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Make it a drugstore Christmas

It’s still two weeks to Christmas, and there are those among us who have already finished their holiday shopping. Admirable people. Enviable people. But suppose, just suppose, you’re not one of them. Right about now, you might be in dire need of some cool stuff for the stockings on your list.

Well, fear not. Piece of cake. (And not some dry, tasteless piece of fruit cake either.) You can find something for everyone at your neighborhood drugstore — something not just inexpensive but healthful to boot. All you have to do is wander aimlessly for a while and, before you know it, a host of possibilities will be revealed unto you.

I know this plan can work because I tried it. The only ground rules for my expedition: Items had to fit inside a stocking (duh!), cost $25 or less and be designed to do a body good. Here’s a sampling of what I found that fit the bill.

Stress ball: This is simply a ball that you can squeeze … and squeeze ... and squeeze, depending on just how tense you’re feeling. The one I tried looked like any blue rubber ball, but with every squeeze it released a “soothing scent.” Stress balls come in many varieties (foam, beanbag, liquid-filled), and they’re not always round. (A squeezable rubber duck, anyone?) As a test, you could pick one up at the start of your shopping adventure and see how calm it keeps you as you work through your list. The scented rubber version goes for about $8.

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Jump rope: An ordinary jump rope can be a fun way to exercise, and it works for kids from preschool age all the way up to the Social Security years. A beaded rope (considered the longest-lasting and easiest to twirl) will set you back about $10, give or take. You might be able to get a book to go with it — with rhymes for youngsters or workouts for adults — and still stay under $25.

Bag Balm: If you’re expecting this ointment to come in a bag, think again. In this case, “bag” is a euphemism for “udder.” Technically, Bag Balm is intended to be used on cows after they’re milked to prevent chapping. The FDA hasn’t tested it for human use, but people have been using this super-thick, not-exactly-aromatic goo for years on their own dry skin — singer Shania Twain once told a reporter she used it as a moisturizer on her face and hair. Instead of a bag, the balm comes in a seasonally fortuitous green tin with red clover flowers on the lid. A 10-ounce size goes for $8 or $9.

Reacher/grabber: This is essentially a long stick, usually aluminum, with a handle at one end and “jaws” at the other. The jaws can lock on objects the user wants to reach that are either too high or too low to grab without stretching or bending. This means it’s useful for anyone with a bad back, anyone who doesn’t want to get a bad back and anyone who’s a tad lazy. They generally range from 26 inches to 36 inches in length and run from $10 on up to $25 and beyond.

Other nifty back-savers include sock aids (starting at around $8) that hold socks open while the user puts them on — they come with long handles to reduce the need for stretching or bending — and a super-long shoe horn that serves the same purpose for $4 to $7.

Chewing gum: It’s true: Gum can prevent cavities and amp up brainpower. The act of chewing stimulates the flow of saliva, which can wash away plaque and coat teeth with cavity-preventing minerals. The gum has to be sugar-free to prevent cavities, of course, and studies have shown that gum sweetened with xylitol does that job best. But you should probably avoid fruit-flavored varieties. A study just this fall found that acidic flavoring can cause irreversible mineral loss that leads to structural damage in teeth.

Rather less obviously, the act of chewing has also been shown to stimulate the brain. In one study from Britain, people who chewed actual gum did much better on memory tests than people who chewed imaginary gum — though they in turn did better than people who didn’t chew at all. Experts don’t know why chewing seems to help, but one possible explanation is that it increases one’s heart rate, so oxygen gets delivered to the brain faster. A pack of gum can be had for about $1.

Ultraviolet toothbrush sanitizer: Of course, the old-fashioned way of cleaning teeth — namely, brushing them — is still the best. But it’s not perfect. A toothbrush can be a very hospitable place for germs to grow. That’s where the toothbrush sanitizer comes in. It’s a storage case that doubles as a germ terminator. When the lid is closed, a UV bulb lights up for 10 minutes and does away with up to 99.9% of the malingerers. Models range from $5 to $30.

Pedometer: If everyone took 10,000 steps a day, the world would be a better place — or at least the people in it would be in better health. That’s the word from many doctors and fitness experts. It’s estimated that, on average, Americans miss that mark by 6,000 or 7,000 daily steps. But most people have probably never counted theirs, unless they have a pedometer to do the counting for them. Actually, counting steps is the least a pedometer can do for a person. Depending on how high-tech it is, a pedometer can also keep track of pace, heart rate, distance covered, calories burned and more. (It might even come GPS-equipped, though that would be waaaay out of stocking-stuffer price range.) Happily, plenty of models come in well under $25.

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Puzzle books: The brain needs regular exercise too, and research shows that working on puzzles is a good way to get it. The crossword or Sudoku you solve today may reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease tomorrow. Books of all sorts of puzzles are available at all sorts of prices, many less than $10.

Peppermint-flavored antacid: Why peppermint? Because it’s the holidays. Why an antacid? Because of how people eat over the holidays. In fact, the best choice may be one containing simethicone, which can relieve symptoms of ... well ... gas. Expect to spend about $5 for 150 regular-strength tablets.

Considering the way people drink over the holidays, a hangover remedy might be an option for some of those on your gift list. Various types are available for less than $10. But there’s no compelling evidence that any are generally effective.

Pill alarm: This is not necessarily appropriate for everybody — just those who get busy or absent-minded and also need to take medication. The $5 model I saw can be attached to a vial and set to beep when it’s time for a dose. For a much fancier version that’s way over the $25 limit, you can get containers that organize multiple pills and beep whenever it’s time for any of them to be swallowed. (I saw one model that could be set for up to 37 alarms a day.)

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Alarms are just one way of making pill-taking easier and safer. Others include pill splitters, crushers and planners (plastic containers with compartments for each day’s doses). There are also grippers to help open the vials and magnifiers to make it easier to read dosage directions. These are all available for less than $10.

Earplugs/earmuffs: It’s estimated that about 15% of Americans ages 20 to 69 have some degree of hearing loss due to exposure to excessive noise. Enter a $3 package of ear plugs. Or a more expensive — but still less than $25 — set of airtight sound-dampening earmuffs. Muffs are said to block out more noise than plugs, although not if they’re worn over glasses. Plugs and muffs together work best, but note that you still won’t be giving anyone the silent treatment. Though these hearing protectors reduce background noise, wearers can still hear the telephone, doorbell or even normal conversation.

Before you head to the drugstore, a few cautionary notes:

• In your search for standout stocking stuffers, beware of individual needs and preferences. If someone likes Brand X body wash — and only Brand X — it simply won’t do to give that person Brand Y.

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• Worse yet would be to decide that someone on your list could use, say, a dandruff shampoo or an extra-strength deodorant. In fact, certain items that are clearly health-and-well-being enhancers will probably not make very cool gifts for anybody. Included in this category are nose hair clippers, wart removal creams and any product that claims to renew, restore, replenish, repair, revivify, rejuvenate or otherwise rehabilitate the skin. Such items could just possibly imply that you have perceived certain flaws in a recipient that the recipient prefers to believe are imperceptible.

• Finally, avoid any products that are of such a highly personal nature that their functions might well qualify as none of your gosh darn business. You’ll know them when you see them.

health@latimes.com


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