Create an At-home Spa: 4 Simple Herbal Recipes

You're in serious need of a pampering day at the spa, but you're short on time and money. The solution? Transform your own bathroom into a sanctuary. At the Lake Austin Spa Resort, I teach classes on how to turn common kitchen and garden ingredients into luxurious skin scrubs, bath salts and more.

The key is using herbs and flowers. Certain aromas have a powerful effect on the nervous system, leaving you feeling relaxed or energized. I recommend using the following ingredients for their scents:

  • Lavender: This soothing, antimicrobial herb has been shown to help you relax and get a good night's sleep. Wesleyan University conducted a 31-person study and found that when people sniffed lavender before bedtime, they got more slow-wave (or deep) sleep and reported feeling more energetic in the morning.
  • Eucalyptus: Developing research suggests this woodsy scent may help break up mucus and stop coughs, according to the National Institutes of Health. And a study published in the journal Respiratory Medicine shows that eucalyptol, the active ingredient, has anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Mint: Perfect for hot days, spearmint and peppermint are cooling and refreshing. And a recent study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy also found that applying menthol to the skin increases blood flow.
  • Ginger: When grated and added to a bath, the spicy root provides an invigorating sensory energy boost. It can be mixed with coconut oil for a mildly exfoliating scrub.
  • Rosemary: This herb has a refreshing, stimulating effect.
  • Rose Petals: Pluck them from your own garden to add a sweet fragrance to any bath or body treatment.

Once you've chosen your herbs, mix them up with one of the following recipes. With a few household ingredients, you can go from stressed and tired to relaxed and glowing:

Basic Bath Infusion

  • 4 cups fresh herbs (or 2 cups dried)
  • 4 cups water

Boil water in a large pot; add herbs. Stir, cover and remove from heat. Steep for 10 minutes, strain and pour into a hot bath.

Soothing Bath Bag

  • 1/4 cup powdered milk
  • 1/4 cup Epsom salt
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup dried herbs
  • 10 drops of essential oil

Stir together all ingredients and place in a muslin bag (or several layers of cheesecloth); secure with a rubber band. Add to hot bath and steep for several minutes. Open the bag and use the softened herbs as an exfoliating body scrub. You can also seal unused bags in a glass jar for several months.

Energizing Coffee Body Scrub

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 4-inch sprig of fresh rosemary
  • 1/4 cup coffee beans, finely ground
  • 2 tablespoons bentonite clay (found in health food stores)
  • 3 tablespoons oil, such as olive, grapeseed, coconut or avocado
  • 3 drops each of rosemary oil and grapefruit or peppermint oil

Combine sugar and rosemary in a spice grinder and process until finely ground. Pour into a medium-sized bowl and mix with the remaining ingredients. Use the scrub on skin; shower off. Moisturize with additional body oil.

Skin-Softening Bath Blend

  • 1/4 cup rolled or instant oatmeal
  • 1/4 cup milk powder
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup herbs of choice
  • 10 to 15 drops of essential oil
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 teaspoons body oil

In a food processor, combine oatmeal, milk powder, sugar and herbs until coarsely ground. Pour in bowl and combine with essential oil, honey and body oil. Place in muslin bag and steep in a hot bath for a few minutes. Use cold tea bags (green tea or chamomile) over your eyes as you enjoy your bath.

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4 Amazing Staycation Ideas You’ve Never Thought of

Need a vacation but don’t have the time or funds? No problem! With a little legwork and creativity, you can plan an escape right in your own home or backyard. You’ll create happy memories for the whole family without the hassle of packing a single suitcase. Consider these innovative ideas.

1. Host a spa day.

You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to unwind. Recreate that tranquil environment in your own home: First, declare the day tech-free and turn off all televisions, computers and cell phones. To add spa-like touches, fill pitchers with water, cucumber slices and mint leaves, playing a peaceful soundtrack, such as the “Spa Suite” channel on Pandora.

Then schedule “treatments” with your kids: Set up a manicure station where they can paint their nails (don’t forget to keep tissues on hand in case of smudges) and a
makeover area where they can experiment with makeup. You can also apply facial masks or draw aromatherapy baths.

Extra splurge: Invest in plush robes to wear all day, or contact a local spa for a masseuse or manicurist that makes house calls for an at-home treatment.

2. Go camping!

Set up a tent in your backyard for a campout. During the day, go on a hike at a local park or nature preserve, complete with trail mix. In the evening, gather around the campfire to roast hot dogs and make s’mores while telling ghost stories.

Extra splurge: To make the experience more comfy, use an air mattress inside the tent. You can also spark your child’s interest in nature with a guide to flowers or small camping kit.

3. Create a backyard waterpark.

Waterparks are classic summer fun, but they’re often expensive or too far away. Set up your own version in your backyard: Fill up a few inflatable pools with water, and get some water guns and water balloons. Then invite your kids’ friends over to play. They’ll spend hours splashing around with the toys.

Extra splurge: Create a healthier version of the concession stand by setting up a table full of drinks, fruit slices and other healthy snacks. Finish the evening with a barbecue or pizza party.

4. Have a luxury vacation (on a budget!).

For a fun spin on a big-city vacation, plan a day full of cultural adventures. Print out an itinerary of the day’s events for your family: Start with a breakfast of croissants at a local park. Then check out a new, unusual museum or cultural sight in the area that your family hasn’t yet visited. Follow that with a meal and dessert at one of the fancier restaurants in town, or serve up dinner at a table decorated with candles and fresh flowers in the backyard. Then finish the evening with a classic New York-centric movie, such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s. For a luxurious touch, place a gourmet chocolate on everyone’s pillow to find at bedtime.

Extra splurge: Give each child a certain amount and let them pick out a souvenir throughout the day. It will serve as a token of their fun family staycation!

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The Health Benefits of Smiling

A smile can go a long way -- especially when it comes to your health. Not only can flashing a grin win you friends, but a growing body of research also reveals that it can deliver a host of body benefits. Here, four more reasons why you should flash those pearly whites more often:

Reason to Smile No. 1: Less Stress

There’s some truth to the saying, “grin and bear it.” In a study from Kansas State University, people who gave a real smile while tackling pressure-filled tasks had less of a stress response and a lower heart rate than those who kept neutral expressions. So the next time you’re feeling frazzled, take a moment to think of something that makes you giggle.

Reason to Smile No. 2: Pain Relief

According to a study published in the Journal of Pain, people who grimaced during an unpleasant procedure felt more pain than those who turned that frown upside down. Smiling boosts the production of feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins, which can act as a natural pain reliever. Battling a headache or sore back? Watch a few silly YouTube clips for some comedic relief. It’s impossible not to smile at adorable puppy or kitten videos!

Reason to Smile No. 3: A Happier Outlook

You beam when you’re happy, but it turns out that it works the other way around too. Researchers from Britain’s University of Cardiff found that women who received frown-blocking Botox injections reported feeling happier and less anxious than those who didn’t. (They also said they didn’t feel any more attractive, which rules out the possibility they were just more cheerful because of their lack of wrinkles.) Try smiling even when you’re not feeling peppy -- and your mood may soon catch up.

Reason to Smile No. 4: A Healthier Heart

Take heart: A study of nearly 2,000 people published in the European Heart Journal revealed that those with a more positive outlook were less likely to develop heart disease than their more pessimistic peers.

The bottom line: The more smiles, the better! Just remember to stash some tissues in your purse to blot your lipstick and wipe away smudges for a dazzling smile.

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Good Friends: The Key to Good Health

Friends are good for all kinds of things -- a girls' night out, late-night chats and shopping trips, to name a few. But did you know they're also good for your health? A study published in The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied showed a strong link between supportive social networks and healthy behaviors like eating well and exercising.  

Friendships are particularly important to women, says Irene S. Levine, professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend."Female friendships are extremely vital to a woman's well-being, because women help each other unload emotions, which is a real stress buster," says Levine.

Whether you're already surrounded by friends or you're looking to build better relationships, Levine offers these tips for nurturing your female friendships -- and your health:

1. Make friendship a priority.
Most women are so busy that it may feel self-indulgent to spend time on friendships. But it's important to make friends a priority in your life, says Levine."Know that [friendships] will ultimately make you a better mother, wife, daughter and person, because friendships make you feel more fulfilled," she says.

2. Be there.
While technologies like email and Facebook have made keeping in touch with friends easier, there's just no substitute for face time."Be there for your friend in the way you would want her to be there for you," says Levine. If your friend's nervous about going in for a mammogram, for instance, offer to go with her. Or if she needs a dress for an important occasion, take her shopping.

3. Celebrate together.
Remember the special events in each others' lives, whether it's a birthday, an important anniversary, a new job or a promotion."It makes for a more special relationship when you can celebrate each other's important events and successes," advises Levine.

4. Communicate.
When something's wrong, talk about it. Levine suggests you open the door for conversation and avoid pretending nothing's wrong. Just like in a good marriage, friends need to keep the lines of communication open. Let her know that you're there to talk whenever she needs you.

5. Develop rituals.
Patterns and regularity can help create a rich friendship, says Levine. Make your relationships stick by developing rituals that create lasting memories, like a regular girls' night out (or in!), a girlfriends' getaway, a lunch every Friday or a drink every Thursday night. Put it on your calendar -- and keep that time sacred.

6. Forgive and forget.
Every relationship requires give and take. You're two different people, and your friend may not always think the way you do or say the right thing. Recognizing that no one is perfect and being willing and able to apologize when you make a mistake is crucial."Apologize sooner rather than later so bad feelings don't have a chance to build up," says Levine."And don't keep score: The best friendships are those where people truly want to give and take in an unconditional way." 

7. What if you have trouble making friends?
If you're shy or introverted, you might have a hard time finding good friends. Start by engaging in activities you enjoy, suggests Levine. Join a gym or a book club, or volunteer for a community service group."Put yourself in a place where you'll see the same people over and over," says Levine."Show openness with simple things like smiling and showing interest in the other person. Just don't be too aggressive or reveal or ask for too much information too soon: Relationships need time to grow."

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Simple Steps to Happiness

With the holidays done and spring months away, it can feel like there’s not much to smile about these days. But shaking off those winter blues may be as easy as making a few simple changes in your daily routine. To help you start smiling, we combed through the latest scientific research -- and came up with five research-backed moves to boost your mood. C’mon, get happy!

1. Step into the sun.
When it’s chilly out, spending time outside may be the last thing you want to do. But soaking up the sun’s rays can have a big impact on your mood, reveals a study published in the journal Lancet. Researchers found that brains produce more of the mood-boosting hormone serotonin on sunny days.

To ramp up your mental wellness, open your shades first thing in the morning. Bundle up and head on short walks outside or, on frigid days, find the sunniest spot in your home or office.

2. Snack on fruits and veggies.
On any given day, most of us only get three servings of produce. Not only can bumping up your intake reduce your risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and obesity, but it may also improve your mood. The more produce you eat, the happier you are -- with seven servings being the ideal amount, according to a study of 80,000 people published in the journal Social Indicators Research.

To sneak more servings into your day, incorporate fruit into your snacks. Have an apple or pear with cheese or nut butter; baby carrots or cucumber slices with hummus; or berries with low-fat yogurt. Or slip some veggies into your main dishes: Your family won’t even notice spinach blended into smoothies; cauliflower puree added to mashed potatoes or mac n’ cheese; or diced carrots, mushrooms and squash mixed into spaghetti sauce.

3. Decorate with greenery.
These days, the view from your window may be gray skies and barren trees. To brighten up your space -- and your outlook -- place a few pots with ferns, flowers or succulents on your windowsill. Researchers from the University College London found that greenery can ease stress and lift a mood, and a separate Harvard study revealed that seeing flowers in the morning bring on happier days.

Have a brown thumb? Tack up a picture of your favorite outdoor scene at your desk. The British researchers showed that simply gazing at greenery could have a mood-improving benefit.

4. Break a sweat.
It’s no secret that exercise makes you feel better. But ramping up your workout may have bigger rewards for your mental wellness. According to a study from England’s Manchester Metropolitan University, people who did vigorous workouts experienced a bigger mood improvement than those who did a moderate one -- and both were happier than their couch potato counterparts.

No gym? Try our sweat-worthy at-home workout. You’ll be grinning after just 15 minutes.

5. Consider a light box.
If you can’t shake your sluggish mood, you may want to consider a light box. These devices are specifically designed to mimic the sun’s bright rays. They can be bought over-the-counter or with a doctor’s prescription; it’s generally recommended to switch on the box for at least half an hour every morning.

Remember: If you’re experiencing a severe and/or persistent case of the blues, always consult your health care provider.

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