Here's some simple advice: Spread the love. Not just with your partner, family, and friends but with people you hardly know, because the more loving you are in everyday life, the healthier you could be. In her new book Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., suggests that true love isn't just about romance, companionship, or fondness; fundamentally, it springs from something she calls "micromoments of shared positive emotion." Fredrickson's research has found that such moments have the potential to lower our risk for disease and may even influence how our cells regenerate. We asked her to tell us more.
Q: How did you arrive at your definition of love?
BF: I look at it from the body's point of view. When the brain registers love, it triggers the release of the hormone and neurotransmitter oxytocin. This happens as long as three things occur: First, a warm feeling must be shared -- say, the barista at your café comps your latte after noticing you've had a rough day. Second, your brain activity has to sync up with the other person's, as when you laugh at the same joke. Third, there's a mutual motivation to invest in each other's well-being.
Q: But can you really be invested in a stranger's well-being?
BF: Yes. Say you have a friendly chat with a guy in line at the post office, and then you see a package fall on his foot. You'll have more concern for him than for a person you'd never connected with. It's not something we think about consciously, but these fleeting connections happen more often than we realize.
Q: If the connections are so short-lived, why should we care about them?
BF: They can help improve something called cardiac vagal tone, which reflects how much your heart rate is influenced by your breathing. It's an indication of your body's capacity to regain calm after you've been in a stressful situation. Low vagal tone has been linked to chronic inflammation throughout the body, which is a known risk factor for heart failure, stroke, and diabetes. In our research, we found that the more positive social connections people had over a nine-week period, the more their vagal tone increased.
Q: You say these micromoments of love can also change our cells. How does that work?
BF: Your emotions can trigger hormones that influence the way genes are expressed in the body. We know this happens with negative emotions: Stress releases adrenaline, which can prime cells for inflammation, causing disease. I believe that positive feelings, which can trigger the release of oxytocin, have the opposite effect and set us up for a healthier life.
Q: How can we add more micromoments to our lives?
BF: Simply get out and be more social! That's what's really promising about our research. Getting the benefits of love doesn't require being in a romantic relationship or living near family and friends. Just make sure you're connecting with others, whether it's through conversation or eye contact. We tend to trivialize these interactions, but they're just as important to your health as eating well or going for a run.
There may be no more promoted solution to avoiding the flu this year (besides the flu shot, of course) than diligent hand washing. As many as 80 percent of infections are transmitted via contact like sneezing, coughing or touching surfaces that have been sneezed or coughed on, says Tierno, and then touching "your mouth, eyes or nose, which are the conduits of viruses into the body." He recommends scrubbing before eating, drinking or touching your face, and disinfecting shared surfaces in the home (like the bathroom) and the office, like phones, computers and fridge door handles.
While you're off in dreamland, your body gets to work repairing cells and injuries you may have incurred during the normal day's wear and tear, says Tierno. Getting your seven to nine hours a night means your body can repair and heal itself and ward off infections. "If you don't get the appropriate sleep, that system is not operating and you're on a steady decline over time," he says.
In fact, skimping on sleep is as disruptive to the immune system as stress, according to a 2012 study. And earlier research suggested that sleep patterns may play a role in a gene that helps fight off bacteria and viruses.
Getting your blood pumping regularly can increase the activity of a type of white blood cells that attacks viruses. Shoot for an hour a day, says Tierno -- but not necessarily all at once. "Even if it's walking around the office, up stairs, down stairs, to and from work -- it doesn't have to be continuous," he says.
Getting the proper amount of the right nutrients and minerals as part of a healthy diet "leaves the body in optimal condition to fight the battle," says Tierno. This means cutting back on sugary, fatty foods and upping your intake of vegetables, fruit and lean protein, he says. One of those nutrients that gets a particularly healthy reputation during cold and flu season is zinc, and for good reason. "Zinc interferes with viruses gaining full access to our cells," he says. "Zinc may block certain metabolic activity." While it's not the end-all cure, foods rich in zinc, like oysters and wheat germ, may offer some protection.
The anti-microbial properties of this pungent bulb (and its relative, the onion) can fight off certain bacteria and viruses, says Tierno, as can the compounds in other herbs and spices, like thyme.
It's likely due to the compound allicin, which seems to block infections. Try it in your next bowl of soothing chicken soup!
Thankfully, most of us are inhabiting cozy-warm homes this winter, but those cranking radiators come with a downside. Indoor winter air is much dryer than our bodies would like. Without sufficient moisture, says Tierno, "immune system cells can't optimally work," so it's important to stay hydrated. (A humidifier can also help.)
Alcohol suppresses both the part of the immune system that protects you from coming down with something and the part that fights off the germs already in your system, so knocking a few too many back can put you at increased risk for catching the bug going around -- and having trouble kicking it.
A positive attitude can take you far -- even, maybe, to age 100. But along the way, a life of laughter and optimism could also help you sniffle through fewer bouts of the flu or colds. While there's much that's still not well understood about the process, it seems that certain immune cells are produced by a big belly laugh, says Tierno.
A favorite solution for de-stressing, massage can also help you stay physically healthy. While there's been little research into exactly how it works, massage certainly increases circulation, which may help promote the general "state of wellness in the body," says Tierno. "Nutrients are passed around better, the blood flow is better," he says. "It's a very useful thing to get a massage."
A 1999 study found that getting frisky a couple of times a week can boost immunoglobin A, an antibody that fights off colds. Just make sure your partner isn't already sick!