First, the bad news: The kid who mows your lawn has more in his piggy bank than you have in your 401k. Thank you, economic meltdown. Now, the good news: Money’s not everything. At least you have your health.
Or do you? To be completely healthy, you need to consider the food you eat, the muscles you train, even the methods you use to cope with stress. In the following pages, you’ll find the latest research and advice from the leading experts in the field of health and fitness. The info is broken down by key body systems: muscular, nervous, respiratory, digestive, and immune. Use this guide to help you attain complete health. Sleep better, avoid the flu, eat for energy, train smarter, increase your IQ. Consider this your Health Stimulus Package for 2009.
Bang for your buck, you can’t beat running. It improves your heart health, increases your life expectancy, raises your good cholesterol, strengthens your immune system, and increases your lung function. Consider running the ultimate cardiovascular and respiratory therapy.
Training for your First Marathon
There are a lot of marathon training plans out there, but all of them include a minimum of two to three runs a week and a long run on the weekend. Weekly runs should be at least 3-6 miles each, and the weekend long run should gradually get longer—up to at least 20 miles.
“For beginners, it’s all about slowly making improvements and strengthening the body to endure the long miles of a marathon,” says Jim Kreutel, head coach for D.C. Fit.
Beginners should train for at least four months in order to build a solid foundation and avoid injury. Organized marathon training groups provide motivation and guidance from running professionals and other new marathoners. Here are five popular training groups in our region:
• D.C. Fit: Washington D.C., April to October. Goal Race: Marine Corps Marathon. $115, dcfit.net
• Charlottesville Track Club: Charlottesville, Va., June through November. Goal Race: Any fall or winter marathon. $30 CTC donation, runningragged.com
• Get Fit Atlanta: Suburban Atlanta, Ga., Two annual training cycles (fall and spring) as well as a 52 week training schedule. Goal: Marathon of your choice. $185, getfit-atlanta.com
• Chattanooga Track Club: Chattanooga, Tenn., July to November. Goal Race: Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon. $24 or a Free Online Program, battlefieldmarathon.com
• USA Fit Charlotte: Charlotte, N.C., June to December. Goal Race: Thunder Road Marathon. $125, usafitcharlotte.com
Roughly 400,000 Americans will try to run a marathon this year. Most of them will make some big mistakes along the way. Here are the most common mistakes that RRCA-certified distance running coach Jennifer Gill sees when training clients for the big 26.2.
#1 Training without a plan
Anyone can find a training program online, but those cookie-cutter training programs don’t take the most important thing into account: you. That includes your injury history, your physical fitness, and your time constraints. Talk to a coach or train with others who have run marathons before.
#2 Underestimating the marathon commitment
Be prepared for at least four days of running during a week, including one long run which will take several hours on the weekend.
#3 Training too much
Recovery and resting are an important aspect of training. You need at least one rest day a week. Rest allows your body to rebuild the muscle that was broken down during the runs. It’s important physically and mentally.
#4 Letting small injuries become major injuries
If something aches, put ice on it and give it additional rest. It’s as simple as that. Chances are, icing an ache and taking a few rest days will keep an ache from becoming a full-blown injury.
#5 Avoiding the long run
You have to do at least one 20-mile run during your training. I recommend doing multiple long runs of 16-26 miles. Your body adapts to the long miles of a marathon by doing long miles over and over.
#6 Running in the wrong shoes
Pick the right shoe for your body. Go to a running store and have a professional look at your arches and your gait to determine the right fit for your feet and running style.
#7 Losing motivation
Remember that you’re going to accomplish something that you never thought you would. This is why training in a group is so effective. If you do train alone, keep a log book. It helps to watch the miles add up in a log.
Intervals—alternating between short bursts of high intensity running and periods of low intensity running—have been used to train runners for decades, but the scientific benefits of alternating intensity are just now being discovered. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, more calories are burned in short, high intensity exercise than in long, slow endurance exercise. A 2005 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that after only two weeks of intervals, the majority of athletes studied doubled their endurance. A 2007 study published in the same journal suggested intervals not only improve cardio fitness, but also the body’s ability to burn fat by up to 36% more than static cardiovascular exercise.
“Intervals are an integral part of training for our athletes,” says Pete Rea, elite athlete coach for ZAP Fitness in Boone, N.C. “Whether the runners are milers or marathoners, we use some sort of intervals all year round.”
Amateur athletes without the benefit of professional coaching are using intervals on their own, but often to their own detriment, according to Rea.
“Most people run intervals too hard, sprinting as fast as they can,” Rea says. “Instead of sprinting, run repeats at or around goal pace. So if you’re aiming for a 7-minute mile pace for a 5K, don’t run 400s at 90 seconds, run them at 1:45.”
To get the most out of interval training, it’s best if you have an idea of your goal pace as well as your base fitness. To figure out your base fitness, run a timed 5K early in your training, and record your mile splits.Running on trails has been shown to reduce injuries and improve mental health. According to a Harvard study, regular exercise can reduce a person’s heart disease risk by 20 percent. Running a total of one hour a week cuts risk by 40 percent.
From Pete Rea and Zap Fitness
#1 Run one mile at goal pace, then walk or jog for four minutes. Run six 400s a little faster than goal pace, with a slow jog for a short distance between each interval. Then finish with a half-mile at race pace. This workout gives you 2.5 miles of intervals at goal pace.
#2 Run five half-mile repeats at goal pace with a two-minute recovery between them.
Three More Reasons to Run
#1 Running slows the effects of aging
A recent Stanford University School of Medicine study tracked 500 older runners for 20 years as well as 500 sedentary older adults. According to the study, elderly runners had fewer disabilities, a longer active life span, and were half as likely to die early deaths.
#2 Running fights breast cancer
Researchers have known for years that regular exercise can reduce the risk of breast cancer in older women, but a new study from Washington University School of Medicine shows that women who run during their teens and early adulthood are 23% less likely to develop pre-menopausal breast cancer than sedentary young adults.
#3 Running fights depression
In an analysis of 80 independent studies, researchers found that running was a beneficial anti-depressant when prescribed to individuals diagnosed with clinical depression. A recent Duke University study even found that patients who were prescribed exercise for depression were more likely to recover than patients who were treated with medication.Two Simple Interval Workouts
HEAD TO TOE HEALTH
Alternative Energy for the Brain
The brain works harder during strenuous exercise and is fueled by lactate, according to a new study from Denmark. Usually the body burns glucose, but during intense exercise, the brain shifts into a higher gear and actually burns lactate produced by muscles in the body, helping to clear lactate from circulation and leaving glucose to fuel the muscles.
Workout for the Eyes
To the average person, 20-20 vision is just fine, but many elite athletes are turning to sports vision therapy to stay on top of their game. Optometrists are using a variety of tools to help athletes fine tune their visual perception. Vision training exercises include tracking fast-moving lights and tapping sections of a peg board when they light up. Training can be tailored to specific attributes vital in certain sports, such as tracking a ball or paddling a whitewater rapid.
Weather Forecasts in Your Joints
The phenomenon of being able to forecast precipitation from joint pain is real, say scientists at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Weather-related joint pain is most common in hips, knees, elbows, shoulders and hands. Joints contain sensory nerves called baro-receptors which respond to changes in atmospheric pressure. These receptors especially react when there is low barometric pressure, which usually accompanies the approach of rain showers.
Another Reason to Avoid Fast Food
Liver damage is often identified by increases in the enzyme ALT. New studies published in the journal Gut show that fast food causes sharp increases in ALT—often occurring after just one week on a fast food diet. Fast food and a lack of exercise elevated subjects’ ALT to levels indicative of liver damage. Fast food also resulted in a steep rise in liver cells’ fat content, which increases risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.Avoid the Knife
The results of a study published in BMC Medicine indicate that sufferers of chronic patellofemoral syndrome (PFPS), a chronic pain in the front part of the knee, gain no extra benefit from arthroscopic surgery. Furthermore, therapeutic exercise is more effective than surgery (and a lot cheaper).
A Natural Flu Vaccine
A substance found in fruits and vegetables reduces likelihood of the flu. According to a study published by The American Psychological Society, mice given quercetin, a naturally occurring substance found in fruits and vegetables, were less likely to contract the flu. The study also found that stressful exercise increased the susceptibility of mice to the flu, but quercetin canceled out that negative effect. Quercetin is present in a variety of fruits and vegetables, including red onions, grapes, blueberries, tea, broccoli and red wine.
The Heart’s Fountain of Youth
According to a study conducted at Washington University School of Medicine, older people who exercised for one year ended up with metabolically younger hearts.
Last Gasp for CFC Inhalers
Ironically, many people suffering from a disease caused by air pollution will soon have to give up their medication in the interest of protecting the environment. The FDA has ordered the complete phase out of CFC-propelled albuterol inhalers used by millions of asthma sufferers beginning in 2009. “CFC” stands for chlorofluorocarbon—a class of chemicals that depletes the ozone layer and is banned internationally. Among the replacements are HFA inhalers, which use a safer propellant but are considerably more expensive.
Reduce Your Load
Losing just one pound of body weight results in a four-pound reduction in the load placed on the knee joint each time a person takes a step, according to researchers at Wake Forest University. The accumulated reduction in knee load for a one-pound loss in weight would be more than 4,800 pounds per mile walked.
Eat All Day
The answer to your energy blues isn’t in that bottomless cup of espresso. It’s what you eat.
“Eat light and eat often. That’s the key to sustained energy,” says Tara Gidus, the team nutritionist for the Orlando Magic and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “The biggest mistake most people make, particularly athletes, is they don’t eat often enough.”
Most Americans skip breakfast, gorge at lunch, grab a vending machine snack in the afternoon, and have a heavy dinner. This pattern is a recipe for energy failure, according to Gidus.
“Overeating causes a spike in blood sugar and then a drastic drop a 30 minutes later. You need calories throughout the day, not just at noon and 7 p.m.”
Instead of gorging on two big meals, Gidus recommends her clients eat every three hours, spreading the calories out through each meal and snack. She also recommends avoiding empty calories from candy bars and simple carbohydrates, which will cause a spike in blood sugar and subsequent drop. Instead, eat a light breakfast and lunch, and snack on foods that register low on the Glycemic Index (GI), which measures how quickly food enters and leaves your system.
High Glycemic Index (GI) foods contain sugars and simple carbohydrates, which spike your blood sugar levels and then leave you tired half an hour later. Low GI foods, which have a mix of complex carbs and protein and fiber, provide sustained energy without the spike and drop in blood sugar.
A Meal Plan for Sustained Energy
Breakfast: Avoid refined carbs like pancakes and waffles and ditch sweets like syrup and marshmallow cereals. Instead, choose fresh fruit, whole wheat toast, and balance them with a protein like eggs or yogurt. Whole grain cereal with milk is also a good choice, and so is oatmeal, which has a balance of carbs and protein.
Mid-Morning Snack: A container of low-fat yogurt has the right mix of protein, carbs, and fiber. Or eat an apple or banana with peanut butter (the protein in peanut butter balances the sugars in the fruit).
Lunch: Again, avoid refined carbs like white rice, white pastas, and white bread. And keep the calories below 1,000. Choose a high-protein food like a soy burger on a whole wheat bun, or a turkey sandwich on whole wheat. Skip the fries and choose fresh fruit or a salad as a side.
Mid-Afternoon Snack: A handful of almonds, fresh fruit with cottage cheese, or raw veggies dipped in hummus all have the right balance for sustained energy.
Dinner: Mimic the standards set for lunch. Keep calories below 1,000 and choose whole grains over refined carbs. Whole wheat pasta with veggies, salmon with a baked potato and salad, beans over brown rice with veggies.
Carbs and Protein, The Honest Truth
From Atkins to the Zone Diet, fad diets consistently downplay the role of carbs and emphasize protein. But according to studies from the Laboratory for Elite Performance at Georgia State University, most athletes are getting enough protein in their diet without scarfing down the extra pork chop. However, they’re not getting enough carbs. Studies performed at the University of Massachusetts support this finding. Excessive protein has no link to increased athletic performance, while glycogen from carbs are directly linked to energy and performance. According to the Center for Nutrition in Sport and Human Performance, the ideal diet for an athlete should consist of 60 percent carbs, 30 percent fat, and 10-15 percent protein.
Supplements: Do You Really Need Them?
You work out hard, so you want to make sure your body is getting all the vitamins it needs. Should you supplement? It depends on if you are eating your fruits and veggies. “A lot of athletes will eat junk because they think they can eat whatever they want,” Gidus says. “That’s a big mistake. Junk food and empty calories don’t give you the vitamins and minerals you need to produce energy. Most people need a vitamin supplement because they refuse to eat their fruits and veggies. But if you’re eating a balanced diet, you shouldn’t need anything more than a simple multivitamin.”
GLYCEMIC INDEX CHART
The higher the number, the quicker the food affects your blood sugar and the quicker it leaves your body. Typically, a high GI food is one with a GI index of more than 70. A low GI food is one with an index below 55. Try to choose more foods with a lower GI index.
Hi GI Foods:
Potato chips: 75
Corn Flakes: 121
White bread: 70
Jelly beans: 80
Baked potato: 85
Low GI Foods:
Low-fat yogurt: 14
Skim milk: 46
Soy beans: 20
All-Bran cereal: 42
Whole wheat bread: 51
Whole wheat spaghetti: 37
You’re fit. You run regularly, you eat right, you’re slim and trim. You don’t need to hit the weights, right? Wrong. Studies show regular strength training prevents muscle loss, which occurs in all of us as we age. Adults lose an average of five to seven pounds of muscle every decade. Cardio does nothing to prevent that loss. Even more important, strength training increases bone density, which also decreases as we age, especially in women.
“A lot of women, and people in general, who restrict their calorie intake too much are setting themselves up for osteoporosis later in life,” says Dan Cenidoza, a certified strength and conditioning coach and strongman competitor in Baltimore. “Any sort of weight training routine increases bone density and helps fight osteoporosis in the long run.”
Still, many people shy away from pumping iron, often citing gym jock stereotypes. Endurance athletes in particular tend to avoid weight training for fear of getting too bulky. Most trainers say “bulk phobia” is a lot like worrying the Tooth Fairy is going to steal your T.V.
“The fear of getting too big is a myth,” says Jamie Hale, a nutritionist, trainer, and author of several fitness books. “It’s not going to happen unless you have the genetics for it, are eating excessive calories, and are using ‘performance enhancers.’”
Hale says regular weight training will increase a person’s strength, help prevent injuries, and improve athletic performance. “The stronger your legs and core, the less effort it takes to run up that hill.
Beyond the Crunch: Your Guide to a Solid Core
A lot of hype has surrounded the core muscles in recent years, and for good reason.
“The core is your driveshaft,” Cenidoza says. “It transfers power from your lower body to your upper body and vice versa. Without a strong link, you can’t transfer the energy you need to perform a given task.”
Even though most of us associate the core with our abs, the “core” basically consists of all the muscles that make up your torso or trunk: everything from your hamstrings to your shoulders.
“Some of the most important core muscles are completely ignored,” Hale says. “Glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, lower back—these are the most important muscles you can work for improving everyday function and athletic performance.”
There are a number of ways to work your core, but what’s the best? According to Cenidoza, the single best exercise for strengthening your core is one of the oldest: the deadlift.
Load a standard barbell with equal weight on either end and set it on the ground. Pull the barbell from the floor with both hands until your body is fully extended. Push from the heels, and bring your hips forward. Keep your back straight through the motion and never pull with your lower back. As always, use light weight and work your way up. If not done properly, the deadlift can result in back injury.
“All you’re doing is picking an object off the floor, but you use this motion every day in your life,” Cenidoza says. “And this single exercise uses more muscles than any other. It works your hamstrings, calves, glutes, and all of your back.”
Two more core strengthening exercises
Mountain Climbers: Start in plank position and bring one knee toward your chest, then the other. Start slow, but eventually try to alternate the knees quickly, essentially running in place while in the plank position. Try to go for one minute at a time.
Burpees: Stand with feet shoulder width apart, drop into a full squat placing your hands in front of you on the ground. Kick your feet back so you’re in plank position, complete a pushup, pull your feet back to your hands and stand up. Do sets of 10.
Ring the Kettlebell
The kettlebell—a ball of iron with a handle on top—has been used for centuries in Europe, but has only caught on with fitness professionals in the States during the last decade. Kettlebell exercises employ lower weights for a high number of reps, incorporating weight training and cardio training. “The kettlebell blends strength conditioning, cardio, and flexibility into one dynamic workout,” says Delaine Ross, owner of Condition Gym in Atlanta. “It’s the most efficient workout I’ve ever experienced. You’re lifting weights for ten minutes non-stop through a series of whole-body, ballistic movements that mimic how you move in real life.”
DITCH THE GYM
Use this workout to take your strength training into the great outdoors.
Tree Squats: Stand with your left foot at the base of a small tree. Grab the tree with your right hand and lift your right foot off the ground. Drop into a one-legged squat, then rise back up. Do ten reps on each leg.
Farmer’s Walk: Pick up a large rock and hold it with your arms stretched in front of your chest. Walk ten yards and drop it. Pick it up again and repeat the process. Keep the rock weight light at first and use proper dead-lift form when picking up the rock.
Rock Pushups: Get into push-up position with one hand slightly elevated on a flat rock (or yoga block). Do ten “uneven” pushups, then switch hands on the rock and do ten more.
Jumping Pullups: Stand beneath a set of monkey bars at a local playground (a strong tree branch will work, too) and jump, grabbing the monkey bars and pulling yourself up into a full chin up. Lower your body and repeat.
Finding Balance: Yoga for Outdoor Athletes
Outdoor athletes need yoga more than your average desk jockey.
“I was a gymnast and dancer when I was younger, but when I started doing outdoor sports, I lost all my flexibility,” says Andria Davis, creator of Yoga-Ventures, a series of yoga DVDs for paddlers, climbers, hikers, and cyclists. “With these kind of sports, your muscles are always in contraction, and you’re using the same muscles over and over.”
The highly repetitive motions in sports like paddling and biking can lead to the overdevelopment of certain muscles and eventually, chronic pain and injury. Studies have linked the repetition of cycling to chronic sciatic, hip, and lower back pain. A yoga program increases the flexibility in overused muscles while strengthening opposing muscle groups.
These three yoga moves are especially useful to outdoor enthusiasts:
Hip Rotator Stretch: Keep natural arch in the low back; gently engage the core. There should be no pain in the knees. Breathe.
Lunges: Keep the pelvis square and in a position as if you were standing—not tilting forward or back. Lift up through the core, release the rib cage down. There should be no pain in the knees or back. Breathe.
Leg Stretches: Keep a natural arch in the low back; only go as far as you can, keeping the leg straight; move slowly—don’t force; don’t push the knees back. Breathe.
Train Your Brain
The mind may not be a muscle, but that doesn’t mean you can’t exercise it. Research shows cognitive decline like memory loss and dementia aren’t inevitable consequences of age. Separate studies suggest certain brain exercises even enhance short-term cognitive performance. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2006 showed that elderly people trained in reasoning skills, memory skills, and speed skills for ten sessions had a slower rate of mental decline than the control group five years later. A separate study at the University of New South Wales shows that complex mental activity throughout a person’s life cuts the chance of dementia in half. A number of studies have even proven you can actually grow new brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus—the portion of the brain responsible for learning and memory. A recent Swedish study performed at the Karolinska Institute shows physical exercise helps form new brain cells. The scientists behind the study believe this is why exercise is such a powerful antidepressant.
The multitude of new scientific findings on brain development has given birth to a $225 million neurosoftware industry which specializes in computer-based brain exercises. But you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on video games to increase brain function. The basic principle of good brain exercises, or neurobics, is to challenge the connections in your brain by creating variety in your life. Making basic changes in your daily routine can stimulate new connections in your brain. Couple those basic lifestyle changes with pointed mental exercises that focus on brain functions like memory and cognitive speed, and you can create a comprehensive mental workout.
These simple exercises stimulate new brain connections by altering familiar daily routines. Anxiety, stress, and repetition in daily life all lead to cognitive decline both in the long and short term. Do everything the same everyday and your brain goes on autopilot.
• Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand.
• Shower with your eyes closed.
• Drive to work taking a completely unfamiliar route.
• Work your computer’s mouse with your non-dominant hand.
• Subtract 7 from 200. Then 7 from 193. Then 7 from 186, and on down until you get to zero.
• Memorize all the pin numbers in your life. Memorize your spouse’s telephone number backwards. Then your social security number backwards.
Green Exercise is a new form of therapy that consists of contact with nature to battle symptoms of mental disorders. A growing number of psychologists are prescribing green exercise. They assert that our culture’s growing disconnect with nature is responsible for many common psychological disorders.
Nature therapy is nothing new. American authors like Thoreau, Emerson, and Muir all wrote about the psychological benefits of nature. Programs like Outward Bound have been using wilderness treks to address mental and social disorders for decades. But the recent growth in ecotherapy as a medical treatment for mental disorders is a response to the growing disconnect between man and nature.
THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP
Research has linked sleep deprivation to decreased speech function and creative thinking; now a recent Princeton University study suggests sleeplessness also limits the growth of new brain cells. Lack of sleep is almost always involved in most mental disorders like depression and schizophrenia. Neuroscientists believe sleep is not only crucial to brain development, but also helps the brain understand and manage the waking experience.
Here are three tips for better sleep from the Mayo Clinic:
#1 Establish a sleep routine, going to bed and waking up at the same time everyday, even weekends. Sticking to a schedule helps reinforce your body’s sleep-wake cycle.
#2 Don’t go to bed until you’re tired. And if you don’t fall asleep within 15-20 minutes, get up and do something else.
#3 Exercise regularly, preferably at least three hours before going to bed, which will help you fall asleep faster and make your sleep more restful.
The Great Outdoors Panacea
The World Health Organization projects that by 2020, depression will be the world’s second most common disease, second only to heart disease. One in five Americans will experience severe depression within their lifetime.
Scientists have known for years that inadequate exposure to sunlight can lead to depression because of a subsequent hormonal imbalance, but recent research suggests that increases in childhood disorders like ADHD may also be linked to our culture’s increasing disconnection from the natural world. A recent nationwide study performed by the University of Illinois showed that spending time outdoors resulted in a significant reduction in ADHD symptoms in children. Some individuals even fared better when prescribed outdoor time than when prescribed medication. A separate study performed at England’s Essex University suggests that vigorous outdoor activity is even more affective in treating mild cases of depression than prescribed antidepressants.
The Cure for the Common Cold: Exercise
Finding a cure for the common cold has been on man’s great to-do list since the beginning of time (Harness fire: Check. Walk on the moon: Check. Cure the cold: Still working on it). It turns out the best weapon against sickness is right under our noses: Exercise.
“Of all the lifestyle factors that have been studied, nothing is more powerful for fighting sickness than regular exercise,” says Dr. David Nieman, director of Appalachian State University’s Human Performance Lab. Nieman, a runner with 58 marathons and ultras under his belt, is the nation’s premier authority on the correlation between exercise and sickness, studying the relationship for decades. One of Nieman’s original studies proved a direct link between regular cardiovascular exercise and a significant decrease in sickness. He took a group of sedentary people and gradually increased their exercise until they were walking briskly for 45 minutes a day, five days a week. The walkers had half the number of sick days than the control group.
“There have been multiple studies since then to back this data up,” Dr. Nieman says. “Regular exercise acts as a catalyst for immunity cells, which start moving around the body at a higher rate fighting viruses. It’s like releasing marines from their fox-holes to engage the enemy. And frequency counts. Immunity builds when a person exercises regularly.”
The catch? There can be too much of a good thing. In a number of studies, Nieman has shown the immune system actually breaks down after sustained intense exercise, like running a marathon.
“There’s an immune dysfunction up to a day after heavy exertion. During that time, there’s an open window for viruses to multiply, and the odds of getting sick goes up,” Nieman says. This same immune dysfunction occurs in runners who run more than 60 miles a week. “The physiological stress exceeds the limits the body can handle, and stress hormones go way up, resulting in a downturn in immunity.”
Immune dysfunction seems to be triggered after 90 minutes of intense exercise for average athletes. This is the point when carb stores nosedive, causing an increase in stress hormones. Drinking energy drinks during a race helps replenish carb stores, but it’s only a partial counter-measure. Nieman is working to develop a sports drink that incorporates a plant pigment called quercetin, a strong anti-viral that reduces sickness rates in endurance athletes.
“We’re working to create a new generation of sports drinks that will be way more than just sugar water,” Nieman says.One in three U.S. adults treats the cold and flu with herbal and homeopathic remedies, which have become a $3.2 billion industry. Are they effective? Here’s a scientific look at the most common alternative treatments.
Echinacea: Derived from the purple coneflower, echinacea is a supplement often touted as an immune booster that increases the ability of white blood cells to fight viruses. Native Americans used the root for everything from sore throats to snake bites. A 2000 German study found the herb stimulates the immune system when injected, but it’s unclear whether the herb is effective when taken orally. A 2007 study by the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy claims echinacea could decrease the risk of getting a cold by 58% as well as decrease the duration of a cold by 1.5 days. Other studies have challenged these findings, showing the herbal remedy may reduce cold symptoms but doesn’t prevent colds. A 2005 New England Journal of Medicine study showed echinacea had no effect on colds whatsoever. The World Health Organization recognized echinacea as a cold treatment in 1999.
Zinc: One of the fastest growing self-remedies for the cold is the mineral zinc, usually in the form of a lozenge. Generally, it is believed that for zinc to work, it must be taken at the first sign of cold symptoms. Results from nine independent studies are inconclusive. Four of the studies showed zinc cut the duration of cold symptoms in half, while five showed the affects were no greater than the placebo. Research also suggests that taking too much zinc for too long could make you more susceptible to colds.
Vitamin C: Most of us reach for a vitamin C supplement at the first sign of the sniffles, but multiple studies have shown extra vitamin C does nothing to prevent a cold or shorten the duration of the symptoms. A recent meta-analysis examining decades worth of research confirms that excessive amounts of the vitamin do nothing to battle a cold in the general public. However, the analysis showed a 50-percent reduction in colds in athletes who were constantly under physical stress and individuals who suffered from a vitamin C deficiency.
Avoid the Flu
There’s no magic pill that will keep you from getting sick, but there are some proven measures you can take to reduce your number of sick days:
Exercise: When you exercise, white blood cells travel through your body fighting bacteria and viruses. Prescription: 30 minutes of aerobic activity (walk briskly, run, cycle, or swim) a day is ideal. Regular exercise also reduces stress and results in better sleep.
Sleep: Solid sleep patterns have been proven to boost the immune system and create a balance in hormone levels. Studies show even minor disturbances in sleep patterns can cause serious drops in immunity cell counts. Prescription: Most scientists agree that eight hours on average is ideal.
De-Stress: A recent meta-analysis of nearly 300 independent studies proves what scientists have thought all along: chronic psychological stress suppresses the immune system. Consistent stress slows t-cell responses and antibody production, causing a nosedive in immunity functions: Prescription: Exercise and sleep.
Eat Right, Avoid Caffeine: A well-balanced diet should give you all the nutrients and vitamins you need to support a healthy immune system. But studies show that caffeine actually robs the body of the minerals and nutrients it needs, suppressing the immunity functions of antibodies, lymphocytes, and T-cells.
Prescription: Give up coffee if you can. If you can’t, drink two glasses of water for every cup of coffee you consume.