Would you like to live longer? Of course! I can remember as a child having what could initially appear as a morbid fascination for cemeteries. I used to drag my parents into each and every cemetery we walked or drove by…just so I could calculate how long people had lived! Perhaps my curiosity in longevity led to an interest (some may say obsession) in health.
Having just read “The Blue Zones” by Dan Buettner, I’d like to share some of his insights. Blue zones represent regions of our planet where people generally live significantly longer. For years, Buettner and his collaborators have searched the globe for those treasured blue zones in the hope of learning how to improve our health and increase our longevity.
So far, five blue zones have been identified: the mountainous regions of Sardinia, the island of Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda in California, the Nicoyan peninsula in Costa Rica and the island of Ikaria in Greece. The first striking characteristic is that these regions are isolated by geography, culture or religion. This seems to be crucial because it means the people living in these regions have been able to continue living a traditional lifestyle until very recently. Most have grown up leading physically active lives and eating mainly plant-based diets (due to the cost of meat). Family and socialising is central to their lives. Although a lot have lived through hardships, they lead relatively stress-free lives primarily because they place little importance on money, material possessions, job status, etc.
Buettner has identified common factors that are associated with longevity and distilled them down to 9 lessons. He stresses that these practices are only associated to longevity but don’t necessarily increase it. As we know association isn’t the same as causation. The 9 lessons are:
- Move naturally. Walk, cycle, garden, enrol in enjoyable classes
- Eat until you’re 80% full. Don’t stuff yourself
- Plant-based diet. Avoid meat and processed foods
- Alcohol (in moderation)
- Purpose. Have a reason to get out of bed in the morning
- Downshift. Take time to relieve stress
- Belong. Participate in spiritual community
- Loved Ones First. Make family a priority
- Right Tribe. Be surrounded by those who share Blue Zone values
He recommends introducing one or two of them at a time. It may be easier to start with the lessons we have a greater affinity for or simply those we find easiest to adopt. It’s not even necessary to try to follow all the steps. There you go…no rocket science or witchcraft required!
For some time, I’ve been puzzled about what constitutes a healthy diet. Surely I can’t be the only one? We’re fed so much conflicting and fluctuating advice that it’s difficult to know what to believe…and that’s without even delving into the plethora of commercial weight-losing fad diets out there! I think we can all appreciate that we are what we eat…but what should we eat?
I decided to do a little research, just because I thought someone out there must have the answer! After ploughing through a few books most of which were okayish to good I came across a book that was life changing! Incidentally, it had been on my reading list for a few years but after reading the summary, I decided I wasn’t ready to apply the changes it recommended…
The book is “The China Study” by T. Colin Campbell. Campbell is professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University. He has been at the forefront of nutrition research for over 40 years and has authored over 300 research papers. He was program director of the China Study which was the culmination of a 20 year partnership between Cornell University, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine. The China Study is considered the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted! In addition, he has served on numerous panels and boards tasked with allocating research grants and providing government with nutritional guidelines.
Although medicine has progressed over the last century, we’re still woefully inadequate at dealing with diseases of affluence such as cancer, diabetes and coronary heart disease. The main reason we’re struggling is that the answer lies not in medical breakthroughs but in our diet. It is possible to free ourselves from these diseases but the system has done a great job of burying the evidence. By the ‘system’ I mean: the pharmaceutical industry, food industry, medical industry, academia and government. These industries are profoundly connected and intertwined but unfortunately they prioritise their own financial profit rather than our health. The players with the most money wield the greatest influence. Sadly, for us, the truth doesn’t financially benefit the ‘system’! Campbell writes about this in depth in both “The China Study” and “Whole”.
In “Whole”, Campbell briefly explains how a whole food, plant-based diet could help decrease global warming, preserve fresh water supplies, decrease human poverty and of course, stop the animal cruelty in modern livestock farms. It turns out that a lot of our problems are linked but our reductionist view has prevented us from seeing the whole picture.
In “The China Study”, Campbell amasses and impressive, both in depth and breadth, amount of evidence in favour of the health benefits of a whole food, plant-based diet. There is now overwhelming scientific evidence that this diet can help us:
- Live longer
- Look and feel younger
- Have more energy
- Lose weight
- Lower our blood cholesterol
- Prevent and even reverse heart disease
- Lower our risk of prostate, breast and other cancers
- Preserve our eyesight in our later years
- Prevent and treat diabetes
- Avoid surgery in many instances
- Vastly decrease the need for pharmaceutical drugs
- Keep our bones strong
- Avoid impotence
- Avoid stroke
- Prevent kidney stones
- Keep our baby from getting Type 1 diabetes
- Alleviate constipation
- Lower our blood pressure
- Avoid Alzheimer’s
- Beat arthritis
- And more…
Campbell’s 8 principles of food and health are:
- Nutrition represents the combined activities of countless food substances. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
- Vitamin supplements are not a panacea for good health.
- There are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better provided by plants.
- Genes do not determine disease on their own. Genes function only by being activated, or expressed, and nutrition plays a critical role in determining which genes, good and bad, are expressed.
- Nutrition can substantially control the adverse effects of noxious chemicals.
- The same nutrition that prevents disease in its early stages (before diagnosis) can also halt or reverse disease in its later stages (after diagnosis).
- Nutrition that is truly beneficial for one chronic disease will support health across the board.
- Good nutrition creates health in all areas of existence. All parts are connected.
His advice is to “consume plant-based foods in forms as close to their natural state as possible (whole foods). Eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, raw nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and whole grains. Avoid heavily processed foods and animal products. Stay away from added salt, oil and sugar. Aim to get 80 percent of your calories from carbohydrates, 10 percent from fat, and 10 percent from protein.”
I know this advice may contradict certain beliefs that we hold but the evidence against animal protein and dairy is pretty damning. I can only suggest that you read “The China Study” to familiarise yourself with the mountain of evidence. Whether we act on it or not is another question but at least it will be an informed decision! Exactly how we act on it is something I hope to tackle in another post.
This amazing book by Norman Doidge (psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and researcher) is about neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is a process by which the structure and function of the brain changes through thought and activity. Scientists previously believed that the brain had a fixed number of cells that gradually died as we aged. It’s now scientifically accepted that the brain can continue to rejuvenate even into old age. Physical exercise helps produce new brain cells, learning prolongs cell survival, makes new connections and increases the speed of neurons.
These findings have massive implications when considering how to help people with learning difficulties, strokes, dementia, mental/emotional issues and even pain disorders. Specific mental and physical exercises can be implemented to create positive change. Our brain adapts to the use we give it. Like the body, it’s ‘use it or lose it’.
Doidge takes us on a fascinating journey of discovery through the stories of scientists, clinicians and patients at the forefront of neuroscience.
I recently read William Broad’s new book ‘The Science Of Yoga – The Risks and the Rewards‘. William Broad has practised yoga since 1970. He works as a science journalist and is a 2-time winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. It took him 5 years to write this book. It covers the history, the origins of the different schools, the gurus that contributed to yoga’s growth, the physical and mental health benefits, the effects on fitness, injuries, therapy, sex and creativity. The book draws heavily on over a century of research and successfully puts across an unbiased view of yoga…the good, the bad and all the rest…
Some of the benefits of yoga that are substantiated by research are:
- increased telomere length (telomeres cap chromosomes and prevent gene degradation) which may help to increase longevity
- decreased inflammation
- increased production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) which acts as a feel-good neurotransmitter
- increased testosterone secretion (increases sex drive, improves mood, increases attention and sense of well-being)
- stimulation of the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system and inhibition of the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system . This means that the metabolism will be decreased not increased and so the potential for weight gain. This may seem contrary to some of the propaganda released by yoga schools. For those that want to lose weight, engage in cardio-vascular exercise and not yoga.
Now for some of the bad…this is important to mention as it is a subject that is not often talked about. Biased yoga gurus have done such a good job of branding and marketing yoga that most of us naïvely believe that only good can come of it! Most of the injuries that occur during yoga are muscle strains and joint sprains that primarily affect the low back, shoulders, knees and neck. There are however several cases of more serious injuries such as fractures, nerve injuries and even strokes! Some of the most dangerous positions are the Head Stand, Shoulder Stand and the Plough. Extreme caution should be used when attempting these positions as they place a tremendous amount of strain on the neck. They should be modified if practised at all. It is also interesting to know that injuries don’t just happen to beginners, several prominent yoga teachers are now speaking more openly about the damage they have suffered over the years.
See my earlier post ‘Can Yoga Wreck Your Body?‘ if you would like some advice before taking up yoga.
What William Broad has managed to do is give a more informed and honest view of yoga. He has redressed the partiality that existed. Some may react by questioning whether to take up yoga…those that have practised for years may find denial easier and simply ignore the information. Personally, I think anything that educates us and gives us a clearer and fuller picture of reality is beneficial. His book has confirmed the doubts I had about certain poses.
By no means do I think we should avoid yoga, on the contrary, I think an intelligent and cautious attitude towards practice can limit any potential harm and will be far outweighed by the plenitude of physical and mental benefits.
Although mainly about the effects of emotion on reason, ‘Descartes’ Error‘ by Antonio Damasio contains a few fascinating nuggets on pain. He distinguishes 2 components to pain:
- Sensory perception from skin, mucosa, muscle, organ, etc. – the nerve endings stimulated in an area of the body lead to a ‘pain image’, a temporary representation of body change in the brain. This is no different from any other kind of body perception and if it were all, we would not be inconvenienced.
- Emotion and feeling – it’s from these body-state changes that the unpleasant feeling of suffering is formed. “Suffering puts us on notice and offers us the best protection for survival, since it increases the probability that individuals will heed pain signals and act to avert their source or correct their consequences.“
Damasio’s views on emotion/feeling and pain are probably the result of his experience with the eminent Portuguese neurosurgeon Almeida Lima. Lima worked closely with Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz. Together they developed prefrontal leucotomies, later known as lobotomies, during the 1930s. In 1949 Moniz received the Nobel Prize in medicine for his work. Damasio recalls following Lima on a pre-operative visit of a patient with trigeminal neuralgia, a condition that causes severe facial pain. “He was crouched in profound suffering, almost immobile, afraid of triggering further pain. Two days after the operation, when Lima and I visited on rounds, he was a different person. He looked relaxed, like anyone else, and was happily absorbed in a game of cards with a companion in his hospital room. Lima asked him about the pain. The man looked up and said cheerfully “Oh, the pains are the same, but I feel fine now, thank you.” Clearly, what the operation seemed to have done, then, was abolish the emotional reaction that is part of what we call pain. It had ended the man’s suffering.”
Obviously, lobotomies are extreme measures and they can cause serious side effects. This is certainly the reason fewer and fewer operations are being performed. Nowadays these operations are called psychosurgery and they have become much more precise. The important point is Damasio’s view on the link between pain and emotion. It corroborates a lot of the research being done on chronic pain. Hence, the importance of addressing the emotional part. Fortunately, there are now safer more humane ways of doing it, like relaxation, meditation, cognitive behavioural therapy, neuro-linguistic programming and hypnosis.
I read an interesting passage in ‘Mindfulness’, Ellen Langer’s insightful book on social psychology.
“Patients are often certain that pain is inevitable in a hospital. Caught in such a mindset, they assume that, without the help of medication, pain cannot be controlled. In our experiment, we tried to learn whether people could control their experience of pain by putting it in a different, more optimistic context.
Patients who were about to undergo major surgery were taught to imagine themselves in one of two situations: playing football or preparing for a dinner party. In the midst of a rough skirmish on the football field, bruises are hardly noticed. Similarly, cutting oneself while rushing to prepare dinner for ten people who will be arriving any minute might also be something one would hardly notice. In contrast, a paper cut suffered whilst reading a dull magazine article quickly becomes the focus of attention. Through examples of this sort, participants in the study were taught that, rather than being inevitable, much pain we experience appears to be context-dependent.
Hospital staff, unaware of our hypothesis, monitored the use of medication and the length of stay for the participating patients in the experimental group and in the control groups. Those patients who were taught to reinterpret the hospital experience in nonthreatening ways took fewer pain relievers and sedatives and tended to leave the hospital sooner than the untrained patients. The same hospital experience seen through psychologically different eyes is not the same experience, and the difference could be measured in lower doses of medication and quicker recoveries. This reappraisal technique effectively loosened the hospital mindset and, by showing that pain was not a certainty, gave the participants more control over their convalescence.”
This experiment clearly demonstrates that changing our mindset can change our experience of pain!
Last year I wrote an article on hydration, the signs of dehydration and how much water we need to drink each day. We now know how much water to drink but what water is best? I found a great little book called “Healthy Water for a Longer Life” by Martin Fox. It reviews an extensive body of research carried out on the effects of the quality of water on health. Although it was published in 1986, I don’t think there exists a more comprehensive book on the subject. What follows is a summary of the main points.
High levels of water hardness and total dissolved solids have been linked with decreased cardiovascular disease. Hard water is water that has high levels of calcium carbonate or magnesium carbonate. In areas with hard water, you’ll notice your kettle fur up pretty quickly and in areas with soft water you’ll find it harder to wash off soap when showering. British studies have suggested hardness of at least 170 mg/l for health benefits. In the north of England, the neighbouring towns of Scunthorpe and Grimsby drank the same water for years. Scunthorpe then softened its water from 448 mg/l to 100 mg/l and Grimsby continued with the same water as before. This led to a striking increase in cardiovascular disease in the town that softened its water!
No correlation between sodium levels in water and hypertension or mortality has been found. This is probably because only 10% of our sodium intake comes from water and the rest comes from food. So avoiding processed foods and not salting our food has a bigger impact on our health.
Increased water hardness, increased total dissolved solids, increased pH and increased silica (SiO2) are each linked to decreased risks of cancer.
Fluoride is thought to prevent caries but its use is controversial due to the risk of cancer, genetic damage and birth defects. Water fluoridation has been abolished in most of Europe but continues in some parts of North America. High levels of water hardness and total dissolved solids can negate the deleterious effects of naturally occurring fluoride. Studies of dental caries in primitive groups have found that a healthy unrefined diet leads to healthy teeth.
Chlorination of water has saved countless lives by killing harmful bacteria but it has also led to an increase in atherosclerosis, heart disease and cancer. This is thought to be caused by a release of free radicals.
Animal experiments have shown that hard water provides protection from potentially harmful agents such as cadmium, lead, chlorine and dietary fat. An interesting calcium-chlorine relationship has been found. Pigeons were fed a diet that contained only 80% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of calcium. Half the birds were given unchlorinated water and the rest drank water that contained 10 mg/l of chlorine. Three months later the pigeons that drank chlorinated water had blood cholesterol levels that were 50% higher than the group that drank unchlorinated water. Further tests showed that pigeons given a normal diet show no differences in cholesterol levels between those that drink chlorinated water and those that don’t. When 10% lard is added to a calcium deficient diet, pigeons that drink unchlorinated water only have a minor increase in cholesterol but those that drink chlorinated water have cholesterol levels that increase about 3 fold!
Some people claim that demineralised water is better for health but there is no rationale or scientific study to support its benefits. In fact, the reverse is true…soft water is hazardous to health. Minerals with beneficial effects are: silica, magnesium, chromium, lithium, vanadium, calcium and zinc. Interestingly, mineral absorption is greater from drinking water than from food and protein enhances the absorption. If essential elements are present in water, there is less absorption of non-essential (toxic) elements.
Finally, which water is best? It has to have a presence of essential minerals and an absence of harmful minerals and compounds. Tap water may be suitable but one would have to verify its composition with the water company…a water filtration system may be required to remove harmful compounds (inorganic and organic)…the quality of filtration systems varies widely…and one has to be careful to avoid a build up of bacteria within the filtration unit…
By far the easiest option is to select bottled mineral water that satisfies the following criteria:
- approximately 300 mg/l of total dissolved solids
- around 170 mg/l hardness (calcium carbonate)
- an alkaline pH (over 7)