Perhaps it’s too predictable: Experts find the world’s longest-living people in a remote mountain village on a tiny island in an exotic sea. They party hard, work into their hundreds, and still have sex into their 90s. But then the twist: Their secret isn’t red wine or yogurt or young lovers. The key ingredient to living and loving longer, it seems, is growing right in their gardens.
For the past eight years, I’ve led expeditions to regions I call Blue Zones, places around the world where people are living measurably longer. Contrary to popular opinion, genes dictate as little as 2 percent of our life expectancy, so studying the lifestyles in these spots offers clues as to what we can do to live better, longer. Since 2008, with funding from National Geographic and AARP, my team has been investigating the Greek island of Ikaría, some 35 miles off the coast of Turkey, where more than a third of the residents reach age 90. The locals here suffer 20 percent less cancer than Americans, half the rate of heart disease, and, most surprisingly, none of the dementia. On a recon trip with world-renowned longevity experts Michel Poulain and Gianni Pes, we started to tease out the reasons why.
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.”
+WILD MINT (Mentha arvensis):
Good for: Gingivitis, flatulence, and ulcers.
Availability: Easy to grow in the U.S. and, like all of these herbs, available at health food stores.
+SPLEENWORT (Asplenium nidus):
Good for: Gallstones and bronchial problems.
Availability: Buy a bird’s-nest fern as a houseplant and steep the leaves for tea.
+ROSEMARY (Rosmarinus officinalis):
Good for: Liver ailments; helps stave off Alzheimer’s.
Availability: Thrives across the U.S. Brew the leaves for tea (smells like evergreen).
+PURPLE SAGE (Salvia purpurascens):
Good for: Stomach-aches; enhances memory function.
Availability: Common across the western U.S.
+GREEN TEA (Camellia sinensis):
Good for: Cancer prevention.
Availability: Camellia sinensis leaves are hard to grow outside of the tropics. Hit up Starbucks.