Health & Fitness

The You Docs: Three little words that make you healthier

Are you harboring a grudge? Maybe against the neighbor who sideswiped your mailbox and never fixed it? Or that ex who stomped all over your heart? Or the boss who laid you off?

Saying "I forgive you" and meaning it (even if you only say it to yourself) could have major payoffs for you, including a tougher immune system and healthier heart.

Why? Holding on to bitterness and hostility is like living with chronic stress: It releases a brew of feel-bad chemicals into your body that increase your heart rate, blood pressure, stomach acids, muscle tension and inflammation-triggering compounds.

None are good, but the inflammation's the worst. It encourages plaque buildup in your arteries, which causes heart attacks, impotence, wrinkles and strokes.

By contrast — this is news, gang — true forgiveness bolsters levels of T-cells. They're your immune system's crucial warrior brigade and battle viruses and other dangerous invaders. That's not all. Letting go of big grievances helps fight depression and anxiety, eases the toll of stress and can even relieve chronic pain.

So how do you get over a big hurt? It isn't about pretending that you weren't treated badly, and you don't have to become best buds with someone who did you wrong. Like we said, you don't even have to tell the other person you're over it. Start by recognizing that holding a grudge hurts you, not them.

Whenever you find yourself tensing up about it, take some deep, calming breaths and move on. If it takes a while, fine. The person you're letting off the hook is you.

Could butterbur help snuff your sneezes?

If your pockets are packed with soggy tissues because soaring pollen counts have you sniffling, sneezing and tearing, you're probably hunting (once again) for something that will work better than whatever you're taking.

It's a good bet you've heard something about the allergy-halting potential of the herb butterbur. A substance found in this plant's heart-shaped leaves can dry up your drips as fast or faster than some major over-the-counter allergy treatments.

But before you run to the health-food store, take our crash course.

Butterbur's active ingredient, called petasin, has a solid track record for reducing inflammation (a good thing if your nose is congested and your eyes are swollen). And it can block the action of histamine and leukotrienes, the compounds released during an allergy attack that make you act like Sneezy in the Seven Dwarves.

Butterbur also won't make you sleepy the way some antihistamines do. And the ingredients last about four to six hours.

So far, so good. Here's the "but": Butterbur may backfire if you're allergic to ragweed. Though the two don't look related, these plants are in the same family. So if ragweed makes you sneeze, taking butterbur could send you into a tizzy, or much worse.

In all cases, make sure you only try a butterbur extract that's marked "PA Free." The PA stands for pyrrolizidine alkaloids, liver-damaging substances found naturally in butterbur (and some other herbs). You don't want to swallow these.

Beyond the placebo effect

"A patient walks into a doctor's office and sees two docs, an optimist and a pessimist..."

No, this isn't a twist on the man-walks-into-a-bar joke. We YOU Docs want to tell you a fascinating story that shows how powerful a role your attitude, and your docs, can play in how good you can feel.

Back to the story: The patient is exposed to pain twice and given a powerful opioid drug both times to relieve it. The first time, the optimist doc tells the patient, "This drug will really work." The second time, the pessimist doc says, "When the drug stops working, the pain might increase."

What happens? Yep, you're right. The doc's attitude — and the patient's expectations based on what the doc said — changed how well the drug worked. But you may be surprised by how much. For the optimists, the painkiller's effects doubled. But when the patient had a negative expectation, there was no relief. None, nada, zero. The patient's brain totally erased the potent drug's painkilling powers.

How's that for the placebo effect, and then some? Wow.

Now, don't get us wrong. Our point isn't to blame your doc or you if you're going through something tough and whatever's supposed to help isn't working all that well. Just the opposite. It's a reminder for you, and for all of us docs, of how powerful a team we can make. And it's new proof of a truer-than-ever maxim: Never underestimate the power of positive thinking.

Five ways to swim safely this summer

Swimmers stay young and live long: You're half as likely to die early as folks who just lounge around poolside. The only drawback: Summer is peak season for swimmer's ear, which leads to 2.4 million annual doctor visits, half from adults. Each lightens your wallet by about 200 smackeroos.

Got better things to do with that cash? We thought so. Here's how to keep water out of your ear canals, which will keep little critters from moving in and causing infections:

1. Use a swim cap and ear plugs. Both help block water so bugs can't settle down and multiply.

2. Dry off fast. As soon as you finish swimming, gently blot your ears dry with a towel. No poking around with cotton swabs; that could start trouble, not stop it.

3. Tilt and hop. Still got water in there? Tilt your head, hop lightly on one foot, and let gravity and shaking clear your ears.

4. Not good at hopping? Do the head-tilt part while pulling your lower earlobe in different directions to help the water escape. Or hold a hair dryer several inches from your ear; just be sure it's on the lowest heat and fan settings.

5. See your doc or neighborhood drugstore clinic if ... you develop pain, itchiness, redness or pus. You may need antibiotic eardrops. While you're at the doc's, ask whether using alcohol-based drops after swims might help prevent future trouble.

Top six ways to stop bad-back attacks

Sometimes the teensiest thing — that last twist of the champagne cork on a romantic night, scooping up your grandchild for a smooch — can throw your back out of whack. Ouch. But if you take these back-happy steps to prevent strain, you'll keep those kisses coming.

1. Pretend you're in a bar. When you have to stand for a while, don't just stand there. Prop one foot up on a low stool or a phone book, the way you do on the rail when you belly up to a bar.

2. Get sole-savvy. Wear low, comfy shoes with shock-absorbing rubber or crepe soles; they soften the impact as you walk.

3. Tighten your abs. These core muscles are nature's girdle, providing the support and strength needed to prevent back injuries. Pilates, crunches and holding a push-up position will do the trick.

4. Walk away from the computer. Get up and move every hour to prevent stiffness. Prop your feet on the desk (knees higher than your hips) when the boss isn't looking.

5. Be smart about lifting heavy objects. Never bend over to pick up something weighty. Squat down, knees bent, back straight. To lift, tighten your abs, then push up with your legs. Really smart? Ask friends to help.

6. Assume the best sleep position. For the least back strain, lie on your side, legs comfortably bent, with a pillow between your knees. You have to sleep lying on your back? Place a pillow beneath your knees.