By Rachel Swanson, MS, RD, LDN
Some luxurious, some exotic, and some mainstream, there are practices from around the world that are used to elevate ones’ health. Traditions and treatments that are cultural or regional specialties hold unique solutions for enhancing our external, internal, spiritual and emotional states of wellbeing. Learn about which ones are backed by scientific studies, can be easily incorporated into your daily routine, and won’t require purchasing an airline ticket.
Drinking tea is a staple across multiple cultures and countries, but there is something special about the art of preparation for a tea ceremony as seen in Japan. This type of ceremony invites harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility into the practice — an esoteric experience nearly impossible to replicate at a busy corner Starbucks. The mindfulness involved in meticulously preparing such intricate details embodies the essence of Zen; extending beyond the physical benefits of drinking a beverage rich in anti-inflammatory, antioxidant compounds.
Matcha is prepared in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, and not to be confused with beloved matcha lattes purchased at high-volume coffee shops, (as most are chock full of so much sugar it will counteract the health perks of drinking tea in the first place)! Matcha is made from ground green tea leaves, retaining a higher nutrient profile than most teas on the market.
However, a plane ticket to Tokyo certainly isn’t required to sip on a nice hot cup of matcha tea to lower risk all-cause mortality, heart disease, stroke, and premature death. Ideally, find a time with minimal distractions at home to experiment with the earthiness of matcha or a loose leaf green tea varietal to clear your mind and create a serene experience for yourself, a friend, or significant other. Focus less on multitasking, and more on simplicity.
Herbs and spices impart flavors which serve as unique identifiers in the originality of a culture’s cuisine. In India for example, it’s common to find households equipped with spice boxes containing staples for recipe preparation such as turmeric, cumin, red chili powder, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and homemade blends like garam masala. On the other hand, American countertops have barely-used spice racks which typically only serve an aesthetic purpose, not a functional one. Its use should not go underutilized, since ounce for ounce, spices and herbs contain some of the greatest antioxidant profiles that we know, exhibiting effects against inflammation even with micro-doses used in standard recipes!
Cooking with spices like turmeric appears to make DNA less susceptible to breakage from oxidative damage, and even boosts our own internal antioxidant enzymes to eat up additional free radicals. Whether you are a master in the kitchen or prefer to stay clear of cooking, always aim to spice things up by adding a quarter teaspoon of turmeric as often as possible into your meals. Further, taken in supplement form, concentrated turmeric extract has been shown to work as well as anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers when studied in those with knee osteoarthritis and other inflammatory conditions.
Saffron is another power player spice that delivers profound results. When taken in supplement form, it’s active component called crocin (what provides the spice its beautiful pigment) has proved comparable effectiveness for reducing cognitive decline when studied against the leading drug Memantine for severe Alzheimer’s. (The bonus — no side effects)!
Consider the spice rack your new medicine cabinet. Aim to get your daily dose of bioactives by sprinkling in a variety of spices on each meal per day for an optimal cost-efficient, health-efficient strategy. This will kick up the flavor a notch, impress your guests, and subsequently reduce the need to add excess salt, sugar, and oil to a recipe.
Sauna use and bath houses are a popular pastime across cultures, each with their own unique appeal. This relaxing recreational activity has now become a very recent subject in research too, for its marked health benefits. In fact, research in a male population from Finland has shown their sauna bathing to be protective against a host of heart health concerns; sudden cardiac death, fatal heart disease, and even all-cause mortality. We aren’t talking small risk reductions either — those who used a sauna 4-7 times per week (20 minute sessions) were found with a very impressive 50% lower cardiovascular mortality risk when compared to those using it once per week! (Finnish saunas are about 174 degrees). This is a great reason to get hot and sweaty, especially since these uncomfortable temperatures will deliver feel-good endorphins afterwards, too! Along with heart health, the positive effects of heat acclimation include brain benefits, with the potential to ameliorate depression and anxiety. These same Finnish researchers also found lowered risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in frequent sauna users.
With benefits this good, it’s time to start adding it in to your routine, too. An easy way to do this is to start utilizing your gym’s sauna after your workout. While not as ritzy and luxurious as a spa resort or popular bath house, the effects on your health will be glamorous - which is what truly matters! The added benefit is that you’ll be able to unplug during your session (considering your iPhone will overheat in a matter of minutes if you choose otherwise)! Enjoy this brief pause to focus inwards on yourself… rather than on all the inbound requests.
Each country around the world purports their own quintessential skincare indulgence, and the best solution is to pamper yourself with one that boasts sustainable, eco-friendly production, providing jobs for the locals to harvest the various plants to create the final product. Select a product to use on your body just as you would for your face; preferably organic, and devoid of chemicals and toxic ingredients.
Argan oil, for example, is produced by the fruit kernels of the Moroccan Argan tree, providing employment opportunities for local women. It is important to note the plethora of products lining the beauty store shelves which promote the use of Argan oil, but in reality contain relatively few drops. That’s because pure, unadulterated oils are higher in price, so companies are incentivized to dilute the product substantially in order to keep their production price low and their margins high. When purchasing, aim for the pure.
These single ingredient oils and butters should impart a light, natural scent, and without the worry of rubbing in any synthetic fragrances. An example is shea butter, derived from the Shea tree in sub-saharan Africa, where the ‘butter,’ is extracted from its fruit kernels. Another choice with recent trending headlines in the U.S is use of coconut oil. This jar can be kicked out of the kitchen and onto a deserving spot on your bathroom counter; try rubbing a small amount onto skin after showering to reveal silky smooth skin.
No matter which specialty elixir you select from around the globe that touts moisture-rich lavishness onto its beholders, have some fun experimenting to find one which feels optimal on your body, or evokes a sense of nostalgia from a previous vacation or decadent spa experience. Being pampered in a spa is wonderful, but caring for your own body with nutrient-rich nourishment is a passport to indulgence too. Take just a few minutes before bed to give yourself a mini massage to calm your mind and relax your body. Slowing down and making it a special routine for yourself allows positive physiological effects to take place, like lower cortisol (our stress hormone). This means at the end of each day we have the opportunity to positively influence and successfully manage our own neurophysiological responses of stress, emotion, and anxiety.
Being present in an atmosphere conducive to relaxation allows us to set aside daily stressors for a brief moment in time, such as when we enter into a blissful wellness resort. The use of aromatherapy is absolutely key in these settings, evoking a sense of relaxation and comfort. However, it’s rare to find its use outside of a tranquil space, which seems counterintuitive to when it should be implemented. Research has proven that even in stressful environments, the therapeutic effects of aromatherapy has reduced anxiety, promoted sleep, and has treated pain for a variety of medical conditions.
When you are ready to get started on creating the ultimate relaxing environment to wind down from the day, ensure that you are purchasing a pure essential oil (not a fragrance), and that it contains only one single ingredient (not a diluted mix). A simple way to start incorporating aromatherapy into your evening routine is to add a few drops into a relaxing bath, into a diffuser, or onto a pillowcase before bed. Begin with lavender, which has been studied for its calming effects and helping to achieve a sweet slumber.
Incorporating these health habits from around the world into daily practices at home are practical, easily obtainable options that can help us recover from a stressful day at work, optimize our overall health status, as well as elevate our physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.
Rachel Swanson is founder of Rachel’s Rx, a preventative medicine private practice and nutrition consultancy. She currently practices at Lifespan Medicine, a concierge medical practice utilizing top technologies, leading edge diagnostics and integrative, natural therapies to help others look, feel and live their best life possible. Prior to starting her company, she was selected twice for professional NFL cheerleading teams — Patriots and Chargers. During this time, she simultaneously led research efforts in sports performance recovery for Harvard Orthopedics, diet and oncology research for a Harvard physician-led foundation, and provided nutrition education and meal plans for professional NFL players. She recently established a community medical rotation for NYU students in Cape Town to assist those with HIV AIDs, diabetes and malnutrition. She is a trusted expert for the Dr. Oz Show, where she is frequently quoted for her advice pertaining to optimal health and nutrition. Rachel is a Licensed, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, holds a Masters of Science in Clinical Nutrition from NYU, and completed clinical rotations at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.
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