Get Your Folic Acid Fix

Most of us know the prenatal perks of folic acid: Taking this B vitamin during early pregnancy helps prevent serious brain and spinal cord defects in developing babies.

However, new research suggests that it may help prevent autism, too. According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, women who take folic acid, or folate, before and during their pregnancy are 40 percent less likely to have an autistic baby.

Even if you’re not in baby-making mode, that’s no reason to forego folic acid. Vitamin B9, as it’s also known, prevents birth defects only when taken at least a month before getting pregnant and during the first few weeks of pregnancy (before a woman usually knows she’s pregnant). Because nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned, it's important that all women get their folic acid fix -- even if they’re not planning on expanding their family any time soon.

Besides the bonuses it can provide a baby, folic acid does your body good, too. You need it to produce red blood cells, prevent anemia and keep your DNA (the building blocks of your cells) functioning properly.

Only about 25 percent of women get the recommended amount of 400 mcg of folic acid a day. Telltale signs that you might not be getting enough: gray hair, mouth sores, gingivitis and fatigue.

Here’s how to get the recommended daily allowance.

Supplement your diet

Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant require 600 mcg of folic acid a day. Everyone else needs 400 mcg. The easiest and most surefire way to get your daily dose of folic acid: take a multivitamin, says registered dietitian Sarah Krieger MPH, RD, LD/N, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “I tell any girl or woman who has the chance of becoming pregnant to take a regular multivitamin,” she says. If you have a hard time remembering your pills, try taking them at the same time every day, like when you’re brushing your teeth.

Do it with food

If you’re not the vitamin-taking type, you may be able to get the folic acid you need by eating a healthy, well-balanced diet. However, cautions Krieger, because the body doesn’t store folic acid, it’s one of those vitamins that needs to be replenished daily.

According to Krieger, many brands of breakfast cereal are fortified with folic acid. Many healthy cereals offer 100 percent of your daily folic acid needs. Enriched flour, bread, and pasta products may also contain folic acid; check the nutrition labels to be sure.

You can also get your folic acid fix by eating plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Some of the best sources include leafy greens like spinach and romaine lettuce; legumes, like beans, lentils and peanuts; asparagus; broccoli; liver; orange juice and tomato juice.

Here’s an example of what one day’s worth of folate (400 mcg) looks like:

  • Half a cup of cooked spinach (33%) or half a cup of black beans (32%)
  • One cup of orange juice (11%) or one ounce of dry-roasted peanuts (10%)
  • Half a cup of cooked asparagus (17%) or half a cup of chopped broccoli, cooked (20%)
  • One serving of romaine lettuce (29%) or one-quarter cup of hummus (26%)
  • One cup of diced cantaloupe (8%) or one small orange (7%)
If these foods don’t tempt you, create your own folate-rich diet plan. To do so, Krieger recommends using the SuperTracker tool at choosemyplate.gov.

Take a Stand Against Sitting

If you spend all day glued to your office chair like most U.S. workers do, your job could be taking a serious toll on your health. The reason: Too much desk time -- or other sedentary pursuits -- can steal years from your life, even if you log hours on the treadmill.

The amount of time spent sitting or lying down is strongly connected to your risk of heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes and even an early death. According to a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, women who sat for more than six hours a day had a 37 percent greater risk of premature death, compared with those who sat for three, regardless of their weight or workout habits.

“We don't know how much total sitting time per day is too much. However, our research is currently trying to understand how much sitting at one time is too much,” says Genevieve Healy, Ph.D., senior research fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. Turns out, it’s the prolonged, uninterrupted bouts of sitting still that seem to be the most dangerous. When muscles stop moving, your metabolism slows down, your body stops burning fat and starts to store it, and triglyceride and blood sugar levels rise -- which could clog arteries, says Healy. 

So what can those of us who spend half our waking hours attached to our desks, steering wheels and sofas do to reverse this march toward poor health? 

Exercise Often
First off, says Healy, don’t give up on exercise. Just as a big salad can’t undo a day’s worth of unhealthy eating, a 30-minute run can’t counteract the damage from sitting all day. But it can help. “The most healthy are those who sit least and exercise most; the least healthy are those that sit most and exercise least," says Healy. So the message is to exercise but to also think of your physical activity throughout the day -- stand up, sit less, move more and more often.

Stand Up More
Secondly, stand up at least every 30 minutes, says Healy. You don’t have to do jumping jacks or run around the block. Simply get up, stretch and walk around to activate your muscles.

Be a Clock Watcher
If you get lost in your work, set a timer to remind you to take breaks every 20 to 30 minutes. Download a free timer app, like SnapTimer, on your desktop to use as an instant alarm clock.

Practice Good Hydration
Drink plenty of water. This habit forces you to get up at least once an hour to use the bathroom or refill your water bottle.

Take a Stand
If it’s not bothersome to your co-workers, stand up when you take phone calls or file papers. You can also clean and straighten up your desk at the end of each day while standing.

Track Your Every Move
Wear a pedometer. Clipping on a step counter or activity monitor can clue you in to how much you move each day. Wear it for a week to determine how much you usually move; then, set a goal to increase your distance by 10 percent each week.

Tune In, Tone Up
When watching TV, don’t fast-forward through commercials. Use that time to do a small workout or complete quick household chores, like vacuuming or dusting the living room. If your TV time is more than an hour or two per day, think about installing a treadmill or stationary bike and exercising at the same time. Setting your cardio machine to the slowest speed is always better than doing nothing.

Breathe Like a Baby

Breathing might seem like the most natural act in the world, but the truth is many of us aren’t doing it optimally. I first learned the power of breathing when, under tremendous stress at a former job, I developed a pain under my rib cage that wouldn’t go away. Learning to breathe properly finally helped it vanish.

If you watch how babies breathe, you’ll notice that their belly expands when they inhale, and contract when they exhale. This deep, restorative breathing is what oxygenates vital organs and tissues.

Unfortunately, as adults, many of us habitually "hyperventilate" without knowing it by taking quick, shallow breaths. This can lead to tension headaches, fatigue, irritability and even anxiety and depression. Shallow breathing sharply reduces the level of carbon dioxide in your blood, causing the arteries -- including the carotid artery going to the brain -- to constrict and reduce the flow of blood throughout the body. When this occurs, no matter how much oxygen you take into your lungs, your brain and body will experience a shortage. This switches on the sympathetic nervous system -- your "fight or flight reflex" -- which makes you tense, anxious and irritable. On the other hand, breathing deeply optimizes oxygen levels, helping to improve your energy, mental acuity and physical performance.

How to breathe right: The key is to slow your exhalation. (If you try to slow your inhalation, you’ll only create tension in your body.) To begin, I recommend rubbing your hands together to warm them and then placing them on your belly to bring your awareness to the area. Inhale naturally through your nose and feel your belly expand. Don’t try to swallow as much air as possible -- stop when it feels comfortable. Then exhale gently through pursed lips and feel your belly contract. Imagine you are trying to make a candle flame quiver just slightly without extinguishing it. Don’t try to force out every last drop of air, just pause and wait for your next breath to come naturally.

Changing your breathing in this way helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which, unlike the sympathetic nervous system, triggers a relaxation response. Make it a habit, and you will feel less stressed and more energetic all day.

The Truth About Blood Types

Can your blood type tell you whether you’ll get oral cancer or heart disease? What you should eat to live longer? Who you should marry? We sort through the myriad claims to separate the truth from the hype.

Diet and Nutrition
The Claim: Dr. Peter D’Adamo, a naturopathic physician and author of Eat Right for Your Type -- a long-running New York Times bestseller and the bible for many, including celebrities like Demi Moore and Elizabeth Hurley -- believes one’s blood type should determine one’s diet. Type O people can consume a lot of meat; type As should be vegetarians; type Bs are natural omnivores; and ABs should eat several small meals a day. The reason: the proteins in food, he says, interact with your blood cells. If they’re compatible, you’ll digest them easily; if not, your body will mount an immune response, resulting over time in weight gain, susceptibility to various diseases and early aging.

Truth or Hype?: “It makes sense,” says Gary Taubes, an award-winning science journalist and founder of the non-profit The Nutrition Science Initiative, “but the world is full of theories that make sense. The question is: Has it been tested?” And the answer to that question is no. Despite claiming a scientific basis to his ideas, D’Adamo offers up no randomized, controlled studies to back them up. Consequently, he has garnered mostly skepticism from doctors and nutritionists.

Disease Risk
The Claim: Scan the health headlines and you’ll likely find a story linking your blood type to a worrying disease. A large number of studies have shown clear connections between one’s blood type and their disease risk. Among the most recent is a meta-analysis by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, which found that people with type AB blood have the highest risk of developing heart disease, while those with type O blood have the lowest. Other studies have linked type O to fertility problems; AB to deep vein thrombosis; B to anemia; and A to oral cancer and skin cancer.

Truth or Hype?: What does it all mean? Not a lot, says Taubes. “Correlation is not causation,” he explains. “The fundamental problem with all of these observational studies is that it tells you nothing about what triggers the disease.” In other words, a study found that countries with the highest chocolate consumption also had the most Nobel prize winners, but that doesn’t mean eating chocolate is the reason why. As Dr. Steven Masley, president and medical director of the Masley Optimal Health Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, says, these studies are “interesting” but not worth worrying about at this point in time.

Personality Traits
The Claim: Are you an anxiety-prone type A? Cheerful type B? Extroverted O? In Japan and Korea, the idea that blood type determines your personality is so ingrained that a person’s blood type can influence where they work, who they marry, and even where their kids go to kindergarten.

Truth or Hype?: There is no solid evidence that blood type is linked to personality traits. Research on the matter is inconclusive, with some studies showing a link, others not. Many  studies can’t even agree on which personality traits go with which blood type. There are plenty of books and websites catering to those seeking a blood type/personality connection. If you’re a horoscope nut looking for a new way to sniff out potential lovers and the like, have at it -- but take the advice with a grain of salt. 

Healthy Mouth, Healthy Body

Do you have bleeding gums or a sore mouth? How about loose teeth or bad breath? If so, you may be among the 75 percent of Americans who have gum disease, also known as periodontal disease. And if you have it, you should take it seriously -- not just because of the problems it can cause in your mouth, but because it may boost your risk of developing a range of full-body diseases, from heart disease to cancer.

The Connection Between Mouth and Body
Gum disease is caused by bacterial infection. When you have an infection in your gums, your body tries to fight it by sending infection-fighting cells to the area, an immune response known as inflammation. Initially, inflammation helps heal the gums. But over time, if gum infections persist, your risk for other diseases increases. Researchers aren’t entirely sure why, but there are two popular theories:

  1. Chronic inflammation in the mouth may trigger damaging inflammation elsewhere in the body.
  2. Infectious bacteria in the mouth can spread throughout the body, causing infection and a domino effect of additional inflammation.

Biggest Risks of an Unhealthy Mouth
Numerous studies point to a connection between gum health and overall health. For example, one study found that compared with people who had no gum disease, those with gum disease were more likely to develop cancer -- risk went up 36 percent for lung cancer, 49 percent for kidney cancer, and 54 percent for pancreatic cancer.

In another study, researchers discovered that 93 percent of those who had gum disease were at high risk for developing type 2 diabetes, compared with 63 percent of those without gum disease.

Scientists have also found that gum disease can raise cardiovascular disease risk by contributing to clot formation in the arteries, which can lead to heart attacks. Gum disease may also play a part in the development of cancer of the head and neck, Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, stillbirth, osteoporosis and stroke.

How to Get a Healthy Mouth and Body
Fortunately, remedying gum disease may help lower your chances of developing these problems. A study on gum disease and heart disease risk published in The New England Journal of Medicine, for example, found that people who had their gum disease treated had healthier artery linings six months later than those whose gum disease persisted.

“Taking care of your teeth and gums may actually help you maintain overall health,” says Dr. Samuel Low, president of the American Academy of Periodontology. Here’s how to make sure your mouth and body both stay healthy:

  • Don’t smoke.
  • Eat foods rich in minerals and vitamins.
  • Cut back on sugary, sticky snacks, which can encourage plaque growth.
  • Brush your teeth after every meal and before bed.
  • Floss at least nightly.
  • Schedule regular dental checkups.
  • Visit your dentist if your gums are bleeding or swollen.