The Top 5 Ways to Indulge

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Sometimes it’s good to be bad.

By Lisa Bendall

It sharpens your brain, it protects your heart or it reduces your risk of diabetes. Is it a breakthrough medication? A no-nonsense health regime? Think again. Believe it or not, it could be your guilty pleasure that’s helping you.

What you think of as an indulgence – like eating chocolate, having a glass of wine, even smoking marijuana – could have a bright side. New scientific evidence is showing that some of our so-called bad habits may actually boost our health.

That may seem counter intuitive, when we often hear about the risks of opening a bottle or lighting up a joint. “The instinct of public health regulators is to protect people. So they tend to err on the side of caution in saying, research has shown this might be bad for you,” says Dr. Cindy Jardine, a scientist at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health with an interest in health risks, adding: “We forget that ‘the dose makes the poison.’ We just need to be aware of where the tipping point is.” Intrigued?

Read on for surprising – and perhaps welcome – news about a few of our favourite indulgences.

Coffee Cheers You Up
Ever notice you’re a little less cranky after your morning coffee? There may be a solid scientific reason for it. Psychologists at Germany’s Ruhr University Bochum have shown that after a strong hit of caffeine, people tend to pick up on positive words more easily. (They saw no effect with negative or neutral words.) The researchers believe that caffeine works in the brain to stimulate dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with mood and reward.

Not only can coffee lift your spirits, it can protect your ticker. “It seems pretty clear that coffee can prevent the development of heart failure in middle-aged people,” says Dr. Murray Mittleman, director of the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Research Unit at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Red Wine Is Good for the Heart
Red wine is rich in resveratrol, an antioxidant in grape skins. According to some studies, this substance may be linked to a lower risk of inflammation and heart disease. Of course, you can add more resveratrol to your diet simply by eating grapes, but we’d all agree that’s not nearly as much fun. Alcohol in general – not just in red wine – may raise good cholesterol (HDL) and protect arteries against bad cholesterol (LDL).

Keep in mind, like any special treat, a little bit goes a long way. The risks of alcohol abuse, including liver disease, cancer, accidental injury and death, are well established. “We need to be honest with ourselves about what we’re doing,” Jardine says. “If one glass a wine a day is good for us, that doesn’t justify having four or five as an indulgence.” But if it’s taken in moderation, perhaps there’s little need to feel guilty about it.

Cocoa Keeps Your Mind Intact
In the where-do-I-sign-up category, a group of men and women with an average age of 73 were given two cups of hot cocoa a day for a Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School study. Researchers found that, after 30 days, the participants who’d started out with reduced blood flow to the brain showed an improvement, and they also scored better on memory tests. (There were no changes to people with normal brain blood flow… but it was a great ride.) The lead author suggests that blood flow is important for cognitive function and that cocoa may play a role in keeping the brain sharp.

It’s not the first good-news study about chocolate: the Mayo Clinic notes that this sweet treat – especially when it comes in darker form – may also protect against heart disease. But more research is needed to prove this conclusively. (I volunteer.)

Marijuana May Ward Off Diabetes
While its medicinal benefits for certain conditions are well documented, the rate of marijuana use is decreasing in Canada. But what if you found out this drug could reduce your risk of diabetes?

Mittleman, who co-authored a recent paper on pot-smokers, won’t go quite that far. But his study of American adults aged 20 to 59 did find that those who smoke pot tend to have lower insulin resistance, lower levels of fasting insulin and smaller waists.

“It’s certainly something that’s interesting,” Mittleman says. “At this point, we still need a lot more study to be able to translate that into specific recommendations.” He cautions that marijuana carries risks as well, like the increased likelihood of a heart attack within two hours of toking up. It’s unclear whether that’s due to the smoke inhalation or the chemicals in the drug. “I think it’s important to tease out what’s responsible for potential beneficial effects and potential adverse consequences, so that risks can be minimized.”

Internet Addiction Helps Your Health
Many of us are guilty of wasting – er, spending – hours of our time online. Now you can feel a little better about it. A recent English study found that men and women over 50 who actively use the Internet (about one in five, in this age group) are significantly more likely to engage in behaviours that protect against cancer. Lead researchers on the study don’t know exactly why. Possibly, they posit, the Internet allows people to be more likely to access information about the role of behaviour in cancer prevention. Behaviours include getting regular exercise, eating the recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables, choosing to be non-smokers and getting screened for colon cancer. Even folks who used the Internet only sometimes were doing better, in terms of these behaviours, than the 41 per cent who never went online. (So now you can justify getting that new iPad Air.)

Of course, whenever we’re talking about anything that has both benefits and risks, we need to be careful interpreting those good-news stories. “I always advise people to take a good close look at what that evidence is based on before they take it as gospel,” says Jardine. “Is it just one study that’s showing this? Who conducted the study – is it reputable?” Be sure, she says, to talk with your health-care professional before making decisions based on what you read, especially when it comes to managing a serious disease like diabetes.

“I’m a full believer that life is to be enjoyed,” says Jardine, “as long as you do so in an informed way.”

Zoomer magazine, April 2014