Health & Fitness

Skip the pill; go to sleep at the same time

Here's the thing: When you're tired and testy, you're about as fun to be around as Oscar the Grouch. Even you don't want to spend time with you when you've spent the night counting dings in the bedroom ceiling.

Shortchanging yourself in the snooze department can deflate your mood, boost your risk for diabetes and give you Oscar's round waistline, too (try saying no to leftover birthday cake when you're hungry and exhausted).

But resist the urge to knock yourself out at night with a sleeping pill, prescription or not. There's new evidence that taking sleep aids as little as once a month increases your risk of dying 36 percent. That's because they leave you groggy, slow your reaction time, make you unsteady (read: accident-prone) and even can affect your breathing.

A better bet to help you doze like a just-fed baby:

Make a regular sleep date with yourself. Go to bed and get up at the same times, and you'll soon have your body clock running like, well, clockwork. (On weekends, it's OK to sleep in by up to an hour.)

Turn your bedroom into a cool, dark oasis of serenity. Banish Leno, laptops and paying bills. If you're hungry, have a light snack two hours or so before lights out. Try a little warm rice, sweet corn or oatmeal — all contain the sleep-friendly compound melatonin.

Quiet down your mind and body. Do a little meditation 10 minutes before bedtime.

Do apples make your eyes itch?

Does fall hay fever have you sneezing so badly that tissue makers are sending you thank-you notes? Then don't be surprised if late-season watermelon and autumn's first juicy apples make your mouth itch or nose drip. As many as half of all people with pollen allergies react to eating certain fruits and veggies or sipping herbal teas.

That's because some foods contain proteins that look — at least to your immune system — like the same pollen that clogs your nose and makes your eyes flood. If you love the offending food, cooking it often neutralizes the proteins. (We don't think broiled watermelon will tempt anyone's palate, but baked apples with cinnamon certainly will.)

Also, let your doc know about your food-pollen cross-reaction: It's usually not a problem, but there's new evidence that about 1 in 50 people could experience a more severe allergic attack. And of course, if you start to gasp and wheeze, get medical help pronto.

Some common cross-allergies: If fall ragweed gives you the sniffles, apples, bananas, melons, cucumber, chamomile tea, echinacea, honey and nuts might, too. If you're allergic to bananas or latex, be alert when eating avocado or melons.

Appetite remote control: Your sneakers

Plenty of things in life besides TVs, garage doors and tiny toy airplanes operate by remote control. Here's one you might not have thought about: your sneakers. Exercise can make a frisky appetite sit and stay.

If you've ever suspected that the morning's power-yoga workout is the reason you sailed past the chocolate-glazed biscotti in the coffee bar, give yourself a Ph.D. in physiology. There's new evidence that regular exercise can retune your hunger set point, dialing back the pesky desire to overeat that makes losing weight and keeping it off so challenging.

Researchers found recently that contracting muscles — what happens when you're sweatin' to the oldies or digging a hole for a new forsythia bush — releases chemical signals that improve your sensitivity to insulin and leptin. These are the hormones that play vital roles to reduce appetite, and both become less effective in overweight people whose idea of an active day is changing the channel more often.

So put down the TV remote, lace up your sneakers and put that first foot over the doorsill. Walking just 30 minutes a day not only burns calories you've already eaten, it will put you into a lean-and-healthy eating groove that'll flatten your belly and slinkify your hips.

Hold the mayo: Four better spreads

Sometimes it's the old things and little things that you do in your diet make a big difference. The next time you order a healthy lunchtime sandwich — say, fresh turkey breast on 100 percent whole-wheat with extra lettuce and tomato — remember to hold the mayo.

A couple of tablespoons of the stuff is hardly worth the 180 calories or the 3 grams of saturated fat that you schmear on with it. Think outside the new jar and moisten your bread with one of these tasty, healthy spreads:

* A spritz of olive oil. A two-second spray delivers about 1/2 teaspoon of oil (20 calories) and a smidge of good-for-you monounsaturated fat. Double that amount, and your heart and waist will still be in healthy shape.

* A dollop of yellow mustard. A cousin to broccoli, mustard shares some of the same cancer-fighting flavonoids (called isothiocyanates), plus most yellow mustards also contain turmeric, which fights memory loss. Pretty good for 9 calories per tablespoon.

* A smear of hummus. Try swapping mayo for this puree of chickpeas, ground sesame seeds and olive oil — especially one of the garlic or red pepper variations. Delish. Plus it's packed with fiber and healthy fats, all for 35 calories a tablespoon.

* A tablespoon of mashed avocado. Spreads like butter but has heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and just 23 calories a tablespoon. Almost everything with it is great nutrition and great tasting. Mash with lemon juice for a tangier flavor.

Fight germs: Dry your hands

It's no news that washing your hands knocks down cold and flu germs. Of course, given that 15 percent of us still don't wash our hands after using a restroom, maybe it is news! But here's a new twist: How you dry your digits counts, too. It could decide whether you win the latest round of germ warfare, restroom edition — or spread bad bugs around faster than the runaway monkey in "Outbreak."

Best drying method in restrooms: paper towels. Researchers report that using them reduces bacteria counts on your hands up to 60 percent. Next best: Patiently holding your hands still — no rubbing — under a hot-air hand dryer for at least 30 seconds; this cuts bad bugs down 20 percent to 40 percent. Yes, it feels like an eternity; most men dry for just 17 seconds, women for a paltry 13.

Worst ways? Skimping on drying time, because moisture carries bacteria. And rubbing your hands together under the dryer isn't advised: friction brings bacteria in your skin to the surface, which might even increase germs.