Upgrade Your Life

Wish improving your health was as easy as scoring a better cable TV package or getting a sweeter deal on your cellphone plan? It is! Here, little changes that pay off big.
Upgrade Your Life
Pin it Getty Images: Tetra Images

Grow a few edible plants
In this era of 24-hour grocery stores and tomatoes in January, it can be easy to feel disconnected from your food source. Plug back into the ecosystem by planting a small garden or adding a few edible plants to your landscaping or window boxes. “When you grow your own food, it tastes amazing and is probably much healthier than anything you could get at the store,” says Penny Livingston-Stark, permaculture expert and co-director of the Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas, Calif. If you’re new to gardening, she suggests starting with something easy, such as chard, kale, mint, garlic, cherry tomatoes or raspberries. Better yet, plant a fruit tree that’s appropriate for your climate. To determine what that might be, consult one of Livingston-Stark’s favorite books, Right Plant, Right Place by Nicola Ferguson (Fireside).

Surround yourself with houseplants
NASA scientists searching for the solution to “sick building syndrome” found that common houseplants are some of the most effective air cleaners. Five to try: 1) Aloe vera soothes kitchen burns and sucks formaldehyde out of the air. 2) Corn plants purify benzene and cigarette smoke. 3) Spider plants absorb carbon monoxide. 4) Peace lilies remove acetone, trichloroethylene, benzene and formaldehyde. 5) Dwarf date palms negate harmful effects from xylene (found in paints).

Green your household cleaners
“Anything that is artificially scented pollutes your environment,” says Greer. The word “fragrance” on a label can mask up to 100 different chemicals, and synthetic scents have been found to trigger migraine headaches and asthma attacks. Make your own cleaners using such household items as hydrogen peroxide, white vinegar or baking soda—or take your pick from among several new lines of sophisticated natural cleaners, including Earth Friendly Products, Seventh Generation, Biokleen, Ecover, Mrs. Meyer’s and GreenWorks. “Finding less-toxic cleaners is essential to reducing your allostatic load—the amount of chemicals you have in your body,” says Woodson Merrell, M.D., chairman of the department of integrative medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

Go low VOC
VOCs are volatile organic compounds, low-level toxins emitted by paint, solvents, aerosol sprays, cleaners, air fresheners, petroleum products, adhesives and other items used around the house. They destroy air quality and can cause negative health effects that range from respiratory irritation and headaches to kidney and liver damage, according to the EPA. “Any synthetic material you have in your house may be off-gassing VOCs,” says Loux. “In general, if it smells like chemicals, it’s off-gassing.” To find healthy alternatives, you have to look for them—unless a product specifies that it’s low VOC, it’s probably not. Whenever you’re shopping for furnishings, look for the GreenGuard Environmental Institute mark, which means that a manufacturer’s claims of low VOC emissions have been certified by an independent third party and can be trusted. (Learn more about the program— and find GreenGuard-approved products—at