The bestselling health writer is a participatory journalist who has tried everything from body scans to biofeedback to rolfing. In The Secrets Of People Who Never Get Sick, Stone supplies tips (and the scientific rationale behind them) from unusually healthy people.
Q: One of the health tips in your book is to take brewer’s yeast daily. What’s the scientific basis for that?
A: Brewer’s yeast is a pretty amazing way to get your vitamin B: thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, panthothenic acid, folic acid—it’s got everything except vitamin B12. Vitamin Bs also keep homocysteine levels low. Epidemiological studies have linked high levels of homocysteine to stroke and coronary heart disease. And brewer’s yeast is a good source of protein, plus you get all these amazing minerals like selenium and potassium. It’s a natural way to get substances your body needs, without having to buy a bunch of different pills.
Q: If you drink beer regularly are you getting the same stuff?
A: I talked to a beer manufacturer who claimed that you did, but it’s not absolutely clear. It looks like if you skim the top off of a beer you might be getting the same stuff, but oddly enough, no one has ever done a double blind, random controlled study on beer as a preventative for colds! Seriously, things that tend to be free or easily available aren’t money makers for drug companies, so there isn’t much research on them. That doesn’t mean they don’t work.
Q: Aerobic exercise reduces your risk of heart disease and diabetes, but you say it also helps with more mundane ailments, like colds.
A: A lot of studies have shown that the more aerobic your exercise, the more likely you are to ward off all sorts of infectious diseases. The idea that the immune system benefits from aerobic exercise is fairly new; a lot of these studies have come out in the last five years. Also, we know stress is bad for the immune system and makes you more susceptible to catch colds, and there have been any number of studies that have shown exercise mitigates the effects of stress.
Q: If I’m starting to feel sick, I continue to run. Is that a good idea or just self-flagellation?
A: Both. There’s an old piece of conventional wisdom that says if you feel the cold above your throat, exercise. It may even get your mucous flowing, which is a good thing. If you feel the cold below your throat, don’t exercise. I tend to follow those guidelines myself. Just because it’s an old wives’ tale doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
Q: What about anaerobic exercise, like weight-lifting—does it help ward off illness?
A: Georgia State did a long-term study that found any number of benefits in terms of reducing the incidence of heart disease and high blood pressure, but it also came out that strength training releases natural human growth hormones, and what they do is rejuvenate the body, give you a lot of energy, and fortify the immune system. So much of this goes back to: how healthy is your immune system? You want to do whatever you can to strengthen your immune system, because it fights off colds and the flu.
Q: One of the more out-there suggestions in your book came from an Austrian lung specialist who’s all for picking your nose and eating “the results.” Please tell me this guy is an outlier.
A: Actually, surveys show that 75 to 90 percent of people admit to picking their noses in private, but yes, I think he’s the definition of an outlier! However, his theory is related to a more generally accepted hygiene hypothesis: this idea that we’re scrubbing ourselves so vigorously that our bodies are becoming hypersensitive to germs, and microbes in general. If the immune system doesn’t have enough to do, it turns in on itself. You want the immune system to be a happy, busy little army taking care of bad invaders and not deciding, “Okay, I’m going to create an allergy, or asthma.”
Q: If our bodies aren’t being exposed to enough germs, should we be washing with antibacterial soaps?
A: I actually don’t think you should unless you have a real reason for it. If somebody just sneezed and wants to shake your hand, yes, use sanitizer afterwards. But the body has its own natural armour. And one of the problems with these antibacterial, antimicrobial soaps is that you’re actually scraping off that armour, the natural defence system built into our skin. So people who take it too far are actually jeopardizing themselves.
Q: But when you go into your office building, shouldn’t you use the dispenser of hand sanitizer by the door?
A: You should use it sensibly. If you’ve just come off the subway, or have been in a carpool with five sneezing people, sure. But don’t go running back for more every half hour.
Q: You talked to one woman who eats raw garlic every day and never gets sick. What’s the science on garlic?
A: Tablets that go back to the Sumerians and Assyrians show they were using garlic to treat fevers and inflammation—everybody seems to have known about its medicinal value before we did. Today, the unanimity of opinion is remarkable; virtually every study confirms that it’s good for you. It’s a powerful antioxidant and antibiotic that fights off strains of staphylococcus, the bug that causes staph infections. If I had to pick the one tip in the book that has stopped me from getting sick, I’d say it’s eating raw garlic. In fact, on my book tour, I’ve been travelling around with a bulb of garlic everywhere I go, much to the consternation of the security guards at the airports, who probably think I’m Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
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