The bestselling health writer is a participatory journalist who has tried everything from body scans to biofeedback to rolfing. In The Secrets Of People Who Never Get Sick, Stone supplies tips (and the scientific rationale behind them) from unusually healthy people.
Q: One of the health tips in your book is to take brewer’s yeast daily. What’s the scientific basis for that?
A: Brewer’s yeast is a pretty amazing way to get your vitamin B: thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, panthothenic acid, folic acid—it’s got everything except vitamin B12. Vitamin Bs also keep homocysteine levels low. Epidemiological studies have linked high levels of homocysteine to stroke and coronary heart disease. And brewer’s yeast is a good source of protein, plus you get all these amazing minerals like selenium and potassium. It’s a natural way to get substances your body needs, without having to buy a bunch of different pills.
Q: If you drink beer regularly are you getting the same stuff?
A: I talked to a beer manufacturer who claimed that you did, but it’s not absolutely clear. It looks like if you skim the top off of a beer you might be getting the same stuff, but oddly enough, no one has ever done a double blind, random controlled study on beer as a preventative for colds! Seriously, things that tend to be free or easily available aren’t money makers for drug companies, so there isn’t much research on them. That doesn’t mean they don’t work.
Q: Aerobic exercise reduces your risk of heart disease and diabetes, but you say it also helps with more mundane ailments, like colds.
A: A lot of studies have shown that the more aerobic your exercise, the more likely you are to ward off all sorts of infectious diseases. The idea that the immune system benefits from aerobic exercise is fairly new; a lot of these studies have come out in the last five years. Also, we know stress is bad for the immune system and makes you more susceptible to catch colds, and there have been any number of studies that have shown exercise mitigates the effects of stress.
Q: If I’m starting to feel sick, I continue to run. Is that a good idea or just self-flagellation?
A: Both. There’s an old piece of conventional wisdom that says if you feel the cold above your throat, exercise. It may even get your mucous flowing, which is a good thing. If you feel the cold below your throat, don’t exercise. I tend to follow those guidelines myself. Just because it’s an old wives’ tale doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
Q: What about anaerobic exercise, like weight-lifting—does it help ward off illness?
A: Georgia State did a long-term study that found any number of benefits in terms of reducing the incidence of heart disease and high blood pressure, but it also came out that strength training releases natural human growth hormones, and what they do is rejuvenate the body, give you a lot of energy, and fortify the immune system. So much of this goes back to: how healthy is your immune system? You want to do whatever you can to strengthen your immune system, because it fights off colds and the flu.
Q: One of the more out-there suggestions in your book came from an Austrian lung specialist who’s all for picking your nose and eating “the results.” Please tell me this guy is an outlier.
A: Actually, surveys show that 75 to 90 percent of people admit to picking their noses in private, but yes, I think he’s the definition of an outlier! However, his theory is related to a more generally accepted hygiene hypothesis: this idea that we’re scrubbing ourselves so vigorously that our bodies are becoming hypersensitive to germs, and microbes in general. If the immune system doesn’t have enough to do, it turns in on itself. You want the immune system to be a happy, busy little army taking care of bad invaders and not deciding, “Okay, I’m going to create an allergy, or asthma.”
Q: If our bodies aren’t being exposed to enough germs, should we be washing with antibacterial soaps?
A: I actually don’t think you should unless you have a real reason for it. If somebody just sneezed and wants to shake your hand, yes, use sanitizer afterwards. But the body has its own natural armour. And one of the problems with these antibacterial, antimicrobial soaps is that you’re actually scraping off that armour, the natural defence system built into our skin. So people who take it too far are actually jeopardizing themselves.
Q: But when you go into your office building, shouldn’t you use the dispenser of hand sanitizer by the door?
A: You should use it sensibly. If you’ve just come off the subway, or have been in a carpool with five sneezing people, sure. But don’t go running back for more every half hour.
Q: You talked to one woman who eats raw garlic every day and never gets sick. What’s the science on garlic?
A: Tablets that go back to the Sumerians and Assyrians show they were using garlic to treat fevers and inflammation—everybody seems to have known about its medicinal value before we did. Today, the unanimity of opinion is remarkable; virtually every study confirms that it’s good for you. It’s a powerful antioxidant and antibiotic that fights off strains of staphylococcus, the bug that causes staph infections. If I had to pick the one tip in the book that has stopped me from getting sick, I’d say it’s eating raw garlic. In fact, on my book tour, I’ve been travelling around with a bulb of garlic everywhere I go, much to the consternation of the security guards at the airports, who probably think I’m Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Q: How much do you have a day?
A: Personally, one clove, and you have to eat it raw. There’s a compound in raw garlic called allinin, which an enzyme in your mouth converts to allicin. Allicin is what’s so good for you.
Q: Forget your breath. How do you stand the taste?
A: Well, it’s an extremely sharp taste and I can’t say I like it, but life is full of things that are good for you that don’t necessarily taste great. I always have a piece of dark chocolate right afterwards, and I’m fine. There’s some evidence that these garlic pills that have become popular don’t really do much for you, so I’m sticking with a clove a day.
Q: For a while, echinacea was very popular as a cold preventative. Does it work?
A: The kind that was taken by Native Americans, E. angustifolia, turns out not to be the kind to take, which is counterintuitive because we like to think they knew it all. E. purpurea is the species that studies show is most beneficial for your health, and it’s also the kind that was endorsed recently by the German government as a cold preventative, because it’s antiviral, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory.
Q: What about probiotics? Can they help with colds?
A: Probiotics are confusing because there are so many of them, and some have been proven to work in health studies that seem reputable. Most of them appear to help your digestive health and immune system, but there’s some research showing that one type, Lactobacillus casei, lessens the duration of colds and flus in older people. Of course, nothing is an immediate preventative or cures symptoms right away. If you feel sick and eat some yogourt, you’re not necessarily going to feel better. You have to have been eating it for a while to get the benefits.
Q: Any health secrets people gave you that wound up on the cutting room floor?
A: Lots. One of the most promising was to close the toilet lid after flushing, which is one of those things your mother tells you to do. It turns out that when you flush, an amazing amount of crap, literally, gets in the air, and it’s not good for you. I didn’t find the number of studies I would have liked to back this up, but there is some research, and let’s just say I always close the lid now.
Q: What’s the wackiest thing you’ve ever done in the name of health journalism?
A: I put a contraption on my head that was supposed to create alpha waves, to immediately generate a meditative state. But instead, for some reason, I ended up picking up, on my own, in my head, a local radio station. No kidding. I’ve done candling, rebirthing—
Q: How do you suspend disbelief? Don’t you feel like cracking up when you do some of these things?
A: Sometimes, but I don’t. Doing health journalism, you realize that there’s so little we actually know. What if this crazy person sitting cross-legged on the floor is going to do something remarkable for me? I don’t want to limit the possibilities.
Q: Did you try every tip in this book?
A: I did. Some I decided were not for me—like taking cold showers, which I just found unpleasant—but I’m doing a lot of them. And the good news is that I used to get sick three or four times a year, but I’m no longer catching colds or the flu.
Q: Nevertheless, reading a book like this can make you kind of neurotic about your health, feeling you’ve done the wrong things or not enough of the right ones. And you say that for men, being neurotic is actually a health risk.
A: I don’t think anyone’s ever thought that being neurotic is a plus, health-wise, but according to a pretty large study in Psychological Science, the more neurotic men are, the more likely they are to, well, die.