In several years of investigating why some people never get sick, Gene Stone found they all had a very positive mental outlook and "whatever their secret is, they do it every day."
Whether they chew garlic, dunk their head in a sinkful of diluted hydrogen peroxide, sprinkle a spoonful of brewer's yeast into their breakfast cereal, take bracing showers or make sure to catch daily naps, all follow a preventive regimen with consistency and the conviction that it's contributing to their disease-resistant constitutions.
"For the most part it's not accidental," that they have good health, the New York-based writer and journalist said in an interview Friday from Miami, where he was promoting his new book, "The Secrets of People Who Never Get Sick." "People believe in health as a daily habit. I think that's a large part of why they stay healthy."
Stone spoke the same day as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that eight states had widespread cases of flu during the week ending Jan. 1, compared with five states the previous week. The same day, a quick check on Facebook showed people in cities like Philadelphia, New York and Chatham, Mass., were complaining that they picked up colds and viruses during the holidays.
But not Stone, despite a hectic book tour schedule that has him jumping on and off planes every few days.
A New Yorker who has spent decades covering diets, drugs, and health developments, Stone made up his mind that he would no longer suffer the two or more "blistering sore throats that turned into a lingering cold" every year. He sought to learn why some people could resist the same germs that were knocking him flat each year. "While I was enduring one cold after another, they were happily living under the cover of some personal secret that kept them healthy even as I twisted, writhed and sneezed, in thrall to whatever germ, virus, or unidentified life form was sweeping through my being."
After interviewing more than 100 people who seemed to keep illnesses at bay, he narrowed the field and wrote about the practitioners of the 25 techniques that seemed to work best. He has adopted – or adapted - 15 of these "secrets" (in addition to getting an annual flu shot) and in the process, he says he has eliminated or shortened the duration of his own illnesses.
The preventive that works best for him? Chewing on a clove of garlic (Secret No. 9 in the book). "Any time I feel that feeling at the top of your throat that something is happening, I immediately go for the garlic," he said. "I don't like the taste; I think it leaves bad breath in my mouth, so I always have a small piece of chocolate nearby and then I munch on (odor-neutralizing) fresh parsley."
Among the other health secrets he's picked up:
From Rip Esselstyn of Austin, Texas, a former firefighter with whom he wrote a book on veganism, "The Engine 2 Diet," Stone learned to eat only plant-based foods (Secret No. 17). In the process, his cholesterol dropped from 240 to 160.
From Barbara Pritzkat, 83, an engineer-turned-energetic-archaeologist from Los Angeles, he picked up the habit of starting off each day with brewer's yeast, which is rich in protein and B vitamins (Secret No. 2).
From the late comedian George Burns, who died at the age of 100, he adopted the habit of eating less each day, or as Burns used to say, "eat half" (Secret No. 3). Stone found significant numbers of studies suggesting that reducing daily calories by as little as 25 percent could have life-lengthening effects and reduce the occurrence of chronic conditions associated with obesity and overeating, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
From Susan Rennau, 58, a nurse in Utah, he learned that Vitamin C supplements (Secret No. 24), along with good nutrition and exercise, can stave off seasonal colds and flu. Since hearing her share her story of staying healthy while hospital colleagues succumbed to the swine flu in 2009, he, too has made vitamin C a part of his preventive regimen.
Stone also has reviewed the various secrets with one of those who ended up in the book, Dr. Tony Japour, an infectious diseases specialist in Miami. Japour is a Renaissance man whose career has included stints teaching molecular virology at Harvard, developing the HIV drug Kaletra at Abbott Laboratories, starting a contemporary art gallery in Miami, running (unsuccessfully) for state representative, consulting for the cruise industry on bird flu and now teaching immunology and microbiology at Florida International University and seeing patients at the Veterans Administration medical center in Miami. Japour's health secret, which he calls his "magic potion," was a serendipitous result of his desire to boost his protein intake on gym workout days.
Japour started by filling three-quarters of a teacup with pasteurized egg whites. But because "you can only eat so many egg whites," he mixed them with a 3.3-ounce bottle of vanilla-flavored DanActive, a probiotic dairy drink that populates the gut with "good" bacteria. The combination tasted "like a little eggnog….I drank this protein supplement and what I found, by the way, was I didn't get the nasty colds that I would get on an annual basis."
In downing the probiotic concoction (Secret No. 19) most days of the week for almost four years, "I have gone from having I would say two to three colds a year to either none or possibly one mild one," Japour said. Whether his response stems from the placebo effect or from billions of L. casein immunitas cultures replenishing his gut and giving his immune system a boost, he said, "I don't care."
"I would say it's an observational effect. It's clearly anecdotal," said Japour, a graduate of medical school at Northwestern University in Chicago. "What I think could potentially be happening is turning on your immune system in a very mild way."
"We're living in a world of personalized medicine. A lot of these things are a little bit of trial and error. This is something that works for me and I'm happy with it."
He said he learned back in medical school that chicken soup has some benefit (Secret No. 4), while napping (Secret No. 15) reflects the larger phenomenon of improving health by getting rest. Even yoga (Secret No. 25), with its many body positions, helps drain the sinuses.
Finally, he and Stone recognize the wisdom of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor who in the mid 19th century linked childbed fever among women who had just delivered their babies in the hospital to the failure of the doctors delivering those babies to wash their hands after performing anatomical dissections of the dead. Semmelweis died before his theory gained support, but hand-washing remains a foundation of modern infection control.
It's an enduring truth – and no secret -- that washing your hands may be the most important way you can reduce your chances of spreading or catching infections.