How to Feel Better Every Day
How to Improve Your Health
Getting healthier is a marathon, not a sprint: It’s the result of hundreds of little decisions that we make over the long haul—eating a green salad every day, running three times a week, choosing yoga over wine (most nights, anyway). But even the healthiest of health nuts long for something quick and easy. To that end, here’s a roundup of scientifically proven ways to boost your mental and physical wellness in less time than it takes to read this article.
Smile—Especially If You Don’t Feel Like It
Your mom suggested it, oh, about a thousand times. And there is scientific evidence that smiling can help the body and mind recover from stress. In a study published last year in the journal Psychological Science, researchers induced stress in 170 students by asking them to perform a dexterity test and then plunge a hand into ice water. When the subjects were made to smile during these tasks, their heart rates returned to normal levels more quickly after they recovered from the stress. They were also better at maintaining positive feelings during the plunge than were those who held neutral expressions. Moreover, scientists observed an even greater drop in heart rate when students broke into a “Duchenne smile” (the type of smile that engages the eyes and the mouth). “Smiling can jump-start the process of happiness,” says Jeff Brown, a Harvard psychologist and the author of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive for Great Health ($10, amazon.com). “When you smile, you trigger a psychological and neurobiological alignment with positive emotions, and that can lead to healthier living.” In other words: Fake it till you make it.
Tune Up Your Commute
A commute longer than 22 minutes each way may have a negative impact on your well-being, according to a study in The Scandinavian Journal of Economics. But there are ways you can mitigate those adverse effects without calling a moving van. For one, try cutting coffee out of your morning routine, since caffeine can worsen stress and increase anxiety, suggests Andrew Weil, M.D., the author of Spontaneous Happiness ($16, amazon.com). Also consider using the commute time as a mini break. Find a good podcast, focus on your breathing, or indulge in a little music therapy. A recent British study set out to find the top-10 most relaxing songs, measuring, among other things, rhythms and tones that help slow breathing and heart rate over the course of the song. “Weightless,” by the Manchester band Marconi Union, was first on the list; it slowed the resting heart rate in women by an impressive 35 percent! Less soporific options include “Watermark,” by Enya; “Someone Like You,” by Adele; and Mozart’s “Canzonetta sull’aria.”
Pledge Your Loyalty to Vitamin C…
If your skin has dark patches, or melasma, which is notoriously difficult to fade, you may want to add vitamin C to your skin-care regimen. According to a 2012 study from Cairo University, topical vitamin C was shown to be more effective at lightening melasma than a glycolic acid peel—the previous gold standard for fighting splotchiness. You’ll get the best results with daily use, so try swapping your regular moisturizer or serum for one that contains vitamin C, says Elizabeth Hale, M.D., an associate professor of dermatology at New York University Langone Medical Center, in New York City. But choose your products carefully: Because vitamin C is photosensitive (meaning it starts to degenerate when exposed to light), it’s important to pick formulas that are kept in opaque bottles. Two to try: Avalon Organics Vitamin C Renewal Facial Cream ($22, avalonorganics.com) and Kiehl’s Powerful-Strength Line-Reducing Concentrate ($58, kiehls.com).
...And to Retinoids, Too
These powerful vitamin A derivatives aren’t just for combating acne and wrinkles. Studies suggest that topical retinoids may reduce your risk of developing precancerous lesions called actinic keratoses. “Retinoids can help inhibit the growth of tumor cells and stimulate normal skin-cell development,” says Manisha Thakuria, M.D., an instructor in dermatology specializing in skin cancer at Harvard Medical School. Whether you’re using an over-the-counter product (such as Skin Ceuticals Retinol 0.5, $54, skinceuticals.com) or a prescription-strength one (such as Retin-A or Renova), start slowly, since retinoids can irritate the skin. Apply twice a week until you notice little to no redness the day after. Then, if you can tolerate it, work your way up to daily use. Since skin that has been treated with retinoids is especially sun-sensitive, “sunscreen is a must,” says Thakuria.
Snack on Dark Chocolate
In addition to its other documented health benefits, dark chocolate may help sharpen the mind. When participants in a study conducted at Northumbria University, in England, were given a drink containing high levels of cocoa flavanols, they performed significantly better on a math task than they did after having a placebo drink. Why? Researchers say that it’s possible that flavanols help improve blood flow to the brain. Even better, science has found evidence for what you suspected all along: Chocolate may help take the edge off stress. When Swiss researchers asked stressed-out people to eat 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate each day (they probably didn’t need much coaxing), the researchers found that after two weeks, the subjects had lower levels of the stress hormones cortisol and catecholamines.
Take It Lying Down
Want to unlock your creative genius? The best way to think on your feet may be to take a load off of them. When researchers at the Australian National University, in Canberra, tested 20 people on their ability to solve anagrams, subjects cracked the puzzles about 12 percent faster when they were lying down than when they were standing up. The study’s authors say that when we’re supine, our brains may release less noradrenaline, a chemical that may inhibit our ability to think creatively. Worth noting: This technique seemed to work only on creative tasks. When the participants were asked to switch to math problems, their results were the same whether they were vertical or horizontal.
Use Some Magic Words
Just two syllables—if and then—can help you keep it together, even when your sister pushes your buttons or the boss is breathing down your neck. According to research from the University of Winnipeg, in Manitoba, reframing thoughts about a situation with if and then statements may help you manage fear, sadness, fatigue, self-doubt, or even disgust. Try this: Think of a challenge you’re facing. That’s your if clause (example: “If I’m under the gun on a deadline…”). Then decide what kind of positive response you would like to have. That’s your then clause (“…then I will keep a cool head”). Put them together and that’s what you should say to yourself to make stressful circumstances seem more manageable.
Get Some “Microexercise”
“Studies show that everything from cognition to the lymphatic system improves if we are more consistently active throughout the day,” says David Agus, M.D., a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, and the author of The End of Illness ($16, amazon.com). “Our bodies were designed to move. Yet we’ve designed our world to have everything within arm’s reach.” That means you need to take every chance you get to add extra activity into your day—so remember the stairs are just as good as a StairMaster. In fact, recent research published in the American Journal of Health Promotion suggests that short periods of activity really add up. When researchers analyzed data from more than 6,000 adults, ages 18 to 85, they found that those who got short bouts of exercise (between 1 and 10 minutes) through everyday activities experienced the same benefits, including lower blood pressure and cholesterol, as did those who continuously exercised for 30 minutes.
Get Some Perspective on Facebook
Of course you love your friends—but maybe just a little bit less when they’re cruising the Adriatic without you. Researchers at the IE Business School, in Madrid, found that Facebook can make you feel bad about yourself, even if you’re not conscious of it. People in the study who had large friend networks tended to evaluate their lives more negatively right after they spent time on the site, as opposed to people who hadn’t recently logged on. “It’s natural to compare our lives with those of others, but people tend to post disproportionately positive updates and neglect the not-so-glamorous aspects of their lives on Facebook,” says study leader Dilney Goncalves, Ph.D., an assistant professor of marketing at IE Business School. Also, the more friends you have, the more of those impossibly perfect updates you’ll probably see. So as a reality check, tell yourself that everyone has problems and that you may be overestimating how happy other people truly are. Goncalves says that this simple reminder can help eliminate the negative effects that Facebook may have on life satisfaction.
Try Nature’s Chill Pills
Take a bath with Epsom salts. They’re rich in magnesium, which is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body and a natural muscle relaxant, says Mark Hyman, M.D., the founder of the UltraWellness Center and the author of The Blood Sugar Solution ($28, amazon.com). Magnesium also seems to have a soothing effect on the nervous system; studies indicate that the mineral can help lower anxiety and improve sleep. Hyman’s formula: Put 10 drops of lavender oil (also shown to help promote a state of calm) in 2 cups of Epsom salts. Add to warm water and soak in it for 20 minutes.
Take a Hike
A walk outside is more than just exercise: Research from the University of Michigan has found that being in nature can improve cognitive function. In one study, an hour-long trek in a woody park improved subjects’ performances on memory and attention tests by as much as 20 percent, compared with a walk in an urban environment. Furthermore, some Japanese research shows that a day spent in the forest can improve immune function and decrease concentrations of adrenaline and cortisol for as long as a week.
Create an “Electronic Sundown”
Curling up with a book on your tablet is the perfect way to end a busy day, right? Not if you want to sleep well, experts say. The short wavelengths of light emitted by electronics can help suppress melatonin. That’s the hormone that signals to the body that the sun has gone down and helps it get ready for sleep.
“An hour or two before going to bed, switch off all electronic devices,” says Frank Lipman, M.D., the founder and the director of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center, in New York City, and the author of Total Renewal ($12, amazon.com). It’s possible that the closer you hold a device to your face, the more likely it is that the emitted light can interfere with your sleep, which is why tablets may be especially disruptive. And research published in the Journal of Applied Ergonomics found that spending two hours or more in front of a backlit display can suppress melatonin production by about 22 percent. What to do with the time after you pull the plugs? One good option: Relax your body and quiet your mind with a calming yoga pose, such as lotus pictured here.
Ditch the Dust Ruffle
Unless you’re committed to washing it regularly (and who is?), a dust ruffle tends to collect, well, dust. And bedroom dust is made of little bits of sloughed-off skin (delightful), so it’s a magnet for allergy-causing dust mites. The resulting congestion could keep you from getting a good night’s sleep.
Also, introduce new pillows frequently, says Atul N. Shah, M.D., the medical director of the Center for Asthma & Allergy, in Shirley, New York. Research has found that a pillow can double its weight in three years due to (brace yourself) dust from you, plus dust mites and their, um, dust. “Many pillows can’t be easily washed, so they should be changed every 12 to 14 months. People with dust-mite allergies need to replace their pillows as often as every six months,” says Shah. (If you’re bothered by persistent sniffles or itchy eyes, it’s worth checking with your doctor to see if you’re allergic.) A cheaper idea: Use pillow covers, and wash them in hot water once a week.
Go Sweet on Maple Syrup
For better health, you might want to tune out the buzz on agave and reach for good old maple syrup. Some brands of agave are composed of as much as 90 percent fructose; by comparison, table sugar and maple syrup are 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. What’s the trouble with fructose? When University of California, Davis, researchers gave volunteers beverages sweetened with either pure fructose or just glucose, the fructose consumers put on more belly fat, the type of fat that scientists now suspect raises the risk of heart disease. (For more info, see No. 19.) In addition, the fructose-consuming group had decreased insulin sensitivity, which may be a precursor to diabetes. If you want to stick with agave, use it sparingly.
Buy the Prettier Tissue Box
Choosing a product that you find attractive can improve how you feel about yourself, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research. According to study author Claudia Townsend, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Miami, in Florida, “We see the products we choose as a reflection of who we are. Moreover, there is an inherent bias to see beautiful things as good. So by associating ourselves with good-looking products, we see ourselves in a better light.”
Eat Some Berries
Snacking on a mix of strawberries and blueberries may lower your risk of a heart attack. In a study published in the journal Circulation, researchers found that women between the ages of 25 and 42 who ate three or more servings a week reduced their risk of the number-one killer by 34 percent, compared with women who ate them once a month or less. Here’s another reason to smile: Strawberries may make your teeth whiter, says Irwin Smigel, D.D.S., the president of the American Society of Aesthetic Dentists. They contain malic acid, which acts as a natural astringent, removing surface stains from teeth and lightening mild discoloration.
Focus on the Negative (Just This Once)
If you want to get more bang for your exercise buck, concentrate on the “negative” phase of a weight-lifting routine, which is when you’re lowering the weight back to the starting position. “We build more strength when we’re lowering a weight than when we’re lifting it,” says trainer Pete Cerqua, the author of The High Intensity Fitness Revolution ($15, amazon.com). So pay special attention to your form during the lowering phase, and take it slow. Not a weights person? This modified push-up can give you the same rewards: Hold the top (or plank position) for 10 seconds, then lower as slowly as you can. When you get to the floor, push up onto your knees to get back into plank position.
Use Your Head When Eating
Watching what you eat could diminish your risk of a migraine, says Keri Gans, R.D., the author of The Small Change Diet ($15, amazon.com): “Many people know that aged cheeses and red wines trigger migraines,” she says. “But the substances in some fruits—tyramine in citrus and tannin in red-skinned apples—can trigger them as well.” You don’t have to go fruit-free. Just stick to those outside the citrus family, and consider staying away from cranberries, persimmons, and mangoes, which also contain tannins. Or at least don’t eat them until they’re ripe. “The more fruit ripens, the lower the tannin levels become,” Gans says.
Watch Out for “Waisted” Energy
Being exhausted after work might have less to do with your job than it does with your waistline. A study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology found that otherwise healthy workers, ages 23 to 56, with high waist circumferences had 1.8 times the risk of being fatigued after work compared with their peers. More research is needed to determine why central obesity added up to more fatigue, but if you’re flagging, reducing your waist size may help restore energy. Shrinking your waist can also improve your overall health: Fat that gathers around your middle (giving you an apple shape) is believed to be more dangerous to your heart than the fat that clings to your thighs (causing a pear shape), because it releases more hormones, fatty acids, and other compounds that can contribute to high cholesterol and blood pressure. For women, the risk of disease increases with a waist size of 35 inches or more; for men, it’s 40 inches or more.
Don’t Sweat It
If you’re often in the hot seat, you may need a deodorant switch. When you’re stressed, you sweat 30 times more than you do at rest. On top of that, stress sweat is composed of different chemicals than workout sweat, and it’s prone to smelling worse, according to dermatologist Gervaise Gerstner, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai Medical Center, in New York City. To keep your cool, you may need to switch to a clinical-strength product, such as Secret Clinical Strength Stress Response Antiperspirant ($8 at drugstores). This type contains higher amounts of aluminum, which prolongs the antiperspirant’s effect and can possibly even shrink the sweat glands so they produce less sweat.
Pull on Some Socks at Bedtime
Swiss researchers found that people fall asleep faster when their hands and feet are warmer than the ambient temperature of the bedroom. Warming the feet dilates the blood vessels, which is a physiological cue for the rapid onset of sleep. All hail the tube sock!