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12-Steps to Improve Your Health in the New Year

Dr. David Eifrig’s 12-Steps to Improve Your Health in the New Year

The Daily Crux Sunday Interview…

Each year during the holidays, Dr. David Eifrig publishes a list of his top-12 tips for dramatically improving your health – and life – in the coming year.

A former Goldman Sachs trader turned board-eligible surgeon, “Doc” has spent thousands of hours studying the human body and the conditions under which it functions best.

The Daily Crux: As you know, Doc, people are taking stock right now. They’re taking a look in the mirror, planning New Year’s resolutions, and wondering how they can improve themselves. With that in mind, could you share your list of the top-12 easy and inexpensive things readers can do right away to improve their health?

#1~

Dr. David Eifrig: The number one thing that I keep coming back to year after year is sleep and how important sleep is.

This time of year, it’s particularly hard to do, because everybody’s going to parties. People are traveling. You’re visiting friends and family. You’re staying up late. You’re drinking a little more alcohol. So you’re not really getting much sleep this time of year… A lot of people are tired and end up getting sick.

So I encourage you to make that number one on your list and focus on getting enough sleep. It’s a way of boosting your immune system. It’s a way of improving your heart health. There’s some great research out of Stanford that suggests if you don’t get at least 7.5 to eight hours of sleep a night, you increase your chances of heart disease.

Sleep is definitely the first thing on my list.
Crux: Do you have any specific tips for improving sleep?

Eifrig: Absolutely. Sleep hygiene is really the most important thing – just consistency with getting enough sleep. Most research suggests that if you fix either the time you wake up or fix the time you go to sleep, and then let the other time naturally take care of itself, your body will end up adjusting to right around eight hours.

That’s one thing you can do.

You should also remove television, noise, that sort of thing from the room you sleep in, and to make that room as dark as you possibly can.
So there are three things: Set a time, make it quiet, and make it dark.
Crux: Alright. What’s next?

#2~

Eifrig: The second thing on my list has fluctuated a bit over the years, anywhere from fourth to second. But the older I get, the more I’m convinced it should be number two… And that is getting sun on your body.

That means year-round, especially in the wintertime, trying to get sun. The body makes vitamin D from sun exposure, and vitamin D is critical in a whole bunch of things – fighting cancer, regulating your mood, allowing you to sleep easily at night, and a whole host of other important processes.

Sunshine on Your Body Is Essential for Your Good Health

Sunshine on Your Body Is Essential for Your Good Health

One of the things I like to do if it’s sunny outside in the middle of the day is go out around 11:00 or 11:30 and just get my face in the sun.

If you’re in a northern climate, find yourself a place with some shelter from the wind, so you can sit or stand there comfortably for 10 to 15 minutes while you get some sun on your face and arms.

The other thing, and I don’t like to do too much of this unless I am unable to get any sun, are supplements. Some people like to take vitamin D3, which is the usable form of vitamin D, in the wintertime.

#3~

Number three on the list is movement. You can call it exercise if you want, but it’s really important to move. The ability to move really defines humanity in many respects… the fact that you can express movement and can get up and walk and jog or swim or bicycle.

It’s critical for your health, too. Just doing something, whatever it is, whatever you can do. Whether it’s stretching in the morning or evening, or walking 20 minutes every day. Whatever you can do that’s simple, easy, and doesn’t cost much will absolutely benefit you.

Movement is Important for YOur Good Health

Movement is Important for YOur Good Health

There are chemicals released throughout the body that regulate mood as well as cancer-fighting chemicals. Blood pressure-helping chemicals that release from the large joints in your body, like the hips, knees, and shoulders.

So by moving those things, you’ll feel better and live longer, and that’s been studied and looked at over and over again.

Now, obviously, it can be hard to just go and begin to do something vigorously if you haven’t been active for some time. The key for someone wanting to do more movement is to start slowly.

I just ran a 5k race over the Thanksgiving holiday, and to do that, I started practicing by running for just one minute, then I would walk one minute, run one minute, walk one minute. You can go like that longer than you might think. You do that for a couple of days, and then pretty soon you can run two minutes, walk two minutes. And then a few days later, you may be able to run two minutes and walk one.

Pretty soon you can run 10, 12, 15, 20 minutes to every couple minutes of walking.

That’s just one example. Anything where you’re moving is going to have benefits. Just start slow and progress when you can. Whether you’re moving to music or something more subtle and slow like yoga. I just can’t recommend it enough.

Crux: Great. Number four?

#4~

Eifrig: Number four on my list would be massage. Although it’s expensive to go out and have someone massage you and pay for a professional massage, there are inexpensive alternatives with great benefits.

You can exchange massages with a partner – things like foot rubs or hand rubs with inexpensive lotion or oils. This has incredibly powerful benefits in relaxing, getting rid of aches and pains, and flushing toxins from parts of your body as well.

Healthy Touch & Massage is Essential to Good Health

Healthy Touch & Massage is Essential to Good Health

I go once a month, sometimes twice a month, to a local massage therapist, and it’s fantastic. It’s wonderful. I put that really high up on the list of things to do.

#5~

Next up is number five, and that would be eating fruit.

This one seems to creep up my list every year, and I think it’s probably the highest it’s been. The reason is there are a lot of micronutrients in fruits, especially fruits that have colors in their skin. Berries – cherries, blackberries blueberries, raspberries, strawberries – all have small molecules that absorb certain wavelengths of light that lead to their colors, and those things are really powerful antioxidants.

Eating Fruit is a Fundamental FActor in Your Good Health

Eating Fruit is a Fundamental FActor in Your Good Health

As more and more research comes out on fruits, we’re finding that they are better and better for you – fighting cancers, lowering blood pressure, getting rid of joint pain, all these things that seem to become more worrisome as you get older.

It’s not just berries either, you know, the old adage “apple a day.” There’s stuff in apples that is great for digestion, great for moving the bowels along. So I can’t overemphasize fruit, and that’s why it’s moved up to the highest I think I’ve ever had it on my list.

Crux: Eat more fruit… that’s pretty easy. What’s number six?

#6~

Eifrig: Number six is meditation. I’ve written about it before, and I often talk to people about it.

Many religious traditions include forms of meditation or longer sessions of prayer. But even just spending time sitting quietly, breathing, concentrating on your spirituality has incredible health benefits. Benefits for heart disease, blood pressure, even your ability to use oxygen, which is one of the measures of fitness. They all improve with meditation.

There’s a guy named Herbert Benson who’s a physician. He wrote a book called The Relaxation Response. The book has been out for years, but it’s still great. It’s just about the response that can be elicited with meditation.

Meditation is Vital for Your Good Health

Meditation is Vital for Your Good Health

I’ve learned Transcendental Meditation, which is an ancient form of meditation, and there’s nothing preventing anyone from learning how to do it.

It can be as simple as sitting quietly in a chair for 10, 15 minutes concentrating on a word, a noise, a sound, and just breathing. You can get incredible benefits for the 15 minutes a day that you give up for doing that.

#7~

Number seven on my list is aromatherapy. By that, I mean getting some pleasant and fun and nice aromas in your life and around you, especially in the winter, when we spend so much time indoors.

You can find what are known as essential oils at a health food store or a nontraditional grocery store like a Whole Foods, and get a scent that really appeals to you, whether it’s a type of flower that you like or a scent of pine or orange peel, or something else.

Aromatherapy Supports Health on Many Levels: Body, Mind, & Spirit

Aromatherapy Supports Health on Many Levels: Body, Mind, & Spirit

What you enjoy may be different from what appeals to your spouse or your friends, but find the scent you like and put it on you or on items near you. Sometimes I’ll put a little scent on my shirt collar, near me when I’m in the mood for that smell or need a boost.

Scents can just be so powerful and have such an effect on your mood and wellbeing. Smells like fresh-cut flowers, cocoa, cinnamon, fresh-baked breads, even onions cooking, are fantastic, and it can be quite soothing to surround yourself with them when the mood strikes you, even if it means doing something as simple as throwing some onions in a pan.

Aromas are one of our basic fundamental groundings, and adding more to your life can be a very positive thing.

#8~

Next up on the list is number eight, which is somewhat controversial, and that’s aspirin. It’s something that I take myself. I take one tablet, which is about 325 milligrams, once a week.

Aspirin’s known to reduce the risk of colon cancer and heart disease for people taking it more regularly than once a week. But the benefits of it last about seven to 10 days. So I figure I’m probably getting most of the benefit by taking just one a week. And the cost to take one year of aspirin is a couple bucks, so I’ve done that for a long time.

Now, when I’ve written about this in the past, I often have people write in and talk about aspirin allergies and various other concerns. So, obviously, if you know you have an aspirin allergy, you shouldn’t take aspirin.

An Aspirin a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

An Aspirin a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

But for those people approaching 50 or older, this very low-dose aspirin therapy is relatively safe and probably makes sense. It’s definitely something to consider with your physician.

Crux: Good stuff. What’s number nine?

#9~

Eifrig: Well, “nine” rhymes with “wine,” and that’s the next item on my list.

Drinking one or two glasses of wine each day if you’re an average-size male, or one glass – which is four to six ounces – if you’re an average-size female, can provide tremendous health benefits.

Step #9 Rhymes with Wine

Step #9 Rhymes with "Wine"

The health benefits of drinking wine and even alcohol are undoubted in the medical literature. And yet, there’s this whole push against alcohol and drinking alcohol and the risks that can come from alcoholism and drunk driving.

Now that’s not what I’m advocating. Moderation is the key here, and I might even suggest you think about wine as a medication.

Sometimes, I’ll have just a little three-ounce or four-ounce glass, especially if it’s an older bottle that’s been sitting on the countertop that I’m not really going to sit down and enjoy and sniff and talk about with anybody. I’ll have that before I go and brush my teeth, truly as a medicine.

No one as yet has really teased out exactly what produces the benefits, but they are certainly there – everything from arthritic diseases to heart disease to cancer to Alzheimer’s, you name it. There’s very, very powerful research on that. And so drinking a small amount of wine daily is something I encourage.

Crux: We’re big fans of this one. Are certain types of wine better than others? Are reds better than whites?

Eifrig: Well, the dark red wines are a little bit better for you than white wines. The red wines tend to have a lot more of the antioxidants, the polyphenols as they’re called, that give it the red color. But the research shows white wines, or even moderate alcohol consumption in general, can provide health benefits.

There’s an old saying: There are more old German wine drinkers than there are old German doctors. And there’s a good reason for that.

Crux: Great… Number 10?

#10~

Eifrig: The next one is especially critical this time of year: don’t share. Don’t share drinking glasses, mugs, cups, forks, spoons, or knives with people.

Obviously it’s not quite as important with your spouse or children or someone who’s living in the same household as you, simply because you’re already so close that it probably doesn’t matter as much. But it’s a great general rule to follow.

Sharing forks, spoons, and glasses Are an Easy Way to Spread Germs

Sharing forks, spoons, and glasses Are an Easy Way to Spread Germs

I’ve always contended that one of the major reasons people get so sick this time of the year – besides the lack of sleep and sun exposure – is that people are shaking hands more frequently, touching their mouths, eating the foods at holiday parties, sharing food and drinks. “Here try this wine.” “Try this food.” And it just spreads bugs like crazy.

About 10 years ago, I figured out that was probably a huge part of it, so I stopped doing it, and I’ve not been sick around this time of year for a long, long time. That’s just something I think makes sense.

Crux: Sounds like a good idea…

#11~

Eifrig: Number 11 is another controversial one. I take an antibiotic once a year, and it’s usually a cheap antibiotic that costs $4 for a two-week or three-week run from the Wal-Mart pharmacy.

The literature’s not been teased out, but there’s some good evidence that things like macular degeneration and heart disease are related to infective processes. And it might be bacteria or the byproducts of bacteria settling in those places, where there’s really small, tiny vasculature like in the back of the eye or in the kidneys.

An Anual Dose of Antibiotics, Though Controversial, May Help Fend Off Chronic Infections

An Anual Dose of Antibiotics, Though Controversial, May Help Fend Off Chronic Infections

Again, I say it’s controversial, but I do it. It’s cheap, and the risk of it is minimal at best.

Now, when I take the antibiotic, I do take yogurt during and after the treatment, so I don’t destroy all of the good flora in my gut. In fact, I recommend anyone who takes a course of antibiotics to be sure to follow it up with yogurt to replenish the flora in their gut. You could also take a “probiotic” supplement that is a more concentrated source of these organisms, but I have not had a problem just using yogurt.

I would encourage you to talk with a physician about a yearly course of antibiotics. One of the problems is getting a physician to do that on the notion that it might prevent some of these diseases of aging. But encourage your doctor to look at the literature like I did.

Crux: Great stuff.

(I am personally reluctant to use antibiotics unless absolutely necessary. A natural alternative to pharmaceuticals could be an annual week-long treatment of colloidal silver water. I make my own – Alan Davidson).

#12~

Eifrig: Last but not least is number 12, which is music. I think music is just so important to humanity.

I’m touched, and I can’t help but laugh and smile when I see my dad, who’s in a nursing home, when we put on some of his old music from the fifties and sixties and he just starts to move and smile and loves it. Now I don’t know what’s going on in his brain when that happens, but I know music is one of the primal sources of good feelings and joy.

Music Keeps You Healthy

Music Keeps You Healthy

So I would encourage you, whenever you can, to listen to some music. Occasionally listen to it more loudly than you might normally. Turn up the bass. Turn up the treble. Just really enjoy it.

You can listen to rock and roll as easily as you can listen to classical music.

Anybody who’s done much serious studying has got to know the effect of some of the classical music, the Baroque music. The rhythm and beat of that is such that it absolutely benefits and helps people in memorization, recall, and that kind of thing.

I love to write to classical Baroque, but I also like grooving out on everything from Luther Vandross to hard rock.

Crux: Some great ideas for starting the New Year in good health. Thanks so much for your time, Doc.

Eifrig: You’re very welcome. Happy holidays.

From the Daily Crux: http://www.thedailycrux.com/

Pain Beyond Words, and an Impulse Just to Endure

Having gone through five significant operations, including one to remove my entire diseased colon and another to cut out my cancerous prostate, I think I can safely state that pain falls into two broad categories: the kind you can articulate, and pain that is beyond words.

If you can tell an E.M.T., a nurse or a doctor where it hurts and how much, that is generally a good sign. But what interests me even more is the pain that can’t be articulated. Fortunately, I’ve experienced this only twice.

The first time came in 1984, when I had my colon taken out. I had been taken back to my room after surgery, one-quarter awake and feeling as if I had just tumbled over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The orderlies and nurses wheeled the gurney against my hospital bed, then started to move me. That was when I became half-awake.

Even though they were tugging me just a few inches, my body pulsed with the worst pain that I had felt in my life. And when it seemed to me that the half-dozen or so tubes snaking from my body were about to be ripped out because they were tangled at the foot of my bed, I tried to shout. But all that came out, I think, was, “Uh-uh-uh.” Mercifully, once I slumped onto my bed, I heaved a sigh and went to sleep.

When I had my prostate out in 2008, I almost fainted when a new resident tried to remove one of my drains. Instead of giving it a firm yank, she waggled it inside my body as if she were whipping up cotton candy. I became dizzy, broke into a cold sweat and nearly threw up. She finally left and got help.

I wouldn’t have chosen to be in those two situations, but each one granted me insight into myself and into the nature of pain.

In each case, I was humbled by pain that to me seemed to transcend the basic medical scale of 1 (mildest) to 10 (most severe). And pain is a path to humility. When it hurts just to wriggle up in bed, elbows digging into the mattress for support, you generally don’t think of yourself as sitting atop the food chain.

And pain is a teacher. More than ever, I understand how abhorrent it is to inflict pain. I have learned to distinguish between mere discomfort and pain that can’t be tolerated. And tough-guy popular culture — oh, great, ultimate fighting on Spike TV — doesn’t impress me at all.

I have no patience these days with the Nietzschean cliché, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I’ve found that the deepest pain holds no meaning. It is not purifying. It is not ennobling. It does not make you a better human being. It just is.

All the worst pain does is reduce us to our most primal animal. We want it to stop. We want to survive. It short-circuits any sense of self, diminishes us to a bundle of biological reflexes.

Right after the radical open surgery to remove my prostate, I felt like one big post-op throb of pain. The morphine drip was my new best pal. It didn’t take long, though, for discrete fiefs of ache and twinge to make themselves known: catheter burn (complemented by the occasional bladder spasm), sore and swollen testicles and the subtle attack of hospital-bed back.

But oddly enough, those sensations were almost pleasant — distractions from my wounded gut. The abdominal incision was raw and tender, but that didn’t stop me from fingering it, searching for different notes of discomfort on the xylophone of the 25 metal staples that held me together.

I’ve been surprised by the degree of pain you can become used to. Before I had my colon out, my stomach hurt constantly from ulcerative colitis, and I bled a lot from my rectum. It wasn’t until I was recovering that I realized how sick I had been.

One side effect of all these operations is that common day-in-and-day-out bumps and bruises don’t get much of a rise out of me. Stubbed toes and headaches, spider bites and bee stings? Whatever. The bracing prickle of alcohol sloshed onto a cut or a scrape actually feels pretty good to me. And after all the siphoning, and replenishing, of my blood over the years, I don’t flinch at needles.

We don’t like to talk about pain — are somehow shamed by it and try to shrug it off. We’re told to play through pain or, even, to pray through it. We revere our stoic American archetypes, like the Wild West gunslinger riddled by half a dozen slugs of lead who swears, “Aw heck, Doc, it’s only a scratch.”

One of the stupidest things I’ve ever done was not take my pain medication after that surgery in 1984. I was raised in a tight-lipped rural culture in which even aspirin was suspect, and I was taught that real men embraced their pain as if it were their destiny. It was supposed to be better to sweat through pain-induced insomnia at 3 in the morning than give in to the terrible temptation to take a pill that would let you sleep.

Well, enough with that. Pain is a crucial part of our medical tales. It needs to be articulated, then confronted — even if, sometimes, the pain is beyond words.

Dana Jennings is a reporter at The New York Times. His postings on coping with prostate cancer appear each week at nytimes.com/well.

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