What if you could cut your risk of heart disease, get fitter, and slow aging — not to mention protect your smile — in less time than it takes to watch a couple of commercials? Better health does take time, but not as much as you may think. Yes, you should exercise 30 minutes a day and sleep 7 to 8 hours a night. But top experts in nutrition, cardiovascular health, and cancer prevention know the supersimple, amazingly fast steps you can take to dramatically improve your well-being. So take a minute or so ... and boost your health in almost no time flat.
Eat the peel. The bulk of an apple's benefit lies in its skin. In a recent lab experiment, more than a dozen chemicals in the peels of Red Delicious apples inhibited the growth of breast, liver, and colon cancer cells. Investigator Rui Hai Liu, MD, PhD, an associate professor of food science at Cornell University, suspects that the peels of other apple varieties are also extra potent. Buy organic if you're concerned about exposure to pesticides.
Take the right supplements. Getting enough vitamin D and calcium brings a remarkable reduction in cancer risk, found a recent 4-year study at Creighton University: Women who took the combo reduced their overall risk by up to 77%. "Vitamin D enhances your body's immune response — which is the first line of defense against cancer," says lead researcher Joan Lappe, PhD, RN, a professor of nursing and medicine. Your skin makes D when it's exposed to sunlight, but researchers say the best way to guarantee you get enough is with a pill. The 1,100 IU used in the Creighton study will do the trick (and is safe).
Sniff some lavender or rosemary. The scent of lavender can bring you a restful night's sleep — but the plant can do you a world of good in daylight, too. In a recent study, volunteers sniffed the essential oils of lavender or rosemary for 5 minutes. Result: Levels of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva dropped as much as 24%. That's good, because the hormone increases blood pressure and suppresses the immune system. What's more, people who smelled low concentrations of lavender or high concentrations of rosemary were better at getting rid of free radicals, the pesky molecules believed to speed aging and disease.
Sprinkle pistachios on your salad. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University recently gave volunteers a pleasant task: Eat 1 1/2 ounces (about a handful) of pistachios every day. At the end of 4 weeks, those who munched the nuts reduced their total cholesterol by an average of 6.7% and their LDL ("bad") cholesterol by 11.6%. That reduction has a major payoff: Cutting your total cholesterol by about 7% reduces your heart disease risk by 14%. Pistachios are one of the best sources of plant sterols, compounds we know reduce absorption of cholesterol, says researcher Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD, who led the study. Just remember, 1 ounce contains about 160 calories. So pour a little less dressing on your salad as you add some pistachios, or go easy on butter or oil on your veggies when you sprinkle them on top.
Replace sugar with buckwheat honey. This sweet substance has been used for medicinal purposes since ancient times; when it's applied to a wound, honey is a natural antibacterial salve. Now researchers say that its benefits may be much more than skin deep. Test-tube studies show that honey slows the oxidation of LDL cholesterol — it's when LDL is oxidized that it can be laid down as plaque in blood vessels. The variety of honey best at slowing oxidation: buckwheat.
Cool hot flashes
Breathe deeply. Slow, deep abdominal breathing can reduce the frequency of hot flashes by about half, according to three recent studies. Estrogen withdrawal is partly to blame for hot flashes, but researchers believe that stress also plays a role by firing up the sympathetic nervous system — the part of your wiring responsible for the fight-or-flight response. The fix: Breathe deeply to enlist the parasympathetic nervous system, which activates your body's relaxation response. That will slow heart rate, relax muscles, and lower blood pressure. Sit in a comfortable chair and allow your breath to deepen. Inhale through your nose; exhale through your mouth. Close your eyes to cut out distraction. Let your belly be soft — you want it to rise and fall with each breath.
Keep your vision sharp
Eat an egg. No offense meant to carrots, but research shows eggs are an even better source of the eye-friendly antioxidants known as carotenoids. Lutein and zeaxanthin are the crucial carotenoids for vision — the only ones that benefit the retina's fragile macula, which is responsible for central vision. Eggs don't contain as much lutein and zeaxanthin as dark green, leafy veggies, but your body is better able to absorb the antioxidants in eggs, says nutritional biochemist Elizabeth Johnson, PhD, at Tufts University. Worried about cholesterol? Don't be: Eating an egg a day increases blood levels of lutein (by 26%) and zeaxanthin (by 38%) without raising cholesterol or triglyceride levels.
Reduce dangerous inflammation
Pour a bowl of whole grain cereal. Whole grains are about much more than "regularity" — they can save your life. The Iowa Women's Health Study, which has followed nearly 42,000 postmenopausal women for 15 years, reports that women who ate 11 or more servings of whole grains each week were about a third less likely to die of an inflammatory disorder than those who consumed the least. (What is an inflammatory disorder? Any condition marked by chronic inflammation — including diabetes, asthma, and heart disease.) Good choices: oatmeal, brown rice, dark bread, whole grain breakfast cereal, bulgur, and (hurray!) popcorn. "Whole grains contain the biologically active parts of the plant," says study leader David R. Jacobs Jr., PhD, a professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota. "What keeps the plant alive keeps the eater alive."
Build muscle strength
Stretch your legs. If you have tight leg muscles, you'll not only improve flexibility by stretching but also build strength, says a new study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. For 6 weeks, 30 adults with tight hamstrings did a series of stretches 5 days a week. Investigators measured their flexibility and thigh-muscle strength at the start and end of the study. All that stretching loosened up tight muscles and increased their range of motion, but the hamstrings and the quads (the muscles at the back and front of the thighs) also became significantly stronger.
Add avocado to your salad. Vegetables have an unexpected downside: Many of them are virtually fat free, and you need fat in the meal to absorb cancer-fighting carotenoids. In recent Ohio State University research, volunteers were given a salad with and without a sliced avocado. Blood tests showed that those who ate the avocado got 5 times as much lutein, 7 times as much alpha-carotene, and a whopping 15 times as much beta-carotene as those who ate the salad without it.
Snack on dried figs. Dried fruits are known to be rich in antioxidants — but some of the less popular types are the most nutritious. Figs and dried plums (aka prunes) had the best overall nutrient scores, shows recent research at the University of Scranton. A handful of dried figs (about 1 1/2 ounces) increased "antioxidant capacity" — the ability to neutralize free radicals — by 9%. That's more than double the increase seen after a cup of green tea.
Eat a fruit salad. Antioxidants love company: A mixture of oranges, apples, grapes, and blueberries provides five times the antioxidant power you get from eating the same fruits solo, says recent research by Liu, at Cornell. Ingredients to toss into fruit salad, ranked in order of phenolic content (a type of plant chemical that cuts the risk of chronic disease): cranberries, apples, red grapes, strawberries, pineapples, bananas, peaches, oranges, and pears.
Keep your smile healthy
Kiss your partner passionately. You enjoy a kiss for other reasons, but according to Anne Murray, DDS, a spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry, it increases saliva in your mouth — which cleans your teeth of the bacteria that can cause cavities. If, alas, you have no one to kiss, try sugar-free gum containing xylitol.
Protect your stomach from bugs
Turn down your fridge. If the setting is over 40°F, your food is sitting in the danger zone — the temperature at which bacteria begin to multiply. Each year in the United States, more than 75 million people get sick from contaminated food and 5,000 die. So use an appliance thermometer to be sure the temp is low enough.
Keep your head up. "Posture is one of the least understood and appreciated factors in head pain," says Roger Cady, MD, vice president of the National Headache Foundation. One of the leading posture pitfalls: forward head posture (FHP). When your neck juts forward, you have to tilt your head up to see, Cady explains, and that can compress the nerves and muscles at the base of the skull. A common cause of FHP: slumping in front of a computer. Physical therapist Colleen Baker, who practices at the Headache Care Center in Springfield, MO, offers these tricks to help you get your head on straight:
- Imagine a cord attached to the top of your head, pulling toward the ceiling.
- Periodically check to make sure your ear is in line with your shoulder.
- Set your computer to remind you every half hour to repeat the first two tips.
- Stay mentally sharp
Have 2 cups of green tea daily. Studies have shown that green tea helps keep cholesterol in check and may lower cancer risk. Now researchers say the drink may also work to maintain cognitive function. A Japanese study of 1,000 people over age 70 found that those who drank 2 cups of green tea daily did better on a variety of tests of mental abilities (including memory) — and the more green tea they drank, the better they performed. It's possible that something else is responsible for the mental clarity, such as the socializing the Japanese tend to do over a cup. But the results might partially explain why rates of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, are lower in Japan (where green tea is commonly consumed) than in the United States.