Happy cold and flu season!
Here’s something I think about every day: When it comes to my health, I’m really pretty lucky. I almost never get sick. I’ve never broken a bone. For years I was convinced that as a little girl, I’d dislocated my shoulder playing Ring Around the Rosie, but that one didn’t make it through fact checking (my mom). Turns out I just did the fall-down part too early and my shoulder got yanked. It hurt, and we went to the hospital, but I was fine.* Fine.
I know how rare this is. I work at a major health magazine, Prevention, where we think about the diseases that affect our readers—and Americans in general—every single day. (Come to our website! I’m biased but it’s awesome.) We run this healthy-living and beauty site in our spare time. And I’ve seen so much illness in my own family that I don’t know where to begin, nor do I want to. Point is, I’m blessed and I’m grateful.
That’s why it’s sort of lame that I become a big fat whiny baby every time I feel a slight burn behind my eyes or a tickle in my throat. No one especially likes getting sick the same way no one especially likes raw eggplant, or condoms, or conference calls. But I know plenty of people who tolerate the common cold better than I do. Me, I panic, then I pull out all the stops. I’d invent my own snake oil and buy it from myself at a premium if I thought it would work.
I don’t have to, though, because I’ve come to rely on a few strategies that I’m convinced make a huge difference. Being proactive about health and focusing on prevention whenever possible is my MO. But am I actually onto something or is this just another episode of Siobhan Plays Placebo and Hopes For the Best?
I decided to, like my mom, do a little fact checking. Here, the 6 tricks I use to fight off colds—plus, a little research to confirm how on (or off) the mark these natural tricks are. Here’s what I found.
1. Ginger everything Health nuts love to put the stuff in their tea and smoothies when they’re getting sick so I was shocked to find that science doesn’t appear to support it. There’s some decent data that says it’s helpful for nausea, morning sickness, upset stomach etc. There’s also great new research about its possible ability to blast cancerous cells. But it’s not, from what I can tell, the everyday “immune booster” we like to think it is. That being said, I go crazy on the stuff whenever I feel a little something coming on. The other night, I made carrot-ginger soup and ate it at every meal for three days. Today, I asked the juice lady to put extra ginger in my smoothie. Before bed tonight, I’ll probably grate some into a mug of piping-hot water. I don’t know if it works, but I think it does. Tasty, too.
2. Hope Gillerman’s Travel Remedy We have told you before how much we love Hope’s essential oil blends. I keep a few handy, and as soon as the season started changing here in New York, I was super drawn to her Travel Remedy. I’d heard it could help with seasonal shifts, but I thought that was mostly in promoting wakefulness when it’s dark out and deeper sleep at night. I’ve used it for jet lag in the past (it works), but a few weeks ago, I started massaging some of this oil to my chest and shoulders before I shower in the morning. It smells unreal, and it’s a lovely way to start the day, but I wanted to know if I was onto something or just flying by the seat of my pants for no reason. Here’s what Hope said:
“You are not just placebo-ing. You are using a perfect oil to support the immune system and ward off cold and flu this time of year!”
Oh reeeeeally. Here’s what else she said: “Litsea, the lemony oil you smell, is an important oil when you get sick during seasonal change or when weather becomes damp and cold. Plus this blend is antibacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral for super immune support.” Well I’ll be damned. I’m 1 for 2.
3. Sleep Right. So when I feel like I’m getting sick, I tend to cancel plans a lot, drink less wine, and sleep more. I believe this works, and science supports me on that. You know this already, and I do too.
4. Massage, yoga, sex I lump these together because they have proven immune-boosting benefits, can help balance your hormones, and feel really, really good. As long as you have enough energy to make it to class or the spa, or have a buddy around who isn’t a germophobe, I say it’s worth a shot. No hard science on cold-prevention, though.
5. Honey You already know that honey is antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral. So at the very first sign of any throat discomfort, I recommend sucking on a spoonful of raw honey (with the propolis and enzymes, naturally). The science here is equivocal, but it’s been a folk remedy for millennia, and I think history might beat peer-reviewed double blinds in this case. And if you’re already sick, a cool new study showed it to be an effective cough suppressant, too.
6. Turning your head when other people cough or sneeze. I dug up an interesting bit of research that supports my very strong urge to move to another car on the train when some guy sneezes not into his shirt sleeve. We’re coded to react this way in order to protect ourselves from catching whatever contagious sick people have. Another bit I heard recently—from an expert, though I don’t have the supporting research—is that turning away your face when someone coughs or sneezes can mean the difference between feeling fine and wasting a weekend in cold-and-flu hell. That’s because your eyes, nose and mouth are how most bad airborne germs make their way into your body. Shield these three entry points and you have a better chance of staying healthy.
So I’m 4 for 6. Your turn! What do you swear by to fight off colds—or cure them once they’ve started? Everyone does something. DIY? OTC? Herbs? Magical spells? We want to know what YOU do.
* Yes, I knocked wood like 10 times while writing this paragraph.
Crop of one of my favorite Richard Prince paintings, Nurse In Love, via his site
Here’s a thing we’d like to do: Challenge you guys—again—but this time it’s going to be all about food. We’re bringing back an early idea we launched here but never initiated as a formal challenge because this blog was just a baby then, and we hadn’t started our Challenge series yet.
Get excited: This is one is fun, easy, and rewards you with glowing skin.
A while back, a friend mentioned a study he’d seen showing that Japanese farmers who ate on average 20 fruits and vegetables a day were in significantly better health than those who ate just 10, even when controlling for other factors. They lived longer, had fewer health events and felt better. We’d wager they looked pretty good too.
Intuitively this makes sense, and it’s partly why we devoted two chapters in the book to food and lifestyle. We’re big believers in the idea that you can’t just slather on products and expect to look your best. You also need to eat avocados, drink plenty of water, sleep a lot, have sex, have fun, exercise and commit to relaxation in some form or another (preferably the sober kind, at least some of the time).
And we’re making it easy. A bite of anything that contains a fruit of vegetable, even if somewhat adulterated, counts for one point.
Half an apple counts, and so does the garlic you crushed into your pasta sauce*. And, like, if you eat a greek yogurt with the gooey raspberries at the bottom, well, ew, but that counts! Even better would be yogurt with whole raspberries, but that’s the thing with this challenge: You can fake it to make it. Cool? Great.
Now who’s in?
Some rules: Don’t cheat.
Instructions: For seven consecutive days, consume at least 10 different fruits or vegetables per day. Ten total: You decide how many of those you want to be fruits and vegetables. Then write us an email at nomoredirtylooks (at) gmail (dot) com with NOMNOM in the subject line, and include your first name and location, written thusly “Siobhan, Brooklyn, NY” and a brief description of how you felt at the end of your seven days. Send this to us by the end of the day Wednesday, January 18th.
Prize: We’re still working on a prize, but it’ll be awesome as always. Stay tuned. We’ll post when we have it locked and loaded.
The reason for the challenge: See above. It’s healthy. You’ll glow. And you’ll feel better. Also, when you turn life into a summer camp challenge, and you do it with other people, it’s way more fun.
Good luck! Share your clever veggie- and fruit-loading tips in the comments. Ten is a lot, but it’s not that hard. Bon appetit!
* Yes, we know there’s some debate about whether or not garlic is actually a vegetable, but we’re not sticklers here…and it’s good for you!
In case you missed the memo, refined sugar is really, really bad for you.
This post from yesterday’s Lifehacker does a pretty good job of explaining the basics of how sugar reacts in the body and brain. If you’re up for an even deeper look, read the killer (pun intended!) New York Times Magazine cover story from last month, and check out this video of Dr. Lustig—who Siobhan saw speak last month at the Dr. Weil conference in SF—and see for yourself that it’s the devil.
But man does it taste good. Sweets are also tied into all kinds of comfort-and-reward-do-my-parents-love-me stuff left over from childhood. Of course, it’s ok to splurge on a sugary treat here and there, but I’m gonna get bold and say that I’ve concocted a dessert you could enjoy every day if you’d like to. And, by total happy accident, it tastes a lot like a grownup version of a McDonald’s Sundae.
In fact, if I was Bethenny Frankel I’d be calling this the Skinny Sundae and selling it to someone for a cool 100 mill. But what makes this treat so amazing is not its lack of calories (we know better than to equate low calorie with healthy, right?) but its significant lack of sugar along with its surprising nutritional density.
Here’s how you make it.
—3/4 cup of plain Greek yogurt (I used the Fage 2% — feel free to try a sugar-free vegan alternative but make sure that its THICK.)
—1 tbsp vanilla extract
—Stevia to taste (Stevia is a natural sweetener made from a plant. You can get it anywhere now, and it has no glycemic impact and no creepy chems.)
—Stir in 1 tsp of organic crunchy salted peanut butter (I used one from Trader Joe’s—whatever you use, it’s gotta be crunchy and salty. I know you can’t see them in the picture—I’m not going to win any food photography awards—but those little crunches are the best part.)
—1 tsp of maple syrup (I’m using a can I smuggled home from my last visit to Quebec. It’s been in my fridge for a while and it’s nice and thick.)
To do the chocolate version drizzle instead with a melted square or two of high-quality dark chocolate. I bet raw honey would be yummy too, but not any kind of McDonald’s equivalent.
I just can’t tell you how delicious this is!
Here’s why it works: Stevia on its own has a bit of an aftertaste that takes getting used to, but that’s fully masked by the delicious flavors of vanilla, peanuts and maple syrup. And even though it’s only a teaspoon of syrup, it feels like plenty (look at the picture!) and having that real sugar in there is key to making the experience satisfying—that, along with the salty crunch of the peanut butter and the creaminess of the yogurt make it hit all of the right dessert notes.
Now let’s do a health comparison!
McDonald’s Caramel Sundae with Peanuts: 385 calories, 11.5 grams of fat, 9 grams of protein, 160mg sodium, 62 carbs, and…. 44 GRAMS OF SUGAR.
Our Sundae (roughly the same size): 177 calories, 8.5 grams of fat, 19.5 grams of protein (!!), 67.5mg of sodium, 12 carbs and… 11 GRAMS OF SUGAR.
Ow math—but clearly worth it! That’s a lot of protein, and not a lot of sugar, for something that tastes a little bit like heaven. K, this post is officially as random as my vegan cappucino one (btw, I still use coconut milk in my coffee).
Do you have any amazing lower-sugar dessert recipes to share? Bring it!
Food, psychology, health, exercise, beauty, ayurveda, sex, stress, and sleep. (Oh, and astrology.) Those are like the basic-cable channels we flip between: once we get to sleep, we go back to food. Cycle, repeat, cycle, repeat.
I’m of the mind that feeling your best really requires a combination of all of these things, but if I had to pick a single one as the most important of all, I’d pick sleep.
The data on the importance of sleep is incontrovertible: We need it, we need it consistently, and there are specific things—like a routine, black-out blinds, white noise, cool climes—that optimize it. In the absence of good sleep, science says we are at the mercy of cascading hormones that trigger food cravings, cause irritability, lack of focus, emotional fluctuations, and sap our energy—making it harder to do all those other things we know help us feel our best.
A few years ago, I realized I’m one of those 8-hour people. I need my 8 hours, and a disruption of more than a couple days tends to result in undesirable consequences like bad skin and an even worse mood. As such, I try as best I can to be consistent—without forsaking things like, you know, enjoying myself.
I’m not a crazy person about it, but it does take discipline and rigor to keep it up because as anyone who loves a good time knows: there’s always more fun to be had, always one more hour of Housewives, one more chapter to read, one more glass to raise, one more hour of conversation to indulge in.
So in order to keep my sleep consistent, I seem to have, over time, created a bed-time ritual. There are like five things I do every night, and they’re kind of corny and a little embarrassing, but suffice to say somehow, without even noticing it, I’ve created a ritual that totally works! I guess it’s my way of telling my brain: There’s time for activity, and there’s time for sleep. This is the latter.
Some of the things I do every night: I power down all my electronics and turn off the power strip connected to my internet and my giant television; I turn on my fan (even in the winter—homegirl likes her white noise!); I drink some water; I send nice thoughts in my head to people I love or to people who need it.
So now I ask you: What is your non-negotiable-if-you-had-to-pick-just-one-ticket-to-health habit?
And when it comes to sleep: Do YOU have a bedtime ritual?
Today’s inspiration comes Beka Meyer, of Caldwell, Idaho. Not only does this vegetarian paella sound delicious but it came with a testimonial from someone slowly shifting their diet to be more vegan—and loving it! (That’s a picture of Valencia by the way, this dish’s city of origin—do any of you have similar success stories?)
Here’s Beka’s email:
I’ve been eating vegan-ish since I read The China Study (-ish because I still have tons of chicken in the freezer that I am slowly getting through!) a few months ago and I am loving it! I’ve lost 18 lbs so far and I’m not hungry at all, I stopped counting calories too! Even my husband is on board with being vegan-ish and he is well known for his love of hotdogs and quesadillas! My 4 year old is loving that we always have spinach and tomatoes, apples, and oranges on hand, but being her father’s child, still needs her hotdogs. I found the following recipe in a book called The Vegan Handbook that I checked out from the library and it is so good! It is a bit of work to do, but so worth it! I made it for my in-laws (who buy their beef by the cow, not the pound) and they loved it and asked for the recipe!
1 tablespoon oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 cups white rice
3-1/2 cups water
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
½ cup chopped green olives
1 medium sweet pepper, finely chopped
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
A few threads or pinch of pure saffron
1 cup lightly fried sliced mushrooms
1 cup asparagus, chopped
½ cup toasted blanched almonds
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Heat oil in a frying pan, then saute onions and garlic over medium heat for 12 minutes. Add rice and stir-fry for another 2 minutes. Transfer frying pan contents to a 9×13 inch pyrex dish. Stir in water, peas, olives, sweet pepper, oregano, salt, pepper, saffron, then cover. Bake in oven for 30 minutes. Combine mushrooms, asparagus and almonds, then spread evenly over top. Recover and bake for a further 25 minutes or until rice is well-cooked. Serve hot from pan.Image of Valencia via