Sanjay Gupta on ‘Chasing Life’
BY JAN HOLLINGSWORTH
During nearly two decades with CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta has covered wars, natural disasters and the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Along the way, the Western-trained, practicing neurosurgeon has explored myriad health topics, including the science of alternative medicine and the benefits of medical cannabis, the subject of his CNN docuseries, Weed.
He’s written three books: Chasing Life: New Discoveries in the Search for Immortality to Help You Age Less Today, Cheating Death: The Doctors and Medical Miracles that Are Saving Lives Against All Odds and a novel-turned-TV series, Monday Mornings.
CNN’s chief medical correspondent recently found himself in Japan, soaking in a scalding bath—a form of stress relief practiced there—along with owl cafés and forest bathing. The visit was part of a six-country, immersive journey in some of the happiest and healthiest places on Earth—including India, Bolivia, Norway, Italy and Turkey—to explore ancient traditions and modern practices that lead to a healthy and meaningful life.
The result: Chasing Life, a new docuseries that aired in April and May, is now available on demand via cable/satellite systems, the CNNgo streaming platform and CNN mobile apps.
What inspired your interest in exploring holistic and alternative healing?
On a very basic level, a lot of people are surprised to hear that U.S. life expectancy has dropped three years in a row and the cost of health care is more than $3.5 trillion a year. Yet there are places around the world where people are living happier, healthier lives for a lot less, and longer. They must be doing something that’s beneficial, and we wanted to find out what that might be: What do places around the world have to teach us?
To what do you attribute the reemergence of traditional Indian healing practices?
Ayurvedic medicine is widely practiced in India among the healthiest people in that part of the world. It’s stood the test of time, so it’s worth exploring. In the U.S., we have an amazing medical system for people who are sick, but they aren’t doing as well as expected [which is why] there’s an open-mindedness that’s happening about one of the oldest medical traditions.
What role might ancient traditions play in reshaping 21st-century health care?
If you look at chronic disease in the U.S., one could make the argument that 70 to 80 percent of it is entirely preventable—most of it related to our food. When you look at the Ayurvedic diet, how does a culture come up with a way of eating going back thousands of years? In the U.S., most of our diet is based on palate. With Ayurveda, it is more about the function of food: Every morsel must have some function. The type of food, the timing and the temperature at which it is cooked is also important. If we really are a little more thoughtful about how we view the calories we’re consuming, it can make a big difference in our health. When we say food is our medicine, what does that really mean? In India, they’re showing us what it means. It’s not that taste is sacrificed; it’s just that Ayurveda was driven by function and palate came after.
What was the most surprising discovery you made on this journey?
There were a lot of surprises along the way. If you look at the U.S. and life expectancy, there are a lot of countries that are pretty similar in terms of economics, labor force and other things. But what is happening in the U.S. is pretty unique in a lot of ways. In the U.S., this notion of rugged individualism is a marker for success. We’ve seen high rates of social isolation and loneliness—and the toxicity of that. Italy is one of the healthiest places in the world, and a lot of that has to do with social fabric. That this social cohesion could be so protective, even without paying attention to things like diet and exercise—I think the power of that surprised me.
What is an important takeaway for you from this experience?
There is a long-held belief that wealth will buy health. In Bolivia, there is an indigenous tribe that has virtually no evidence of heart disease and they don’t even have a healthcare system. We shouldn’t automatically equate health to wealth. There are a lot of things we can do in our lives that can help—right now.
Jan Hollingsworth is the national editor for Natural Awakenings.