There Are No Shortcuts to Stop Aging
James Hamblin, M.D. is a writer and senior editor at The Atlantic magazine. He hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk, and recently released a book of the same title. He’s been featured in The New York Times, Bon Appétit, Time, and on Comedy Central. BuzzFeed even named him “the most delightful M.D. ever.” Today Hamblin weighs in on the Smart Water versus tap water debate, reveals how much sex you should have, and shares why he once went weeks without a shower.
Your book, “If Our Body Could Talk,” is an extension of a series of videos you did for The Atlantic. How did that all start?
For 150 years the Atlantic has been a print magazine and then they created their website. We started to produce videos, like a lot of legacy publications are doing now, and I was one of the first people to raise my hand and say I’d like to be in front of the camera. We just started filming around the office. That grew to the point that this year I got to interview President Obama. I was just in the right place at the right time and I’ve been supported by people who believe there’s a place for talking about health and science with some degree of humor in a way that not a lot of other publications, TV shows, and news outlets tend to do. We are moving into a domain of taking reader questions and trying to help people figure out what misunderstandings are out there, and help them try to make sense of things in plain language, in a fun way.
What’s the genesis of the title, If Our Bodies Could Talk?
It just made me laugh. You know, our bodies can talk and it sort of sounded pseudo-new age to me, like something that might come out of the self-help aisle, but I’d never meant it that way. A lot of people don’t hear it that way, they just think that I am genuinely thinking we should listen to the rhythms of our bodies, which is not untrue, but it wasn’t exactly what I was going for. There are a lot of these books that are full of trivia and I wanted to take that form and use it to draw out and think about bigger questions. One of the exemplary facts is that, by far, the largest determinant in our health is our environment, our neighborhood, and socioeconomic status.
What is it about our neighborhood that makes it such an important determinant of our health?
You probably know more about that than I do about that, but when people start asking questions about their health, they start thinking, “Okay, what do I know about nutrition, about medication, about hospitals, about doctors’ visits?” I wanted to make a point that those are not really among the biggest determinants. I don’t get into neighborhood design, but I do get into the importance of healthy relationships and access to continuous care.
So there’s this adage about drinking at least six glasses of water per day. How much should we be drinking?
The answer, like almost every answer, is that it really varies person-to-person and day-to-day. Water is all that we ever need to stay hydrated. But with that said, when you ask hydration experts and sports medicine physiologists to verify, they say there’s no way to give a hard and fast rule. Everyone is unique and that’s why it’s so hard to make rules that can be blanket-statement issued. Generally, they say your urine is the best indicator of your hydration status. And the overarching idea in the hydration section of the book is that all these products that we’re sold— Vitamin Water, Gatorade, etc.— are doing nothing for us. Ideally your urine should be a light yellow color, but clear is also usually fine. The only caveat there is that people can overdo it.
What is better— Smart Water or tap water?
Assuming that you live in the city where you have state access to tap water, then that’s all you need. There will be trace elements in it that can be characterized as electrolytes. One of the researchers I worked with told me that there are comparable amounts of electrolytes in a lot of city water as there are in Smart Water. Smart Water is marketed with electrolytes in it, but they are very few and far between, and they are not delivered in a way that’s calculated to hydrate you any better than tap water. You can save a lot of money in most cities by drinking the tap water.
At Blue Zones we talk a lot about sex and longevity. How much sex should we be having a month to maintain optimal health?
It’s similar to the water question, where it is tempting to want a magic number. While we know people who are in healthy relationships and are sexually active tend to be healthier and happier on average, there’s the possibility you can create worry for people who don’t have good relationships if I were to issue an edict that said you needed do it five times a week, or else you are at risk. I say it has to do with self-knowledge and understanding of what makes you happy and grounded, and what works for building your relationship in your own circumstances. If you can put yourself in a situation where you are having regular sex and you are feeling good about it, and so is the other person, then you are more likely to be healthy.
What is the difference between males and females when it comes to sex?
The embryological origins of the penis and clitoris are much more similar than people think. And the idea of a female Viagra is one that’s been in the news a lot. It’s interesting that with research on a female Viagra they created a drug that was actually a modification of a psychiatric medication, which was supposed to increase your libido. It sort of changes your mental state and makes you more interested in having sex, maybe similar to what some people experience when they drink alcohol. Male Viagra is simply a vasodilator, a drug that dilates your veins and gives you an erection. It doesn’t change your mental state. So that was just an issue of a fundamental double standard in what seems to be a problem in low libido between men and women. But, in fact, females have the same mechanism for dilation and sexual arousal as men. So I can’t recommend that women take Viagra, as the FDA does not clinically approve it for that, but it would have the same effect.
What is your take on why we age?
In the book, I always come back to the question of nature versus nurture, which is an age-old duality in science. Some people say aging is about how we live our lives and some people say that it’s built into our genetic code. As it turns out, it’s this complex interaction of what genes we have and how we live our lives in ways that turn certain parts of that genomic code on and off. Even as we’ve gotten really high tech with the science of understanding aging, it seems to constantly confirm the age-old basic tendency of healthy living that we’ve known for a long time. Live a generally active lifestyle, stay socially connected, don’t be over stressed, sleep well, eat reasonably in moderation, and consume a mostly plant-based diet. There hasn’t been a breakthrough or any silver bullet or short cut to stop the process of aging.
You once went weeks without a shower. Why did you do that? What did your girlfriend think of that?
I started thinking about the mites that live on our skin and how body odor is produced. It become evident from looking at the signs that compounds similar to the bacteria that live in our armpits produce body odor. It was just a way to change that ecosystem. Maybe those odor-producing bacteria would fall out of power. And so I started playing around with that idea. I never used soap, apart from on my hands, and only on occasions if I rinsed off and it’s been fine. It took a long time to adjust to that, for my body to adjust. My girlfriend doesn’t mind. She says it doesn’t smell like cologne, but she likes the smell. It’s like a human body smell, but not an acrid type of smell.