I’m sure there’s been a moment in your life when, on the receiving end of yet another jeremiad from the medical profession advising against one more of life’s little pleasures you shouted “Enough already!”
You think back on all your sacrifices: those delectable doughnuts, the Marlboros that partnered perfectly with your favorite cocktail, Big Macs, Whoppers, and Big Gulps. Pancakes drenched in butter and syrup, Chicago pizza oozing cheese, slathered in pepperoni. A generous handful of peanut M&Ms (“for energy”). Will this never end?
Your Libertarian hackles went up with mandatory seatbelts, and everything you can have fun with now requires wearing a safety device. You can’t even enjoy lolling on your couch without thinking of your elliptical in the basement serving as a clothes rack.
Granted, these sacrifices and deprivations paid off. You’re healthier, you certainly look better, have fewer chronic illnesses, and you’ll live longer. But you wonder: must every step toward better health involve sacrifice or, worse yet, sacrifice followed by a tedious replacement? Is a slice a tofu turkey the only substitution for crispy chicken fried in bubbling lard?
How about some longevity fun stuff
You might not share my enthusiasm about these studies, but they certainly beat replacing your dirty martini with a kale smoothie.
Spicing life The results of an immense, ten-year study involving the eating habits of 200,000 men and 288,000 women throughout China appeared in the British Medical Journal this week. Researchers wanted to know if there might be a correlation between regular consumption of spicy foods and longevity. Note that “spicy” isn’t defined as a modest sprinkle of cinnamon or nutmeg, but rather as blow-your-taste-buds-out-of-the-water chili peppers.
The study’s longevity results were a strong, definite yes. In fact, those who reported eating highly spiced foods every day enjoyed a full 14% reduction in all-cause mortality (dying of anything) when compared to those who reported never eating spicy foods. There was also a correlation between the number of spicy food days per week and longevity. Daily intake was best, three times a week was OK, and although eating no spicy foods at all didn’t mean you had to get your affairs in order, longevity-wise there was room for improvement.
The phenomenon of spicy foods as healthful has been acknowledged for years, but the biochemistry leaned more toward educated guessing than actual facts. We know, for example, that spices (especially heat-producing capsaicin components) are high in antioxidants, lower blood pressure by opening blood vessels, have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties, and reduce platelet function in a way similar to aspirin. Spices are natural antibiotics and may alter (for the better) your gut microbiome.
Although prepared spicy foods like chili sauce, chili oil, or dried chili pepper are all good, you get even better health benefits from fresh chili peppers, which contain the highest levels of capsaicin and antioxidants. As amateur cooks and foodies know, these peppers can be blindingly hot. Caution is advised, especially if you were raised in the midwest with a mom who regarded adding paprika as daring.
Sauna magic If you like the years you’ve gained by adding hot peppers to your menu, add a few more by following the advice of this study from Finland.
Although the number of people studied, 2,315 middle-aged men, wasn’t large, the conclusions were pretty dramatic. Scandinavians, Russians, and Turks do love their saunas, and were you to wrap yourself in a towel, join the crowd, and ask any one of them “Do you think this is good for you?” he’d answer (boisterously) “Ja sjalvklart!” “Da, konechno!” “Evet tabi ki!” “Yes, of course!”
Scandinavians seem to prefer dry saunas, Russians and Turks wet (steam) ones. Both are equally effective.
The men in the study were followed for five years, organized by risk factors (smoking, weight, blood pressure, etc.), and questioned about weekly sauna use. Among those who used the sauna regularly (three to four times a week), there was a dramatic reduction in both sudden cardiac deaths as well as all-cause mortality (dying of anything). Again, the exact mechanism of this protection is uncertain, but it’s probably related to the same improvement in circulation that occurs with eating spicy foods.
You might start with the sauna or steam room at your health club. Or try one of Chicago’s bathhouses (I wrote about this one, but there are others). If you’ve got space in your home, you can buy a one- or two-person infrared sauna for under $2,000, and since your health savings account covers medical equipment for health-related issues you’d likely be reimbursed.
Think of the joy you’d feel baking in your sauna, nibbling jalapenos, and planning your 100th birthday bash. Bring on the dirty martinis…
David Edelberg, MD