Cold and flu season is late this year, but seems to be coming with a vengeance. So how — in addition to flu shots — do you prevent the old garden-variety flu and common cold? The answer starts with a Z. Not zinc, but a few Zs.
That's right, while zinc can shorten the duration of a cold, it appears that getting enough sleep can radically protect you from one — as if you have a machine gun and the intruding virus has only a slingshot. Sometimes the slingshot will win, but not often.
Researchers led by Dr. Sheldon Cohen at Carnegie Mellon University paid healthy adults $800 each to have cold viruses sprayed up their noses, then wait five days in a hotel to see if they got sick (we hope it was a nice hotel). Habitual eight-hour sleepers got sick only a third as much as those who slept less than seven hours or those who slept fitfully.
Cold and flu symptoms such as sore throats and runny noses are caused by your body's fight against viruses. People whose bodies rightsize the number of immune cells that are called into action and who have an appropriate immune response may not even know they are fighting a virus. Sleep may help your body regulate the perfect response.
So fighting off the common cold and flu joins the other benefits of sleeping well for seven to eight hours — including being thinner and being less likely to develop high blood pressure, type II diabetes, stroke and heart disease.
4 steps to better sleep
• Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex. Get all the computers and TVs out: People with TVs in the bedroom have 50 percent less sex and 15 percent less sleep than those without TVs there.
• Set a regular bedtime. It should be about 7.5 hours before your alarm needs to sound.
• Make time for the essentials. Thirty minutes before bedtime, set aside 10 minutes each for hygiene, meditation and to take care of tomorrow's essentials, like packing the kids' lunches.
• Have only red or blue lights in your bathroom. Those wavelengths keep your melatonin switch "on," allowing this sleep-helping hormone to flow.
More ways to prevent colds
Physical activity, washing your hands, moderating stress with meditation, yoga, empathy or friends, and only eating healthy foods (no saturated or trans fats, no added sugars or syrups, no non-100-percent whole grains) will all help you stay healthy — as long as you don't let any of that interfere with your good night's sleep.
Cheap and healthy
Humble, tasty beans have an impressive portfolio of benefits. Here's what you'll cash in on when you eat them:
• A healthier heart. Beans reduce your levels of C-reactive protein, a likely indicator of heart disease risk. How? Probably due to their fiber. Black beans contain 7 grams of fiber per 1/2 cup serving, which gets you well on your way to the recommended 25 grams a day. Remember to add Beano, an enzyme that helps you break down the beans without the side effect of gas, so you don't clear out every elevator you get into.
• Legumes also may reduce your lousy LDL cholesterol. In fact, LDL dropped when people ate a half-cup of cooked pinto beans every day for 12 weeks. (Any beans would probably do the trick).
• Lower blood pressure. Get your protein from plants and your blood pressure may be lower than if you got protein from animal sources. Their amino acids (building blocks of protein) and magnesium and other nutrients may help keep arteries relaxed. Some beans even contain more protein per serving than lean meat. Example: Kidney beans have 16g of protein per cup; turkey holds 12g in 3 ounces.
• A smaller waist. Bean eaters weigh as much as 6.6 pounds less than non-bean-imbibing folks do. Makes sense when you consider beans are not only full of satisfying fiber and protein but low in calorie-laden fat.
Health in a bottle
There's one way to get more out of your ketchup bottle, and it doesn't involve transferring the last drops from the bottom. Going organic with this condiment could dramatically increase the amount of lycopene — an antioxidant that may reduce your risk of heart disease — that you get in a serving.
A recent comparison revealed organic ketchup to contain three times as much lycopene as the conventional kind: 183 micrograms per gram vs. just 59. Why you want it: One of the jobs that this nutrient does is help handcuff free radicals (which can damage cells and chromosomes) and escort them out of the body before they can cause problems, including heart disease.
Lycopene is responsible for the pink and red hues of guava, watermelon, pink grapefruit and the ubiquitous tomato. But it doesn't just spill out of tomatoes; it needs to be coaxed out of there like a kitten from a crawlspace. Three ways to do it:
• Slice, dice or puree them. Processing tomatoes helps unleash the lycopene.
• Eat them with a bit of fat. Lycopene is a fat-soluble nutrient, meaning it must latch on to fat to be absorbed by the intestinal wall, so use olive, walnut or canola oil on your salads or toss some avocado into the mix.
• Heat 'em up. Heat converts the lycopene into a form that's easier for your body to absorb by a factor of more than 16.
Some ill-advised folks might say that the greatest nutritional discovery of the past decade has been the Baconator (a whopping 830 calories — we don't think so). The real nutritional hero: ribose. This special sugar is made in your body. It doesn't come from food, but you can get it in a supplement. What it does is help build the energy factories of your body. Of all the things you can do to combat the effects of knee-dragging fatigue, taking a daily ribose supplement is the one that seems to really turbocharge some people with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, diseases associated with low energy. The only side effect is that some people feel too much energy.
The data aren't good enough yet to recommend ribose for everyone. But if you want to give it a try, start with 500 milligrams three times a day for a week or so, until you get used to the taste (or find a smoothie, coffee or tea to put it in). Then, go to 5 grams three times a day for three weeks to get a sense of the effect. After that, you can scale back to 5 grams twice a day.
Prefer to go with an energizer that's more proven? Go green -- tea, that is. Although green tea has one-third the caffeine of black tea, it's been shown to yield the same level of energy and attentiveness. And your heart and arteries get something out of it as well: four times more health-protecting polyphenols than black tea.
The YOU Docs — Mike Roizen and Mehmet Oz — are authors of "YOU: Being Beautiful — The Owner's Manual to Inner and Outer Beauty." To submit questions go to www.RealAge.com.