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34 Secrets to good health

34 Secrets to good health

Confession: what I really need for better health—nutrition, sleep, pain relief, and more.

Behold my powerful mind tricks

I can think myself full
If you’re indulging in a milkshake and I think it’s high in fat and calories, levels of my hunger hormone ghrelin will dip a lot lower—and leave me feeling more satisfied—than if I believe I’m sipping on a healthier shake, even if the two have the same calorie count, a study in the journal Health Psychology showed.

I can reshape my brain through meditation
According to MRI scans, the hippocampus—the part of the brain in charge of learning and memory—thickens after only a couple of months of mindful meditation.

Brain-cell density also decreases in the amygdala (responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress). Those physical brain changes can alter your mood.

I can raise my body temperature
A group of Tibetan nuns can increase their core body temperature to about 37.7C in sub-zero weather just by doing a specific type of meditation called g-tummo. Yes, that’s a rare group, but scientists taught Western people a similar technique and found the subjects could also raise their body temperature.

The breathing caused thermogenesis—a process of heat production. This could help people function better in frigid environments.

I can add years to my life
By keeping a positive attitude about ageing and continuing to feel useful, I’ll most likely live about seven extra years, according to Yale University surveys.


Think twice before you...


Choose diet fizzy drinks. Sip one can or more a day, and I could pack on three times more belly fat than if you hadn’t. Researchers in Texas found that people who drank diet drinks daily gained 3.2 inches over nine years; those who didn’t have any gained only 0.8 inches (the occasional drinkers: 1.8 inches). Choosing diet over regular drinks to save calories can backfire—a study showed people who tried that ended up consuming more calories from food throughout the day.

Look down at your phone. Would you hang four bowling balls from my neck? Before you say that’s a stupid question, consider this: four stone (or about the combined weight of those balls) is the same amount of force exerted when you tilt your head forward at about a 60-degree angle to text or email from your smartphone. And you do that for up to four hours (hours!) a day. Protect my spine and raise that phone up to your sight line.

Grab a jumper as soon as you feel chilly. Suck it up for a little while. Researchers discovered that when I shiver from cold, it stimulates hormones that convert energy-storing white fat into calorie-burning brown fat. Shivering for just ten to 15 minutes had similar hormonal effects to an hour of moderate exercise.

Skip flexibility exercises. You make time for cardio and strength training, which I appreciate. But my joints need to be stretched, too, especially as I get older. Connective tissue within ligaments and tendons becomes more rigid and brittle with age, which means a restricted range of motion and decreased flexibility. Pilates and yoga are two good options, but even simple controlled stretches held for ten to 30 seconds can help keep me moving more easily as the years go by.

“Forget” to tell your doctor about memory lapses. Only about one quarter of adults 45 and older “fess up” when they’re having memory issues. But it’s so important to mention. Sometimes a drug or combination of medications leaves me feeling forgetful or confused. Anxiety or depression may also have that effect, as can a slow thyroid or a vitamin B12 deficiency. These conditions are all completely treatable. And if by chance your memory symptoms are linked to dementia, an early diagnosis is crucial—it gives my mind a better chance of benefitting from treatment.


If I could only explain...

Why healthy people get cancer. You probably know someone who followed all the “rules”—wore sun protection, ate vegetables, didn’t smoke—and still got cancer. I wish I had a good reason, but the truth is that about two thirds of variation in cancer risk is explained by random gene mutations that drive tumour growth. Essentially, bad luck. However, that absolutely does not exempt you from following the rules. While some risk factors may be out of your hands, many others are not.

How placebos work. Taking a sugar pill can affect heart rate, alter brain activity, ease depression and improve Parkinson’s symptoms—all real, physiological responses to an essentially fake treatment. An analysis of 84 chronic pain-drug trials found the placebo effect getting stronger. By 2013, patients receiving placebos experienced a 30 per cent decrease in pain levels on average, compared with about five percent in 1990. Scientists are trying to figure out why you may respond well to a placebo but your friend doesn’t, what happens in people’s bodies and brains when a placebo is taken, and the best ways to harness placebos’ power.

How my gut affects my mood. I’m home to up to 100 trillion microbes, most of which live in my gut. “Good” bacteria help me metabolise foods; “bad” bugs make me gassy and increase inflammation. Imbalances in my gut bacteria are linked to many diseases. The fuzzier connection is between gut bacteria and my brain. One suggestion is that gut bacteria produce mood-regulating serotonin and dopamine or other chemicals that affect anxiety and depression. Another possibility: microbes activate my vagus nerve, the main line of communication between the gut and the brain. Scientists are hyperfocused on bacteria these days, so stay tuned.


Let me explain why...


You turn down the car radio when you get lost. My brain has a limited amount of cognitive resources. It isn’t really designed to process too much at once. On a familiar route, I can listen to the radio and still pay attention to the road. But once I need to read street signs or scan for house numbers, the music becomes a distraction.

Squinting helps me see more clearly. Narrowing my eyes slightly changes their shape so only a limited amount of light can enter, which helps me focus.

Chatting with a stranger makes me happy. Connecting with another person, even briefly—such as talking to the barista brewing your coffee or a random seatmate on the train home from work—gives me a feeling of belonging and improves my mood.

I swing my arms when I walk. My arms are like pendulums that naturally sway as you move. I expend less energy when they do their thing and swing. Holding them still while you walk uses 12 per cent more energy.


Habits I wish you would start

Reading paperbacks. Like, on actual paper. Scientists found that people who use E-readers had a much tougher time remembering story details compared with folks who read a printed version. Sensations such as holding the book, turning pages and touching the paper may contribute to better mental reconstruction of the book’s plot. Never mind that exposure to the blue light from an E-reader’s glowing screen before bed makes it harder for me to fall asleep and snooze soundly.

Covering your mouth when you sneeze. Yes, you learned that in preschool. But one out of every four people fails to cover his or her mouth when coughing or sneezing in public, according to one observation study. Less than five per cent of people used tissues or coughed or sneezed into their elbows, as health experts recommend. And get this: scientists just found out that an average human sneeze expels a high-velocity cloud that can contaminate an entire room in minutes. Gross.

Strolling through the park. Living in urban areas seems to put people at a higher risk for mood disorders compared with friends in more rural settings. Time in nature may quiet my brain’s subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is active when you brood and is linked to mental disorders. Find a leafy, peaceful park or path to walk through, and you’ll dwell less on negative thoughts, research shows.

Doing intervals when you exercise. High-intensity interval training (HIIT)  alternates between very strenuous bursts of activity and less-intense recovery times. Danish researchers tested a formula called 10-20-30 on a group of recreational runners. They lowered their blood pressure and cholesterol and shaved time off their three-mile runs in seven weeks, despite cutting their total workout time in half. Try it: 30 seconds of gentle running, 20 seconds at a moderate pace, and then ten seconds of full-out effort—for a total of one minute. Do three chunks of five minutes (with a two-minute rest between each block), and you’ve done a spectacular cardiovascular workout in 20 minutes.

Typing slowly. It may improve your writing skills. Researchers found that essay writers who had to use one hand to type had a larger, more sophisticated vocabulary compared with two-handed typers. The theory: slowing down gives me a chance to think about the words I want to use and express myself more eloquently.


Pay attention to these milestones


First period. The sign that you’ve become a woman, said your mother. British researchers add that your age at this first “visit” may be linked to heart disease risk. A study of 1.2 million middle-aged women showed that those who had their first menstrual cycle at 13 had the lowest risk of heart problems; those who were ten and younger and 17 and older had the highest. Menstruation age may indicate something about overall metabolic health. Other studies have found links to risks for diabetes and low bone mass.

First knee injury. Even just one could raise the odds of post-traumatic arthritis. It doesn’t take serious damage, either: a very common torn meniscus from a fall or a ruptured ACL can leave my knee unstable and result in faster wear and tear. Damage doesn’t always lead to osteoarthritis (your age, weight, and genes all factor in), but an injured joint is about seven times more vulnerable than a healthy one.

First fracture. Get the bone treated, of course, but if you’re 50 or older, ask for a bone-density test (DXA scan) too. About 80 per cent of people skip that second part, but don’t. Osteoporosis could be to blame for my broken bone, especially if the injury was not the result of major trauma, such as a car accident. If my bone mass is low, you want to know now so you can take steps to slow its progression.

Last cigarette smoked. Five short years after the day you quit, my risk of developing cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and bladder is cut by a whopping half. Thank you.


These food tricks make me healthier 

Mix your yogurt. That watery stuff sitting on top is whey, and it’s filled with protein, bone-strengthening calcium, vitamin D, and gut-friendly probiotics. Don’t pour it in the sink!

Slice your own pineapple. Buying fresh-cut versions may shortchange you a little on nutrients. After six days in the fridge, cubed pineapple loses 10 per cent of its vitamin C and 25 per cent of its carotenoids (antioxidants) when compared with whole fruit sliced the same day it’s eaten.

Bake potatoes. This retains the most nutrients. If you peel and boil the spuds, you lose all the fibre in the skin and about two thirds of the vitamin C.

Let chopped garlic rest. When the clove is minced or crushed, an enzyme called alliinase is released, triggering the formation of disease-fighting compounds. Give it ten to 15 minutes. Cooking the garlic bits too soon can inactivate the enzyme.

Squeeze lemon over spinach. Those dark greens are a good source of iron, but for me to absorb plant forms of the mineral more easily, spinach needs to be paired with vitamin C (hence the shot of lemon).


These hacks make me happy

Tap your forehead: curb a craving. Researchers tested this 30-second technique to stop mindless eating by distracting obese study participants from their favourite foods, thus reducing cravings. Coveting chocolate? Place your finger on your forehead and tap away your desire.

Colour: reduce stress. There are lots of intricate colouring books made for adults now. Colouring can zap away my anxiety. When I’m focused on something that’s concrete and repetitive, it activates portions of my parietal lobe—the same area of the brain connected to spirituality and one that tends to be active during meditation and prayer.

Scowl: win a negotiation. In a tough bargaining situation (such as when you walk away from a car salesman’s “final” offer), putting your best angry face forward might get you a better deal than a poker face, researchers found. Why? It may be that a more intense expression give your threats more credibility.

Ice your hand: Ease a toothache. Rub a cube on the webbed spot between your thumb and index finger. Nerves there send cold signals to the brain, which may squash the pain signals from your tooth. This method reduced toothache pain as much as 50 percent compared with massaging the spot with no ice, Canadian scientists reported.


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