Our team focuses on what people do for most of their lives—their diet, daily habits, and medicine. We want to know what they had for breakfast today and in 1923. Long-living Ikarians, we discovered, observe about 150 days of religious fasting a year, stay up past 2 a.m., sleep late, and nap. They eat mostly leafy greens, potatoes, and beans. All of these factors, by varying degrees, add years to life. But there is another shared trait, one we hadn’t seen in other Blue Zones.
Ikarians have an afternoon habit of picking fistfuls of garden herbs and steeping them in boiled water for an evening beverage; at breakfast, they drink tea from other dried herbs. This was an important lead. I immediately contacted pharmacologist Ioanna Chinou, Ph.D., at the University of Athens, who agreed to unleash her lab’s resources to help. I sent her several Ikarian herbs commonly used as teas: wild mint, spleenwort, rosemary, and purple sage. She examined them for their medicinal uses and sent me a 20-page report.
All of these herbs have one thing in common: They are diuretics—they make you pee. In so doing, they help flush your body of natural waste products. (If you don’t urinate often enough, toxic compounds from your cells build up and cause damage over time.) But what we found more interesting—and more likely to explain Ikaría’s greater life expectancy—is that diuretics lower blood pressure in a way not unlike how letting water out of a balloon reduces pressure in the balloon. Diuretics cause the kidneys to remove sodium and water from the body, thereby alleviating pressure on the blood vessel walls. High blood pressure is a leading cause of heart attacks, strokes, and—get this—dementia. It stresses out blood vessels in the brain, making them more susceptible to ruptures. Little by little, the brain cells die from lack of oxygen, and eventually you forget what you ate in 1923—or even what day it is.
Some Ikarian herbs can be hard to find outside of Greece, but other healthy herbs are readily available in the U.S. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), nettle (Urtica), and birch (Betula) are among the most famous European diuretics. If these don’t sound appetizing, consider an ancient fallback. “Green tea is nature’s best beverage,” says Greg Plotnikoff, M.D., medical director at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis and a top expert on Eastern medicine. “Mint and rosemary teas are potentially powerful health-promoting medicines, but the best research surrounds green tea. It’s a diuretic and contains catechin, which can block cancer, prevent or delay diseases of aging, and prolong healthy lives.”