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The YOU Docs: Don't sniff at folate, it may help fight allergies

Running out of your allergy meds can leave your eyes itchier than a wool sweater in July and your nose vying for an Olympic running win and give you that fuzzy, out-of-it feeling. New research suggests that being low on something else can leave you that way, too: the B vitamin folate. For the first time, the itchy, sniffy, wheezy feelings that come with allergies have been linked to low levels of this nutrient.

In this new study, researchers saw that people who got the most folate had a 31 percent lower risk of allergy symptoms like watery eyes, runny nose and eczema, and a 40 percent lower risk of wheezing than did people who had the lowest folate levels.

Running low on this vitamin already has been linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and arthritis. What does that have to do with allergies? Inflammation is a common-denominator bad guy in all of these diseases, and folate may help tie its dangerous hands behind its back.

While this vitamin does all kinds of important things for you, including reduce the risk of neural tube defects in developing babies and take down your risk of Alzheimer's, more is not better. In fact, it's likely that too much of it from supplements can make allergies worse. Worse than that, high levels are associated with faster growth of existing cancers.

So choose naturally folate-filled foods, such as fortified cereals and grains, and green vegetables, including asparagus, broccoli and spinach. And get no more than 400 micrograms from your supplement. Then, see if you save on Kleenex.

GUARD AGAINST MEDICAL MISTAKES

Medical errors cause more deaths in the U.S. and Canada each year than accidents, cancer and AIDS combined. Here's how to protect yourself:

Overcommunicate. Never assume your health care provider knows everything about you. Today's medical records often are incomplete, error-ridden or scattered among several sites, although a move to online medical records may eventually change that. (Keep your own records online for free using Google Health or Microsoft HealthVault — they can be as private as you want.) No matter what you do, insist on sharing the following with all medical professionals:

• Any medical condition you have (diabetes, gingivitis . . . everything!)

• Every medication you're taking, including aspirin, vitamins, herbs and supplements

• Allergies

• Details of past surgeries, hospitalizations or treatments

• Medical records from previous providers

Assume nothing. We wish doctor handwriting jokes were just jokes. Fortunately, many docs now have electronic prescription devices that can send an encrypted e-mail to your pharmacy. Either way, make sure you know what you're getting, how and when to take it, what the side effects are and what to do if you miss a dose.

At the pharmacy, confirm that you're receiving the right meds and that the dose is printed correctly.

Doctors and pharmacists are human and make mistakes. To optimize your health, you need to be a smart patient. Medical care is just too complex for it to go without extra verifications. Help erase errors by becoming a critical member of your own health care team.

DIG IN AND SMILE WIDE

Grab a yogurt and smile. Not because it keeps you at your perfect weight or tastes great, even though it does those things (make sure it's nonfat, with no added sugar or syrup stuff, of course), but because it may keep your smile as winning as it is today.

That's because people who eat yogurt are less likely to have gum disease and tooth loss than people who never touch the stuff. Gum disease is linked to many other problems, likely because the same bacteria that cause it also can trigger inflammation and hardening of the arteries. That can spell all kinds of trouble for you, from heart attacks to wrinkles to impotence.

That's where yogurt comes in. The healthy bacteria in it may balance out the destructive bacteria in your mouth, just the way they do in your gut, where they help keep your digestion running smoothly. It only takes a couple of ounces of yogurt daily for your mouth — and the rest of your health — to benefit.

Of course, yogurt can't take the place of flossing and great brushing style if you want a smile worth smiling about.

GET YOUNGER FROM THE INSIDE OUT

The goal: You want to keep your heart and arteries young.

The plan: Eat 13 to 21 walnuts a day for four weeks.

When people in one study replaced some of the already good monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil and corn oil) in their diets with eight to 13 walnuts a day (they contain omega-3 fats), their blood vessels expanded after just a few weeks, allowing better blood flow.

That's not all that our favorite nuts can do. In another study, raising the walnut ante to an ounce and a half (that's about 21 walnut halves) six days a week reduced lousy LDL cholesterol by nearly 20 percent. That's a big deal that translates into slightly more than an 18 percent decrease in your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Traditional thinking is that it's the omega-3 fatty acids in these nuts that have been credited with these heart and artery benefits (they have brain, eye and joint benefits as well). That's still true, but there may be something extra in walnuts that makes LDL drop even more than expected from its omega-3s alone.

But whatever it is that's doing the magic, the point is the same: To fit the fat from walnuts into your diet, take some of the other fat out.

FOOD MYTHS THAT MAKE YOU FAT

You know those people who say they can gain weight just by thinking about a muffin? Well, they are partly right. Thinking the wrong things about what you eat can make your waist expand.

Myth: Low-fat foods are lower in calories.

Truth: Low-fat foods sometimes contain as many or more calories than their fat-free cousins. When the fat comes out of a food, manufacturers often need to add sugar or sodium for flavor. Check labels!

Myth: The fat you eat turns into fat.

Truth: Everything you eat has the potential to turn into fat if it's not used by your body when absorbed through your intestines. The fact is, you need good fats, like those in nuts and fish, to control inflammation in your body (even the inflammatory response itself can contribute to obesity). Plus, the right kind of fat helps keep you feeling full, so you don't inhale everything in your path a few hours later.

Myth: One big meal is better for your waist than three smaller ones.

Truth: Anecdotal evidence indicates that people who eat all of their calories in one meal gain more weight than those who space calories over three meals (for example, believers do not lose weight during Ramadan). Why doesn't this technique work? First, because the one-timers are kicking into their starvation mode, making their bodies want to store fat rather than burn it. Second, you expand your stomach with big meals, and that makes you want to eat more each time you eat. Instead, eat small meals and start them with a little bit of healthy fat.

The YOU Docs are authors of "YOU: Being Beautiful — The Owner's

Manual to Inner and Outer Beauty."

The YOU Docs: Don't sniff at folate, it may help fight allergies 05/21/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 21, 2009 5:07pm]

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