The Healing Spice Dr. Sanjay Gupta Swears By & His Secret To Happiness

Contributing Health & Nutrition Editor By Stephanie Eckelkamp
Contributing Health & Nutrition Editor
Stephanie Eckelkamp is a writer and editor who has been working for leading health publications for the past 10 years. She received her B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University with a minor in nutrition.

Image by mbg creative

As a neurosurgeon, triathlete, and CNN's award-winning chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, M.D., knows a thing or two about health. But even he hadn't cracked the code to how we as humans can live the healthiest, most meaningful lives possible. That is, until he filmed his new six-part docuseries on CNN, Chasing Life With Dr. Sanjay Gupta, for which he traveled to places with some of the longest living and happiest people in the world—Japan, India, Bolivia, Norway, Italy, and Turkey—to learn their secrets.

"We know that there are countries around the world that are living longer, dying less of preventable disease, and doing it for a lot less money and fewer resources than we are in the U.S.," Dr. Gupta recently told mbg. "So what can we learn from these countries around the world? That was the real aspiration and goal of the show."

Recently, I was lucky enough to snag a few minutes with Dr. Gupta to ask him about the most interesting and surprising wellness habits and rituals he learned while filming the show and how he's changed his own personal habits as a result (hint: He's now a big fan of turmeric tea, aka golden milk). Here are the highlights of our chat.

What did these cultures teach you about the secret to happiness and stress management?

One of the reasons we visited Norway is because it was named the happiest country in the world by the World Health Organization (WHO). Yet it's a country where some cities are 270 miles north of the Arctic Circle and dark for months of the year, which isn't something you associate with happiness. A big lesson that came out of Norway is that if you are living a life where you overcome some sort of challenge on a regular basis—where you actually set aside some particular thing that's hard and you really tackle it—the capacity you have for joy is much higher than if you live in an environment that doesn't pose any challenges.

Norwegians are happy not despite their environment but because of it. They get to accomplish something every day. And I've started applying this to my own life. I have my own personal goals that I write down every day. Many of them are specifically related to tasks that I have to do, but there's always something else that I'll add. If I'm working out, it might be that I'm going to push myself a little bit harder and try something I didn't think I'd be able to do even 10 years ago. And when I do that, I find that my spikes in joy end up being much higher. So overcoming some sort of challenge on a regular basis is big for happiness.

Also in Norway, something very traditional and widely embraced is koselig, which is basically a period of time when you're totally unplugged. You're expected to be unplugged at that point, and you should not be working. We are nowhere near having that in the U.S. We've gone the other way in terms of being connected. Of course, we need stress to survive and thrive, but the problem in the U.S. is that it's relentless. It's the constant stress that's the problem. And so, I think that koselig, a regular ritual of unplugging, would go a long way toward increasing productivity and happiness. For me, swimming is one of my favorite forms of exercise in part because no one can really bother me. When I'm swimming, I'm truly unplugged and immersed in a different world for a while. I have some of my best thoughts in the pool.

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What about exercising for longevity? I imagine not everyone you met while filming was hitting the gym.

When we were in Bolivia with the Tsimané people, who have some of the healthiest hearts in the world, we found that they don't intensely exercise. They're active, but they're not intensely active, despite the fact that they're hunter-gatherers in the middle of the Amazon rain forest. They move how humans are supposed to move. We're not supposed to sit or lie for 23 hours of the day then get up and run for an hour. Natural movements all day long seem to make a much bigger difference. This is something else I've incorporated into my life. Even right now, as I'm talking to you, I have a headset on and I'm moving around. The way I keep naturally moving is that I try not to sit very much, even when I'm writing or having a conversation. If I'm ever going to sit, I make a conscious decision to do so. I also have a watch that reminds me I've been sitting for a certain period of time and that I should get up and move around.

Are there any healthy, longevity-boosting foods you eat a lot more of now?

India was interesting because of the ayurvedic diet. The diet is really focused on what the function of the food and the various micronutrients are. When I came back, my wife and kids and I read a lot about ayurvedic ingredients. For example, turmeric is a spice that people talk about all the time, and it's good for all sorts of reasons. But what's interesting is that, if you look at a lot of the micronutrients, they are fat-soluble, meaning, you should really eat them with food in order for them to be absorbed adequately into your body. So my family and I have really thought about taking these spices and micronutrients and figuring out how to incorporate them into food. I have a really strong family history of heart disease, so my wife and kids and I are pretty focused on a Mediterranean diet—even at breakfast. There's this dish we like called shakshuka; it's made with tomatoes, a couple of eggs, chili peppers, garlic, curcumin, turmeric, paprika.

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We love turmeric! What's one of your favorite ways to use it?

We're definitely on the turmeric bandwagon. You know, I grew up with it; I'm Indian, so we had turmeric in every dish: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But one of the things we've started drinking recently is turmeric tea (or golden milk), which is fantastic. We typically drink it in the evening, and it just tastes great. It's almond milk, turmeric, cinnamon, a little bit of ginger, and a little bit of honey for sweetness. My wife and girls drink it as well. I like to read with it; it's a very relaxing thing.

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