the autism spectrum because it shares similarities of autism. However, because CDD is a rare genetic disease, it is no longer included in the ASD.  

CDD is a disease that would appear in children who show typical development, but would then begin to regress between the ages of 2 and 4. Children with CDD often develop seizures disorders as well.

Rett Syndrome

Rett Syndrome is another genetic disease that was once associated with autism, but no longer is. Rett Syndrome shares some similarities to autism, but it is not on the spectrum. According to Rettsynrdrome.org, “Rett syndrome is a rare non-inherited genetic postnatal neurological disorder that occurs almost exclusively in girls and leads to severe impairments, affecting nearly every aspect of the child’s life: their ability to speak, walk, eat, and even breathe easily.”

Children with Rett Syndrome usually have repetitive hand movements and greatly impaired motor movements.


With Autism Spectrum Disorder there is a great deal of information and misinformation. It is compounded by the fact that diagnostics, categories, and explanations have changed a lot over the years.

What’s most important with people who are on the spectrum is not how they are categorized, but rather that they receive therapy or intervention of some kind. The earlier the intervention, the greater the benefit both for those with autism, and their caregivers. Over time, with care and patience, caregivers and ASD individuals will learn to adapt to the unique lifestyle of ASD.

Article by Anna Kucirkova