When countries began to lockdown in early 2020, for many people everyday life suddenly shrunk to the boundaries of our own homes. Unsurprisingly, services like online streaming and food delivery surged in demand. But another industry saw an immediate uptick, according to a report from the American Society for Horticultural Science: home gardening supplies.

Gardening as therapy has long been a strategy to ease stress and anxiety, says Sam Nabil, MA, LPC. The approach is grounded in what’s called the “biophilia hypothesis,” which, according to a July 2021 article published in Frontiers in Psychology, suggests humans are fundamentally drawn to nature and plant life. Researchers point to the COVID-19 pandemic as strong evidence to support this theory: more than ever, some say, we collectively turned to “ecotherapy,” or the concept of nature as a mental health boost.

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What is “ecotherapy”?

Gardening is a prime example of a mindfulness activity, Nabil explains. Because it requires our full focus on the task at hand, the mind is less likely to wander and worry. This can encourage relief from stress and anxiety, as “all of your senses are engaged [in plant care], so your mind is cleared of distractions,” Nabil says.

Scientists have documented this effect clinically. According to 2021 article published in the peer-reviewed urban planning journal Cities, a team of horticulturalists and public health researchers found that gardening and plant care reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies. The study also highlighted how gardening contributes to what the authors called “significant improvements in well-being,” such as generating feelings of accomplishment, prompting social connections (for example, giving you reason to reach out to that acquaintance who’s raised the same kind of wildflowers you’re trying to grow), and instilling a sense of purpose.

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How can I practice ecotherapy if I don’t have a garden?

The therapeutic effects of gardening have been well-documented since at least 1812, when Dr. Benjamin Rush first published a study demonstrating how gardening led to better recovery rates among mental illness patients. Yet, with 83 percent of the U.S. population living in urban areas, not everyone has the space that many gardens require. As a 2016 article in The Atlantic pointed out: even among homeowners, the average size of American homes has grown…which means our lawn areas keep shrinking.

However, recent research suggests that any exposure to plant life promotes mental health benefits. One study reviewed in Clinical Medicine in 2018 monitored participants’ EEG (electroencephalogram) recordings as they looked at plants, and the researchers found that measures of stress, fear, anger, and tension significantly fell.

Another 2020 study published in Ecological Applications surveyed people living in Tokyo, Japan, during the city’s COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. The scientists found that those whose windows offered a green view reported higher levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction, and happiness and lower levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

Houseplants don’t just soothe us, either. Researchers from Texas A&M Agrilife Extension found that keeping plants in the workspace improves memory retention and concentration by up to 20 percent—and the resulting work is generally of higher quality.

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Do houseplants promote physical health?

Getting your hands dirty in the garden counts as a moderate-intensity physical activity, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And spending time in the garden also means you’ll soak up vitamin D from the sun, a nutrient essential to immune system support and mood regulation (in addition to these other benefits). Just don’t forget to wear sunscreen—with this list, we’ve got you covered with the ones dermatologists use themselves.

Still, while tending to your succulents might not give you the same caloric burn as the Peloton, a study reviewed in Clinical Medicine found that just looking at plants reduces your blood pressure, pulse rate, heart rate variability, and muscle tension.

Nabil says indoor plants also improve the air quality in your living space while helping to keep moisture in the air, which may ease respiratory illnesses over the dry winter months.

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Don’t have a green thumb? Just go faux

Whether you travel a lot for work, have pets, or just struggle with a “black thumb” (yep, that’s what they call it), plant care isn’t for everyone.

The good news? Current research suggests that artificial plants in the home can have just as powerful an effect on our mental health as living greenery. In fact, just seeing green goes a long way—a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that both real plants and posters of plants help reduce hospital patients’ stress levels.

The pandemic-era research from Ecological Applications backs up this effect in a perhaps unexpected way. “Surprisingly, the effect of a green view on people’s mental health was generally greater than that of the use of green space,” the study’s authors wrote, suggesting that any exposure to nature—be it through a window, in a painting, or in artificial form—has an immediate, positive psychological effect.

Other recent research supports the use of biophilic design in the home, which incorporates natural materials, colors, and smells (like with aromatherapy). A March 2020 study published in Environmental International found that nature-oriented design has therapeutic benefits on sleep, mood, and feelings of isolation. The researchers also noted that people who were exposed to a biophilic environment also had better responses to, and easier recovery from, stress and anxiety. And, even more evidence of the power of plants to pervade our senses and ease our minds? In this study, these benefits were observed even when study participants experienced biophilic design virtually. Those Zoom meetings may be one more reason to adorn your office with life.

Get more inspired wellness from The Healthy @Reader’s Digest newsletter. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram, and keep reading:

Sweeten the pill

Editor’s note: This article was medically reviewed by Sandra Bonat, MD, an endocrinologist on Long Island, NY

Why do I crave sugar?

Whether you’re trying to lose weight, prevent cavities, or go easier on your heart and blood sugar, reducing your sugar intake is one of the simplest commitments that can improve your overall health…but that still doesn’t mean it’s easy.

In fact, if it seems like the game is rigged against you, it sort of is. “Our brain releases the chemical dopamine when we eat food,” says Natalie Allen, MEd, RD, is a registered dietitian and clinical assistant professor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University, as well as a dietitian for the St. Louis Cardinals Major League Baseball team. “Sugary foods cause more dopamine to be released, which triggers the body to want more of this pleasant chemical, leading to cravings.”

So you get cravings…but do you get cravings? Read Nutrition Pros Just Revealed What 12 Common Food Cravings Secretly Suggest about Your Health

“How can I control sugar cravings?”

There are other processes at play that encourage our taste for sugar, too, explains Emily Clairmont, MS, CD, a registered dietician with the University of Vermont Medical Center. Clairmont says many cravings stem from low blood sugar, which prompts the body to crave the carbohydrates that raise levels back into a normal range.

Still, not all carbs are created equally. If we give into a craving for simple carbohydrates, like the white table sugar in cookies or cakes, sure—they’ll satisfy this craving quickly. However the feeling won’t last.

That’s why one of the best ways to beat sugar cravings is with complex carbohydrates that supply a steadier dose of sugar into the bloodstream, like sweet potatoes, whole grains, and fruits. (What’s more, pairing these complex carbs with a source of protein may unwind your sugar cravings even more—read Craving Sugar? A Dietitian Says You May Need More of This Surprising Nutrient.)

But for better or worse, we’re creatures of habit. If you’re used to eating certain foods during specific activities or times of the day, you create external cues that can trigger a mental, emotional craving, Clairmont says. That’s why effectively cutting back on sugar can often involve forming new habits, like talking with your healthcare provider about whether any dietary supplements could help.

One supplement that’s getting buzz related to sugar is L-glutamine. Could it help cut through your sugar craze?

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Does glutamine lower blood sugar?

Glutamine is an amino acid, one of the building blocks of protein. Sometimes you’ll hear it referred to as “glutamine,” while other times it’s called “L-glutamine.” The difference? Explains our medical reviewer, endocrinologist Sandra Bonat: “L-glutamine is the form of glutamine that is found in food and supplements, but often the term glutamine is used interchangeably with l-glutamine when referring to supplementation, so you can use either term.”

Good to know. As for yanking your sweet tooth? The theory is that glutamine may play a role in blood sugar regulation, Clairmont says—specifically, blood glucose genesis (its production in the liver) and metabolism. The idea is that this helps because when blood sugar is more stable, the body doesn’t need to try and pull us out of a sugar crash with a craving.

One 2020 study published in Nutrition & Metabolism lends some plausibility to this theory, finding that glutamine supplementation could help individuals with diabetes reduce and control their blood glucose levels. Still, while its effect on blood sugar appears promising, any influence it has on sugar cravings is purely anecdotal. “Besides being a supportive nutrient, the literature is not completely accurate in defining how glutamine would directly impact sugar cravings,” Clairmont explains.

What are the health benefits of glutamine?

While the jury’s out on whether glutamine will take the edge off your sugar craze, research continues to explore its other roles in the body. The amino acid is essential for maintaining a healthy immune system, and research from Nutrients suggests that supplementation may help your body heal from infection, illness, or injury. In fact, L-glutamine has been shown to help people with severe burns recover from their injuries, according to research in Nutrition in Clinical Practice. But while it’s often marketed as a sport supplement for athletes, a 2018 review of studies published in Clinical Nutrition concluded that glutamine has shown no meaningful effect on athletic performance, body composition, or post-workout recovery.

The nutrient may also contribute to intestinal health, Clairmont says. A review published in the International Journal of Molecular Science shows that glutamine is important for intestinal cell production and protection—and it even suggests a relationship between low glutamine levels and conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). New research published in Food Science and Human Wellness says glutamine supplementation may also help support a healthy gut microbiome. Given what we’re learning about the gut-brain connection, the researchers believe this amino acid may have potential in treating mental health conditions like depression. (Read Healing My Gut with Probiotics Relieved My Depression: I Tried It)

Still, much more research is needed to clarify and understand glutamine’s possible health benefits, the experts emphasize.

How to take glutamine

“Research shows short-term supplementation of glutamine is not harmful, but it might not be beneficial, either,” Allen says. This is because the body can usually make this amino acid on its own—so only under certain circumstances does a deficiency seem to occur. According to research published in Nutrition in Clinical Practice, this includes conditions that put the body under considerable stress, like critical or chronic illness, infection, trauma, cancer, and gastrointestinal disorders. In such cases, extra glutamine may be helpful but should be taken under the guidance of a physician.

That said, glutamine is a very safe supplement, according to Clairmont. However, it might have adverse effects in people taking anticonvulsant medications, who have liver disease, bipolar or seizure disorders, or who have sensitivities to MSG (glutamates).

Most people take glutamine in a powder form, she adds, though it is available in a capsule or tablet. While there isn’t enough available research to support a dosage recommendation, most preparations come in five-gram (5 g) portions.

“When taking glutamine to get any of the theorized effects, it’s recommended to take the supplement away from any food—30 minutes before or one hour after a meal,” she explains. Because glutamine is an amino acid, consuming it with other proteins may minimize its effect.

Clairmont also says that no matter what supplements you take, it’s always a good idea to learn more about where it comes from and the reputation of the manufacturer or company. “The Office of Dietary Supplements is a great resource to learn about dietary supplement standards and regulations,” she says. “It can be very helpful to know if a product has been third-party tested for purity or batch-tested to confirm supplement label claims.”

But, before beginning any new supplementing routine, be sure to talk with a licensed medical professional.

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By Pat Sandora-Nastyn, as told to Kristine Gasbarre, senior editor for The Healthy

I brought home my first houseplant over a decade ago. It was a tall snake plant in a very large, heavy pot. I picked it out from a garden center a few blocks away from my and my fiancé’s little apartment in New York City. I named it “Planty”—a reference to a 30 Rock episode where Liz Lemon decided that successfully caring for a plant was the sign of a healthy, functioning adult. My early career had actually started inside 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Naming my plant with a lighthearted homage to all the transitions of early adulthood felt significant to me.

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Plants and more plants

plant shop filled with many plants

Planty was quickly joined by more plants that I would buy during my lunch breaks at the digital startup where I worked at the time. It became a ritual: I’d pop over to a plant shop in Chinatown and would almost always pick up a new friend for my desk. Soon my workspace was covered in small, potted plants. My coworkers would politely poke fun at my flourishing collection…but every so often, one of them would show interest in coming along with me to the shop. There, I’d get to watch them smile and feel the same sense of calm I felt each time I visited. I never considered myself a “plant person,” but I guess it was a title that was unsuspectingly growing on me.

Months later—now married and with an apartment full of plants—my husband Billy and I decided that it was time for us to leave the Big Apple for another adventure. Our search for “What’s next?” took us across the state in Buffalo, NY. We bought our first home and continued on with our careers in media and graphic design. Billy and I had agreed that eventually, we would like to entertain the idea of starting our own business. But for the moment, we decided to wait for a sign from the universe, some kind of nudge forward, before making any moves.

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The seed had been planted

Eventually, Billy decided it was time for a break from his job in non-profit healthcare. That’s when our small business seed was officially planted. On social media, we saw that our affinity for bringing greenery into our home was something more and more people shared. With our combined passion and experience for plants, we decided opening a houseplant shop was the way to go.

We started off small, doing regular pop-ups at a local café and connecting with other plant people on social media. We did this together for nearly a year while I continued working my job as an account supervisor at an advertising agency.

But we found that our business grew rapidly. In September 2019, Billy was able to leave his job so we could open our first brick and mortar shop, which we called Daddy’s Plants, where I’d join him to help out on the weekends.

Then, less than six months after Daddy’s opened, the world entered into the pandemic. As people spent significantly more time in their homes, inside our shop Billy and I were noticing how many found solace in sprucing up their dwellings—often with indoor plants. Plants are bright and vibrant; they demonstrated health and stillness in a time when many of us needed to see evidence of both.

And not only did plants seem to make our customers’ homes look and feel better, it seemed that engaging with something living and natural was helping the people who came into our store in a deeper, fundamental way. This realization didn’t occur to me until I reached my own mental health rock bottom.

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Plants showed me the importance of being happy

man on another mans shoulders next to a large potted tree

During the week, the hours I continued to spend plugged into my home computer on Zoom meetings with clients and colleagues was eroding my sense of self in a way that I still can’t quite explain (although I’m sure many people can relate). Everyone I interacted with was stressed. Everyone was exhausted. Everyone seemed to be holding onto their composure by a thread while bickering about things like project timelines, contracts, and deliverables. It was growing normal for me to feel so overwhelmed with negativity that the only thing I could do to lower my anxiety was to go into the backyard and lie face-down in the grass—literally grounding myself to calm my body and mind. In those desperate weekday moments, it was my only recourse.

The weekends provided the balance I craved. That’s when I helped our customers pick out plants, answered their care questions, and swapped plant-parent stories of successes and failures. It was on one of those mundane afternoons when I experienced a moment of sheer clarity: I realized that I was spending five days a week feeling anxious and unsettled by every ping and email notification…compared to the other two days in the shop, when I felt peaceful, connected, and surrounded by positive energy. To oversimplify, the people in the computer were frowns, and the people in the shop were smiles. When Monday arrived, I gave my notice at work to become a full-time plant person and work with Billy in our shop all week.

I am by no means a religious or spiritual person, but I’m not being silly when I share that it’s nothing short of divine when I’m caring for my plants or listening to a stranger excitedly describe the new leaf their plant is growing.

Nature is a powerful force, and sometimes just bringing a small piece of it—like a houseplant—into our home can be transformative. Since we’ve opened our plant shop, I’ve learned that plant care is a beautiful way to facilitate healing and catalog growth—both on a plant, and within ourselves.

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There are some major reasons gardening and houseplant collections have become such popular social media trends. With so much worry in the world these past few years, Jamie Keaton Jones, LICSW, PhD—a psychotherapist and adjunct professor in Washington, DC—says for many people, tending to plants has surfaced as a hobby that’s enabled many individuals to focus their attention on something positive, while experiencing greater comfort and beauty from the company of a living being inside their spaces. “Plants and exposure to greenery have been found to have multiple mental health benefits, such as lowering stress, decreasing feelings of depression, increasing sociability, restoring focus, improving cognitive performance, improving mood, and increasing self-esteem,” Jones tells The Healthy @Reader’s Digest.

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The mental health benefits of interacting with plants

Research has shown there are many benefits to being in the presence of nature, whether that’s in a forest, having a small garden, or keeping a few household plants. “One study showed that patients at a hospital who had plants in their room reported less pain, lower blood pressure, less fatigue, and less anxiety than patients without plants in their rooms,” says Dr. Jenny Seham, PhD, Attending Psychologist, Director,  Empowerment Series Garden, AIM (Arts and Integrated Medicine) Montefiore Health Systems in the Bronx, NY. How is this? She explains: “Cortisol, the stress hormone, has been shown to lower with plant interaction, lowering fatigue, irritability, and blood pressure,” adding: “Gardening and care for plants can help people turn people away from negative thoughts or emotions.”

Adds Gayle Weill, LCSW, a social worker in New York and Connecticut: “Studies have shown that plants and gardening aid in decreasing symptoms of anxiety and depression, while increasing productivity and serotonin levels, the neurotransmitter responsible for uplifting mood.”

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A way to stay grounded

Our lives are busy and largely sedentary, with a lot of time spent behind screens. Weill suggests raising plants can be an opportunity to practice true presence in the here-and-now, focusing on something pleasant and worthwhile as it’s right under your nose. “Rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, [plant care] helps one focus on the present moment and provides a feeling of accomplishment,” she says.

Tyler Keith, LCSW, a social worker specializing in stress, coping issues and behavioral issues in Wilmington, NC (who also identifies as an avid gardener) refers to this process as “grounding.” He explains: “Grounding is a mental health practice and spiritual practice that supports individuals’ senses of connectedness; a feeling of purpose, direction, or a place in the world . . . whether [you’re] talking about growing a garden, tending to a single potted plant, or admiring trees both indoor or outdoors.”

Keith adds that when we experience grounding, changes happen in our bodies. “Our heart rate slows down when we are grounded, our breathing becomes more full,” he says. “Muscles can relax as they become more oxygenated.”

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How plants help us connect

“I’ve seen the positive effects of community gardening on mood, motivation, energy, socialization, knowledge, collaboration, creativity, and self-confidence,” notes Dr. Seham. “These experiences can support empathy, increased community engagement, and a desire to support others. Plants can help people relax and feel calm, while stimulating creativity with the potential to engage multiple senses, sight, smell, [and] touch,” she says. “Activities like watering and tending to plants, responding to sunlight, recognizing what plants and humans need to thrive can be meaningful experiences.”

Keith adds one note before you fill your online shopping cart full of plants or run to the nearest nursery—while plants can definitely be helpful, they’re one part of a holistic wellness routine. “Gardening and plant care aren’t a cure-all,” he says. “Having a plant does not immediately or directly impact mental health processes. It is simply a piece of the puzzle that some can benefit from in exercising mental health maintenance that exposes individuals to positive thoughts and feelings.”

So, how many plants do you need?

If you’re wondering just how many plants you need to reap the benefits, Jones says it’s not about how many plants you have, but rather “about your interaction with the plant.” She poses the questions: “For example, is it placed where you frequently see it? Is it thriving?”

If you have a small space or aren’t sure you’re ready to be a full-on plant parent, starting out with a ton of plants could become overwhelming. Dr. Seham shares that in her experience, “Just one plant can make a difference; it can engage you by its smell or color that creates a positive mood response with every interaction.”

Be prepared for a learning curve

Like with any new skill or hobby, taking care of houseplants or growing a garden comes with a learning curve. Give yourself a little grace. “We aren’t supposed to be good at everything right away,” Keith says. “It takes time, energy, and investment to learn what plants need, such as sunlight, soil preferences, moisture levels, and proper potting methods!”

Allow yourself some time to learn the basics, be patient, and leave room for a little trial and error. Dr. Seham advises: “Start with one plant, and make the maintenance part of your daily routine, like making coffee or brushing your teeth.”

Chia-Ming Ro, garden consultant and owner of Coastal Homestead in Los Angeles, compares caring for plants to dating. “You’ve picked up some new plants, but you really don’t know much about them. In the coming weeks you learn more about them, get to know them, and how to treat them,” she says. “Sometimes it works out great because your ability to adapt to their needs align, while some plants don’t work out because you haven’t figured out how to make them happy. Or, some are simply too high maintenance!”

So with all that, what do these experts recommend as the best plant picks for bringing more harmony into your home? Here’s what they propose are the eight best plants for your mental health.

Snake plant

Snake plant

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If you’re new to plant parenthood, starting off with an easy, no frills plant is best. (Read: One that will survive, even if you sometimes forget to water it.)

Sword-shaped with dark green leaves and often mustard-yellow or white stripes make the snake plant stand out. “The snake plant, also known as ‘mother-in-law’s-tongue,’ is a great first plant,” says Jones. ”It’s very easy to care for, thrives in spaces with low sunlight, has visual appeal, and filters the air.”

Adds Keith: “Snake plants are patient with new gardeners as they are not quick to cook in the sun and die, and they are drought resistant if you forget to water them. These plants are great for building your confidence in your plant-care skills.”


Spider plants

Spider plant

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Spider plants, with light-green foliage with plenty of leaves, are another low-maintenance selection. “They do well with humidity, and actually can handle varying forms of light, but do best with medium light,” says Keith. “Sometimes individuals will put spider plants in their bathroom to have a warmer, cozier feeling in the space that helps a relaxing bath feel that much more relaxing,” he explains.

When a spider plant thrives, it will grow new offshoots that can be snipped and potted as a new plant. “Spider plants are a wonderful plant that you can gift plants to friends at no cost to yourself,” Keith offers. If you want a plant that acts like a gift that keeps on giving, this is one to choose!


Aloe Vera

Aloe vera

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Drought-resistant and easy to grow, Aloe Vera can be a novice plant owner’s dream because they’re forgivable and adaptable. “Aloe Vera is low-maintenance–you can just water it monthly, and it produces a healing gel that you can use straight from the leaf,” says Seham.

Keith adds, “I also recommend having an aloe in the home as it helps detox the airspace and is helpful for burns, cuts, and scrapes to help injuries heal faster or soothe pain.” That goes for sunburn, too.


Pothos

Pothos

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Pothos have chartreuse oval heart-shaped, waxy leaves and are adaptable plants. “They can exist in a lot of different ways as they grow long vines that can trail [or] hang from a pot and grow downwards, or they can climb [and] be supported with a trellis to grow upwards,” says Keith.

Jones also likes the Pothos plant because “they are also easy to care for, filter the air, and look beautiful cascading down a bookcase or shelf.”

Keith recommends this plant if you want to have a planting hobby without spending much money—that’s because Pothos are easy to propagate. (“Propagation” is gardener-speak to mean you can take clippings of the plant and grow a new plant.)


Lavender

Lavender

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Lavender is a beautiful herb that attracts plenty of pollinators, such as bees and butterflies. And, well-known for its relaxing scent, lavender “has a calming effect, aids in reducing stress, promotes sleep, and has anti-inflammatory  properties when used as a topical for skin,” says Weill.

This means it’s great both in the garden, or clipped and dried in a bowl inside your space (or even sprinkled in your bathtub).

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Basil

Basil

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“The experience of growing, picking, and using herbs from your own garden has a positive impact on your mental health, creating positive sensory experiences as well as a sense of accomplishment,” says Dr. Seham.

Basil is a summertime herb that loves the sun (it’s also a staple ingredient for a yummy homemade Margherita pizza, or pesto). Not only is it delicious in meals, but eating basil has health benefits, too, says Weill. “It has properties which help to relieve stress and anxiety. The leaves are used for many purposes and act as an adaptogen, which is a natural substance considered to help the body adapt to stress. Having it can improve mental clarity,” she adds.


Lemon balm

Lemon Balm

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This fragrant green herb is part of the mint family and is simple to cultivate. “Known for its calming properties, it has a light lemony scent that can be wonderfully intensified by rubbing the leaves between your fingers,” says Dr. Seham. “It has been used to improve sleep, reduce stress and anxiety, improve appetite, and help with indigestion.” She adds that lemon balm is common as a tea and is also used in beauty products, such as lotions.

Herbs are versatile and liven up the area where they are grown. “You can use [herbs] to freshen up a room, in a bouquet, in tea, and of course in your next meal,” says Ro. “Herbs don’t require a lot and can be grown in a pot by a sunny window (four to six hours of sun ideally) or anywhere outdoors.”


Spearmint

Spearmint

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Spearmint is a hardy herb, grows quickly, and is part of the mint family. “It is great to just smell the leaves, without even needing to make a tea, for an immediate soothing effect,” Dr. Seham says.

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Chronic pain, insomnia, joint pain, rashes, gastrointestinal issues, severe allergies, hair loss, brain fog, and fatigue are just a few of the debilitating symptoms that Ami Paulsen, a 40-year-old mom of two, struggles with daily. It impacts every aspect of her life—limiting what she can do, forcing her to eat a very precise diet, and take handful of supplements and medications. But the most difficult part to live with?

“No one can tell me what’s happening to me,” she tells The Healthy @Reader’s Digest. “I’ve spent thousands of dollars, done every test imaginable, and spent so much time seeing doctors and researching, and I still don’t know what’s wrong with me. And if we don’t know what’s wrong, we can’t fix it, which is super depressing.”

While she’s received many diagnoses over the years, including inflammatory arthritis and fibromyalgia, all Paulsen’s doctors know for sure is that her conditions are autoimmune in nature, meaning that her symptoms are a result of her immune system going into “hyperdrive” and attacking her own body.

Paulsen isn’t alone—far from it.

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How common are autoimmune diseases in women?

Nearly one in 10 people worldwide suffer from some type of autoimmune disease…but perhaps the really alarming statistic is that nearly 80 percent of those sufferers are women.

Autoimmune disorders occur when the body’s immune system creates “autoantibodies” that mistake the body’s own healthy cells as intruders and attack them. It’s an umbrella term for about 80 diseases, including Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and Hashimoto’s (thyroid) disease—and they all affect women at a much higher rate than men. (This is why all women need to know the silent signs of lupus.)

These diseases range from debilitating to disabling to—in some cases—terminal. This makes it extremely important to figure out the who, what, and why behind them, and how to treat them, says H. Michael Shepard, PhD, a biooncologist and autoimmune disease researcher, and founder of Enosi Life Sciences, a research and development company for therapeutics for autoimmune diseases and cancer. “We know that women are far more likely than men to suffer from multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and other autoimmune disorders,” says Dr. Shepard, who invented Herceptin (Trastuzumab), a drug that fights HER2+ breast cancer by targeting the immune system. “But ‘Why?’ is the million dollar question.”

Why are autoimmune diseases higher in women?

It starts with sex differences in the immune system. Dr. Shepard explains that women and men both have the same immune system. However, women’s immune systems are more responsive, producing a more “vigorous” immune response to their environment and having higher antibody production than men. (However, he adds, when men do get autoimmune diseases, they are often more severe.)

He says this is one of the great ironies of biology: the stronger the immune system, the more vulnerable you are to being attacked by it.

Why women have more reactive immune systems is a mystery. One theory is that women evolved to have stronger immune systems to fight off infections to protect growing babies. In modern times this comes at a cost—the increased risk that the body will mistake itself for the invader and then attack, causing autoimmune disease.

The role of hormones in autoimmune diseases

Part of the answer lies in the differences between male and female levels of sex hormones. “Sex hormones further amplify this hyperimmune response, which leads to an increased prevalence of autoimmune diseases in women,” he says. Estrogen increases immune hyperreactivity, while testosterone protects against it.

Testosterone is protective

Men have 10 times the amount of testosterone, a hormone that has a protective effect against autoimmune disorders. As a 2021 study published in Gastroenterology suggested, testosterone lowers inflammation—a common symptom of, and precursor to, autoimmune disorders. Researchers found that by reducing inflammation, testosterone acts as a “brake pedal” on the immune system.

In addition, testosterone reduces the number of B cells, a type of lymphocyte—an immune cell produced in the spleen—that releases harmful antibodies, according to a 2018 study published in Nature Communications.

Women are also more likely to have an increased amount of a particular type of B cells, called age-associated B cells, known to increase autoimmune diseases, a 2017 study published in Journal of Clinical Investigation noted. These cells are found at high rates in autoimmune patients and increase with age. (Women also generally live longer than men, which may be another factor.)

Estrogen increases risk

It’s not just a lack of testosterone that makes women more susceptible to autoimmune diseases, but also higher levels of estrogen, according to a 2019 study published in Arthritis Research & Therapy. Researchers found that patients with the highest levels of estrogen were the most likely to get scleroderma, an autoimmune disease of connective tissue. This may explain why women in their child-bearing years are most likely to experience autoimmune illnesses. Interestingly, it could also explain why elderly men with higher levels of estrogen were more likely to get severe scleroderma.

The researchers noted that women may also be more susceptible to exposure to environmental factors that affect estrogen levels, like endocrine disrupters and estrogen mimics. This increases the risk of autoimmune diseases.

It’s also genetic

Women may be more susceptible to autoimmune diseases, particularly lupus, at a genetic level, according to a 2019 study published in JCI Insight. There is a “molecular switch” in skin cells, called VGLL3, which appears to trigger an overreaction by the immune system by activating certain genes associated with the immune system—and researchers discovered that women have far more of these molecules.

Treating autoimmune diseases in women

Right now, as women like Ami Paulsen have learned, autoimmune diseases can be managed, but not cured. Much more research needs to be done into treating these illnesses—particularly in women, says Dr. Shepard, who calls the gender disparity “troubling.” This research starts with understanding why autoimmune illnesses affect women more.

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Pouring capsules into hand

Is it the magic vitamin? Well, it might be close. Research in recent years has shown that vitamin D may be one of the most powerful supplements to boost your total wellness and even help promote longevity.

For years, vitamin D was touted as an ace for stronger bones, shinier hair, and as a potential mood-booster. But you might not be aware of the many benefits vitamin D can provide for your whole system.

Dietitians Just Shared 6 Tips to Help Your Gut Absorb Vitamin D

Brain

brain benefits of vitamin D

When taken with fish oil, vitamin D is a powerful mood booster, according to a study published in the FASEB journal. The aptly named “sunshine vitamin” improves mood and lowers depression by aiding the conversion of the essential amino acid tryptophan into serotonin—a brain chemical that regulates mood.

But that’s not all! Vitamin D improved memory and cognitive functions in older women, according to a separate study published in Journals of Gerontology A. Meanwhile, previous research has found it may also have some protective effects against Alzheimer’s disease—read 8 Supplements and Vitamins for Memory—What Works and What Doesn’t.


Eyes

Adult woman green eyes with wrinkles closeup

Laugh lines aside, your eyes themselves undergo signs of aging that can impair your vision. A daily dose of vitamin D reduced some of the effects of aging on eyes, reduced inflammation, and improved vision in mice, according to a study published in Neurobiology of Aging.

A second study found that it may also help prevent macular degeneration, a common eye disease that can lead to blindness if it goes untreated.


Ears

Ear

What causes vertigo, that disorienting sensation of dizziness and spinning? Vertigo may feel like your head is spinning, but the problem often stems from the structures in your inner ear that are responsible for balance.

However, taking vitamin D and calcium twice a day may reduce vertigo and lower your chances of getting vertigo again, according to a study published in Neurology.


Teeth

teeth benefits of vitamin D

Want stronger, whiter teeth and fewer cavities? Taking a daily vitamin D supplement may help, according to a meta-analysis published in Nutrients. Researchers analyzed dozens of controlled studies with thousands of participants in several countries to find that that vitamin D was associated with a 50-percent reduction in the incidence of tooth decay.

10 Things Dentists Do to Prevent Tooth Decay


Gums

Comprehensive dental examination

The same vitamin D supplement that strengthens your teeth can also help protect your gums from bacterial infections that lead to problems like gingivitis and periodontitis, according to the Nutrients study.

Periodontitis, a potentially serious infection of the gum tissue, affects up to 50 percent of people in the U.S. It’s a major cause of tooth loss and can also contribute to heart disease. Protect yourself by knowing the early signs of gum disease.


Heart

Senior African descent woman clutches chest in pain

One of vitamin D’s most powerful roles is in the cardiovascular system, where there are 200 genes regulated by vitamin D. How does it work? Vitamin D may help stop cholesterol from clogging arteries, regulate blood pressure, and improve the function of cells in the heart.

Even better, it may also be able to help heal existing heart damage, according to research published in the International Journal of Nanomedicine.

23 Vitamin D Benefits That Can Save Your Life


Lungs

Close up of unrecognizable woman doing breathing exercises at the park

Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema and chronic bronchitis affect about 15 percent of Americans, according to the most current data from the CDC. While it’s not a cure, vitamin D can reduce the number of lung disease flareups by 40 percent, a study published in The Lancet concluded.

The same may be true for asthma, according to a separate study published in Cochrane Review. Researchers found that people who took a daily dose of vitamin D in addition to their asthma medication reduced the number of severe asthma attacks they experienced.


Gut

gut

People with metabolic syndrome— increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels—are at a high risk for heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Exercise and a healthy diet are important practices to avoid or heal the syndrome, but research has suggested vitamin D may also help. In a study published in Frontiers in Physiology, vitamin D improved signs of metabolic syndrome by boosting healthy gut bacteria in mice.

Types of Probiotics and How to Pick the Right One for Your Needs, according to Gut Health Research


Liver

African woman suffering from liver pain, cropped

Higher vitamin D levels are linked with lower levels of cancer in general, and less liver cancer specifically, according to a BMJ study. Researchers took samples from over 33,000 adult participants and found that higher levels of the nutrient were associated with a 20-percent reduction in cancer and a 30 to 50 percent reduction in liver cancer. Read 9 Silent Signs of Liver Cancer You Shouldn’t Ignore


Reproductive system

Hands of newborn baby and mother

Both men and women show reproductive and fertility benefits from vitamin D. Female participants who had a healthy vitamin D level early in pregnancy were more likely to have a baby with a healthy weight and head size in a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

Similarly, men with higher vitamin D levels had a better fertility potential, particularly through better sperm motility, say researchers in a separate study, published in World Journal of Men’s Health.

15 Everyday Things That May Be Harming Your Fertility


Bones

X-ray of knee - osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis

Think calcium is the best nutrient for bones? Think again. The positive effects of vitamin D on bone health are some of the most documented benefits of the nutrient. Vitamin D is essential to building and maintaining strong bones, while inadequate vitamin D can lead to osteoporosis, a brittle bone disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Does Yoga Strengthen Your Bones? An Orthopedic Surgeon’s Answer Might Surprise You


Knees

Black woman massaging her painful knee, close up

Your knees are one of the most-used joints in your body and often one of the first places to experience joint pain as you get older. Research has suggested the most common causes of joint pain are osteoarthritis from joint overuse or injury, and rheumatoid arthritis—an autoimmune disease that attacks joints.

Vitamin D can help protect against both types of arthritis. People who maintained healthy vitamin D levels were less likely to get rheumatoid arthritis, according to a study published in Journal of Autoimmunity. Similarly, people with low vitamin D levels reported more symptoms of osteoarthritis, like knee pain and difficulty walking, according to research by the American College of Rheumatology.

Read Everything You Need to Know About Supplements for Joint Pain


Feet

Sore feet cannot walk Use both hands to massage the feet.

Stress fractures—microfractures that often occur in small bones due to overuse—are fairly common injuries, particularly in people who participate in high impact activities, like running or sports, or people who are significantly overweight. According to a study published in The Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery, vitamin D may reduce stress fractures by helping improve bone density.

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One major reason allergies are worse in 2022

If your sniffling, sneezing, watery eyes, and other seasonal allergy symptoms seem worse than ever this year, you’re not imagining it. Many of the 50 million Americans who suffer from allergy symptoms know that seasonal allergies tend to stir up in spring, summer, and early fall and are typically caused by pollens from trees, grasses or weeds, or mold spores.

However, human-made conditions, such as carbon dioxide from burning coal, gasoline, and natural gas, are causing plants to produce even more pollen. Neeta Ogden, MD, an allergist and immunologist in Edison, New Jersey and spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI) explains: “As the earth gets warmer, we see conditions that are optimal for plant growth and soaring pollen counts, which worsens your symptoms.”

As a result, even people who have never suffered from allergies are feeling the effects. An April 2022 HealthDay poll of more than 2,000 U.S. adults found that while one in three people had an official hay fever diagnosis, three of four said they have experienced seasonal allergy symptoms—with close to 75 percent saying that these symptoms are taking a toll on their overall quality of life.

And next year may be even worse. For a March 2022 study published in Nature Communications, researchers looked at 15 plant pollens in the U.S. and historical pollen data from 100 locations across North America. Then, they used computer simulations to calculate how long the allergy season might span, and how pollen emissions will change as temperatures rise during the next 80 years.

Amir Shahlaee, MD, an allergist in Annandale, VA, helps translate some of the study’s findings. “There has been a trend of longer and more intense warm seasons attributed to climate change, and this naturally means more people getting exposed to pollen, longer,” Dr. Shahlaee tells The Healthy. In fact, the latest research suggests that pollen season may start 10 to 40 days earlier and last anywhere from one to three weeks longer than in the past. Further, pollen levels may triple in some locations if carbon emissions aren’t curbed.

“How can I manage my allergies this year?”

You aren’t powerless in the face of high pollen counts—Ogden suggests a few simple steps:

  • Check pollen counts before you leave the house. Check out the National Allergy Bureau for pollen counts in your area. Pollen counts are reported as low, moderate, high, or very high. “Avoid being outside on days with high or very high pollen counts, especially on windy days,” Ogden says.

What Is the Pollen Count? 3 Best Ways to Check

  • Check in with an allergist. Find out exactly what you are allergic to so you can be better prepared and know when to start taking medication, says Susan Schuval, MD, chief of the Division of Pediatric Allergy at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital in New York. If you know the allergens that are most likely to trigger you, you may opt for an over-the-counter antihistamine or nasal spray to help with sneezing, decongestants that can treat a stuffy nose, and antihistamine eye drops which can relieve watery, itchy eyes. If these don’t do the trick, allergy shots may help.

7 Sneaky Signs Your Allergy Medicine Isn’t Working

  • Run a HEPA filter. HEPA filters—short for “high-efficiency particulate air” filters—can remove at least 99.97% of particles that are 0.3 microns in diameter from the air, including pollen. Looking for a good recommendation? One of our sibling sites, Family Handyman, recently reviewed the Honeywell Air Purifier.
  • Remove your shoes before walking into your home. Make sure guests do the same. This simple step can minimize the pollen that gets dragged in from outside and stays harbored in carpets, area rugs, and the air.
  • Wear a mask when gardening or doing yardwork. This will help you avoid excessive exposure to pollen.
  • Keep the windows closed. That means in the car, too.
  • Take a bath, wash your hair, and change your clothing. Especially before bed, this will help you get rid of errant pollen.

How Often Should You Wash Your Sheets? Here’s What Germ Experts Recommend

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Have darkened underarms prevented you from rocking the tank tops and sleeveless dresses you want to wear? If you’ve spent time wondering how to get rid of dark armpits—and too embarrassed to discuss it—then you may feel some reassurance from hearing this: darkly pigmented armpits are actually way more common than you might think.

More good news? There are some steps you can take to help lighten them back up so they blend naturally with the rest of your complexion.

What’s Crystal Deodorant and Does It Detox the Armpits? A Hollywood Dermatologist Explains the Sudden Popularity

Why Have Your Armpits Darkened?

First, the good news: Dark armpits are common and usually a purely cosmetic issue—nothing to be ashamed of. So, for starters, you don’t have to get rid of them unless you want to.

Most frequently, dark armpits are a form of hyperpigmentation that’s most prevalent in deeper complexions, explains Dr. Geeta Yadav, M.D., FRCPC, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Science Dermatology in Toronto, Ontario. “It’s exacerbated by irritation, such as skin rubbing together or shaving. In both cases, the darker skin is caused by increased melanin production.” (Read The 7 Products a Dermatologist Suggests to Get Rid of Razor Burn in Armpits)

It’s important to note, Dr. Yadav adds, that there could also be an underlying medical condition causing the skin color. “In some cases, dark armpits can be caused by a condition known as acanthosis nigricans, which is characterized by darker, thicker skin in areas where the body creases, like the armpits, genitals and thighs, elbows, and knees,” says Dr. Yadav. “Though acanthosis nigricans is not dangerous, it could be an indication of another health issue, such as prediabetes.” If you think it’s possible that’s the case, talk to your physician.

How to Prevent Dark Armpits

In many cases, dark armpits are hereditary and can’t be avoided, explains Dr. Yadav. But reducing irritation in the area, especially the kind shaving causes, will significantly reduce the risk of developing dark armpits and inhibit future damage.

If you don’t want to stop hair removal in the area altogether, talk to your dermatologist about laser hair removal or electrolysis. These procedures will damage the hair follicles and prevent future growth, which eventually can make make shaving unnecessary. Not everyone is a good candidate for laser hair removal, however, so it’s wise to consult with a licensed dermatologist before you book a treatment.

Other lifestyle changes that may help include wearing looser-fitting clothes to prevent excess friction, exfoliating the area, trying a more natural deodorant, and weight loss. “In the case of obesity, weight loss can go a long way toward preventing future darkening in the armpits and in other areas, such as the inner thighs,” says Dr. Yadav. “Not only is melanin production increased in those who are overweight, the friction caused by skin rubbing together can cause hyperpigmentation. Weight loss will reduce both.”

8 Best Natural Deodorants on Amazon, According to Dermatologists

How to Get Rid of Dark Armpits

First things first: if you’re concerned about having dark armpits, find out if there may be an undiagnosed medical condition to blame. “It’s important to work with your dermatologist or general practitioner to determine if there is an underlying concern, because treating that will improve the appearance of dark armpits,” says Dr. Yadav.

If you’ve been cleared medically, then you can safely start down the path of figuring out how to get rid of dark armpits. And for some, that may be through medical treatments.

“Lightening armpits at home can be a challenging endeavor; the best method for lightening armpits would be prescription topical agents or professional laser treatments, performed by a dermatologist,” confirms Dr. Yadav. “Otherwise, using topical treatments that include brightening ingredients like niacinamide, tranexamic acid, vitamin C serum, licorice root extract, kojic acid, or arbutin can help.”

Before you choose a medical route to get rid of dark armpits, it may be wise to at least give one of these over-the-counter options a shot.

Dove Even Tone Restoring Powder

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One of the most affordable option is Dove’s Even Tone Restoring Powder. It contains brightening niacinamide, and Dr. Yadav says this formula is ultra-moisturizing to help reduce the chafing that can cause hyperpigmentation. You can also consider crystal deodorant if you’re looking for something natural.

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Musely The Private Cream

Musely The Private Cream Ecomm Via Musely

“This prescription-strength formula is especially designed to target hyperpigmentation in sensitive areas, including the armpits,” says Dr. Yadav. Musely offers two formulations: a more potent version that contains hydroquinone and niacinamide, or a gentler option that uses niacinamide and tranexamic acid, a tyrosinase inhibitor (tyrosinase is the enzyme that triggers melanin production). Either way, you can get a prescription through a licensed dermatologist.

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DermaDoctor Total Nonscents Ultra Gentle Brightening Antiperspirant

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“DermaDoctor is a brand founded by a dermatologist, so I trust the formulations,” says Dr. Yadav. “This antiperspirant contains a kojic acid derivative to help gently brighten the armpits without irritation.”

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LovelySkin PFB Vanish + Chromabright

Vanish Pfb Ecomm Via Lovelyskin

“This roll-on treatment was actually designed to be used directly after shaving to reduce hyperpigmentation caused by razor irritation,” says Dr. Yadav.

In addition to exfoliating, skin-brightening ingredients like glycolic and lactic acids, it contains an ingredient called Dimethylmethoxy Chromanyl Palmitate, which decreases tyrosinase activity.

Shop Now


TruSkin Niacinamide Facial Serum

Truskin Serum For Face Ecomm Via Amazon

Just because it says “facial” serum, doesn’t mean you can’t use this on other patches of skin, like your armpits. TruSkin is powered by Niacinamide (vitamin B3), and this formulation also includes hyaluronic acid for hydration. That means it should help brighten any discoloration without drying out this sensitive armpit area.

Shop Now

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Imagine exercising while your pulse metric flashes before your eyes in real-time, letting you know you’re in your target heart rate zone or taking a photo as you blink. Sound like something out of 2052?

It’s really not that futuristic. The new smart contact lenses, including those that emit antihistamines to treat seasonal allergies on the spot, are already here; while other smart contacts are in development. “A smart contact lens is a contact lens that gives you more than just the visual aspect,” explains Dr. Janelle Davison, an optometrist in Smyrna, GA. “Some smart contacts release medication, others may monitor important vital signs, and others still may promote wound healing.”

These lenses may have all sorts of capabilities built into them, including sensors, cameras, or batteries, depending on their functions. As technology advances, there is really no limit to what tomorrow’s contact lenses will be capable of doing, Dr. Davison says.

Here, Davison and other eye health experts tell The Healthy which smart contact lenses are already available, and which are soon in view.

Science Explains Why the Flavor Makes Menthol Cigarettes More Addictive

Contact lenses that correct nearsightedness in kids

Status: Available

CooperVision’s MiSight 1-day contact lenses are daily disposable soft lenses that correct blurry distance vision and slow the progression of myopia or nearsightedness in children aged eight to 12 years, explains Miami pediatric optometrist Eric Chow.

In addition to correcting vision, the CooperVision MiSight lenses stop or slow the progress of nearsightedness, Chow says: “Most of the patients I have on this lens have not progressed since being fit on this lens, while some have progressed at a much slower rate.” That’s all good news for kiddos.

Johnson & Johnson Vision’s Acuvue Abiliti orthokeratology lenses are also approved to stall the progression of nearsightedness in kids.

Contact lenses that treat allergies

Status: Available

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently gave their nod to the first contact lens that emits antihistamines to ease itchy eyes caused by allergies: Johnson & Johnson Vision Care’s Acuvue Theravision lenses.

These drug-eluting contacts contain ketotifen, an anti-allergy drug. They start to work in as few as three minutes, and relief lasts for up to 12 hours. “For people who have really bad eye allergies, a contact lens that offers slow, sustained release of an antihistamine during allergy season could be of benefit,” says Daniel Laroche, MD, director of glaucoma services and president of Advanced Eyecare of New York. “We do have pretty good eye drops for eye allergies, but some people need something stronger.”

These lenses can continue to be worn for vision correction after the medication wears off.

7 Best Hypoallergenic Pillows for People With Allergies

Contacts that reduce digital eye strain

Status: Available

In addition to improving vision, Biofinity Energys from Coopervision eliminate the digital eye strain we all get from staring at our computers all day. “I’ve had some patients report relief of computer strain from this lens,” Chow says.

The Biofinity Energys lenses have curves across their face, which minimizes strain as you move your eye, and also feature better moisture retention to keep eyes moist since we blink less when we use digital devices, he says.

The Best Contacts for Dry Eyes, According to Doctors

Telescopic contact lenses

Status: In development

Some contacts in the pipeline can magnify images for people with low vision who can’t read or drive, and need to use a magnifying lens for up-close activities. “Telescopic contact lenses can help people with low vision caused by macular degeneration or other eye diseases,” Davison says.

Adds London-based optometrist Bhavin Shah: “Some researchers have been working on contact lenses that can zoom in like a telescope, which will be extremely helpful for the blind.”

10 Foods That Slash Your Risk of Macular Degeneration

Virtual Reality Prescription Lenses

Status: In development

Dr. Shah also explains how one company, Mojo Vision, released a prototype of a virtual reality contact lens in March 2022. “So far the demonstrations have been mounted on a stand rather than being on the eye but this has been a milestone for microdisplays and the components needed for a VR/AR [virtual reality/augmented reality] contact lens. Eventually, the company hopes that people will wear them like regular contact lenses but with a computer display in your vision.”

Transition lenses

Status: Available

Some available contact lenses are smart enough to darken automatically in sunlight to reduce glare. “These can protect your eyes from the damaging effects of U.V. rays and block excess light, so you squint less in the sun” says Davison.

The Best Polarized Sunglasses, According to Optometrists

Blood-sugar monitoring contacts for people with diabetes

Status: Back to the drawing board

Just about anyone who’s diabetic can imagine: how great would it be if you no longer needed to test your blood sugar with needles all day long? Enter blood-sugar monitoring contact lenses. “The goal is to measure blood glucose in your tear film and analyze it, but so far, tear film levels don’t correspond to blood levels,” Laroche says.

Trying to Quit Sugar? A Diabetes Patient Reveals the One Change That Saved His Life

Inflammation-fighting contact lenses

Status: In development

Corneal melting is a blinding eye condition that can occur due to autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, chemical burns, or even some surgeries. When you have this condition, the cornea (your eye’s transparent outer layer) melts due to the uncontrolled production of zinc-dependent enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), Laroche explains. “You need special organic compounds to break up MMPs.”

To that end, researchers at the University of New Hampshire developed a new hydrogel that deactivates those enzymes by removing the zinc ions to effectively treat corneal melting.

Wound-healing lenses

Status: Available

If you have ever scratched your cornea, you know it hurts…a lot. Contact lenses can serve as a bandage to help these tears heal. “These protect your eye and also help reduce pain by protecting your cornea from the rubbing of the blinking eyelids,” Laroche says.

Post-cataract surgery healing lenses

Status: In development

Cataracts occur when your eye’s natural lens becomes cloudy and causes blurry vision. Some people will need surgery to correct cataracts. “After cataract surgery, we use eyedrops for days or weeks, but placing a contact lens that emits an antibiotic and a steroid for sustained slow release and melts away after one or two weeks would mean no more eyedrops,” Laroche says.

Glaucoma-monitoring contact lenses

Status: In development

Glaucoma occurs when there is an increase in intraocular pressure inside the eye. Untreated glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness. Smart contacts with a sensor to check eye pressure are being developed to improve glaucoma management. “This technology would allow people with glaucoma to check their eye pressure at home instead of coming in every three to four months to have it checked by their eye doctor,” Davison says.

One such lens from Triggerfish features a wireless chip and miniaturized sensor that measures intraocular pressure for 24 hours, which can help doctors know if a treatment is working. “It will also be possible in the future to deliver a drug directly into the eye for treatment of glaucoma,” says Dr. Shah.

Performance-tracking contacts

Status: In development

Fully 74 percent of athletes rely on wearable tech to track performance data. Mojo has developed a lens that overlays images, symbols, and text on your natural field of vision without obstructing your view.

So far, the brand has partnered with Adidas Running for running and training, Trailforks for cycling and hiking outdoors, Wearable X for yoga, Slopes for snow sports, and 18Birdies for golf. The goal is to provide real-time stats to data-conscious athletes using a handful of sensors, a tiny processor, a microLED display, and a battery, which are built into the lens to detect eye movement. Users also get a neck-worn computer that communicates with the lens via proprietary wireless technology.

Camera lenses

Status: In development

Samsung and Sony have patents for contact lens models that feature built-in cameras and sensors controlled by blinking, and you can store these images on a wireless device. Says Shah: “The sensors can tell the difference between voluntary and involuntary blinks.”

Augmented reality lenses

Status: In development

These are the holy grail of smart contacts, Shah says. Samsung and other tech companies are exploring ways to project virtual images directly onto the eye, like Google Glass. “This could create a mixed-reality experience that’s especially helpful in navigation and could greatly enhance the close-point work of surgeons and emergency personnel,” he says. “Don’t get too excited, though: I think it will still be another two years before these products will hit the market.”

Power-generating contact lenses

Status: In development

Sony has applied for a patent on a smart contact that converts eye blinks into electrical power, while Novartis has been granted a patent on solar-powered smart lenses, Shah says.

Data storage contacts

Status: In development

Another Sony patent allows lens users to store images and video they record through their smart contacts, Shah says, adding: “This feature, along with facial recognition programming, could replace body cameras, making life safer for those serving in the military and police.”

Night vision contact lenses

Status: In development

How cool would it be to see at night without using a flashlight? The U.S. Defense Department and the University of Michigan are working on developing ultrathin light detectors that can sense wavelengths our eyes can’t see using heat vision technology, which is a type of night vision, Shah says.

Zooming contact lenses

Status: In development

Blink twice to zoom in. This is the premise and promise of new contact lenses being developed by researchers at the University of California, San Diego. They measured the electric signals generated when an eye moves up, down, left, and right, or blinks or double-blinks, and created a soft lens that responds directly to these electric impulses.

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The FDA’s proposed ban on menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. This week, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) took major steps to bolster President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot mission, which aims to reduce cancer death rates by at least 50 percent over the next 25 years.

The federal agency is advancing two tobacco product standards that would ban menthol cigarettes and all flavored cigars. These new standards aim to build on the 2009 landmark Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which banned all forms of flavoring agents in cigarettes except for menthol.

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So why is the FDA trying to ban menthol cigarettes now?

The National Library of Medicine explains that companies first began adding menthol to cigarettes in the 1920s, but the ingredient didn’t become widely used until the 1950s and ’60s. Today, the American Thoracic Society says an estimated 25 percent of all cigarettes in the U.S. contain menthol.

To create the cool flavor, cigarette manufacturers extract menthol from peppermint or corn mint plants, or create it synthetically, and incorporate it into the cigarette filters.

Menthol—a type of alcohol—makes cigarette smoking more tolerable (and for some, arguably more pleasurable) in a few ways.

For starters, according to Truth Initiative, which identifies as America’s largest nonprofit public health organization committed to ending tobacco and nicotine use, menthol generates a tingly, cooling sensation in the mouth and throat that makes cigarette smoke and nicotine vapors less harsh. This cooling sensation also helps supress your coughing reflex, making it easier to inhale cigarette smoke. For many smokers, especially first-time or young smokers, the qualities of menthol increase the overall appeal and ease of use of cigarettes.

As it turns out, organizations like the American Thoracic Society also suggest that menthol makes cigarettes more addictive. The alcohol slows your breathing rate, which increases how long nicotine lingers in the lungs. It also slows down how quickly menthol is metabolized, or broken down, by the body, generating a longer-lasting effect.

The National Institutes of Health also points to studies which have found that menthol actually enhances nicotine’s addictive effects by amplifying nicotine-induced changes in the brain’s reward system and memory responses that contribute to addiction. This helps explain research showing that people who smoke menthol cigarettes have a stronger nicotine dependence and a harder time quitting smoking.

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Would banning menthol cigarettes and cigars really cut down on deaths?

While menthol is currently the only flavoring agent allowed in cigarettes, a wide range of appealing flavors are still legal in cigars. Most flavoring agents used in cigars are sweet and soothing, enticing more people to use them, especially youth and young adults.

A body of research in recent years has shown that banning menthol in cigarettes, and flavoring agents from cigars, could indeed reduce the number of people who start smoking and eventually die from smoking-related cancers.

One three-year study conducted in Canada and published in the British Medical Journal in 2021 concluded that banning menthol tobacco products in the U.S. would help an additional 923,000 people quit smoking in the 13 to 17 months following the ban’s implementation.

The FDA has also highlighted a 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health, which suggested that banning menthol tobacco products in the U.S. could help prevent some 633,000 deaths associated with smoking. Modeling studies have also estimated that smoking rates would reduce by 15 percent within the next 40 years if menthol cigarettes were no longer sold in the U.S.

Prohibiting the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars could also help reduce smoking-related health disparities. According to the FDA, use of menthol cigarettes is especially prevalent in youth, young adults, African Americans, and other ethnic and racial groups.

The proposed menthol product standards would not make it illegal for individuals to possess, purchase, or use menthol cigarettes or flavored cigars. Instead, it would target those that create, distribute, and sell these products in the U.S. (It’s important to note that local and state law agencies cannot enforce FDA regulations.)

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Here’s how you can weigh in on the proposed menthol ban

The FDA is seeking the public’s help to further iron out their proposed product standard regulations on menthol cigarettes. In particular, they’re looking for public input regarding the standard’s potential social and racial justice implications and how to clarify state and local law enforcement’s role in implementing the standards. From May 4 through July 5, 2022 you can submit written and electronic comments directly to the FDA. The FDA will also host public listening sessions June 13-15, 2022.

If things go as planned, the FDA will formally issue product standards banning menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars within the coming year.

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What is kidney failure?

Chronic kidney disease rates are increasing worldwide. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2022 estimated that 15 percent of the U.S. population—that’s about 37 million Americans—are living with declining kidney function. Meanwhile, one in three more Americans are at risk for developing the disease.

What’s also alarming is that many have no idea. “Most people are not even aware that they have chronic kidney disease,” says Khaled Boubes, MD, a nephrologist (kidney specialist) at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Dr. Boubes tells The Healthy that physical symptoms of kidney decline are generally very subtle, at least until the disease reaches end-stage kidney failure. At this point, he says, signs like frothy urine, swelling in the legs, and puffiness in the face can be key signs to recognize that something is significantly wrong.

But ahead of these significant warning bells, chronic kidney disease damage progresses more or less silently, gradually making it harder and harder for the kidneys to filter blood, get rid of waste, and maintain the body’s electrolyte balance. This kidney function decline generally occurs over five stages:

  • Stage 1: urine tests show signs of damage, but they’re working well enough in general (This Urine Color Chart Reveals Exactly What Your Pee Color Means)
  • Stage 2: kidneys no longer operate at full strength
  • Stage 3: function becomes moderately reduced
  • Stage 4: significant loss of kidney function, and symptoms start to show
  • Stage 5: kidney failure, when dialysis or a kidney transplant is now required

One way to keep those kidneys healthy? Here’s How Much Protein You Really Need in a Day, with a Kidney Doctor’s Wisdom

How to prevent kidney failure

CDC data has suggested that up to 96 percent of people with early-stage chronic kidney disease aren’t even aware that they have it. This poses a pretty big problem. “Most damage is irreversible, unfortunately,” explains Dr. Boubes. So, once kidney tissue gets scarred, it won’t regenerate. (An exception to this is what’s called “acute kidney failure.” This condition is generally caused by trauma, infection or disease, a urinary tract obstruction, severe dehydration, and ingesting drugs or poisons—and it’s often curable once the cause itself is treated.)

Still, while chronic kidney disease can’t be cured, you can slow or stop its progression by controlling for the main risk factors that drive damage. Understanding which risk factors apply to you can also help you maintain kidney health, minimize your risk of damage through lifestyle changes, and prevent the disease from advancing by catching it early by planning for regular screenings.

Diabetes

One in three people with diabetes has chronic kidney disease, according to the CDC. This makes it the greatest risk factor for kidney failure.

Over time, a diabetic patient’s high blood pressure stresses the kidneys’ blood vessels, which may cause damage that limits their function. This is just one reason people with diabetes should monitor metrics like blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels and keep up with their doctor-recommended screenings.

Trying to Quit Sugar? A Diabetes Patient Reveals the One Change That Saved His Life

High Blood Pressure

Hypertension (high blood pressure) is the next big risk factor for kidney disease, says Dr. Boubes. Uncontrolled hypertension puts a lot of pressure on blood vessels throughout the body, causing them to weaken, narrow, and harden—and that includes those whose job is to supply oxygen-rich blood to your kidneys. According to the National Kidney Foundation, almost half of all U.S. adults have high blood pressure. Of these people, an estimated 20 percent develop chronic kidney disease.

Fortunately, many lifestyle changes can help keep your blood pressure in a healthy range. Here are natural remedies for high blood pressure to get you started.

Genetics

Many genetic factors can contribute to the two main risk factors for kidney disease: diabetes and high blood pressure. Read Is High Blood Pressure Genetic?

Still, there are genetic conditions that specifically raise your risk for chronic kidney disease, too, Dr. Boubes explains. In fact, the Inherited Kidney Disease Clinic at the University of Michigan says there are more than 60 genetic diseases known to affect the kidneys. The most common of these conditions is polycystic kidney disease, which causes cysts to form on the kidneys. It affects about one in 800 people, and more than 30,000 people per year suffer kidney failure as a result.

7 Innocent Mistakes That Put Your Kidneys in Trouble

Smoking

Cigarette smoking is one of the most controllable kidney disease risk factors. Research published in Frontiers in Medicine in 2018 explained how smoking slows blood flow to organs—including your kidneys—and has been shown to accelerate the progression of kidney disease.

In addition, smoking is known to worsen other risk factors like hypertension and diabetes and can even interfere with the medications used to control these conditions.

12 Things That Happen to Your Body When You Stop Vaping

Heavy alcohol consumption

Heavy drinking (seven drinks per week for women and 14 for men) has been shown to double someone’s risk of kidney disease, according to the National Kidney Foundation. This is because heavy alcohol use:

  • can cause changes to the kidneys that affect their ability to filter blood.
  • dehydrates the body, impacting normal kidney function.
  • often contributes to high blood pressure.
  • may lead to liver disease, which puts extra pressure on your kidneys.

Obesity

Obesity can indirectly lead to kidney disease by raising your risk for developing diabetes or high blood pressure. But it’s also an independent risk factor.

According to recent research published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, for people genetically predisposed to obesity, each five-kilogram increase in overall body mass index (BMI) causes an estimated 50 percent increased risk in developing chronic kidney disease.

Overuse of some medications

Over-the-counter pain medications called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can put damaging stress on your kidneys—”Especially if you take them persistently,” says Dr. Boubes, like multiple times per week.

Clinical research backs this up—a 2019 study published in Nephrology found that reducing NSAID exposure leads to much lower rates of kidney problems in healthy adults.

Your medical history

Certain medical conditions and events can also increase your risk of chronic kidney disease. For example, even though an acute kidney injury is often curable, it can increase the risk of developing chronic kidney disease that progresses through to end-stage kidney failure by a factor of thirteen, according to the NIH.

Recurrent urinary tract infections may raise your risk as well, according to research published in the Clinical Kidney Journal. That’s because they can result in a urinary tract obstruction in the kidneys called pyelonephritis, which can damage kidney tissue. Recent research published in BMC Nephrology also points to kidney stones as an independent risk factor for chronic kidney disease.

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If you or a loved one is living with migraine, here are five things Dr. David Kudrow, director of the California Medical Clinic for Headache in Santa Monica, California, and the director emeritus at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center wants you to know about migraine and its management.

1. Certain symptoms suggest that a headache may be a migraine.

Migraine is associated with a variety of symptoms – typically throbbing headaches, nausea and sensitivity to sound and light, but not everyone experiences migraine the same way.8 Every migraine patient is different and has distinct triggers that can induce migraine attacks.9 During an attack, patients may experience moderate to severe head pain that can last from four hours to three days.8 More than half of patients report severe impairment or need bed rest during migraine attacks.5 Some experience a few migraine days per month, others may be affected by many more.8,10

2. Speaking up about migraine can help dispel misperceptions and reduce stigma.

Research has shown that many people are stigmatized for missing time with friends, family or co-workers due to migraine.2 Although migraine can be difficult to talk about, speaking about experience with migraine will help others understand what it’s really like to live with this condition.2 Friends and family may not always understand what happens during a migraine day. Whether it’s with a partner, close friend or work colleague, sharing how migraine impacts day-to-day life can change misperceptions and reduce the stigma.2

3. Migraine management requires an individualized approach.

Migraine management can look different from person-to-person and while there is no one-size-fits-all approach, every patient requires a migraine management plan that is right for them. Almost all migraine sufferers require acute treatment, which aims to relieve headache pain, associated symptoms and disability once a migraine episode has begun.4 Furthermore, some may benefit from a preventive treatment approach, which is administered on a regular basis and is intended to reduce the frequency and overall impact of migraine.4

4. A migraine preventive treatment may be an option for appropriate patients.

Many people living with migraine may not know that a preventive treatment is an option; it’s important to talk to your doctor to see if a preventive treatment option may be right for you. One example is Aimovig® (erenumab-aooe) injection, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2018 for the preventive treatment of migraine in adults.11

Aimovig works by targeting the calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) receptor, which is believed to play a critical role in migraine.11 Its FDA approval was based on data from three clinical studies that compared Aimovig to placebo and showed that Aimovig reduced monthly migraine days, with some patients achieving at least a 50 percent reduction.11

Important Safety Information

Who should not use Aimovig®?

Do not use Aimovig® if you are allergic to erenumab-aooe or any ingredients in Aimovig®.

Before starting Aimovig®, tell your healthcare provider (HCP) about all your medical conditions, including if you are allergic to rubber or latex, pregnant or plan to become pregnant, breastfeeding or plan to breastfeed.

Please see additional Important Safety Information below.

Senior Man Discusses Diagnosis With Doctor

5. Talking about a migraine management plan is important.

Having an open conversation with your healthcare provider about your migraine and how it is impacting your life will help determine the appropriate migraine management plan– including if a preventive treatment such as Aimovig may be right for you.

For more information about Aimovig, visit www.aimovig.com.

Dr. Kudrow was compensated for his time.

# # #

APPROVED USE

Aimovig® is a prescription medicine used for the preventive treatment of migraine in adults.

IMPORTANT SAFETY INFORMATION

Who should not use Aimovig®?

Do not use Aimovig® if you are allergic to erenumab-aooe or any ingredients in Aimovig®.

Before starting Aimovig®, tell your healthcare provider (HCP) about all your medical conditions, including if you are allergic to rubber or latex, pregnant or plan to become pregnant, breastfeeding or plan to breastfeed.

Tell your HCP about all the medicines you take, including any prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, or herbal supplements.

What are possible side effects of Aimovig®?

Aimovig® may cause serious side effects, including:

  • Allergic reactions. Allergic reactions, including rash or swelling can happen after receiving Aimovig®. This can happen within hours to days after using Aimovig®. Call your HCP or get emergency medical help right away if you have any of the following symptoms of an allergic reaction: swelling of the face, mouth, tongue or throat, or trouble breathing.
  • Constipation with serious complications. Severe constipation can happen after receiving Aimovig®. In some cases people have been hospitalized or needed surgery. Contact your HCP if you have severe constipation.
  • High blood pressure. High blood pressure or worsening of high blood pressure can happen after receiving Aimovig®. Contact your healthcare provider if you have an increase in blood pressure.

The most common side effects of Aimovig® are pain, redness, or swelling at the injection site and constipation.

These are not all of the possible side effects of Aimovig®. Call your HCP for medical advice about side effects.

You are encouraged to report negative side effects of prescription drugs to the FDA. Visit www.fda.gov/medwatch, or call 1-800-FDA-1088.

Click here for the full Prescribing Information and Patient Product Information.

References

    1. Steiner, T.J., Stovner, L.J., Jensen, R. et al. J Headache Pain. 2020.
    2. Rutberg S, Ohrling K. Disabil Rehabil. 2012;34(4):329-336.
    3. GBD 2017 Disease and Injury Incidence and Prevalence Collaborators. Lancet. 2018;392:1789-1858.
    4. Diamond S, Bigal ME, Silberstein S, et al. Headache. 2006;47(3):355-363.
    5. Lipton R, Bigal ME, Diamond M, et al. Neurology. 2007;68(5)343-9..
    6. Russo AF. Annu Rev Pharmacol Toxicol. 2015;55:533-552.
    7. Buse D, Scher AI, Dodick DW, et al. Mayo Clin Proc. 2016;91(5):596-611.
    8. Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society (HIS). The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition. Cephalalgia. 2018;38(1):1-211.
    9. Kelman L. Cephalalgia. 2007; 27 (5): 394-402.
    10. Lipton RB, Stewart WF, Diamond S, et al. Headache. 2001;41(7):1-211.
    11. Aimovig® (erenumab-aooe) Prescribing Information, Amgen, November 2021.

What does gut health have to do with your mood? A lot, it turns out. Shawn Talbott, PhD, a nutritional biochemist and psychonutritionist who has spent more than 20 years researching the links between our food and our moods, explains: “I call the gut microbiome—the amount and type of bacteria in the stomach and intestines—the ‘second brain,'” Talbott says, “because it produces the majority of our neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.” He continues: “When the bacteria become unbalanced, it can lead to serious mood changes. Renormalizing the bacteria can help improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.”

Nonie Rand, a mother and clinical mental health counselor in Boulder, Colorado, shares her story of how addressing the wellness of her gut microbiome helped heal her depression, as well as her daughter’s chronic migraines.

By Nonie Rand, as told to Charlotte Hilton Andersen

“Mom, you want to hear a joke?”

As soon as I heard those words from Mandy*, my then-sixth-grade daughter, my eyes immediately filled with tears. My sweet girl had been suffering from debilitating migraines for over two years and had, understandably, been really depressed because of it. But I’ll never forget that day and her bright, upbeat face as she jumped into the car after school. After her joke, we both had a giggle—I, mostly because I hadn’t heard her really laugh in two years and now I was flooded with relief. We’d finally found a treatment that helped deal with all her head symptoms—mental and physical. Very unexpectedly, finding the solution had started with her gut.

Read 5 Ways Stress-Eating Impacts Your Gut Health, Mood, and More, Say Eating Psychology Specialists

Sliding into depression

Mandy first started getting migraines in elementary school. The pain was immense, to the point where she would vomit and cry, and there was almost no reprieve. We tried everything the doctors suggested—and when that didn’t work, we tried things like biofeedback therapy, acupuncture, and massage. We even took her to sea level for many weeks after hearing that it might help. Nope. Nothing worked.

Her illness affected me as well; it was breaking my heart to watch the light and joy go out of her as she grew depressed and withdrawn from dealing with chronic pain. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was also sinking into depression. I was exhausted after so many years of dealing with this and getting no answers. I realized that I had been putting my own needs and self-care on the back burner for too long and it was taking a huge toll. I was beside myself.

I was considering going on an antidepressant when I got a call from our biofeedback provider. She suggested that Mandy try “healing her gut,”—Huh?—which would start with taking a high-quality probiotic. The one she recommended is designed specifically to boost mood and brain health by repopulating the gut microbiome with beneficial bacteria. Healing the gut, she told us, might help the migraines and would very likely help with the mental and emotional struggles.

Healthy guts = happy girls

I decided to research this idea of gut health being tied to emotional wellbeing. I learned that 80 percent of serotonin—one of the brain chemicals responsible for mood—is made in the gut and that having an unhealthy microbiome can lead to depression. I agreed to try the probiotic. It was just a powder we could mix into a drink. Even though it was a little pricey, I felt like it couldn’t hurt to try it. I had already thrown so much time, money, and energy into solutions that hadn’t worked…so why not this?

I bought some for Mandy, and also some for myself.

Within one week of taking the probiotic and eating a gut-healthy diet, I felt the dark cloud begin to lift. After a month, my depression completely lifted. Gone! I felt more energy, my brain was clear, and I started digesting my food well, including foods that had given me stomach problems in the past. (Another bonus: No more gas! I used to think it was normal to have gas at night, but it turns out that’s not true.)

Mandy was slower to find relief, but within one month, her headache broke and her mood began to improve, too—to the point where she felt like telling jokes again.

Prioritizing gut health

Part of me wondered if whether what we’d experienced might have actually been a placebo effect, but when I got caught up in the hassle of moving, I realized I’d forgotten to order more probiotics. This meant both Mandy and I had been off of it for a few months. Her migraines returned, and so did my depression. I recommitted to prioritizing gut health, and my mood returned to the pleasant set-point I’d known before Mandy started having migraine issues.

These days, I take the probiotic three days a week for maintenance, and my depression is still gone. Mandy still takes it daily, and her mood and migraines are better.

Dr. Talbott is a leader at Amare, the company that makes the probiotic that helped us. He’s a big believer in probiotic supplements, but also says any probiotic or prebiotic foods have the potential to be beneficial for mental health. Probiotics including yogurt, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut. Prebiotics including cold potatoes, garlic, bananas, oats, beans, and lentils. Read The Banana Health Benefit You for Sure Weren’t Aware Of, Dietitians Reveal

Before this, I had no idea how much gut health can impact our brains! Now I’m all about taking care of my gut bacteria by taking a probiotic and eating foods full of fiber and nutrients that support the good bacteria. I’ve learned: feeling good can start with what we put into our bodies. Eating well is living well. Gut health is mental health.

*Minor’s name has been changed.

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Searching for How to relax?

Have a tough time relaxing? You might even actually consider this hustling-to-a-fault trait to simply be part of who you are. But really—it may be time for a breather.

In March 2022, a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that inflation, the Covid pandemic, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine had led Americans to experience stress at what the APA called “alarming” levels. Being so in our heads, on our phones, and on-the-go comes with consequences: a growing body of research on stress has shown its links to heart problems, mental health, and even brain development. 

Even for the most contentedly industrious among us, learning how to relax can bring some much-needed tranquility. Psychologist Haley Perlus, PhD, says there are a few types of people who find it tough to relax. “Some people feel guilty if they’re not always working, in motion, or under stress,” Dr. Perlus tells The Healthy, explaining how the constant need to keep busy—recently dubbed “toxic productivity”—validates an intrinsic desire to be productive members of society. Unfortunately, this can turn unhealthy, fast. Dr. Perlus says these people focus more on checking boxes off a never-ending to-do list than taking time to be still and recharge.

For others, the inability to relax is related to anxiety. “Some people suffer from a generalized anxiety disorder, where they experience anxiety even under the most relaxing circumstances,” says Dr. Perlus. If you’ve ever had trouble focusing on a good massage or just lying on the beach without your mind racing, you might fall within this category.

Finally, Dr. Perlus says, there’s a category of people who are simply overworked, over-scheduled, and overstressed. If this sounds familiar, you might be someone who feels the need to meet others’ expectations while also having difficult setting boundaries around “me” time.

Read Brooke Shields Exclusive: Her 4 Wellness Must-Haves and the “Extraordinary” Privilege of Aging

What are ways to relax naturally?

A 2021 behavioral health study examined the clinical benefits of breathwork, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) techniques. The researchers concluded these natural relaxation methods are beneficial in reducing anxiety, stress, depression, and pain. 

A 2020 study published in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine looked at the effects of meditation and mindfulness exercises on stress reduction, particularly during times of crisis (like the Covid-19 pandemic). The study suggested that on average, participants who practiced meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques experienced improvements in measures of anxiety, depression, and pain scores.

Elisabeth Netherton, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, sayseven everyday activities can help you relax naturally. “Take a walk, listen to music, take a warm bath, hold a pet, schedule time free from electronics, bake, do a puzzle, draw, or try therapy,” she suggests.

But if life doesn’t quite afford you those quiet luxuries, consider these expert-suggested techniques instead. 

10 Ways to Relax

From research and experts in psychology and mindfulness, here’s a list of instant solutions to bring your attention to center and just…slow down.

1. Box breathing

While there are many deep breathing exercises, the 2021 behavioral health study, which was conducted at the Campbell University School of Osteopathic Medicine (in conjunction with Nova Southeastern University) found box breathing beneficial for relaxation.

This technique can be implemented before, during, or after stressful experiences. The researchers suggest box breathing doesn’t require a calm environment to be effective and consists of four simple steps. (Note: visualize a box with four equal sides while you engage in this exercise.)

  • Step One: Breathe in through the nose for a count of four.
  • Step Two: Hold breath for a count of four.
  • Step Three: Breath out for a count of four.
  • Step Four: Hold breath for a count of four.
  • Repeat

2. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)

The researchers from the same study implemented progressive muscle relaxation as a technique that targets tension associated with anxiety. The exercise involves tensing and releasing muscles progressively throughout the body and focusing on the release of the muscle as the relaxation phase.

You can do progressive muscle relaxation on your own in eight easy steps. (Note: During the release of each exercise, focus your attention on the release of tension and the feeling of relaxation you experience.)

  • Step One: Sit or lie down comfortably in a space with minimal distractions.
  • Step Two: Starting at the feet, curl your toes and tense the muscles in your foot. Hold for five seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds.
  • Step Three: Tense the muscles in the lower legs. Hold for five seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds.
  • Step Four: Tense the muscles in the hips and buttocks. Hold for five seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds.
  • Step Five: Tense the muscles in the stomach and chest. Hold for five seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds.
  • Step Six: Tense the muscles in the shoulders. Hold for five seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds.
  • Step Seven: Tense the muscles in the face (for example, squeeze your eyes shut). Hold for five seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds.
  • Step Eight: Tense your hand muscles, creating a fist. Hold for five seconds, then slowly release for 10 seconds.

3. Guided imagery

The 2021 behavioral health study found guided imagery to be an effective relaxation exercise. The technique involves visualizing tranquil settings to help manage stress and remove distractions from intrusive thoughts. Guided imagery uses all five senses to create a more profound sense of relaxation with the following three steps:

  • Step One: Sit or lie down in a comfortable space with minimal distractions.
  • Step Two: Visualize a relaxing environment, either from memory or imagination. Use the following prompts to bring forth elements of the environment using all five senses:

– What do you see?

– What do you hear?

– What do you smell?

– What do you taste?

– What do you feel?

  • Step Three: Keep visualizing as long as needed while taking slow, deep breaths. Focus on the feelings of calm associated with being in a relaxing environment.

4. Meditation

According to a 2020 study in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, learning how to meditate can calm the mind and enhance self-awareness, mental awareness, and environmental awareness. Meditation allows you to observe your thoughts and emotions in a detached, non-judgmental way.

Systematic reviews of meditation have shown benefits in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. The best part of meditation? Just sit down, close your eyes, and bring your attention to your breath to get started.

Read 9 Free Meditation Apps Experts Love

5. Mindfulness-based stress reduction

The term “mindfulness” is often used interchangeably with meditation, but experts point out that subtle differences exist. Mindfulness simply means tuning in and becoming aware of the present moment. Observing the moment and allowing thoughts to flow without attachment results in calm, stillness, and relaxation.

Read 11 Easy Ways You Can Fit Mindfulness into Your Busy Life

6. Exercise

Exercise is nature’s feel-good drug. “People often tell you to rest and relax when stressed out. While there’s nothing wrong with that, sometimes, what we need to do is get moving,” explains Dr. Perlus. “There’s science behind why exercise reduces stress and anxiety. Exercise reduces levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. It kicks up the production of endorphins which are mood elevators. That’s why you often hear the phrase ‘runner’s high.'”

Read Research Says This One Goal Will Motivate You to Exercise—and It’s Not Weight Loss

7. Go for a walk in the sun

According to The American Institute of Stress, getting fresh air and moving your body for even 10 minutes can clear your mind and help you relax. Also, vitamin D from sun exposure can help boost your mood instantly.

Read 12 Sunscreens Top Dermatologists Actually Use on Themselves

8. Find your purpose

“One way to manage stress is to find your purpose and recognize what speaks to you,” advises Dr. Perlus. “For example, if you have a passion for photography, create a website that displays your work. Your stress levels can decrease significantly by finding something you enjoy and taking advantage of it.”

9. Take a break from your smartphone

You already know what Dr. Perlus explains next: “Many of us are overly dependent on our phones or computers. Using them too much or too long can increase stress levels, and studies have shown this.”

She adds that excessive smartphone use is linked to mental health disorders and depression.

Read How Meditation Can Ease Depression

10. Control only what you can

Instead of stressing out about the future, Dr. Perlus recommends, “Shift your focus to what’s within your control.”

That might include “cleaning your space, clearing your head, exercising, and doing things you enjoy to help you relax,” she says.

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Brooke Shields was just 11 months old when she landed her first modeling job, but the actor-model-entrepreneur says she “just started to really live” only after she’d turned 40. We got that—and we wanted to hear more.

Last week Shields, now 56, sat down with The Healthy @Reader’s Digest to discuss several of her recent projects. Among them is her partnership with Clos du Bois Wine & Vineyards for their new “Long Live” campaign, which highlights the spirited sophistication in loving Chardonnay.

Brooke Shields attends the "Impractical Jokers: The Movie" New York Screening at AMC Lincoln Square Theater on February 18, 2020 in New York City.

All her current initiatives share the same goal: to fight ageism in popular culture and change how older generations have been forgotten in advertising—especially, she said, by many brands that sell the experiences of fun and adventure. “We’re a large demo. We have lived lives, and we appreciate quality,” Shields told us. However, “When I looked to the marketing, whether it was marketing for alcohol or anything, we weren’t represented.”

With the Clos collab and more in the mix, it sounds like a consuming undertaking…but she said it’s about time. “By the time I was in my fifties, I just took things differently,” she said. “I felt different about myself—I didn’t beat myself up so much. There was so much I felt excited about in the future.”

And she wasn’t alone. Shields credits pal Courteney Cox, who directed the Clos du Bois campaign, for how Cox “really focused on this age bracket, doing things with vitality and activities and being outside and things that make us happy.” She said the concept around their joint initiative is “the celebration of life and friendships and how far we’ve come, and that’s what a great glass of wine is: what has gone into it, and then what comes out of it. That’s where we are as people—as women for sure.”

Shields said that joie de vivre is a classic part of the way she’s lived. “I look forward to the ritual of sharing an evening with friends and allowing myself time to relax, not punish myself, not do everything in such an aggressive way.” This eye toward a gentler pace is a shift from what she called her “goal-oriented” nature. “And you know?” she said. “The world doesn’t fall apart if I’m not organizing something.”

Brooke Shields attends the 2021 Hampton Classic Grand Prix on September 05, 2021 in Bridgehampton, New York.

But it doesn’t sound like she’ll be slowing down anytime soon. Now that her daughters are independent (Rowan, 18, is a college freshman; and Grier, 16, recently appeared with Shields in a new Mother’s Day campaign for Victoria’s Secret), Shields said she feels inspired to pay her blessings forward, and to keep learning. “Community is actually good for your health. I want to keep giving out towards wherever I can.”

In particular, she said her recent work with some of these brands, like Clos du Bois and as the new chief brand officer for Prospect Farms (a wellness company offering benefit-focused botanical products for people and their pets) has deepened her connection with “that vitality, that rejuvenation you see” in the natural world. Shields said she’s been inspired by “learning about cycles, and the importance of water, and time spent tending.”

Her own wellness practices include making sure she exercises every day—”I make sure I move in some capacity . . . to get my adrenaline and my heart going,” she said—along with staying hydrated (“It’s a fight, I forget all the time”) and focusing on sleep. That in particular was what led her to work with Prospect Farms. “Because of sleep and the lack thereof, and the importance of it and how much I struggle with it, that’s where our initial conversation kind of happened.” And finally? Healthy eating—she said if her body doesn’t get enough greens, she craves a good salad.

It’s not just about looking good—it’s about feeling good. The day after she spoke with us, Shields teamed with her trainer Ngo Okafor to host a live virtual fitness class to raise funds for Ukrainians in need of housing. “When you look at everything happening in the world that’s so tragic,” she said, “you sort of think: Oh really? Am I gonna really focus on those five pounds? It’s like, come on. Instead of picking the thing that I’m just obsessing over, I’m sort of saying, You’ve come this far. You’ve really done a lot. You’re so thankful, you know?”

And these days, she insisted, perspective is everything. “It’s such an easy thing to overlook and forget—but your body is extraordinary in how it wants to heal, and how much it can do that’s miraculous. Instead, we do what I did, which is just pounded the heck out of it for decades onstage” (referencing her years on Broadway in Grease, Chicago, Cabaret, and others). “The injuries that I’ve had, it’s amazing to see what your body is capable of. There’s health, and wellbeing. Look at the whole. . . what it means to really live in your body and in your life to your best. And what makes you happy, not in comparison to somebody else.”

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Ever wonder why so many marathoners eat bananas during their races? Maybe you’ve heard that it’s because bananas are great for fueling physical activity, which Brittany Lubeck, RD, a registered dietitian, explains: bananas are “full of low-glycemic carbohydrates, which provide an excellent quick energy source to keep the body moving during exercise,” Lubeck says, adding that they “don’t spike your blood sugar.” This perk helps prevent your energy from crashing, she notes.

Lubeck also nods to a post-workout benefit of bananas that’s less often discussed: “Bananas are rich in antioxidants and other phytonutrients that are known to have health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties.”

Why this matters for your workout? A study published in the peer-reviewed journal, PLOS One, demonstrated that bananas reduce inflammation. Inflammation can occur for a number of reasons, such as when the immune system is fighting off a perceived illness as well as from eating dairy, wheat, or processed foods. But also, inflammation can be one of the body’s natural responses to physical activity.

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Bananas help calm inflammation thanks to their essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which can help sustain your energy during a tough workout, as well as help you recover faster. As Lubeck explains, “The antioxidants in bananas play an important role in reducing free radicals that can induce oxidative stress if not removed from the body.”

On a related (and fascinating) note, chef and registered dietitian Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN, breaks down the findings of a new study on the antioxidants that may be available from an unexpected part of the fruit: the peel. “Banana peels, especially red peels, also demonstrate surprising benefits against oxidative stress,” Newgent explains. “A 2022 in vitro study showed banana peel extracts may be effective in helping to combat oxidative stress, making them potentially suitable for biopharmaceutical uses or enriching UV protection creams.”

So, workout or no workout…should you be eating banana peels? “Banana peels can be worked into a recipe!” says Newgent, who’s also a classically trained chef. She says a few options might be banana peel “bacon,” as well as banana peel fajitas or carnitas—although, Newgent says, “I would generally advise using it as a minor ingredient, like finely diced and sauteed along with peppers in a chili recipe or burrito filling. Also, I advise using organic peels to avoid exposure to synthetic pesticide residues.”

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Think we may have a few recipes up our sleeve to share with you soon? Of course we do. Get The Healthy @Reader’s Digest newsletter for healthy eating adventures in your inbox daily. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram, and keep reading: