The year in health: 7 things experts said were good for us

Spicy food boosts your metabolism. Arguing with your parents trains you to reject peer pressure. Oh, and getting castrated helps you live longer

(Image credit: CC BY: ilovememphis)

Acupuncture can ease your pain. New research shows that the ancient Chinese healing technique — which involves sticking needles into specific points in the body to encourage the flow of "qi," or energy, through unseen pathways — often works better than over-the-counter remedies. About 50 percent of people who have migraines, arthritis, and chronic back or joint pain reported feeling significantly better after undergoing acupuncture, compared with 30 percent of people who tried traditional remedies. Doctors still don't understand how acupuncture works, says Andrew Vickers of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, but they now have "firm evidence" that it's an effective treatment for chronic pain.

Arguing with your parents as a teenager trains you to reject peer pressure. University of Virginia researchers observed more than 150 13-year-olds as they disputed issues like grades and chores with their mothers. Checking back in with the teens several years later, they discovered that those who had argued the longest and most convincingly — without yelling or whining — were also 40 percent less likely to have accepted offers of drugs and alcohol than the teens who were required to simply obey their mothers. Study author Joseph P. Allen says constructive debates with parents are "a critical training ground" for independent decision-making.

Adding spices to meals can hike your metabolism and improve your heart health. Penn State University researchers prepared identical high-fat meals for two groups of volunteers, then added a mix of spices — including rosemary, oregano, and cinnamon — to the meal of one group. Eating rich foods typically increases blood levels of insulin and triglyceride fats, which heighten the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Volunteers eating the spicy meal saw increases in triglycerides and insulin that were 31 percent and 21 percent lower, respectively, than those of the group who ate the blander offering. Study author Sheila West suspects the antioxidants in spices are responsible.

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Working your core can give you sexual pleasure — if you're a woman. Among women who experience orgasms triggered by exercise alone — no partner, toys, or even sexual thoughts needed — 51 percent said that their first "coregasm" happened during an abs workout. Though rumors of the coregasm have existed in fitness circles for years, "exercise-induced orgasm is something we really know nothing about — not scientifically," says study author Debby Herbenick. She says her findings, while still "exploratory," could help decode the physical processes that underlie women's sexual pleasure.

Popcorn protects you from cancer and heart disease. Tests of several popcorn brands revealed that the hulls — the tough fragments that often stick in your teeth — contain surprisingly high levels of disease-fighting antioxidants called polyphenols; one serving of popcorn packs more than twice the polyphenols that a similar serving of most fruits and vegetables does, though popcorn lacks key vitamins. Study author Joe Vinson says that popcorn hulls, which are also rich in fiber, are "nutritional gold nuggets" that make popcorn the perfect snack food — as long as you air-pop it and hold the salt and butter.

Circumcision reduces the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. A review of male circumcision research found that "the medical benefits outweigh the risks of the procedure," says pediatric bioethicist Douglas Diekema. Circumcised infants are 90 percent less likely than uncircumcised ones to develop urinary tract infections. And later in life, they're at lower risk of contracting HIV, herpes, penile cancer, and human papillomavirus, which, when passed to female partners, can cause cervical cancer. Serious complications occur in only about 0.2 percent of babies who undergo circumcision.

Castration is an even better way to a longer life. Korean researchers studied the genealogical records of boys castrated to serve in the palace of the Chosun Dynasty between the late 14th and early 20th centuries and found that they lived up to 19 years longer than their peers. They were also 130 times more likely to reach the age of 100 than people in developed countries are today. The findings support "the idea that male sex hormones decrease the life span of men," the study authors write. In contrast to estrogen, which appears to enhance longevity, testosterone seems to weaken the immune system and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

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