What if you could cut your risk of heart disease, get fitter, slow aging, and 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.
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But top experts in nutrition, cardiovascular health, and cancer prevention say you can also make some very important health upgrades in almost no time flat.
Eat the peel
Why: Fight cancer
The bulk of an apple's benefit lies in its skin. In one 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.
But experts recommend only eating the skin of organic apples; the conventionally grown kind are among the most pesticide-doused produce.
Pop a calcium/vitamin D supplement
Why: Fight cancer
Getting enough vitamin D and calcium brings a remarkable reduction in cancer risk, found a 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 lavender or rosemary
Why: Look younger
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 one study, volunteers sniffed the essential oils of lavender or rosemary for 5 minutes. The 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
Why: Cut cholesterol
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University 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.
Replace sugar with buckwheat honey
Why: Cut cholesterol
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.
Why: Cool hot flashes
Slow, deep abdominal breathing can reduce the frequency of hot flashes by about half, according to three 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.
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.
Eat an egg
Why: Sharpen vision
No offense to carrots, but research shows that 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.
Pour a bowl of whole grain cereal
Why: Reduce dangerous inflammation
Whole grains 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 one-third less likely to die of an inflammatory disorder, like diabetes, asthma, or heart disease, than those who had the least.
Good choices: oatmeal, brown rice, dark bread, whole grain breakfast cereal, bulgur, and—yum—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.
Stretch your legs
Why: Build muscle strength
If you have tight leg muscles, you'll not only improve flexibility by stretching but also build strength, says a 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, respectively) also became significantly stronger.
Add avocado to your salad
Why: Up your antioxidant intake
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.
Nibble on dried figs
Why: Up your antioxidant intake
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 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.
Snack on fruit salad
Why: Up your antioxidant intake
Antioxidants love company: A mixture of oranges, apples, grapes, and blueberries provides 5 times the antioxidant power you get from eating the same fruits solo, says 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.
Smooch your partner passionately
Why: Brighten your smile
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.
Turn down your fridge temp
Why: Protect your stomach from bugs
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. Use an appliance thermometer to be sure the temp is low enough.
Keep your head up
Why: Head off a headache
When your neck juts forward (known as forward head posture) you have to tilt your head up to see, which can compress the nerves and muscles at the base of the skull and cause headaches, says Roger Cady, MD, vice president of the National Headache Foundation. To keep your head straight, imagine a cord attached to the top of your head, pulling toward the ceiling, and periodically check to make sure your ear is in line with your shoulder.
Sip green tea daily
Why: Stay mentally sharp
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.
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