Staying Healthy

Maintaining good health doesn't happen by accident. It requires work, smart lifestyle choices, and the occasional checkup and test.

A healthy diet is rich in fiber, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, "good" or unsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids. These dietary components turn down inflammation, which can damage tissue, joints, artery walls, and organs. Going easy on processed foods is another element of healthy eating. Sweets, foods made with highly refined grains, and sugar-sweetened beverages can cause spikes in blood sugar that can lead to early hunger. High blood sugar is linked to the development of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and even dementia.

The Mediterranean diet meets all of the criteria for good health, and there is convincing evidence that it is effective at warding off heart attack, stroke, and premature death. The diet is rich in olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts and fish; low in red meats or processed meats; and includes a moderate amount of cheese and wine.

Physical activity is also necessary for good health. It can greatly reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, breast and colon cancer, depression, and falls. Physical activity improves sleep, endurance, and even sex. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week, such as brisk walking. Strength training, important for balance, bone health, controlling blood sugar, and mobility, is recommended 2-3 times per week.

Finding ways to reduce stress is another strategy that can help you stay healthy, given the connection between stress and a variety of disorders. There are many ways to bust stress. Try, meditation, mindfulness, yoga, playing on weekends, and taking vacations.

Finally, establish a good relationship with a primary care physician. If something happens to your health, a physician you know —and who knows you — is in the best position to help. He or she will also recommend tests to check for hidden cancer or other conditions.

Staying Healthy Articles

Canker sores — TheFamily Health Guide

Most people have been bothered at one time or another by canker sores. Doctors call them aphthous ulcers, but the name doesn't explain the problem. In fact, physicians and dentists don't know what causes cankers, though many have tried to find out. Scientists have learned that they are not caused by herpes or any other known virus and that they are not contagious. And with rare exceptions, cankers are isolated problems that crop up in healthy people without indicating a serious medical condition. Cankers are shallow ulcers that can develop on the inside of the cheek or lips or under the tongue. Most are pink or reddish, but some have a white coating. They are painful, so they make eating a chore, but they almost always clear up in about a week. If you are one of the very few people who develop fever, swollen glands, weakness, eye or joint inflammation, abdominal cramps and diarrhea, or genital ulcers along with your cankers, you should see your physician. In the vast majority of cases, however, medical attention is not needed. You can simply wait it out: Avoid foods that trigger pain, and use a mild over-the-counter pain reliever if necessary. You can also make a soothing mouthwash by mixing equal parts of Milk of Magnesia and Benadryl Allergy liquid. Swish a teaspoon of the mixture in your mouth for 30–60 seconds, then spit it out. If it seems to help, you can repeat the rinse every four hours. For stronger relief, your physician or dentist can prescribe a local anesthetic such as benzocaine (Orabase-B) or lidocaine (Xylocaine Viscous). Use a Q-tip to paint the anesthetic on the sore 30 minutes before meals and as otherwise needed. More »

Getting your omega-3s vs. avoiding those PCBs.—The Family HealthGuide

By now, nearly everyone has heard of the health benefits of the omega-3 fats found in fish. The most persuasive studies show that they protect against the serious — and sometimes fatal — episodes of an irregular heart rhythm that can cause sudden death. Other research indicates that a diet rich in omega-3 fats may lower your risk for heart attack and stroke. Farm-raised salmon is one of the better sources of omega-3s. A 6-ounce serving contains about 3½ grams which is much more than in other popular fish. There's no straight answer to whether farm-raised or wild salmon has more omega-3 fat—it depends on what they eat. Today about half of the salmon sold worldwide comes from fish farms. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are oily, synthetic chemicals that were used in electrical equipment and as additives to paint, plastics, and other products. Unfortunately, they're now found in today's farm-raised salmon. The federal government ordered industry to stop making them in the 1970s, but they still get freshly released into the environment from hazardous waste sites, leaks from old equipment, and incinerators. PCBs also stick to soil and sediment and can travel long distances through the air. They also "bioaccumulate" in fat, so concentrations tend to be higher in animals — like salmon and marine mammals like seals — that are further up the food chain. High doses kill fish, and PCBs have been linked to reproductive and immunological problems in several species of wildlife. More »

Why the FDA banned ephedra

In December 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it was banning the sale of products containing ephedra. This announcement heralded the first time the agency has banned an herbal supplement. Its decision was based on extensive research involving more than 16,000 reports of adverse health effects from products containing ephedra. These studies clearly indicate that ephedra is dangerous. And it can kill. Roughly 155 deaths have been blamed on the amphetamine-like stimulant, including the 2003 death of 23-year-old Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler. Ephedra occurs naturally in the Chinese herb ma huang and contains ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, stimulants that can constrict blood vessels. In low doses, they act as decongestants, but in higher doses, they can raise blood pressure. The stimulant effect contributes to the herb's effectiveness as an appetite suppressant, especially when combined with caffeine, aspirin, or both. Its claims for promoting weight loss as well as for increasing energy and alertness led athletes and average gym goers alike to take ephedra products. A variety of studies associate ephedra use with cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure, palpitations, and heart attacks. Side effects of the herb include heart palpitations, nausea, and vomiting. More than 800 dangerous reactions have been reported - among them, heart attacks, strokes, seizures, and sudden death. Psychosis, insomnia, and heatstroke have also been reported. More »

Importing Prescription Drugs

The lure of cheaper prescription drugs is driving many Americans to Canada or other countries. By either a bus trip north or Internet and mail-order pharmacies, an estimated one million Americans are finding ways to reduce their medical costs. Prices for prescription drugs in Canada can be less than half as much as the cost in the U.S. , so it's not just penny-pinchers interested in this trend. Even a few states and cities are looking into purchasing drugs across the border for their employees to help relieve their budget woes. Springfield , Mass.w, already has such a program in place. Canadian drugs prices are so much lower due to government price controls. But taking advantage of our thrifty neighbors to the north is actually illegal, according to a law against importing prescription drugs. For the most part, customs agents have let this transgression by individuals slip by them without notice. Some lawmakers and states, under pressure from their constituents, are pushing to have the law rewritten to allow Americans to buy cheaper drugs out of the country. For now, though, the current administration has no plans to allow this. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has even gone so far as to say they would consider legal action if cities and states defy the ban. With the help of a federal judge, the FDA recently shut down a pharmacy chain that imported Canadian prescription drugs. American drug companies are concerned about this trend as well. Their U.S. prices are set high, in part, to defray their revenue loss because of Canadian price controls. To protect their income at home, some drug makers are beginning to curb the ability of Canadian pharmacies to buy their drugs. They are also imposing restrictions on the sale of their drugs out of the country. These strategies have actually begun to affect the price of drugs in Canada . More »

Welcome Newsweek Readers

The faculty of Harvard Medical School worked with the editorial staff of Newsweek to write articles of interest about health and medicine. Harvard Medical School publishes books, newsletters, and special health reports through its Harvard Health Publications division. Issue date: April 27, 2009 Issue date: February 23, 2009 More »

Dealing with grief and bereavement—The FamilyHealth Guide

Grief will be with many of us this holiday season. If you're over age 40, there's a 1-in-3 chance that a close relative or friend of yours died in the last year. Or you may be among the 1 million Americans who lost a spouse. Still, in an era when the media seem to tout the wisdom of "closure" within days of any tragedy, it's easy to feel abnormal when confronted with the long, painful, and messy process of adapting to a death. Healthy grieving can be a slow, difficult process that lasts for months or years. And although you may gradually be able to refocus your life, you'll probably never "get over it" or stop thinking about the person who died. Initially, a person may feel shock and numbness as the reality of the death sinks in. Yet during that time, he or she may seem to be handling things well and may be quite competent in managing the funeral and legal matters. Later, feelings of sadness, distress, anger, and guilt may become more prominent. More »

Athlete’s foot: Causes, prevention, and treatment—The FamilyHealth Guide

While it's not a life-or-death matter, athlete's foot-especially if it's persistent-can be painful and make walking difficult. The early signs of athlete's foot are patches or fissures (deep breaks or slits), especially between the toes. As the infection progresses, the skin may turn red, become itchy, and appear moist. Small blisters may spread out across the foot, breaking to expose raw fissures that are painful and may swell. The area between the toes is most often affected, but the infection may spread to the soles of the feet or to the toenails, which can become thick and colored white or cloudy yellow. In the most advanced cases, the rash will extend moccasin-style across the sole of your foot, and your feet may ooze pus and develop a foul odor. Athlete's foot breeds in locker rooms, swimming pool changing areas, or any place that combines dampness and a lot of foot traffic. I mproperly cleaned instruments used in a pedicure (either at a commercial salon or at home) can also lead to infection. The fungus can even contaminate bed sheets and spread to other body parts through rubbing and scratching. To control the spread of infection, keep bathroom surfaces clean and don't share towels The best way to prevent athlete's foot is by wearing sandals or shower shoes when walking around a locker room or pool. Keep your feet clean by washing them with soap and water at least once a day, and keep them dry the rest of the time. Put clean socks on every day, and change them more often if you sweat a lot or get them wet. More »

Drug Expiration Dates — Do They Mean Anything?

With a splitting headache, you reach into your medicine cabinet for some aspirin only to find the stamped expiration date on the medicine bottle is more than a year out of date. So, does medicine expire? Do you take it or don't you? If you decide to take the aspirin, will it be a fatal mistake or will you simply continue to suffer from the headache? This is a dilemma many people face in some way or another. A column published in Psychopharmacology Today offers some advice. It turns out that the expiration date on a drug does stand for something, but probably not what you think it does. Since a law was passed in 1979, drug manufacturers are required to stamp an expiration date on their products. This is the date at which the manufacturer can still guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug. More »

What to do in a dental emergency

Many people are hesitant to call or visit their dentist, even if they are in pain. They might be afraid, or they might not be sure if the problem is a true emergency. Both reasons are understandable, but if you are in any pain, don't delay in calling your dentist. His or her goal is to ease your pain. Know that even if the treatment hurts, it's nothing compared to what you could face down the road if you ignore the problem. Here is a guide to how soon you should call your dentist when emergencies arise, and what you should and shouldn't do in the meantime. Problem Do More »

The dangers of the herb ephedra

After the death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler more than 10 years ago, many questions arose about the safety of ephedra and the government's role in regulating the herb. Bechler died of heat stroke while taking ephedra, which occurs naturally in the Chinese herb ma huang. The speed-like drug contains the chemical ephedrine, an amphetamine-like compound closely related to adrenaline. Athletes and average people alike started taking ephedra when word started spreading about its ability to aid weight loss and increase energy and alertness. But just because a supplement comes from natural sources doesn't make it safe. Ephedra can cause a quickened heartbeat and elevated blood pressure. Side effects include heart palpitations, nausea, and vomiting. More than 800 dangerous reactions have been reported with use of the herb. These include heart attacks, strokes, seizures, and sudden deaths. According to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, ephedra products make up only 1% of herbal supplement sales in the U.S., but they are responsible for 62% of herb-related reports to poison-control centers. The authors of one analysis concluded that supplements containing ephedra and ephedrine trigger modest short-term weight loss (about 2 pounds per month more than placebo). But none of the 52 trials they looked at lasted more than six months, so there is no evidence to support ephedra use for long-term weight loss. And no studies were found that evaluated ephedra use for enhancing athletic performance. Data from 50 trials did show, however, that ephedra and ephedrine are associated with 2- to 3-fold increases in psychiatric symptoms (such as irritability and anxiety), autonomic symptoms (jitteriness, trouble sleeping), upset stomach, and heart palpitations. More »