Here are four simple things you can do that don’t cost the earth and can improve your health dramatically.
1 Jali neti
The Indians have done this for centuries – salt water nasal lavage. If you’re at all asthmatic or wheezy, have a persistent cough, hay fever, suffer from bronchitis or colds in winter, or simply live in an area where the air is polluted, jali neti is invaluable. Since I started doing it, I’ve not had any feelings of breathlessness from my asthma and this winter got right through the season without a cold, which for me is a miracle.
Nasal lavage cleans the cilia – tiny hairs inside your nostrils that constantly wave back and forth, keeping your airways clean. This reduces the amount of pollution or irritants, such as pollen, that get as far as your lungs. Your cilia can dispose of pollutants in about 15 minutes, whereas your lungs may hold onto them for weeks, so by keeping the cilia in good order, you improve your whole general health.
The procedure is simple – basically you tip warm salted water up through one nostril and it comes out of the other (it may take you a bit of time to get the right position, so you have to practise a bit – lean over the sink and tilt your head to one side. You’ll know when you get it right because to your surprise, water suddenly runs out of the other nostril). Rinse for 20-30 seconds, then blow your nose gently and do the other side. It feels a bit strange at first, and you may worry that you’ll choke, but you don’t – you can continue to breathe just fine through your mouth while you do it, and you can even hold a conversation. The action is only gravity-fed, so you don’t ‘flush water into your brain’ or anything daft like that either. The first few days, you’ll get a disgusting amount of gunk out of your nose, but once you’ve acquired the daily habit, the water just runs clear.
To do jali neti properly, it helps to have a neti pot, though I am still cobbling along with a teapot with a baby’s teat stuck on the end. Pots are either ceramic or metal and the different types have different advantages – a ceramic one can be warmed up in the microwave, but a metal one is better if you’re clumsy, as it’s easy to break a pot on the edge of the sink. It’s best to use neutral mineral water rather than fluoridated tap water, add enough salt so that the water tastes salty (it’s a matter of preference but use sea salt if you can, so there’s no anti-caking agent in it) and choose a temperature that you feel comfortable with. About half a pint of water and a teaspoon of salt is a good general average, and that’s enough water to give your nose a good cleaning.
Afterwards, bend forward and backwards to flush out the last drops, and walk around with a tissue for a bit, as you do tend to get a bit come down afterwards. Get into the habit of jali neti each morning and you won’t know how you managed without it. I do it before breakfast, while the coffee’s brewing.
2 Oil pulling
This is another Indian technique and works as a kind of mouthwash that keeps your mouth healthy and clean, and reduces tooth decay and gum disease. It’s also meant to increase the body’s resistance to infection because it stops you from swallowing so much bacteria. The recommended oil is organic sesame, but most oils will work – however, you want one that doesn’t have a strong flavour, because it’s going to be in your mouth for quite a while.
First thing in the morning, before you eat, put about a tablespoon of oil in your mouth and swish it around, in and out of your teeth etc. Pretty soon, it starts to feel foamy (I’ve therefore reduced the amount I use to just over a teaspoon, as it also increases in volume). The viscosity of the oil pulls the nasties out of your teeth and gums, and gradually the oil turns white and opaque. You’re meant to pull for 20 minutes but I’ve never managed more than five (it’s actually quite hard work on your jaw and tongue), but when you’ve had enough and the oil has gone good and bubbly, spit it all out (it’s now full of rubbish, so you don’t want to swallow it). Clean your teeth with water and bicarb of soda, then go eat your breakfast.
Ordinary mouthwash probably does exactly the same, and quicker, if you can tolerate it (I can’t).
3 Drink more water
Most of us don’t drink nearly enough water and mild dehydration is the leading cause of headaches, tiredness, constipation, dry skin and a host of other ills (for more details, read the book ‘Your Body’s Many Cries for Water’ by Dr F Batmanghelidj). Scientists also now know that thirst is a very poor indicator of dehydration – you need to train yourself to drink more, not just drink when you’re thirsty.
Personally, I find it difficult to remember to drink during the day, especially if I’m out and about, so here’s one trick I learned – drink a pint of warm water first thing in the morning, last thing at night and before lunch and dinner. Do this and you’ll have drunk four pints throughout the day, which is nearly 2 litres – quite a lot of water for the average person, especially if you’re also sipping throughout the day. Warming the water up makes it easier to glug it down, which is something I find particularly difficult, and the morning dose also has the advantage of kickstarting your digestive system and keeping you regular.
Whenever you do get thirsty, try to drink water – not coffee, tea, hot chocolate, wine, beer, fizzy drinks etc. If your body’s telling you it needs water, give it what it needs.
4 Shut your mouth
In other words, follow step one of the Buteyko breathing method. Invented by a Russian doctor, the Buteyko breathing method (Google for more info, and read ‘Close Your Mouth’ by Patrick McKeown) is designed to help asthmatics, but it also works to improve the health of anybody, making your breathing more efficient, deeper and slower (which keeps your heart slow, your blood pressure down and hopefully means you’ll live longer).
Although the more advanced techniques require some practice, and you’re advised to attend a class, the first step is very simple – from now on, no matter what you do, only breathe through your nose. That’s both the in breath and the out breath. By breathing only via the nose, you filter out pollution and bacteria, and prevent your lungs from losing too much moisture.
Breathing through the mouth is a habit that we all pick up, and we’re especially bad at it while eating, exercising, laughing or holding conversations. But as anyone who has asthma knows, a deep breath in through the mouth can cause an asthma attack or a coughing fit, especially when the air is cold. Many people also feel hoarse after an evening of conversation or laughter – the reason is that you’ve dried your throat and lungs out by breathing through your mouth. By breathing only through your nose, you’ll find that you become quieter in conversation, but learning to listen instead of talk might be no bad thing either.
Many people worry that they won’t be able to follow this technique because their nose gets blocked, but it you follow the jali neti procedure, your nose is very rarely blocked. It’s quite natural, though, over the course of the day, for your nostrils to take it in turns to breathe and to rest, swapping every four hours, so even if one nostril is blocked, you should be able to breathe through the other perfectly well.
Learning to breathe out only through your nose is harder than learning to breathe in, but it is especially useful when you’re exercising, to maintain moisture in your throat and lungs. If you’re not sure about this, try exercising with a scarf over your mouth instead.