5 Ways to Spend Less and Stay Well

Now that we've all been hit with the economic trifecta -- the mortgage, food and gasoline crises -- finding ways to cut back has become an imperative.

Of course, you never want to skimp when it comes to your health. Fortunately, there are ways to get well and stay that way for less.

1. Reduce Your Need for Allergy Meds

Dr. Beth Corn, an allergy immunologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, says that one of the most common mistakes allergy sufferers make is to keep stacks of books and magazines, stuffed animals, decorative pillows and other "dust-mite breeding grounds" in the bedroom.

Dust mites, she says, are the leading cause of indoor, year-long allergies.

And when it comes to outdoor allergens, about 60 percent of us suffer from ragweed, leaf molds and other harbingers of fall.

Good as it feels to sleep with your windows open to the sound of breezes rustling the trees, that might be why you wake up with a puffy, drippy, Garbage Pail Kid face.

Corn has a simple remedy: Close your windows and turn on a fan.

And if you're a jogger, jog in the evening, she says. That's because pollen counts are higher in morning.

And when you get home, remove your clothes immediately and shower to get rid of the pollen that has attached itself to your clothes, skin and hair.

But the worst enemies may be your best friends. Many people let pets sleep not only in the room but in the bed.

It's a touchy subject, Corn says. Getting allergy sufferers to stop sleeping in the same room or even in the same bed with Tiger is just not easy. But pet dander is one of the worst culprits.

Marty Becker, author of "The Healing Power of Pets" and host of the "The Pet Doctor" on PBS, has a few key tips on making the transition a smooth one:

No Mixed Messages: Keep your bedroom door closed.

A Bed of His Own: Your dog or cat needs a comfortable, secure place to sleep that he knows is his.

The Happy Place: Stroke, talk sweetly and give treats to your pet when he's in his bed. Never send a pet to bed as punishment.

2. Substitute Honey for Antibiotic Cream

You may have used honey to soothe a sore throat, but did you know that raw, unprocessed honey -- the kind you buy at the farmers' market or in the health food section of the grocery store -- can also be used to treat mild skin infections and burns?

Our ancestors did. Dutch researchers point out that honey has been used since antiquity to treat infections, but now there's scientific proof. Medical grade honey -- honey that has been produced under controlled conditions -- has been shown to kill even antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

But you don't have to go to a lab to stock up your medicine cabinet. Dr. Wayne Anderson, author of "Habits of Health," says to use raw, unprocessed honey on your scrapes and cuts. The heating process used to clarify most grocery-story honey "probably eliminates the antibacterial property," he says. "If it's processed, it won't work."

Research on honey is still in its infancy, he says, but what is not in dispute is that honey contains hydrogen peroxide -- the perfect antidote for staph and other common skin bacteria.

Anderson says that when compared with over-the-counter creams, honey might be even more effective for small burns -- such as the kind you get from the stove or a hot iron. That's because most anti-bacterial creams stick to the skin as well as the gauze, causing further irritation when the gauze is lifted.

Honey, on the other hand, is partially absorbed by the fragile, puffy skin, providing a slippery membrane between the flesh and the bandage.

3. Go to Sleep Early

Your grandmother may have talked about her beauty sleep, but research indicates that rest does far more than stave off red eyes. Researchers have long reported that six to eight solid hours of lights out is critical for optimal brain functioning and a healthy immune system.

It's important, however, to note the quality of sleep, says Matthew Walker, director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California at Berkeley.

Passing out after a night of cocktails a la "Sex and the City," for example, may put you in a deep sleep, but there's a good chance you'll wake up suddenly in the early hours with a bout of insomnia, he says.

Habitually taking sleeping pills and painkillers is not such a great idea either, Walker adds. They may knock you out at bedtime, but the flat, dreamless sleep they often induce does not generally provide the healing and repair your mind and body craves.

"We tend to undervalue the importance of dreaming," says Walker, who is currently working on a book on the role dreams play in our mental health.

4. Drop Your Gym Membership

Who needs to pay hundreds of dollars to work out? Why not rent exercise DVDs, or break out the old VCR and dust off those VHS tapes? Or make your living room a yoga studio a few nights out of the week?

The only thing you risk losing is the camaraderie you can find at the gym. But that's easy to re-create at home. Invite a few friends over, pool your tape collection, set realistic goals and make a commitment to stick to the plan.

Dr. Janet Taylor, a psychiatrist at New York's Harlem Hospital, points to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine that indicates that obesity spreads through social ties. On the flip side, says Taylor, one's social network can be linked to health-promoting behaviors.

Intuitively, we already know this, don't we? Aren't you more inclined to choose a chef salad over pizza if you're with your "healthy" friend, and more inclined to order dessert or (gasp) take a drag on a cigarette if you're spending time with your "unhealthy" friend?

But there's an added benefit to spending quality time with friends and strengthening those bonds, Taylor says. "People who have good, trusting social support networks may have lower stress levels, which presumably can lessen the inflammatory response. A heightened inflammatory response has been linked to chronic disease and autoimmune illnesses."

5. Take Advantage of Free Screenings

With so many of us working full-time yet underinsured or uninsured, it's easy to let things go. Like that little mole on your arm that seems to have grown bigger this summer.

You don't need us to tell you that letting it go is not a good idea.

If you have a history of skin cancer, spend a lot of time in the sun or have a suspicious mole, you really need to make a habit of getting your skin checked for skin cancer -- insurance or no insurance.

"See Spot, Check Spot" is the slogan of the American Center for Dermatology. It has partnered with dermatologists across the country to offer free screenings. Just go to the extremely user-friendly www.melanomamonday.org to find a convenient location.

Blood pressure: Getting your blood pressure taken may seem as mindless as stepping up on the scale when you go to the doctor's office for a sore throat, but doctors say the measure of the force of your blood pumping from your heart through your arteries is one of the most important ways to monitor your overall health.

Blood pressure for most healthy people falls below 120/80. See how you measure up by taking advantage of one of the numerous free blood pressure machines in pharmacies and malls. To locate the one nearest you, go to www.lifeclinic.com/locator/search.asp.

Mammograms, pap smears and more: The National Cancer Institute advises most women older than 40 to get annual mammograms, and many health care providers across the nation now offer free mammograms, as well as a host of other free screenings.

A few examples:

The Center for Women's Health at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland offers free pap smear exams, blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol screenings. Call to make an appointment.

The Women's Community Clinic in San Francisco offers free annual exams, including breast exams and pap smears, while the Reading Hospital and Medical Center in Reading, Pa., offers free mammograms and pap smears, as well as blood pressure, cholesterol, skin cancer and heart disease screenings at its many health fairs throughout the year. Visit www.readinghospital.org to check upcoming dates.

More than 100 health care providers throughout Missouri offer free breast and cervical cancer screenings to underinsured Missouri women. Call 800-422-6237 to see if you qualify.

If you live in New York, free mammogram screenings are available in Manhattan at the Harlem Hospital Center every Thursday and Saturday. Also in New York, the Women's Imaging Center at the Metropolitan Center's Spa de Salud offers mammograms, blood pressure screenings and blood sugar screenings.

In Illinois, the Illinois Breast and Cervical Cancer Program offers free pap smears and mammograms. Call the Women's Health Line at 888-522-1282 to sign up.

In Washington state, the YMCA of Seattle has a program called the Women's Health Outreach. It provides free or low-cost mammograms and pap tests. Contact Ingrid Berkhout at 206-436-8671 for more information.