You can’t hide from all the germs. Theoretically, you could spend a lot of time and money sanitizing your whole life. But where’s the fun in that? Also, it’s unnecessary. Your body can protect itself—that’s what the immune system does. So, build your immunity instead of obsessing over avoiding germs. Luckily, simple immune boosting habits easily mesh with your healthy lifestyle.

And you don’t need anything special to support your immune health. Healthy living and tweaks to your lifestyle are enough to help build your immunity.

A lot of these immune boosting habits double as generally helpful healthy behaviors. That means you can earn a lot of health benefits out of these simple changes to your life. So, you’ll obtain a lot more out of these actions than any efforts to sterilize your entire life.

Sleep Your Way to a Healthy Immune System

When you’re tired, so is your immune system. This puts you at risk for coming down with whatever’s going around. Tucking in for enough high-quality sleep is a dream for you, and your immune health.

Sleep allows your body—including the parts of your immune system—to rest, repair, and refresh. This nightly renewal helps build your immunity. Need proof? A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed a link between adequate sleep and immune function.

Researchers identified the eight-hour mark as an important line of demarcation. Less than eight hours of sleep was tied to a three-fold increase in the likelihood of catching the common cold. Other research supports this conclusion, showing how immune-cell production can be hampered by sleep deprivation.

One simple immune boosting habit is making the time for at least eight hours of quality sleep. That could mean setting a bedtime alarm, or giving yourself deadlines for nighttime activities. And remember to work your way up to your goal. It’s probably not sustainable to go from six hours to eight immediately. But you can work your way up in smaller, 15-minute increments.

Use Moderate Exercise to Build Your Immunity

Exercise is great for many things, including weight management and stress management. But the relationship between working out and immune function is slightly more complicated.

Researchers have struggled to lay out all the details involved in exercise’s impact on immunity. That’s not surprising. There are complex reactions happening—especially with strenuous exercise.

One thing is clear, though: moderate exercise is beneficial for your immune system. One study says it “seems to exert a protective effect.” Being in better shape helps with overall health, so your immune system benefits, too. And the movement aids blood flow and helps immune cells migrate throughout your body.

You don’t have to overdo it, though. And maybe you don’t really want to, given some of the research about strenuous exercise and immunity (it may, at least temporarily, dampen the immune system). Just getting moderate exercise—like a 30-minute walk every day—is enough. Also, it’s an immune boosting habit you can fit into your life without too much extra effort.

Help Your Immune System with Good Hygiene

You’re frequently told to wash your hands. And it’s for good reason. This tip doesn’t build your immunity or directly boost your immune system. But it will help you stay healthy, so it’s worth mentioning.

A consistent (not obsessive) hand-washing habit helps you limit your exposure to certain germs. It rinses away the potential pathogens that get on your hands. That keeps them from landing in airways, eyes, or other bodily entrance points. And it keeps you healthy.

The Most Relaxing Immune Boosting Habits

Normal, everyday stress—the kind of minor, daily annoyances that add up—is enough to throw your life out of whack. You probably already know how stress impacts your weight, sleep, and overall wellbeing. But it also can wreak havoc on your immune function.

Your hormones are to blame. That’s because stress hormones negatively impact many parts of your immune system. These hormones hamper the production of antibodies (proteins that mark invaders) and other immune cells. Stress has even been shown to give latent viral infections new life.

Unless you go to great lengths, you can’t totally avoid stress. So, you must learn to manage it. And it’s not easy. The phrase “just relax” is one of the least helpful things imaginable. Good thing other stress-management techniques are simple, and do work, though.

Try any of these approaches that sound nice to you:

  • Get a massage
  • Take a walk out in nature—the outside part is important
  • Develop and practice a self-care routine, like hygge
  • Meditate or do some deep breathing
  • Socialize with friends and family
  • Prioritize free time by blocking out your calendar for at least 30 minutes a day
  • Laugh (it really might be the best medicine)

Pets Can Perk Up Your Immune Health

Your pets are more than cuddly, cute, and loving. They’re beneficial to your health in many ways. And building immunity is definitely one of them.

Pets are great for melting stress away and helping you get moderate exercise. You’ve already heard about how exercise and stress management are immune boosting habits. But your pets can do more for your immunity—and it’s because they can be kind of gross.

That’s right. The microbes your pets naturally have or bring into your house aren’t all bad. They help build your immunity through exposure, which—as you’ll learn below—can be more helpful than harmful.

Researchers have found that infants who grow up around animals are less likely to develop allergies. And one study even showed that petting a live dog can increase an important immune-system protein—immunoglobulin A. So, give your pet some extra attention and affection for all the help they give your immunity.

Avoid Overindulging in Alcohol and Stop Smoking

Sometimes building immunity means moderating or ditching certain habits. Two you hear about in discussions of overall healthy habits also impact your immune health—smoking and drinking too much alcohol.

Both impair important barriers that help protect you from potential pathogens. Smoking impacts your nose and mouth, damaging the linings that help guard your airways from germs. Alcohol also strips away the lining of your mouth and throat. This leaves you vulnerable to viruses and bacteria.

So, if you’re going to drink, do it in moderation. But there’s no moderation when it comes to smoking. Quitting is the best option for your immunity—and your overall health.

Be Adventurous

Your immune system adapts to your life. It learns from the bacteria, viruses, and other microbes you encounter. And you come out with better immune protection.

That’s why the sterile approach to life doesn’t help build your immunity. It’s OK to take proper precautions. You don’t want to intentionally expose yourself to harmful bacteria or viruses. But being adventurous—going outside, eating fermented foods, and experiencing life—is one of the best immune boosting habits you can have.

Living your life helps your adaptive immunity (the part of your immunity that catalogs the microbes it encounters). It builds up your immunity memory bank and primes your immune system to protect you.

Make the Small Changes to Help Your Immune Health

Your immune system is always on alert. Its whole job is to keep you healthy. So, treat it right by incorporating some of these simple immune boosting habits into your life. You’ll build your immunity, and enhance your overall health, too.

Your immune system is powerful on its own, and even more impressive with the tools that surround it. Understanding the secrets of the immune system will paint a complete picture of what takes place inside your body to keep you healthy. Know this—your immune system anatomy is perfectly poised to neutralize threats to maintain health.

Explore the parts of your anatomy that work hand-in-hand with your immune cells to maintain your health. And learn the secrets of the immune system. Your genes, bone marrow, gut, and skin assist the cells of your immune system in protecting you. From smallest to largest, these helpers offer the support your immune system needs to keep you on your feet.

Genes: Immunity at the Most Basic Level

The secrets of the immune system start where all your traits do—your genetic code. When it comes to adaptive immunity (the part of your immune system that changes over time), genes play a central role. Through a group of genes called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), the adaptive immune system catalogs information about what enters your body. It remembers what your body’s seen before and instructs white blood cells in a proper, healthy immune response.

MHC is a genetic code that is unique to every individual. Through this code, proteins on the surface of cells are created in response to stimulus by potential pathogens. When a germ is consumed and broken down by macrophages (a type of white blood cell), surface proteins are made. These MHC proteins are then stitched together with fragments of the destroyed pathogen and presented to the cells of the adaptive immune system. Those pieces of the destroyed pathogen help your immune cells remember.

Now adaptive immunity cells like B and T cells know what to do when the same invader shows up again. MHC proteins have flagged that microbe and made it a target of a future, healthy immune response. With instructions to divide and conquer, adaptive immunity cells can multiply and attack next time the germ is detected in the body.

The genes that control the MHC make your immune system efficient and effective. MHC keeps antibody production under control, only creating antibodies after the first exposure to a germ. So, your immune system can divert all its attention to unique and novel potential pathogens, noting each in its genetic memory.

Bone Marrow: Creating Blood and Immunity

The thick gel on the inside of your bones is called marrow. It does a lot of work for your immune system that you may never see. So, it’s hiding some secrets of the immune system.

Bone marrow is an organ that manufactures blood cells (the big science word for that is hematopoietic). Red and white blood cells get their start in bone marrow. Other powerful immune system players do, too.

There are two kinds of bone marrow in your body—red and yellow. Your yellow marrow is a precursor to the red marrow. It’s held in reserve to replenish stores of red marrow should significant blood loss occur.

That’s because red marrow is really important. It produces:

  • Red blood cells
  • Neutrophils (a type of white blood cells)
  • T cells (lymphocyte, or white blood cell, that acts in immune reactions not needing antibodies)
  • B cells (lymphocyte responsible for producing antibodies, which are immune proteins that bond to potential pathogens)

The role of these white blood cells in immune health is a popular topic—and you can find more in this immune system overview. But bone marrow produces other cells that work alongside these cellular giants.

Scientific research points to red marrow as the origin of natural killer cells and dendritic cells. Natural killer cells are also types of lymphocytes (white blood cells) that are close relatives of T and B cells. They can help protect you without priming antibodies. Dendritic cells act as immune-system messengers, tying your innate (the immune system you’re born with) and adaptive immunity together. They occur in the skin and digestive tract, and send messages to T cells.

There’s also a symphony of cellular communication going on in your bone marrow between all these developing and mature immune cells. So, your bone marrow is a buzzing central hub of activity for your immune protection.

Since bone marrow is so important to immunity, protecting it is imperative. Ensure you get enough vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, and other trace mineral in your diet. Take care of your bones, and they will help take care of you, too.

Gut: Germs That Help You

Ironic as it may seem, your gut is full of bacteria. Your intestinal bacteria reside there inconspicuously—without causing much trouble. It may seem hard to understand, but these microbes play a crucial role in your immune system.

Your intestines encounter more antigens (foreign material that starts an immune response) than any other part of your body. While sifting through the plethora of microbes that reside inside, the intestinal mucosa (lining) must respond appropriately. That’s a big job for a barrier that is only one cell thick.

Potentially harmful microbes that try to break through the lining are stopped dead in their tracks. The cells lining your intestines secrete proteins that recruit white blood cells to the affected area. And, as you know, white blood cells pack a punch of protection. These epithelial cells also produce anti-microbial peptides and mucus that trap bacteria.

But not all bacteria pose a threat. Commensal microbes (those commonly called your gut microbiome) digest compounds and extract nutrients that your body can’t process on its own. Some intestinal bacteria also synthesize certain B vitamins and vitamin K. B vitamins, like vitamin B12, are also linked to supporting healthy immune system function. Vitamin K is an important component in maintaining the production of blood-clotting factors.

The community of helpful bacteria that lives in your gut starts developing at birth. A baby’s gut microbiome is colonized by any and all microorganisms they are exposed to during the first days of life. Through dietary and environmental factors, the microbiome in your belly is further shaped. Eating foods that contain bacteria generally thought to be beneficial—like yogurt and other fermented foods—help maintain a balance of healthy bacteria in your gut.

Skin: Protection That Surrounds You

Your skin doesn’t seem like one of the secrets of the immune system. Every day you look at this barrier between your internal organs and the outside world. As the largest organ of the body, skin’s primary role is to protect you from physical danger and invasion.

The first line of defense is a thick layer of dead cells. That’s right. The tough, protective nature of skin is made possible by dead skin cells called keratinocytes. The name comes from the fact that these cells are brimming with a protein called keratin. It’s a protein also in hair and fingernails. Keratin is tough and is a great shield for your vulnerable internal organs.

The top, dead layer isn’t all. Your skin is comprised of multiple layers of functional cells. When your skin generates new cells in the bottom layers, older cells die and are pushed to the top. When potential invaders come to make a home in your body, the top layers of dead keratinocytes block their entry.

Not all of the keratinocytes in your skin are dead, though. Those that are living reside just below the surface of your skin and help your immune system in another way. Living keratinocytes produce anti-microbial proteins. This defense mechanism works alongside other immune cells to keep your body healthy.

Inevitably, your skin gets wounded. Nicks and cuts, though harmless overall, open the door to the outside world. Luckily, your skin is equipped to handle just this sort of issue.

Without hesitation, an army of cells with specific tasks line up to seal the breach.

Scabs are the common term for hemostasis (the stopping a flow of blood). They are created when platelets (blood cells that form clots) surround the wound and start clotting. While clotting and forming a temporary cover over the broken skin, platelets request help from other immune cells via chemical signaling.

White blood cells—like neutrophils and macrophages—join the wound-healing effort after being recruited by platelets. These immune cells help protect the damaged skin. Then they pick up debris from the affected area and lay the groundwork for normal, healthy cell growth and division. Immune cells ensure that your skin has a clean slate on which it can build new, healthy tissue.

Without a secure barrier surrounding your body, you’re left unprotected. Good thing your skin is there to ward off unwanted guests. That’s why skin is a remarkable, dynamic organ that supports a powerful immune system.

Individualized Immunity

It’s true that your immune system is unique to you. Everyone has the same basic foundation of immunity, but your experiences define how your body responds. Your immune system is constantly learning and adapting. Each time it comes in contact with something new, it creates new defenses that are filed away for next time, too.

Your job is to provide a safe environment for your immune system in which to thrive. Washing your hands, getting adequate sleep, and practicing good personal hygiene will help keep your immunity in shape. Also take care of your body by eating a healthy, nutrient-filled diet and living a healthy lifestyle. Support your immune system so it can be ready to defend you.

You might not want to think about it, but we know germs are everywhere. Every place you go and everything you touch is awash with bacteria and other microbes. No nook, cranny, or surface is truly, totally clean. The good news is that most of the 60,000 types of germs you encounter every day are harmless, or even helpful, to your health. (That’s assuming you have a normal level of immunity.)

About one to two percent of germs, however, are potentially dangerous to your health. And the higher the germ density on an object, the more likely a sinister germ is living on it. One of the easiest ways to prevent contracting illnesses from these harmful germs is obvious—limit your contact.

That means cleaning your hands and your home. Of course, you do your best to keep clean areas where you know harmful germs love to camp out (e.g., toilets, communal shower floors). You also clean where microbes could do some damage by coming into contact with food (kitchen countertops or the dining room table).

But potentially harmful germs often lurk in places you might not expect. So, you probably aren’t trying to avoid or clean them. Below, you’ll find seven hidden sources of germs, and what you can do to help keep yourself healthy.

1. Laundry Machines

It’s time to air your hamper’s dirty laundry: your clothing is covered in germs. Each pair of underwear harbors 0.1 gram of fecal matter, meaning one load of laundry could have about 100 million E. coli bacteria roaming around. That might not be what you’d expect from an appliance you think is clean—because its job is to, well, clean. To combat the ick, you need to take a two-pronged approach:

  • 1. Get your clothes free from as many of those E. coli germs as possible.
  • 2. Keep your machine more sanitary.

To get your clothes cleaner, wash in hot water and dry them in a dryer for 45 minutes. If fabric care instructions direct against either of both of these tips, line dry in the sun. Also, don’t sort or fold clean laundry on the same table you used to sort dirty laundry without disinfecting first.

To kill bacteria in your washing machine, wash your whites first using hot water and chlorine bleach. And wash your underwear separately after you’ve completed all your other loads.

Oh, and wash your hands thoroughly after handling dirty or wet laundry.

2. Kitchen Faucet

You probably already know bathroom faucets are a hotbed for germs. That’s why many public restrooms have moved to automated models. But the kitchen faucet can host an unsavory bunch of bacteria, like E. coli, salmonella, shigella, campylobacter, norovirus, and even hepatitis-A.

And nope, it’s not just the handles (though you should clean those regularly, too). You know the tiny metal aeration screen at the end of your faucet? Turns out it provides the perfect conditions for germ growth. If you accidentally touch the screen with dirty fingers or a contaminated piece of food, the near-constant moist conditions can let bacteria grow wild. Eventually, that builds into a biofilm that can break off into the water stream and onto whatever is below.

If biofilm chunks aren’t the secret ingredient to your favorite recipe, follow this house cleaning secret: Clean your aeration screen by removing it and soaking in a diluted bleach solution once a week. Then let the water run for a few minutes after placing it back onto your faucet.

3. Car Dashboard

It makes sense that something with so many touch points (steering wheel, audio knobs, thermostat controllers, vents, etc.) would be on the receiving end of all the germs you and your passengers have on your hands.

But what can make this area extra gross might surprise you—mold.

It turns out the air sucked through the ventilation system can aerate mold and bacteria out on passengers or onto the dashboard itself. Since the dashboard is usually warm from the engine and sunlight, it’s a welcoming host for mold and bacteria.

Your best bet is to wipe down your entire dashboard, including the vent slats, with disinfecting wipes at least once a week. If you’re prone to allergies or asthma, you may want to clean your dash more often to keep the mold at bay.

4. Mobile Phone

This one might be a little less shocking, considering you may have heard for years that your mobile phone can harbor more bacteria than an average toilet.

That’s because it combines the two most likely sources of human germs—your mouth and your hands—into one area. Add that to the fact that most people plop down their phones without a lot of thought to what germs could reside on the surface. Also, many phone cases have grooves and crevices that are perfect hiding places for germs. It’s no wonder your favorite devices are such filthy cesspools.

But what may be surprising: how often experts now say you should clean your handheld devices. If you’re careful about handwashing and watching where you place your phone, you can probably get away with disinfecting your mobile phone a few times a week. (Use wipes approved for use on electronics.) If you’re less discriminating, give your device a daily wipe down to avoid serious bacteria, like staph and salmonella.

This advice is especially true if you’re using your phone (or tablet) in the kitchen to look up and follow recipes. In this case, wipe down the screen every time you wash your hands while making the meal. Sound too laborious? Use a cookbook, print out the recipe, or use a smart speaker to read the recipe aloud to you as you cook.

5. Vacuum Cleaner

It seems like the answer to a bad riddle: what makes things dirtier as it cleans? Vacuum cleaners.

They do a bang-up job of sucking up visibly grimy things like dust, hair, and food particles. But that can create a whirlwind of bacteria growth in the bag that can end up coming out the bottom. And the brushes (both the main brushes or rollers and the hose attachment brush) often contain E. coli and mold that you’re inadvertently spreading from rooms like the bathroom and kitchen to your living room and bedrooms.

The best ways to clean your cleaner? Opt for a bagless vacuum, as bags tend to promote more bacteria growth. (You can also purchase bags with antibacterial linings.) Open your bagless cylinder or bag compartment outside and throw the contents in the trash to avoid stirring up a cloud of bacteria. Then clean it out with a diluted bleach solution and allow to air dry after each use. Spray brushes with disinfectant after each use, too.

6. Gym Equipment

While working out regularly helps your health, the things you touch while doing so can make you sick.

A common place where germs hide is in polyester fabric, which is what most weightlifting gloves are made from. That leads to germs on every bar, plate, and free weight you use clinging to your gloves. So, be extra diligent in not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth when wearing them. Better yet, ditch the gloves to strengthen your grip and forearms.

If you’re more of a cardio person, you’re still at risk. Scary bacteria can hang out on your favorite cardio machine. To help protect yourself from possible illness:

  • Put a towel down on machines with seats.
  • Use hand sanitizer after using rowers, bikes, and other machines with handles.
  • Be courteous by wiping machines down after you use them.

7. All the Money (Purse, Wallet, Credit Cards, Bills, and Coins)

When it comes to payments changing hands, it’s not all about the Benjamins—it’s also about all the germs.

Paper money is just plain gross. It gathers germs from everything it touches, which is a lot of hands. And the surfaces of paper currency are fibrous, so it holds onto them. Researchers have shown that money (94 percent in one study) can carry viruses, skin bacteria, E. coli, salmonella, and even resistant staph.

If you choose to use plastic, you’re not much better off. Credit cards also rack up impressive germ collections. That’s because they’re also passed hand-to-hand. And all the nooks and crannies of a credit card provide hiding places for germs.

Given what you’ve just read, it’s probably not surprising that your wallet or purse are stuffed with germs. After all, that’s where you probably keep your money. And in the case of a purse, your mobile phone, too.

What can you do? You have to pay for important things like food. So, you can’t really avoid these hidden sources of germs. But you can wipe down your credit cards with antibacterial wipes. Same with your wallet and some surfaces of your purse. It’s harder to actually wash cash.

But the best thing you can do is wash your hands after contacting these items. And avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth while you’re shopping or after paying for anything with cash.

Clean Up the Hidden Sources of Germs

Scared yet? You don’t need to be. Identifying these hidden sources of germs helps you know where to focus extra cleaning energy. And using the house cleaning secrets you’ve read will help lessen your exposure to potentially harmful germs.

And it’s all about exposure. Being smart about where harmful germs are lurking is a good thing. But your immune system is also there to protect you. So, a combination of good cleaning practices (including these hidden sources of germs), and immune-boosting habits can help you stay healthy.

The old adage says, “an apple a day, keeps the doctor away.” But there are other immune supporting foods along the aisles of the grocery store. Immunity nutrition is a popular target of today’s diet trends. And while a variety of wholesome foods are needed to create a balanced diet, some are particularly good sources of immunity nutrients.

Foods that support your body’s immune system are nutrient dense. That means they’re packed with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and other helpful nutrients. Beta-glucans, vitamin C, B vitamins, and zinc are some of the most important immunity nutrients.

They all work to protect your health. These nutrients support the function of immune system cells—like neutrophils, macrophages, and natural killer cells. By supporting your natural defenses, immunity nutrition can help maintain your health.

It is important to get these nutrients in your daily meals. And the good news is each comes in a healthy, delicious package. Whether it’s red pepper, kiwi, chickpeas, or cashews, make sure you get immune supporting foods each time you go to the grocery store.

Fungi, Whole Grains, and Dairy: Beta Glucans

Mushrooms have famously been linked to immune health. But more foods than mushrooms contain beta-glucans—the nutrients responsible for mushrooms’ immune support. Beta-glucans are sugars found in the cell walls of fungi (like mushrooms), bacteria, and other plant material. They are also present in oats, other grains, and dairy products.

When you consume foods rich in beta-glucans, your immune system flourishes. Beta-glucans are immunostimulants, meaning they support the function and responsiveness of immune cells. These micronutrients support the normal activity of neutrophils, which help maintain your health.

Your immune response can be primed by molecules like beta-glucans. They train your innate immunity (your ancient immune system) to react to real threats with harmless stimuli. Now “awake” and alert to foreign triggers, your immune system is in a heightened state of awareness.

Macrophage (a type of white blood cell) activity is also stimulated by the presence of beta-glucans. Together (and with the help of beta-glucans) neutrophils and macrophages play an important role in maintaining your immune health.

And you don’t have to dig too deep to find beta-glucan-rich foods. Beta-glucans are large polysaccharides (large sugar molecules) that are added to foods to increase their fiber content. Many cereals, baking goods, instant oatmeal, and milk products are fortified with beta-glucans. Increase your awareness of dietary sources of beta-glucans so you can practice healthy immune nutrition.

Fruits and Veggies: Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant. And it also works with your immune system to maintain your health. Neutrophils (yet another of the five major types of white blood cells) have a high concentration of vitamin C. They use it to reduce free radicals and other toxic oxygen species to protect themselves when they are out protecting your health.

The presence of vitamin C also triggers the activation—or maturation—of leukocytes.  These important immune cells are part of your body’s natural defenses that keep you feeling your best. Working in tandem with antibodies, leukocytes can direct other cells in your immune system. This essential function helps maintain healthy immunity.

They’re bright and vibrant, so foods rich in vitamin C are easy to spot when you are out shopping. Citrus fruits, colorful peppers, spinach, and broccoli are all excellent sources of this essential vitamin and antioxidant. You can make it a snack or a side dish. So, look out for your immune system and add vitamin C to your shopping cart.

Protein: B Vitamins and Zinc

This group of essential vitamins and a mighty mineral partner with your immune system to keep you healthy and feeling your best. B vitamins do this by supporting a healthy metabolism and helping to produce white blood cells. Zinc supports the development of immune cells and acts as an antioxidant—defending your body by destroying free radicals.

B vitamins are a class of their own. These eight immunity nutrients are commonly found in tuna, beef liver, chicken, and turkey meat. As mentioned above, they play an important role in a healthy immune system because they help your body manufacture white blood cells. B vitamins also support the creation of hemoglobin. This protein helps red blood cells carry oxygen throughout your body.

Zinc aids in multiple immune system functions. In your body, zinc stimulates the production of immune cells. It also helps these cells initiate a proper immune response. Macrophages also rely on zinc to help them play their normal role in your body’s defenses.

Free radicals are no match for zinc, either. By helping to reduce toxic oxygen species, zinc can minimize free radical damage.

The essential mineral can be tricky to locate, though. Zinc is hiding in foods like oysters, crab, and lobster. But if high-priced seafood doesn’t suit your budget or taste buds, grab a box of healthy, whole-grain breakfast cereal instead. Many fortified and whole grain breakfast cereals contain a significant amount of zinc.

Eating immune supporting foods loaded with B vitamins and zinc help your immune system by supplying red blood cells with hemoglobin and increasing the number of fighter cells like leukocytes and neutrophils. Learn to rotate macronutrient choices so you get some variety while focusing on immunity nutrition.

Immunity Nutrients Shopping List

Immune boosting micronutrients can be acquired through healthy eating. If you have trouble locating the foods below, or avoid them for any reason, you may need some help supporting immunity. Nutritional supplements can also provide these necessary micronutrients for immune support. Supplementation can help your body stay topped off with the immunity nutrients of which you need more.

But start with this shopping list, which provides ample dietary sources of immunity nutrition. You should be able to find foods rich in beta-glucans, vitamin C, B vitamins, and zinc at the grocery store, farmer’s market, or in your own garden.

These nutrients are hiding in plain sight. All you need to do is eat and enjoy. Bon Appetit!

Beta-Glucans

  • Whole wheat bread
  • High-fiber whole wheat cereals
  • Oats
  • Mushrooms
  • Seaweed
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Low-fat meat products

Vitamin C

  • Oranges
  • Kiwifruits
  • Grapefruits
  • Red peppers
  • Green peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Spinach

B Vitamins

  • B vitamin fortified cereals
  • Liver
  • Chicken breasts
  • Salmon
  • Eggs
  • Yogurt

Zinc

  • Oysters
  • Lobster
  • Crab
  • Beef
  • Chickpeas
  • Cashews
  • Kidney Beans

Life is busy enough. Add a trip—even if it’s a vacation you need—or the scramble to get kids ready for back-to-school, and the busy-ness of life leaves you short on time. But that doesn’t mean you should skimp on one of the most important habits for your well-being: proper skincare.

You always hear about the many, many steps of a skincare routine—like it’s a race to add more complexity. That doesn’t always fit with your busy life. But believe it or not, there is such a thing as a simple skincare routine.

If you find yourself too hurried to make skincare a priority, try implementing these five tips to make a routine that can keep up with you.

1. Care for Your Skin from the Inside

The top skincare tip for busy people is to feed your glow from the inside. The better care you take of your hydration and nutrition, the fewer products you’ll need to use to make up for it later.

The golden rule for good-looking skin—especially if you’re traveling or spending a lot of time in the sun, heat, or on the go—is to keep yourself and your skin as hydrated as possible. Yes, this means drinking about 64 ounces (about two liters) of water a day.

But also avoid foods and drinks that dehydrate you or cause you to retain fluids: alcohol, refined carbohydrates, and salt. Beware: those cocktails from last night could have you waking up to dark circles and puffiness, and the salty take-out you had for dinner can leave you retaining fluids.

The easiest way to stay hydrated is to take a reusable water bottle with you wherever you go. Look for one that holds at least 32 ounces (or about a liter), or you’ll be looking for places to fill up multiple times a day. BPA-free plastic bottles are easy to find and durable. Aluminum bottles are lightweight and tend to keep your water cooler than plastic. Either is a good option.

If you’re traveling by air, remember to empty out any water before trying to go through airport security. Otherwise, you may end up having to leave your bottle behind.

For good skin nutrition, cut down on sugars and other simple carbohydrates. And add more lean protein and produce. Omega 3 fatty acids are also essential to maintaining moisture in the skin. So, toss some flaxseeds or walnuts on your lunchtime salad to get a quick boost.*

If you’re traveling, pay close attention to your in-flight or road-trip nutrition, particularly the sugar and sodium levels. Whole fruit and unsalted nuts are better options than trail mix, chips, or airline peanuts. Ask the flight attendant for herbal tea or water instead of soda pop, coffee, or alcohol. That’s because it’s easier for your body to get dehydrated at 30,000 feet (10,000 meters).

2. Keep it Simple

Be honest with yourself. Even if you’re curious about the benefits of a complex, double-digit-step skincare routine, are you committed enough to implement it on a daily basis? If the answer is no, don’t set yourself up for failure. You can still get fantastic results from a simplified skincare routine. The trick is to be consistent with whatever routine you choose.

First off, clean out your shower, cabinets, and bathroom drawers. Any products that are expired, have started to separate (that’s a sign that the product has spoiled), or that you haven’t used in the past few months have to go.

Now, it’s time for your simplified skincare routine to start your day (Those in bold are what a dermatologist would view as essential):

  • Wash with a gentle cleanser.
  • Quickly pat a light antioxidant serum into your skin to keep the look of aging at bay. Allow your serum to absorb into your skin.
  • If you choose to add an eye cream, now would be the time to lightly tap it into the outer eye area with your ring finger.
  • Apply a moisturizer.
  • Top with a sunscreen that’s a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher.

And you’re done with your morning skincare routine in five minutes—even if you add in the two steps not seen by dermatologists as essential!

At night, remove any and all makeup before cleansing. Follow with a more powerful skincare routine to take advantage of your body’s recovery mode during sleep. Also, add a thicker moisturizer or night cream. If you need extra moisture while you sleep, place a humidifier near your bed. To minimize puffiness, elevate your head by sleeping on two pillows.

And remember—while the skin on your face is delicate and needs the most attention, the skin on the rest of your body also needs some tender care. After showering in the morning, use a quick-absorbing lotion and then layer on your preferred sunscreen. Do not skip this step, even if the weather is bad or you’re in a hurry. Preventing sun damage is much easier than trying to correct it after the fact.

3. Choose Your Products Wisely

Your skincare routine should multitask as much as you do. Look for products that do double or even triple duty to save time and space in your bathroom. Here are some common product combinations to try:

  • If you have oily or combination skin and would prefer to skip the moisturizer in the morning, use a creamy face wash with hydrating main ingredients.
  • Several cleansers double as exfoliators because they contain ingredients to gently polish the surface of your skin, helping to keep your glow going strong.
  • In a pinch, you can skip the serum if your moisturizer contains excellent anti-aging cosmetic ingredients to help combat the look of aging.
  • Lots of sunscreens double as moisturizers these days. As long as it has high enough broad spectrum protection, there’s no need to use them in separate steps. Or, if you have dry and/or aging skin and prefer face oils to the serum and moisturizer, snag one with sun protection built in.
  • If you’d like sheer-to-light foundation coverage, look for a tinted sunscreen. It’ll tackle three steps in one: moisturizer, sunscreen, and makeup.

4. Let Skincare be Your Travel Companion

If you’re traveling or constantly on the go, let your skincare goodies tag along with you. This is where the travel aisle of your favorite store can be your best friend. Whether you take a carry-on through airport security or not, load up on travel-size bottles or containers (three ounces or fewer). Then you can fill them up with your regular skincare products that are too big for your carry-on.

Not surprisingly, your most important sidekick is sunscreen. It needs to be close since you should reapply every few hours—especially if you get sweaty or spend time in the water. If you have the space, bring a separate SPF for your face and body. Grab a travel-sized spray can or a roll-on stick of sunscreen for your body, and use a mineral powder for your face to leave makeup undisturbed. It’s especially important to sunscreen up prior to a flight, as you’re closer to the sun’s skin-damaging rays.

If you’re going to spend several hours on a flight or in the car, load up on all things to help you refresh and rehydrate. For a quick shower alternative on a really long trip, bring cleansing cloths to wipe down your face, arms, and hands. Facial oil and hand cream or lotion should be applied—and reapplied, depending on the length of the flight—to your face and hands. (They also can help tame frizzy tresses or flyaways.) Facial mists are also good options. And on those overnight or international flights, take the opportunity to pamper your skin by using a no-rinse, hydrating sheet mask. Cleanse your face, apply the sheet mask, relax, and hydrate for 20-30 minutes.

Other items that make great travel companions: hand sanitizer, lip balm (bonus points for using one with SPF), and blotting sheets to combat extra shine.

5. One Day a Week, Don’t be in a Hurry

A skincare routine may seem like a chore most days, but try to let it feel like a treat at least one day a week. Depending on your skin type and your skin’s needs, try some or all of these luxurious treatments this weekend.

  • Exfoliate. Regardless of your skin type, you need to slough off dead skin cells once or twice a week to help keep your pores clear. Choose a product with ingredients that gently polish your skin, like a sugar scrub. If you go for a different exfoliant, scan the label for alpha hydroxy, beta hydroxy, or hyaluronic acids. Fruit enzymes like papaya and pineapple work if you have sensitive skin. You can also use an exfoliating mask, a peel, or exfoliating pads. Just remember that a little goes a long way—be gentle!
  • Give yourself a facial massage. Get circulation flowing to your facial tissue and release wrinkle-causing facial tension by giving your face a good rub. After applying facial oil or moisturizer, slowly massage it into your face, neck, and décollé. You can also use a jade roller to help the product penetrate deeper and increase circulation.
  • Get your mask on. Give your skin some extra love by using a mask at least once a week. There are myriad options for masking, so choose your treatment by assessing your skin’s needs. Looking a little dull? Try a brightening sheet mask. Minor blemishes popping up? Try a thicker charcoal or clay mask. If you’re feeling dry, pick a hydrating mask you can wear overnight.
  • Don’t forget your eyes. Reduce puffiness, dark circles, and the appearance of fine lines by giving your eyes special attention on the weekend. Undereye silicone masks are effective options, but can be a bit pricey. For a do-it-yourself alternative, place steeped chamomile tea bags or cool cucumber slices over your eyes for 10-15 minutes.

Whatever your schedule or lifestyle, you can (and should!) make time to commit to a daily skincare routine. It’s an important healthy habit. Your skin is your body’s largest organ, so taking care of it makes a big impact on your overall well-being. Keep a simple routine using multi-purpose products you’ll be on your way in no time flat. Just don’t forget the sunscreen!

 

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

You eat to fuel your life. But your body needs more than the energy and nutrients in your diet.  It also needs water to survive. Healthy hydration is required for your body to reach its full potential. And while healthy eating may look different for each individual, water is a universal requirement. There’s no question your body is healthiest when you practice proper hydration.

Although essential, there can be some confusion about why hydration is important. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll learn:

  • How water works in your body
  • Why you need to drink water
  • How to get and stay hydrated
  • How to spot dehydration

And you’ll hopefully have a whole new appreciation for H2O.

How Water Works in Your Body

Water facilitates countless physiological processes, including, digestion, elimination of waste, and protection. It can be hard to see the role water plays in your body since it is everywhere, all the time. But it is possible to breakdown how healthy hydration keeps your body in working order.

The mouth is the first stop along the digestive tract. And it’s the first stop on your tour of the ways water works in your body. It all starts with saliva. This is secreted into the mouth by salivary glands, but it’s primarily water. Saliva begins the digestion of food by breaking down your meal into smaller pieces.

Water is a great solvent. This means that things, food and its nutrients especially, dissolve and break apart easily in water. So, it’s no surprise water is involved in this part of digestion. Washing down food with water helps digestion run quickly and efficiently.

After mixing with your meal, water continues through your stomach and toward the small intestine. That’s where most of the water you drink is absorbed. The lining of the small intestine is covered with tiny, finger-like projections called villi. These increase the surface area of the small intestine and allow for maximum water absorption.

Water absorbed by the small intestine is transported through your body in blood. So, drinking plenty of water helps you maintain a healthy blood supply.

Sometimes waste material builds up in your blood and needs to be removed. That brings us to the next step on the proper hydration journey—your kidneys.

They filter blood for waste and toxins. They remove unwanted material from your body through urination. This is why it is so important to maintain healthy hydration levels—especially when you don’t feel great.

Another way you remove toxins is through normal bowel movements. Drinking water can also help alleviate constipation. Water softens stool and helps push it through the colon.

Your skin is the final stop on your tour of water’s body benefits. That’s because perspiration is another body function that relies on water. Sweat is composed of water, minerals, electrolytes, and a variety of compounds your body wants to eliminate. Healthy hydration gives your body plenty of fluid to sweat bad stuff out.

In addition to removing waste, perspiring helps you maintain a normal body temperature. How does it cool you off? Water leaves your body through pores, the moisture that accumulates on your skin. When that moisture evaporates—turns from liquid to gas—it helps cool you down. That’s because it takes energy (in this case body heat) to transform liquid water to its gaseous state, water vapor. This process leaves you feeling nice and cool.

Water, Please: Why You Need to Practice Healthy Hydration

With the knowledge of how your body uses water, you can see how important it is to drink plenty. Every bodily function relies on water. Proper hydration helps your body maintain homeostasis—the balance between physiological processes. Without this balance, your body can’t maintain your health.

An example of this was highlighted in a British scientific journal article in 2013. Researchers found that as many as 60 percent of children arrived at school already dehydrated. This lack of fluid early in the day makes learning in the classroom difficult. Concentration and cognitive skills decrease when you’re not fully hydrated.

But the brain fog caused by dehydration isn’t permanent. Researchers concluded that drinking an additional glass of water during the school day enhanced fine motor skills and visual focus.

Staying hydrated does a lot to keep your body achieving peak performance:

  • Proper hydration supports beautiful, healthy skin.
  • Water helps in wound-repair processes, diminishing wrinkles, and keeping skin looking plump and bouncy.
  • Immune function and germ-fighting power are strengthened when your body gets enough water.

Healthy hydration helps protect delicate bones, your brain, spine, and other vital organs. Spinal fluid, the fluid between joints, and the space around organs is made up largely of water. This liquid acts as a shock absorber and a barrier, protecting your body from damage caused by impact.

How to Attain Proper Hydration—And Stay Hydrated

As you can see, water is a part of all bodily functions. That’s why proper hydration is so critical. Drinking enough water can help your health and make your body happy. But what is healthy hydration, and how can you achieve it?

Recommendations for daily water intake run the gamut. They vary in suggested volume, but one thing is consistent. Drinking water is the best way to stay hydrated. While juice, soda, tea, and coffee all contain water, regular, plain water is the most effective way to hydrate.

Why just water? Juice and soda are high in added sugar that can upset your stomach if you’re dehydrated. And can wreak havoc on your healthy diet. Sports drinks may be appropriate for hydrating, but should only be used if you’ve been exercising hard and sweating a lot. It may be more beneficial to drink plenty of water before vigorous exercise and eat a snack like fruit or low-fat granola afterward.

With all the recommendation for water intake, start with a simple goal—adults should drink at about eight, 8-ounce (or about 236 milliliter) glasses of water every day. Being consistent and drinking water before exercise will keep your body happy. If remembering to drink water is difficult, carry a reusable water bottle around with you. Write down how much water you need each day and cross off ounces (or liters) as you drink them.

Don’t forget about the fruits and veggies that are naturally full of water. Apples, grapes, melons, cucumbers, lettuce, and celery are dietary sources of water. These whole foods are not only healthy choices, they help you maintain proper hydration, too.

If you prefer some extra flavor with your drink, adding fruits and veggies to a glass of cold water could be your ticket to healthy hydration. Berries, mint, and cucumber mix together nicely to give a simple glass of water some extra punch without extra sugar. Start replacing sugary drinks with infused water and treating your taste buds to a more wholesome beverage.

How to Spot Dehydration

It’s easy to forget to drink water when you’re busy. But your body can alert you to dehydration with several symptoms. Thirst is the most obvious indicator, but it often comes a little too late. Mild dehydration can set in before you become thirsty, leaving your body to play catch up.

Other signs of dehydration include fatigue, difficulty focusing, and headache. These can be subtle, so it’s important to pay attention to what your body is telling you. Should these symptoms creep in, wash them down with a tall drink of water. And keep drinking through the rest of the day for total body re-hydration.

To truly know if you are drinking enough water, look no further than the bathroom stall. The color of your urine points strongly to your state of hydration. Dark urine lets you know you need to drink more. If what’s left behind in the toilet is light and pale, pat yourself on the back. You are well on your way to healthy hydration.

All Water is the Same, Right?

If your drinking water comes from a municipal supply, you may notice a chlorine odor and taste. Chlorine is often used in safe, monitored doses to treat public drinking water and keep bacteria from tainting the supply. Should you want to eliminate the taste or smell of chlorine from your tap water, there are easy and inexpensive ways to do so.

Activated carbon filters can effectively remove chlorine from drinking water. These can be attached to the faucet in your home or used in water-filtering pitchers and vases. Installing an aerator on your faucet can also help reduce the taste of chlorine.

Bottled water is often regarded as better tasting than tap water. If drinking bottled water is suitable to your lifestyle, purchase it in recyclable containers. Reduce plastic bottle waste by reusing water bottles and recycling old ones. Being an accountable and well-hydrated citizen means purchasing bottled water responsibly.

About the Author

Sydney Sprouse is a freelance science writer based out of Forest Grove, Oregon. She holds a bachelor of science in human biology from Utah State University, where she worked as an undergraduate researcher and writing fellow. Sydney is a lifelong student of science and makes it her goal to translate current scientific research as effectively as possible. She writes with particular interest in human biology, health, and nutrition.

Breakfast with coffee, orange juice, croissant, egg, vegetables and fruits

Breakfast with coffee, orange juice, croissant, egg, vegetables and fruits

Breakfast sets the tone for the rest of your day. A healthy breakfast can put you on the path to a day full of healthy decisions. And it can also provide the energy you need to dominate your to-do list.

This healthy breakfast quiz will help you master the art of the healthy breakfast. In only nine questions, you’ll test your ability to pick proteins, carbohydrates, fats, fruits, and beverages.

Finish the last question to see your score and cruise the answer key to see where you went astray. And share the quiz and your score with friends. That way you can claim your breakfast-building bragging rights.

 

Have you ever found yourself sitting in a drive-thru at your usual fast food joint…like your car drove there on autopilot? You’re confused because you’d told yourself today was the day you’d go to the salad place for lunch. How did this happen? You’ve just experienced the tremendous power habits can have over your life.

You have good intentions. You know all the rules for living a healthy lifestyle. Eat a balanced diet with lots of fruits and veggies, manage your weight, get enough sleep, take your vitamins, exercise at least 150 minutes a week, etc.

Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

Yes, change can be hard. And, if putting your knowledge about living a healthy lifestyle into action sometimes feels impossible, you’re not alone. Fortunately, there’s hope. People successfully create big transformations by making small changes every day. And you can, too.

The answer may lie in the science of healthy habits. And you don’t have to start from scratch. You can use the habits you already have. Maybe even the one that drove you to that drive thru.

This is Your Brain on Habits

Your brain is lazy. Well, to put it more accurately, it has better things to do than to stay focused on all of the mundane activities you do every day. So, along come habits.

These automatic behaviors drive nearly half of your daily life. Just consider: did your routine this morning vary much from yesterday? Last week? Last year? We’re creatures of habit because it’s the most efficient way to get through the day.

Scientists don’t always agree on the exact definition of what a habit is. But broadly, a habit is any action, or sequence of actions, initiated by a cue. It can be a time of day, an event, another person, an emotional state, or a location. The cue causes a behavioral response. And if the behavior results in some kind of reward, your brain learns that the behavior is desirable.

For example:

  • Cue: stumble downstairs to the kitchen after waking up
  • Behavior: make and drink coffee
  • Reward: feeling awake and more energized

If you continue to repeat these actions, eventually you perform them without even thinking about it. A habit loop is born. And afterward, even the perception of the cue will usually trigger the habit.

Sometimes the rewards in this habit loop can be as mundane as achieving a small goal—like getting to work by driving the same route every day. This leads to goals that are easy to repeat and likely wouldn’t be hard to break.

However, if the reward is really powerful, it can lead to a habit loop that’s harder to change. When you eat things like chocolate or cheese, or show the brain new posts on social media, your brain is rewarded with things it likes. Neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) like dopamine are released in the brain, resulting in pleasurable sensations.

Dopamine is considered a key player in helping your brain establish automatic behaviors. Because your brain likes to feel good.

If your brain doesn’t feel so great, like when you’re stressed or sad, it can drive you to perform the habit. Even if, consciously, you know it’s not good for you. Your brain knows the behavior will relieve the bad feelings—even if it’s only temporary—driving you to do the activity again and again.

The brain sends feel-good messages along pathways. And as habitual actions are repeated, those pathways are strengthened. It works like a forest trail that becomes worn more deeply into the earth as people tread the same path. Once a neural pathway for a habit is established, it becomes the default path to follow. And the pathway becomes even more fixed as the habit is repeated.

Eventually, your habits become as automatic as walking or scratching your nose. This is reflected in your biology. When habits are being created, there is activity in the decision-making areas of your brain—the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. Over time, as the behavior is repeated, the activation in the brain shifts to the same part of the brain responsible for moving your limbs. You’re no longer thinking actively. Instead, you’re responding with as much thought as it takes to move your arms or legs.

This is why changing habits can be challenging. You have to pick a new path to reach your desired destination.

A 3-Step Process for Changing Your Habits

You probably already have a health goal you want to achieve. Some of the most common goals are losing weight, exercising more, and eating healthier. All of those are lofty goals that may seem overwhelming. Aim for small changes that are manageable. Keep it simple by only focusing on one thing at a time. Each small success will add up to greater confidence in your ability to adopt other healthy habits. And over time, all those small changes could add up to a big transformation.

Get started by narrowing down your options to only one action that will help you successfully accomplish your goal. Then follow three key steps, recommended by Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, to create a new habit loop.

Step 1: Identify your cue

You probably already have a lot of set habits. So, one of your existing habit loops may be a good place to start incorporating the new activity on which you want to focus. If you’re working to establish a fairly simple new habit, this probably won’t require too much effort.

Perhaps you want to drink more water. Take a look at your habitual routines and identify somewhere you could add this behavior. If you drink coffee first thing every morning, that might be a logical and easy place to add a little hydration. Try placing a glass in front of the coffee maker. This will prompt you to fill it up with water as you prepare your java. Then drink it while the coffee is brewing. Keep it up for several days and voila!—new habit.

However, if you’re trying to replace a strongly embedded routine with a healthier alternative, you may need to take some time to redesign your habit.

Start with the cue.

Let’s say you need to break your Monday–Friday habit of buying and eating potato chips at your workplace cafeteria. It’s not doing your waistline any favors, and you want to replace this habit with something healthier. Potato chips reward your brain, so you probably enjoy this behavior. This could make it a tougher habit to change, and will require a slightly scientific approach.

First, take a few days to identify your cue. Because most cues are a time of day, an event, another person, an emotional state, or a location—these are the places to look. Every time the craving to treat yourself to potato chips hits, write down the following:

  • Where are you?
  • What time is it?
  • What’s your emotional state?
  • Who else is around?
  • What action preceded the urge?

Do this for a few days until you see a pattern emerge. You will have uncovered what your cue is.

Step 2: Recognize the reward

Once you’ve revealed your cue, you need to figure out what’s driving the behavior. It’s time to test some rewards. Put your scientist cap back on and test theories until you determine the cause of your cravings. Take a few more days to experiment with different rewards each time your craving hits.

  • Theory: I just want a break from work.
    Test: Instead of going to the cafeteria, I’ll head outside for a walk.
  • Theory: I’m hungry or need energy.
    Test: I’ll still go to the cafeteria and buy something else. (Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to make a healthier choice yet—just buy something else.)
  • Theory: I enjoy socializing while eating my chips in the cafeteria.
    Test: I’ll go chat with friends somewhere else.

To conclude your test, immediately reflect on the experience of resisting your usual craving and substituting something else. Write down a few thoughts about your test behavior. How do you feel? What did you enjoy? What did you dislike?

About 15 minutes after writing about your experience, also note if you’re still experiencing the craving. And if so, how strong the craving is.

Test as many theories as possible. After you’re done with all of your experiments, review your notes and interpret your results to identify the real reward of your habit.

Step 3: Replace the behavior

You know the reward you’re seeking. And what’s triggering the behavior. So, how do you break the loop?

The reward and cue might be tough to change. If your cue is a time of day, you can’t exactly skip 3 p.m. in the afternoon! So, if you can’t remove or replace the cue, changing your habitual response is the place to focus your efforts. You’ll need to replace the old behavior with a new one.

You need a plan. A very specific plan. And maybe a touch of willpower.

Determine some options you could do to get the same or very similar rewards using different behaviors that better align with your goals.

In the potato-chip munching example, let’s say your long-term goal is to improve your eating. Your action of focus may be adding one serving of fruit or vegetables every day. So, you’ll need to look for healthier options that you’ll enjoy (almost) as much the potato chips. How about edamame with salt? Or an apple? Some carrots and hummus?

Choose your substitute. Write down your plan. Be as specific as possible. Include the cue and, if applicable, when and where you will do your chosen action.

Example: At 3 p.m., every day, I will go to the cafeteria and eat a snack of edamame with salt.

Every time you encounter the cue, do the action. Your routine may not be perfect. But it’s progress.

Simple Actions to Get Started Toward Healthy Habits

There are many small changes you can adopt to improve your health habits. Below are several examples to help inspire ideas.

Eating a healthier diet.

Improving how you eat is often a matter of preparation. So, one of the first habits to establish is making meal planning, grocery shopping, and meal prep an automatic part of your week. If planning a whole week’s worth of meals is too much, start by planning one meal and work your way up.

Also, as you go through your days, it’s important to try and only eat when you’re actually hungry…but not too hungry. Getting in touch with your true hunger signals is a key component of healthier eating patterns. Whereas starving yourself will often lead to bingeing. As long as your hunger is under control, it’s easier to make smarter food choices. Here are a few suggestions for simple actions that could help you start improving your daily nutrition:

  • Every morning when I drink my tea, I will eat a banana.
  • Every day at lunch, I will eat one serving of vegetables.
  • Every evening after dinner, I will take my vitamins with a full glass of water.
  • Every night before I brush my teeth, I will prepare my lunch for the next day.

Exercising at least 30 minutes, most days of the week.

Exercise is key to a long, healthy life. The secret to sustained fitness is finding an activity you enjoy. If you hate running but love a Zumba class, don’t force yourself to run every day. Instead, dance to your heart’s delight. If you’re just starting, here are a few suggestions for simple actions you can take to help establish fit habits:

  • Every morning after I wake up, I will put workout clothes on and go for a 10-minute walk/do a seven-minute workout (science backs up that this works!).
  • Every day after lunch I will walk around the park.
  • Every Wednesday I will leave work and go straight to a yoga class at the gym.

Managing your weight.

Some research has shown that combining habit-changes with traditional weight-loss approaches can make it easier to maintain your lower weight. Addressing relationships with food and attitudes about weight and body image were also important.

When it comes to weight management, diet and exercise go hand-in-hand for best results. But you can also try some easier shifts. Research suggests that simply paying attention to what you eat or to your daily weight can help you start shifting your lifestyle habits. Or, try making a habit of replacing meals or calorie-rich beverages with better options.

  • Every time I eat something, I will track it.
  • Every morning after using the bathroom, I will weigh myself.
  • Every day after my 30-minute lunchtime workout, I will drink a meal-replacement shake.
  • Every afternoon at work, I will replace my usual soda with a flavored sparkling water.

Other areas to consider making healthy habits, if they apply to you, could be around social media usage, responsible alcohol consumption, getting more sleep, or quitting smoking. Just remember to be as specific as possible about what your cues are and how you respond to them.

Struggling to Change? The Science of Healthy Habits Says Add Emotion to Increase Motivation

What if you’re struggling against changing your habits? You understand rationally why you need to ban your old behaviors. But if your intelligent reasons to change are uninspiring, they’ll be less than motivating. Successful change requires enough desire to see it through to the end.

You can add motivation to your habit-change efforts by purposefully amping up the emotion. Emotional responses help drive learning, including learned responses like habits. So, you can harness this power by using your emotions to your benefit.

If you’re trying to break a habit, negative emotions could be your friend. Researchers found that habitual smokers who became more mindful of their experience realized the sensations weren’t very pleasurable. The taste was full of chemicals. Their breath, clothes, and surroundings stunk like cigarettes. This prompted disgust—an emotional reaction to smoking that spurred stronger motivation to change. Staying in touch with this feeling, along with practicing other mindfulness techniques like meditation, made it easier for participants to stick with their efforts at quitting.

On the flip side, positive emotions have a place in changing your habits, too. Every time you complete the goal action you’d like to make a habit, take a moment to check in with yourself. Feel how happy doing this activity makes you. Consciously decide to enjoy the action. Tap into your sense of hope for the future. These positive emotions can start to wear those habit trails more deeply into the terrain of your brain.

Try using both types of emotion while forming new healthy habits. Link your deep frustration with the aches and pains limiting your potential with unhealthy eating habits or a lack of exercise. Use that frustration to fuel your fire to change. Then, after you eat that healthy meal or complete a workout, take a moment to appreciate how good your body feels. And re-engage that feeling of deep desire to change to help refuel your motivational gas tank.

Other Science-Based Tips for Successfully Changing Habits

It’s true. In order to successfully change a habit, you may have to work at it for a while. There is a common misperception that changing habits only takes 21 days. Sure, some simple habits may change that quickly. But others can take as long as six months or more, depending on how deeply ingrained they are.

One thing is sure: the more you repeat any activity, the more permanent it will become. But researchers at University College London have found that 66 days is the average time it takes for effortful actions—like starting a regular exercise routine—to become more automatic.

How can you stay focused and inspired to change during those two months? Well, everyone is different and every habit might need a different approach. Give yourself a reality check about what motivates you. Then choose strategies that will work best for your personality.

Try some of these ideas to help you stay on track as you work to establish new healthy habits:

  • Stay connected to your goals. Short-circuit your old, bad habits with a goal you’re passionate about. Focus on your goals daily. Write about them in a journal. Talk about your goals with others. Visualize the successful change of your behaviors leading to achieving your goals.
  • Anticipate stress. Challenges in life are one of the biggest triggers for regressing to old, comfortable habits. Some life events—like moving to a new home—provide an opportunity to change your environmental cues and establish new routines. But you might not want to try and break those really tough habits in the middle of a stressful time. When you’re ready and able to tackle those tough habits, actively work to manage everyday stresses, so they don’t get out of hand and derail your efforts. Try daily deep breathing or yoga exercises. Get out into nature. Listen to soothing music. Create intentional moments of self-care at home.
  • Track your progress and reward yourself for success. Many people find it helpful to keep a record of their progress. Try one of the habit-change tracking apps available for your smartphone. Use a spreadsheet. Or a good old notebook will do. Keep notes about how the behavior felt, so you can see it getting easier. Select a treat you can give yourself that won’t blow your goals, but will keep you motivated. And give yourself the treat for successfully completing the target behavior. Weight-management research has shown better outcomes when subjects monitor and reward themselves for successful habit changes, rather than for achieving a number on a scale.
  • Get a buddy or join a group. There is strength in numbers. Not only can others help keep you accountable, they can provide support during the tough times. A report on tobacco cessation programs in Argentina found participation in group sessions had significantly greater success in quitting than toughing it out alone. You may also want to make some new friends. Surrounding yourself with people who behave how you would like to behave can help you be more successful.
  • Remove the temptation. Don’t keep the cookies in the house. Ask your friend to go for a walk instead of going out for happy hour (then counting on willpower to keep you from overindulging). Find a new way to drive to work that doesn’t go by the siren-song of Starbucks. Put your smartphone in a drawer when you get home. There’s truth to the saying “out of sight, out of mind.”

Every time you have to use effort to control your behavior, it depletes your mental strength. So, make life easier. Help maintain your motivation by removing the cue that causes your compulsion wherever possible. And look for ways to increase your positive cues, like placing a bowl of fruit on the table or a bottle of water (reusable, of course) on your desk.

  • Get help. If you’re using your old habit behavior as a substitute for other needs, you may need additional support. Ask yourself what you get out of your “bad” behavior. And really, truly answer. If you’re overeating because you’re constantly stressed or depressed, simply deciding on a new habit may not be enough. You might need to talk to a therapist or health-care provider for additional strategies to help address your deeper needs while you work to improve your health habits.

Finally, remember, you’re only human. It can be tough to make changes. Forgive yourself if you slip up occasionally. It’s the long-term that’s important. If you fall back into old habits once or twice, be kind to yourself. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed or that you can’t do it. Recognize that the action happened, consider why it happened, and think about how you might respond differently next time. Then remind yourself that you’re awesome, and move on. Over time, you will get it!

There’s no better time to start than now. Put the science of healthy habits to work for you. Find a small habit to focus on and get going. Before you know it, you’ll develop the skills you need to improve your healthy habits in any area of your life. And you will be empowered to live the life that you truly want.

Nieoullon A, Coquerel A. 2003. Dopamine: a key regulator to adapt action, emotion, motivation and cognition. Curr Opin Neur 16: S3-S9.

Neural plasticity: 4 steps to change your brain & habits. [Internet] [accessed 11 June 2018] Available at http://www.authenticityassociates.com/neural-plasticity-4-steps-to-change-your-brain/

Chi K. 2016. Why are habits so hard to break? Duke Today [Internet] [accessed 11 June 2018] Available at https://today.duke.edu/2016/01/habits

Klika B, Jordan C. 2013. HIGH-INTENSITY CIRCUIT TRAINING USING BODY WEIGHT: Maximum Results With Minimal Investment. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal 17(3): 8-13.

Andrews L. 2013. Daily weighing may help manage your weight. Psychology Today [Internet] [accessed 7 June 2018] Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/minding-the-body/201312/daily-weighing-may-help-manage-your-weight

Madden CE, Leong SL, Gray A, Horwath CC. 2012. Eating in response to hunger and satiety signals is related to BMI in a nationwide sample of 1601 mid-age New Zealand women.

Public Health Nutr 15(12): 2272-9.

Naveros J, Cappannari SO, Colautti C. 2018. 1356 18 years’ experience in tobacco cessation programs in the workplace. Personalized approach. Occup Environ Med 75: A604.

Lally P, van Jaarsveld CHM, Potts HWW, Wardle J. 2010. How are habits formed: modelling habit formation in the real world. Euro J Soc Psychol 40:998–1009.

Gardner B, Lally P, Wardle J. 2012. Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. Br J Gen Pract 62(605): 664-666.

Lally P, Gardner B. 2011. Promoting habit formation. Health Psyc Rev 7(sup1): S137-S158.

Wood W, Neal DT. 2007. A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychol Rev 11(4): 843-63.

Milyavskaya M, Inzlicht M. 2017. What’s So Great About Self-Control? Examining the Importance of Effortful Self-Control and Temptation in Predicting Real-Life Depletion and Goal Attainment. Soc Sci Pers Sci 8(6(: 603-611.

Neal D, Wood W, Quinn J. 2006. Habits—a repeat performance. Curr Dir Psyc Sci 15(4): 198-167.

Brewer J, et al. 2011. Mindfulness training for smoking cessation: results from a randomized controlled trial. Drug and Alc Dep 119(1-2): 72-80.

Tyng C, Amin H, Saad M, Malik A. 2017. The influences of emotion on learning and memory. Front Psychol 8: 1454.

Shea C, Davission E, Fitzsimons G. 2013. Riding others’ coattails: Low self-control individuals value self-control in others. Psychol Sci 24(6): 1031-1036.

Is your social circle supportive? The Mayo Clinic Diet [Internet] [accessed 11 June 2018] Available at http://diet.mayoclinic.org/diet/motivate/is-your-social-circle-supportive?xid=nl_MayoClinicDiet_20160811

Carels R, et al. 2014. A randomized trial comparing two approaches to weight loss: Differences in weight loss maintenance. J Health Psychol 19(2): 296-311.

Gardner B. 2015. A review and analysis of the use of ‘habit’ in understanding, predicting and influencing health-related behavior. Health Psychol Rev 9(3): 277-295.

A Guide to Changing Habits. The Power of Habit Resources [Internet] [accessed 11 June 2018] Available at http://charlesduhigg.com/resources/

Ever wonder why some animals are nocturnal? Or why you or a friend has to get at least nine hours of sleep every night? Or why a family member can function perfectly well with just five hours?

The answers lie in your physiology.

Did you know your body has its own internal Rolex? OK, not exactly. But your body does keep time. It’s called your internal biological clock—or scientifically speaking, your circadian rhythms.

A well-running clock is essential for your health. So much so, that the scientists who discovered how circadian rhythms work were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2017.

Learn how your biological clock affects all aspects of your health. That includes proper sleep, mental health, eating habits, healthy aging, the pesky effects of jet lag, and overall wellbeing.

The Discovery of Circadian Rhythms

It seems natural that daily routines would revolve around the 24-hour daily period of the sun. But, to be a true circadian rhythm, the cycles must persist regardless of external conditions. That means if you remove all external stimuli (like the sun or your alarm clock) your physiology still centers around a 24-hour cycle. In fact, studies conducted in complete darkness prompted the discovery of these rhythms.

Researchers in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century discovered that these natural cycles occur independent of sunlight. They found plants kept in total darkness still have movements that occur in roughly 24-hour patterns. Also, humans and other animals kept in total darkness, retain cyclical sleep and other biological patterns.

As research in this area continued to progress, the word circadian was first used in 1959 and officially adopted 1977. “Circadian” is of Latin origin meaning around (circa) the day (diem). Circadian rhythms are defined as any one of your physiological processes that occur in cycles of about 24 hours.

Research continues today, usually on those who have irregular sleep-wake patterns. This includes people who get tired at irregular time periods, or who have trouble sleeping. It extends to those who have to fight their natural 24-hour clock. Individuals like shift workers and frequent flyers.

Circadian Rhythms Can Shift With Changing Stimuli

Much of your physiology cycles between on and (mostly) off, in that 24-hour period you just read about. But 24 hours isn’t the hard and fast rule. The length varies between individuals, but devoid of external stimuli, these cycles range from 24 to 25 hours.

Without sunlight or other cues, your physiology will drift about one hour per day. Jet lag is one of the best examples of this phenomenon. If you’ve ever traveled you’ve experienced this. It takes about one day to get back in sync for every time zone you cross.

There are lots of outside influences that can impact your circadian rhythms. The major regulator is the normal day/night cycle of the sun. But it can be almost any kind of light, natural or artificial. Also the lack of light can help reset your clock.

A number of other influences can also help sync or disrupt your natural daily rhythms. Things like sleep time, wake time, eating, exercising, aging and travel all affect your biological clock.

Circadian Rhythms Are Also Responsible for Your Annual Cycles

Have you ever wondered what drives bears to gain weight in preparation for hibernation? Or, on a more personal level, why you may gain a little weight leading up to colder seasons? Circadian rhythms are not limited to only daily routines. They also play a role seasonal patterns, like eating.

Other seasonal rhythms you may experience, are changes in mood and behavior. You may find yourself feeling generally more tired during cold, dark, and wet weather. And some people experience happier moods during warm and sunny seasons. Animal behaviors, like migration, hibernation, and reproduction, are also examples of seasonal circadian rhythms.

Your Health Depends on Your Circadian Rhythms

Many studies have shown that disrupting daily rhythms have negative health consequences. Staying in a consistent daily routine—centered around constant sleep, wake, and meal times—has positive influences.

Guarding your natural circadian rhythms is important for overall health and well-being. Circadian rhythms influence sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, digestion, maintaining normal blood pressure, hunger, and body temperature—to name a few.

Disruptions in circadian rhythms (those caused by shift work, extensive travel, some forms of blindness, and various disease states) have been linked to negative health outcomes. That includes sleep disorders, obesity, mental health issues, and other chronic conditions.

But your lifestyle can help keep your rhythms steady. There are lots of factors that go into a healthy lifestyle. Maintaining a consistent daily routine that focuses on healthy habits can help stabilize rhythms and help you achieve optimal health.

Healthy Circadian Rhythms are Essential for a Good Night’s Sleep

Let’s focus on probably the most important thing circadian rhythms control—sleep.

The benefits of a regular sleep cycle are physical and mental. Sufficient, regular sleep promotes improved concentration and coordination. Physically, your body performs much of its regular repair and maintenance during sleep. Insufficient sleep can result in an increased risk of weight gain, compromised immune function, and more adverse health outcomes.

Since your body has a running biological clock, it controls, at a basic level, when you decide to sleep and stay awake. The rhythms help you fall asleep at the same time each day, and to stay asleep. They also help wake you up in the morning and flip the switch on the energy that powers your daily tasks.

During the day, your body suppresses the production of melatonin—what is often referred to as your sleep hormone. In the evening, when light stops hitting your eyes, you start producing melatonin. This hormone reduces alertness, makes you feel drowsy, and helps you fall asleep. Circadian rhythms further help you stay asleep by altering digestion to reduce bathroom breaks throughout the night. They also slow your metabolism by decreasing your body temperature.

That’s why most sleep experts agree you should sleep in a cool, dark room.

But what about naps? How do they fit into circadian rhythms? While not promoted by melatonin, an afternoon nap can still fit into your circadian rhythms. Like sleep during the night, it can reinvigorate you with energy and increased concentration. Stick to shorter power-naps (less than 30 minutes). Longer naps can disrupt your normal sleep cycle.

Naps might not impact your circadian rhythms. But some aspects of modern culture and lifestyle have you fighting against your internal clock. Airplanes allow you to cross the globe and multiple time zones very rapidly. This can leave you out of sync with your natural cycle. This is commonly called jet lag. You’ll read about more common disruptors below.

4 Common Causes of Circadian Rhythm Disruption

1. Drugs and Alcohol Can Disrupt Your Biological Clock

Drugs, both legal and illegal, have a strong impact on the central nervous system. While this can affect all types of circadian rhythms, sleep is one that is most apparent. For example, caffeine is a stimulant that can disrupt and push back your normal sleep cycle. Alcohol can do the opposite. It promotes drowsiness. But, at the same time, it can prevent you from entering a deep and restful sleep.

Drug abuse is especially harmful to circadian rhythms. Even a single case of abuse disrupts sleep cycles in a way that can lead to further abuse and addiction. Drug abuse can also cause long-term disruptions to circadian rhythms that last after you break the addiction.

These disruptions can be caused by all types of drugs, including prescriptions. You should not stop taking your prescription medication, but you should work with your doctor and pharmacist. They will help you determine medication timing and other lifestyle changes to keep you in rhythm and at your healthiest.

2. Artificial Lighting Negatively Affects Your Daily Rhythms

Your eyes might not mind the difference between natural and artificial light. But your circadian rhythms do differentiate between types of light. Depending on the timing and color, artificial light can increase or decrease your natural, daily rhythm.

Shorter wavelength lights, like blue and ultraviolet, are especially harmful to your biological cycle. These wavelengths inhibit the production of melatonin. Remember, melatonin is your sleep-promotion hormone. Lights in your home, on your television, phone, or computer monitor all can negatively impact your melatonin production.

As you get ready for sleep each night, consider turning off your digital screens. Another option, many phones and computers now include a “Night” setting that makes the screen much warmer colored and reduces its blue-light output.

3. Working Nights is Bad for Circadian Rhythms (and Health)

doctor feel tired sleeping on desk of clinic. beautiful mixed race asian chinese woman model. medical and health concept

Unfortunately, this is one disruption that you might not have as much control over as you would like.

Working night shifts disrupts your circadian rhythms in a number of ways. You have to work when you should be asleep, sleep when your body wants to be awake, and you’re surrounded by either artificial light or sunlight 24 hours a day.

There are a few things that you can do to create a healthy routine around your nighttime work:

  • Stick to a schedule. Wake up and go to sleep at the same time each day.
  • Create a dark sleep environment. Use blinds, blackout curtains, or get creative to block out the sunlight from coming in your windows. Put a towel under the bottom edge of your door. Do whatever it takes to make it feel like night.
  • Consider a melatonin supplement. For shift work, supplementing melatonin can help support your body’s natural circadian rhythms.*

4. Fight to Stay on Local Time to Combat the Effects of Jet Lag

If you have ever flown across several time zones, you know the feeling of jet lag. It can leave you tired when you want have energy, or stuck awake all night long. Airline pilots, flight crews, and frequent fliers are all too familiar with these feelings. With extreme cases leading to constant tiredness that never actual leads to a good night of sleep.

One of the best ways to fight jet lag is to stick with the local schedule. You might have just gotten off a 10-hour flight ready for sleep, but locally it’s only noon. Do your best to stay awake. Feel free to take this first day easy, but don’t go to sleep until it’s actually night.

Alternately, due to the time zone changes, you might arrive feeling rested. But the locals are heading to bed. This is most likely to happen if you’re travelling east a few time zones. In this case, consider waking up early the day of your flight and avoid sleeping on the plane. This will help shift your waking hours closer to your destination.

In either of the cases above, a melatonin supplement about one hour before you plan to sleep can help shift your circadian rhythms towards the local time zone.* This will help you feel energized and ready for whatever your location has in store.

Stay in Rhythm

As you can see, your circadian rhythms are super important. But they are so overlooked when it comes to achieving optimal health. You’ve seen how they can impact your life, and how your life can impact your circadian rhythms. Do what you can to protect your natural cycles to help keep you as healthy as possible.

Duffy JF, Wright KP (August 2005). “Entrainment of the human circadian system by light”. Journal of Biological Rhythms. 20 (4): 326–38.

Halberg F, Cornélissen G, Katinas G, Syutkina EV, Sothern RB, Zaslavskaya R, Halberg F, Watanabe Y, Schwartzkopff O, Otsuka K, Tarquini R, Frederico P, Siggelova J, et al. (October 2003). “Transdisciplinary unifying implications of circadian findings in the 1950s”. Journal of Circadian Rhythms. 1 (1): 2.

Logan RW, Williams WP, McClung CA (June 2014). “Circadian rhythms and addiction: mechanistic insights and future directions”. Behavioral Neuroscience. 128 (3): 387–412.

Lovato N, Lack L (2010). “The effects of napping on cognitive functioning”. Progress in Brain Research. 185: 155–66.

Milner CE, Cote KA (June 2009). “Benefits of napping in healthy adults: impact of nap length, time of day, age, and experience with napping”. Journal of Sleep Research. 18 (2): 272–81.

Walmsley L, Hanna L, Mouland J, Martial F, West A, Smedley AR, Bechtold DA, Webb AR, Lucas RJ, Brown TM (April 2015). “Colour as a signal for entraining the mammalian circadian clock”. PLoS Biology. 13 (4): e1002127.

https://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/pages/Factsheet_CircadianRhythms.aspx

Czeisler CA, Duffy JF, Shanahan TL, et al. Stability, precision, and near-24-hour period of the human circadian pacemaker. Science. 1999;284(5423):2177-81.

 

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

A vacation can clear your mind and take the weight of life off your shoulders. But that exotic location, and the journey to get there, could be hard on one part of the body—your gut.

Don’t let that ruin your get-away. There are three steps to ensure your vacation is a happy time for your guts, too.

Step 1: Learn the reasons why travel can impact your gut health will help you plan appropriately.

Step 2: Follow some simple tips to take with you on your next trip.

Step 3: Just like you’d do with your car before a road trip, check out your gut health before you go. Luckily, there’s a simple quiz below to help you out.

Why Travel Can Create Chaos for Your Gut Health

It’s great that the trillions of microbes in your microbiome fly free. But your guts could still pay a price.

Why does this happen? That’s because anytime you travel, you’re accompanied by the frequently fussy passengers in your intestines. And those annoying traveling companions are the reason your gut health can take a hit while you’re on vacation.

This happens because your outside environment plays a role in determining your interior one. What you eat, what you’re exposed to, and the water you drink all impact your microbiome. Feeding your gut bacteria food they aren’t used to can cause chaos—and gastric discomfort. You can also be exposed to foreign bacteria your body doesn’t quite know how to deal with.

Your microbiome is also impacted by jet leg. They have their own rhythm. When these patterns get upset, so do your guts. Your gut microbes could also shape your appetite while you travel. That’s because research has already shown links between the microbiome and systems regulating your hunger levels. This includes hormones and other mechanisms of the brain-gut axis. So, if you get extra hungry on the plane, you might be able to blame your microbiome.

There are other reasons you might experience gut-health issues while you travel—altitude, chaotic schedules, stress, and less-than-ideal dietary habits. But much of it revolves around the contentment of your microbial travel buddies. Keep them happy during your vacation.

Plane taking off through thick clouds.

A Few Quick Gut-Health Tips for Smooth Travel

Being mindful of your microbiome is one of the most important things you can do for your gut health—on vacation or at home. Here are five other simple practices that can help when you travel:

  1. Hydration helps maintain your gut health. And it’s also important to keeping yourself healthy when you’re on-the-go.
  2. Probiotics can support the overall health of your guts by helping to maintain a balance of good bacteria.
  3. If traveling has your guts on lockdown, movement might help get your bowels moving, too.
  4. Plan properly for any situation you might encounter. That means proper vaccinations, bringing the right medicines, and making sure you have healthy foods on hand.
  5. Don’t leave your healthy diet at home. Eating plenty of fiber from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables could help keep your gut bacteria happy—which is key to your happiness, too.

Gut Check! Take the Quiz

Your gut is at the core of your good health. Before you take off on your trip, answer these seven questions to check the state of your digestive health. You can click the plus sign below each question for more information.

  1. How often do you consume high-fiber foods? (fruits, vegetables, beans, oats, nuts, seeds, whole grains)

(3) Frequently

(2) Occasionally

(1) Rarely

Increasing your intake of fiber may not only be good for a flatter tummy. It also can be good inside your belly, too.

Your gut health reflects the quality of your diet. The microflora in your gut will be dominated by different types of bacteria if you eat a diet high in animal fat, versus if you eat a plant-centric, carbohydrate-rich diet. And your diet is the first place to start if you’d like to improve the health of your digestive system. Transitioning to a healthier low-fat, high-fiber diet can start to make notable changes to the environment of your gut in only 24 hours.

A lack of fiber in the diet may lead to progressive declines in some important bacteria and microorganisms in your digestive tract. Whereas, a high-fiber diet (up to 37 grams per day) is thought to feed good bacteria in your gut. Prebiotic foods help the natural bacteria colonies you already have in your gut flourish. Great prebiotic foods to add to your diet: bananas, berries, legumes, onions, garlic, artichokes, leeks, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

 

  1. How often do you consume probiotic-containing yogurts/drinks or fermented foods/drinks? (Kefir, kimchee, kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, and more.)

(3) Frequently

(2) Occasionally

(1) Rarely

Boosting the beneficial microflora in your gut with probiotics or fermented foods, is a great start in caring for your digestive health. Make sure you look for food and beverages labeled with “live and active cultures.” Remember, heating or other processing can kill the live microorganisms in foods.

 

  1. Were you breastfed as an infant?

(1) Yes

(0) No

(0) Don’t Know

The method of delivery and the first three years of life are the most important for establishing a healthy diversity of microflora in the gut. Exposure to a wide range of bacteria is key during this time. One important way that parts of the microbiome are transferred is via the mother’s breast milk. Exposure to other family members, pets, a diverse diet, and time in nature are also crucial.

 

  1. How often do you feel a lot of normal, everyday stress?

(1) Frequently

(2) Occasionally

(3) Rarely

Psychological stress has been associated with weakened gut function when cortisol (a stress hormone) levels also increase. Your gut might be paying the price for normal, everyday stress.

 

  1. How often do you experience bloating after a meal, gas, or constipation?

(1) Frequently

(2) Occasionally

(3) Rarely

Occasional bloating or gas is normal, but can be uncomfortable. Gas is caused by bacteria in the digestive tract. And how much gas you have can be influenced by swallowed air, what you eat, and the health of your digestive tract. As gas builds up, the abdomen may expand, especially right after eating. This can also be painful … and not just because your clothes start fitting tighter!

You can help beat the belly bloat by avoiding gum chewing, slowing down when you eat, and not drinking out of a straw. Support the normal digestion of high-fiber foods with probiotics and digestive enzymes if certain foods tend to cause gas or bloating. Or, as is the case with lactose intolerance, you may need to identify the culprit and cut it out of your diet.

Occasional constipation is also common and normal. An imbalance of bacteria in your digestive tract is one of the reasons this can happen. It also means your food might not be passing through your system effectively. Maintaining the right balance of microbes will help support the proper function of your digestive tract. Staying hydrated, eating a diet rich in fiber, and getting enough exercise is also important.

(Note: Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have with your digestive system if you answered “frequently” to this question.)

 

  1. How often do you travel?

(1) Frequently

(2) Occasionally

(3) Rarely

Acute stress during travel can give you an upset tummy. Plus, going to novel environments, particularly overseas destinations, and being exposed to new people increases the risk of exposure to different microbes. Your gut may not know how to respond to the new microbes. Disruptions in your sleep schedule could also alter your intestinal flora.

For more information about travel and gut health, see the rest of the story above.

 

  1. How much cardiovascular exercise do you get per week?

(1) 0-60 minutes

(2) 61-90 minutes

(3) 91-120 minutes

(4) 121-150 minutes

(5) More than 150 minutes

Chalk up another benefit for exercise. It’s also good for your gut. As your cardiorespiratory fitness improves, you gut microbial diversity also increases.

 

Add Up Your Answers to Get Your Gut Check Score

Once you’ve totaled the numbers by your responses, see what your gut check score is telling you.

 

21–17

Your Gut Feelings: In Great Shape

Your gut is in great shape! Stay focused on eating a high-fiber diet and foods without antibiotics or other chemicals. And keep your stress in check. If you don’t already, try adding a probiotic supplement to get the most out of your healthy diet. Also, if you plan on traveling soon, a probiotic might help reduce the likelihood of mild and common travelers’ stomach upset.

 

16–11

Your Gut Feelings: Good to Go

You’re taking steps to keep your gut healthy. Way to go! Keep up the good work and take a look at any other improvements you could make:

  • Aim for 150+ minutes of exercise per week.
  • Try adding some fermented foods or more fiber-rich foods to keep feeding your good bacteria.
  • Give a boost to your belly with a probiotic supplement to help maintain overall digestive health.

 

10 or Below

Your Gut Feelings: Room for Improvement

Your gut may be a little out of balance, so take action today to get your digestive system on the right track. The three most powerful steps that you can take now are:

  • Add more high-fiber foods to your diet.
  • Keep a food journal to identify any food sensitivities. Then reduce or remove those foods from your diet.
  • Try adding a probiotic supplement and/or digestive enzymes to your daily routine to help support digestive health.