Mariska Hargitay is a sharer. When the warm and outgoing Law & Order: Special Victims Unit actress talks to Health, shes so eager to pass on tips for a healthier, more balanced life that she opens up her cabinets to recite whats inside, then later sends a follow-up e-mail (signed ‘xo, Mariska).

This is someone whose advice you can trust: Hargitay makes it look easy as she deftly juggles 15-hour days on the set, marriage (to actor Peter Hermann), motherhood (to 2 1/2-year-old son, August), and her nonprofit organization, Joyful Heart Foundation, which helps empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. Since its inception in 2004, more than 1,400 survivors have participated in their retreat and wellness programs; they plan to serve 2,200 this year.

Hargitay is the daughter of late actor and bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay and sex symbol Jayne Mansfield, who died when Mariska was 3 years old. Her first film was 1985s Ghoulies, but she only worked sporadically after that. (“I had an eight-year dry spell,” she laughs.) She became a household name in 1999 when she landed a plum role as tough-but-tender Detective Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU, and in her decade on the show has collected both an Emmy and a Golden Globe.

Now 45, the lifelong athlete is still brimful of energy. She suffered a brief setback in January when she was hospitalized with a partially collapsed lung. Two months later, she was back in the hospital to address further complications. She spoke with us right after she was released, and was her usual vibrant self as she talked about what inspires her, how she balances her crazy-busy life, and why the days of doing her own stunts are behind her.

Before we begin, we just want to ask how youre feeling.
Im doing better and better every day. I feel stronger. And, most of all, Im so grateful, because, the truth is, it was a really scary thing. But this has been a great lesson for me to get back in touch with that inner voice that teaches us how to take care of ourselves.

We really do ignore that inner voice at our peril.
Our health is the most important thing, truly, that we have. If we dont have that, we dont have anything. This time has made me learn how to take care of myself, listen to my body, and know when I have to rest. Women are such amazing multitaskers; its a blessing and a curse. We want to do it all and, the fact is, we cant! So its been a lesson for me to stop. [Laughs] Im feeling better, and, hopefully, smart enough to get the lessons I need to learn and to appreciate how fragile and beautiful life is. And I want to get [back] to work as soon as possible! Thats happening very soon—I think Im only missing one episode. Its been a journey, a scary one, but, I guess, a necessary one. In the big picture, Im feeling really lucky.

Next Page: A Joyful Heart [ pagebreak ]You started Joyful Heart in 2004 to empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse.
Ive always had an affinity for children, and when I started preparing for the role of Detective Benson on Law & Order, the statistics just floored me. Every two minutes in the United States a woman is sexually assaulted. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women. And nearly four children die in this country every day as a result of abuse and neglect.

Apparently, when you started playing Detective Benson, you got letters from viewers sharing their own stories of abuse.
Thats what really did it. When you do a show, the normal fan letter is, “Hey, I really like you on the show,” or “I like your hair, youre pretty.” [Laughs] But the kind of mail I was getting was women saying, “I was raped when I was 15—Im 45 and never told anyone.” I didnt know what to do. I was like, Wait a minute, everyone, Im an actor on TV! And Joyful Heart was my answer and my way of giving back. I wanted to shine light on this darkness because sexual assault, in particular, is something people dont talk about. Ill tell you, I have three passions in life: work, motherhood—Ive wanted to be a mother since I was 2 feet tall—and Joyful Heart. People say, “Oh, its so great, youre helping all these people.” And I say, “You know what? Im starting to think Joyful Heart is the most self-serving thing Ive ever done.”

You juggle your job, family, and charity work. How do you keep your energy up?
I drink a lot of water. I try to breathe—I hold my breath when Im stressed. And I do everything in moderation. I know Im somebody who needs dark chocolate in my life, as much as I try to give up sugar.

Whats your sleep regimen?
Mines terrible. I dont get enough sleep, but Im changing that. Im someone who goes to bed between midnight and 1 a.m. and gets up at 6, and then Im miserable. So, now my rule is I have to be in bed by 11, period.

Are you able to adhere to it?
Im starting to. Ive been off work for a week now. And, obviously, you cant sleep in the hospital because its a nightmare there. But since Ive been home, Im trying to sleep when August sleeps, and thats helped a lot. On days when I do that, I notice that Im a different person. I have a different kind of day.

Next Page: Snacking secrets [ pagebreak ]Do you have any healthy snacks that have been life-savers?
I have these chips that are so great. [Yells to assistant] Jacob, whats the name of those awesome chips you got me? Theyre called FoodShouldTasteGood multigrain tortilla chips. Another snack thats super-simple is apples with almond butter; its sweet, but there is protein. And my decadent snack is really good pears with truffle cheese. Oh, and edamame.

Tell us about what you typically eat to stay at a healthy weight.
Obviously, as you get older—I dont care what anyone says—your metabolism does slow down. So I watch what I eat a little more, but Im just one of those everything-in-moderation types because I, personally, just cant cut out stuff.

Whats the best thing about being in your 40s?
I love it. You have clarity, you know who you are—decisions are easier.

And whats not so great?
Like I said, your metabolism starts to slow down. Everything starts to sag. [Laughs] In my head, I still think Im a 20-year-old athlete. I have always been so athletic and have always been a runner, and what I dont like about the 40s is you just cant do as much—and my brain cant seem to get it. Like, [Law & Order: SVU co-star] Chris Meloni is a super-stud and works out every day, but we were talking about how we used to do our own stunts. Always. For 10 years, we said, “We have to do our own stunts.” Wed have to be badasses. I dont know what we were trying to prove. And now were both like, “No way! Let the stunt double do it!” The fact is, we can get hurt, and we do get hurt.

What about parenthood has been a surprise to you?
My perfect analogy for being a parent is before you have kids, and youre on a plane, and theres a screaming kid, youre like, shut that kid up, give me earplugs, get me a blanket to put over my head! And, as soon as I became a mom, if theres a crying kid on an airplane, theres this compassion because you get it. Youre like, “What can I do? Do you want me to hold him?” Because you think about the time your kid was screaming, and you know everyone hates you, and there was the one parent who looks at you and smiles, and that compassion is everything.

Youve mentioned that you want more kids. Is this still something you think about?
You know, I have no idea. Do I want more? Sometimes. Am I scared of it? Yeah! I have a lot on my plate, so I cant say I want more of anything right now.

Whats the best life lesson that you learned from your own parents?
I had the best parents, and my stepmom has been incredibly supportive, too. From my dad, it was to find your dream and eat it, sleep it, and drink it, and never quit. I wouldnt be where I am today without my dad, because I would have quit so many times. He said, “Were not quitters in this family. You find out what youre made of in the face of adversity.” When I was a kid, I was so intimidated by these big, iconic parents of mine and thought Id never live up to them. But you find your own path in life, and you realize that it does sink in, that you get a lot of it from osmosis.

How do you find time to nurture yourself?
I always try to laugh. Between August—and the things that come out of that kids mouth—my friends, my husband … even my co-star Chris, whos hilarious, I laugh a lot. That, to me, is one of the most life-sustaining things you can do. I dont take it lightly. The other night I had a friend sleep over, and we had a laugh on the couch until we couldnt breathe, where you could literally feel the endorphins in your body. I really think something healing happens when you have a gut-busting laugh.