14 Important Health Lessons We Learned In 2019

From sorting out your back pain to mastering the art of the poo, let these lessons inspire you to live better in 2020.

There’s so much conflicting health advice out there, it can be hard to know where to begin when it comes to looking after yourself.

Of all the health stories we’ve reported on in 2019, there are a fair few important lessons we’ve learned, or been reminded of, that we’d think you’d like to know, too. From knowing which pill to take for what pain, to always taking vitamins with food – here are 14 lessons that could inspire you to live a better 2020.

1. Movement can help ease acute back pain.

Back pain is the leading single cause of disability in the UK, which means a hell of a lot of people are struggling. While there are many causes, it’s often because of an issue with the ligaments or tendons in the back.

For years, people were led to believe bed rest would sort it out. But, in fact, the opposite is true. Laura Finucane, a consultant physiotherapist specialising in spinal conditions, told HuffPost UK that for people with acute back pain (which lasts less than six weeks) “motion is lotion”.

Remaining active can “turn down” the intensity of pain you’re feeling, while staying still reinforces the thought process that movement is bad, which can “turn up” the intensity of pain, she said. This advice is echoed by the NHS, too: “One of the most important things you can do is to keep moving and continue with your normal activities as much as possible.”

Read more about how movement can help ease back pain.

2. There’s no scientific cure for a hangover.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but, according to science, there’s no one-size-fits-all cure for a hangover. We don’t know what causes a hangover yet, said Alexis Willett, author of Drinkology: The Science of What We Drink and What It Does to Us, so how are we supposed to “cure” it?

That said, there are a number of things alcohol researchers rely on to get them through the morning after boozing: plenty of water, stocking up on B vitamins and making sure they’ve got some electrolyte sachets knocking about. Also, did you know the colour of your drink could impact the severity of your hangover? Yeah, us neither.

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3. Cholesterol should be on your radar, whatever your age.

It might seem like something you don’t need to worry about until you’re retired, but cholesterol should be on everyone’s radar, according to charities.

Currently, people under 40 only have their cholesterol levels checked when they go for blood tests, usually as a result of illness. But Chris Allen, head of healthcare for nationwide cholesterol charity Heart UK suggests “you don’t need to wait until you’re 40 to get it checked”.

His comments came after a study suggested people as young as 25 should have their cholesterol levels checked. One argument for testing people earlier is that artery clogging could be prevented, said Barbara Kobson, a senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation. “It can take many years for arteries to fur up in response to a high level of ‘bad’ cholesterol. If people as young as 25 get their levels checked and they’re found to have high cholesterol, they can be started on medication and other risk factors can be addressed by their GP.”

4. Eye yoga can help with visual fatigue.

Computer eye strain is a very real issue for people who are glued to screens day in, day out. Symptoms include headaches; sore, tired or itchy eyes; difficulty focusing; blurred or double vision; and increased sensitivity to light.

So what can you do about it? Let us introduce you to eye yoga: look to the left, hold the position, repeat looking right. Look up, hold the position, repeat looking down. Repeat four times, closing your eyes and relaxing in between. Try doing this a couple of times a day.

The 20:20:20 rule may also help with visual fatigue. Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This relaxes the focusing muscle inside the eye. Make it your mission to look after your peepers in 2020.

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5. Vitamins should be taken with food.

Ever felt like you needed to throw up after taking a vitamin tablet? You’re not overthinking it – it’s often to do with how they’re absorbed into the body.

Vitamin C tablets are the worst offenders when it comes to making people nauseous, or even physically sick, after taking them, according to pharmacist, Anshu Kaura. This is because they’re quite acidic. “Once vitamin C is consumed, you can get that build-up of acid in the stomach,” she told HuffPost UK.

What’s the key to avoiding that sickly feeling, then? It’s quite simple: eat. “Taking vitamins with or after food in general is a good idea, to minimise stomach-related side effects, unless the product information suggests otherwise,” said Phil Day, superintendent pharmacist for Pharmacy2U.

Read more about why vitamins make you sick.

6. Skin cancer is probably more common than you think.

You might think it won’t happen to you if you don’t live in a hot country, but skin cancer is actually one of the most common types of cancer in the UK.

The best way to prevent it is to protect your skin from UV rays – and yes, that means wearing sun cream when you’re outside in the UK, not just on holiday. Wear SPF30 sunscreen with 4/5 UVA stars when outside and don’t forget to put cream on your eyelids, too.

The British Skin Foundation urges people to check their skin regularly (once a month) so it’s easy to detect any changes. Enlist the help of family or friends for hard-to-see areas of the body or use a full length mirror. Whatever you do, don’t be complacent. Getting sunburnt just once every two years can triple the risk of melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer.

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7. Ultra-processed food is pretty bad for us.

Eating more ultra-processed food can increase a person’s risk of dying early, three studies have now found. These are foods that have undergone multiple processes, which result “in little, if any, intact whole foods being present”.

These foods include things like soft drinks, sweets, biscuits, crisps and ready meals. So maybe try to cut down on those and focus on a healthy, balanced diet in the New Year and beyond.

8. Feminine washes are a waste of time.

Soaps, shower gels and sprays marketed for “feminine hygiene” are not only a waste of money, they could also damage your vulva and vagina, according to gynaecologist Dr Jen Gunter.

“Many of them actually have scents in them. Your vulva skin is more sensitive to irritation, and fragrance is a very common trigger for irritation,” she told HuffPost UK. “Also, some women are using these products internally, because we don’t use the right language – we don’t say ‘vagina’ and ‘vulva’ – it’s evolved into this catch-all grey zone. If you use them internally, you can damage your vaginal ecosystem – your good bacteria.”

Find out what else you shouldn’t be putting anywhere near your vagina.

9. Constipation is a big problem in Britain.

Constipation cost the NHS £162m in 2017-18 – so yes, not being able to poo is a pretty big deal for a lot of us. But sadly, we’re too embarrassed to seek help – and that’s where the problem lies.

Dr Anton Emmanuel, consultant gastroenterologist at University College Hospital, told HuffPost UK: “[Constipation] is a silent symptom – something that’s slightly embarrassing, a bit of a taboo. We don’t talk about it much at all and the problem grows. Rather than something that’s nipped in the bud and dealt with sooner rather than later, it becomes a more chronic issue.”

Chronic constipation is the label given when symptoms persist for several weeks or longer. In some cases, if people don’t seek help, it can go on for years and be linked to haemorrhoids or a higher risk of bowel cancer. But there are things you can do if you’re having issues with your bowels, involving your diet, physical activity and toilet routine.

Find out more about constipation and how to poo better.

10. You shouldn’t take antibiotics for a cold, flu or sore throat.

Antibiotic resistance is a very real and growing concern in the UK. Latest data from Public Health England shows there were an estimated 61,000 antibiotic resistant infections in 2018 – a 9% rise from the previous year. That’s equivalent to as many as 165 new antibiotic resistant infections every day in England. This isn’t helped by the fact people are taking antibiotics for illnesses they don’t need them for, therefore increasing their resistance to the drug.

If you have any of the following ailments, you shouldn’t be taking antibiotics: cold, flu, cough, fever or high temperature, bronchitis, some ear infections, and a sore throat. Antibiotics are appropriate for urinary tract infections, strep throat, bacterial sinusitis, bacterial ear infection, bacterial chest infections and cellulitis and infections of the skin.

Read more about when to take antibiotics.

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11. We all need to chill out a bit when it comes to sleep.

Earlier this year we asked experts how much sleep we should be getting – and it would appear the answer is: stop stressing out so much about it. Andrew Bagshaw, co-director of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health, told us that while sleep guidelines are useful, there comes a point when obsessing over it can make things worse – especially if you can’t get eight hours.

“One of the issues people with insomnia have is a concern about their sleep and whether they will be able to sleep tonight, and that’s detrimental to them achieving it,” he said. “So I think, in a way, having an explicit ‘you should be aiming for eight hours’ can be unhelpful if you’re taking it too seriously.”

“Some people need more, some people need less,” he added. “It’s about you as an individual getting to grips with what you need.”

Read more about healthy sleep habits.

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12. Stress can manifest in physical ways.

Many of us are aware of the impact stress can have on our mental health – an inability to think clearly, anxiety, feeling irritable or impatient, anger and racing thoughts – but we tend to think less about the physical impacts.

“I don’t think people are aware [that stress] can cause physical symptoms,” therapist Beverley Hills told us. “I always ask people how they are feeling physically, what’s hurting them in their body.”

It turns out there are quite a lot of physical symptoms associated with stress – stomach upsets, spots, heart problems (such as palpitations) and issues with blood pressure are just some.

Find out how stress might be impacting you – plus what to do about it.

13. You’ve probably been taking the wrong painkiller for your pain.

Pain is a given and, at some point in your life, you’re likely to find yourself reaching for the paracetamol or ibuprofen. For some, this is a more frequent occurrence than for others. But are you reaching for the right one?

There are three main types of painkiller people can buy without a prescription: ibuprofen, paracetamol and aspirin. They all reduce pain and fever, but some are better at treating certain ailments compared to others.

Paracetamol, for example, is good for colds, flu, sore throats, headaches and toothache; ibuprofen is better for joint and muscle pain (including back pain), sprains, injuries, migraines and period pain.

Read more about which pill you should take for what pain.

14. There’s a reason why people gain weight as they get older.

It’s no secret that as we age, it becomes harder to keep the weight off. Research from Sweden found that “lipid turnover” – the rate at which lipid (or fatty acids) in the fat cells is removed and stored – decreases during ageing. This makes it easier to gain weight, even if the amount we eat and exercise stays the same.

Scientists analysed the fat cells in 54 men and women over an average period of 13 years. In that time, all subjects – regardless of whether they gained or lost weight – showed decreases in lipid turnover in their fat tissue. Those who didn’t compensate for that by eating fewer calories gained weight by an average of 20%. Previous studies have shown that one way to speed up lipid turnover – and thus slow down weight gain – is to exercise more.

Read more about the weight study.