Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Live Your Life in the Blue Zone

Perhaps it is time we pay attention to what is best described as empirical evidence.  There are a handful of very successful communities around the world were it appears the majority of the inhabitants survive nicely into their nineties and age 100 plus is very common.

Rather obviously, one should try to at least imitate them!

In fact such empiricism has inspired the commercial health food industry for decades but has typically forgotten to fully integrate the package as their business model could never support a proper synergistic program.

Eat few if any processed foods.
Eat the right kinds of fat (omega-3s).
Take in very little sugar that is not from fruit.
Eat lots of real fiber (plant products).
Drink a moderate amount of alcohol almost every day.
Take in relatively few calories every day.
Focus on togetherness, family and community.
Stay very active and social, doing everything from gardening to celebrating with each other, not alone.
Celebrations, three-day parties, family fun, lots of social interaction, fresh local foods and wine.

I read this list and I am more convinced that ever that a number of protocols that I have posted here in this blog need to become mainstream.  I have argued that the modern farm needs to be integrated into an adjunct village which also possesses title to the farm itself and provides management oversight.  That adjunct village retains excellent communications to external jobs but way more important it encourages an internal economy which employs all in local endeavors.  It would obviously be easily able to apply the list described above.

They would also provide a natural base economy for displaced individuals to retreat to in times of personal economic stress.

How To Live Your Life In A “Blue Zone”

Dr. Sears at The Lake of the Gods – Cotacachi, Ecuador

The wind made me sway a bit as I slung the little orange life jacket over my head and onto my shoulders. Without thinking I tightened the thin white nylon strap around my waist before I climbed in the boat. I don’t know why. Like this tiny thing was going to save me if this boat ever flipped over. It looked like it was made for a little kid. And the life jacket wasn’t very big, either.

But whatever. The waves weren’t very high anywhere across the cold, dark waters that had carved out “The Lake of the Gods,” as the locals called it.

The driver fired up the motor and the boat jumped forward. I thought my camera and I might get dumped in for an unexpected swim after all, just to prove me wrong, and despite the calm water. But the boat straightened out after a second, and I took a moment to look around me.

We were headed toward the tiny volcanic rock islands in the center of the lake. The sheer cliffs of the crater sliced straight down into the deep water.

The sun was bright, but I noticed there was still one stubborn cloud blocking my view of the 16,200 foot peak of Mount Cotacachi. My camera was dry, but I couldn’t take a picture of it.

It didn’t matter, though. Here I was, near the equator high in the Andes Mountains and exploring a dormant (I hoped) volcano. The adrenaline was flowing, and I was doing one of my favorite things... visiting another of the world’s Blue Zones.

Do you know what Blue Zones are? These are little-known but very special places tucked away around the world where the people who live there stay active and healthy well past the age of 90 and many times well over 100.

My trip to northern Ecuador was one of the best I’ve ever taken. I visited Cotacachi, a busy mountain village that sits between two volcanoes, Mama Cotacachi and Papa Imbabura. The main street of the town is filled with shops famous for their leather products.

They claim the people there often live past 100 because of the water. It flows down from the ice cap on top of Mount Cotacachi. They believe the water makes them stronger and able to live a long time.

When I was there, I tested it for its high mineral content. Above the town of Cotacachi the water also fills the volcanic lake called Achicocha in the local language, but is called Cuicocha by the rest of the world. It feeds a river called the Ambi that townspeople use to feed their cattle and crops.

[More likely it is loaded with what I refer to as biological oxygen which remains presently practically unknown and unexplained]

Many of the farms I saw still worked their fields by hand, and send their produce to a fantastic organic farmer’s market in the village. It’s part of the the largest indigenous market in South America. It’s full of crafts, clothing, leather, inlaid silver... almost too big of a variety to count. Over a thousand sellers gather there every Saturday.

Cotacachi is at the northern tip of a long Blue Zone called Ecuador’s “Valley of Longevity,” where the people often live to be over 90 and even 100 with ease. And everywhere I went, I saw it was true. These older folks weren’t sitting at home, either. I got to see them because they were out and about. Many of them were still working in the leather shops, stitching and cutting and crafting some of the best leather goods I’d ever seen.

Another Blue Zone stop farther south in the Valley of Longevity is the Llanganatis region in the center of Ecuador. It’s sacred to Ecuadorians, and the local legend is that the lost treasure of the Incas was buried there.

Vilcabamba, at the southern end of the valley, is also known for its long-lived people.

I haven’t been to either of those places yet, but I’m hoping to go before too long. I’ll tell you all about it when I go… and whether or not I find the gold!

Jamaican Secret To Long Life

Another Blue Zone I have visited is near Long Bay, on the eastern tip of Jamaica, in Portland parish. I’ve seen for myself the large number of people there who live to be more than 100. I was there for a funeral when the grandmother of my friend, A.D. passed away, and I couldn’t help but notice the grave markers. Everyone lived into their 80s and 90s.

One local named Granny Mary just passed away this year. They claim she was 128, but records in Jamaica are hard to come by. What I do know is that if you look at her children, you can see she must have been well over 100.

I don’t know why they live so long, but it may be because they eat freshly caught fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Omega-3-rich mackerel, tuna, snapper, cod, dolphin, shrimp, and Caribbean lobster are staples.

[but so does everyone else around theses regions]

Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and plaque build-up in your arteries, both of which are primary causes for chronic disease. Plus, all the fish is wild caught – not farm-raised fish. Farm-raised is loaded with inflammatory arachidonic acid instead of healthy omega-3s.

On top of that, the folks in Long Bay eat a variety of fruits and vegetables with natural anti-inflammatory properties.

One is ackee, a fruit that is rich in omega-3s, vitamin A, zinc, and protein. Ackee is a breakfast staple commonly served with saltfish. But you need to prepare ackee properly. If it isn’t cooked, it can cause vomiting and even death.

Another is calalloo. It looks like spinach or kale, and you’ll find this green, leafy vegetable in many Jamaican dishes. It has four times the calcium, twice the iron and more than twice the vitamin A found in broccoli and spinach.

Living Healthy Past 100

I’m sure you’ve heard about the most famous Blue Zone, the island of Okinawa in Japan, and how long the people there live. They’ve done a famous study on it, called the Okinawa Centenarian Study. Okinawa has a higher percentage of 100-year-olds than almost anywhere on earth.

The people who live there aren’t overweight, and they socialize constantly. For example, people come from all over the island to be a part of the world’s largest tug of war every year. And it’s been going on since the 1600s!

You also may have heard that Okinawans live a long time because of what they eat – fish, edible marine plants and vegetables high in omega-3, minerals and vitamins that help them fight inflammation. And what they eat may be a reason for their long lives; we have no way of knowing for sure.

But what interests me most is how they eat.

What you probably have not heard is that Okinawans have a philosophy of eating. It’s called Hari Hachi Bu, which literally means “stomach 80%.” They eat until their stomachs feel 80% full, and then they stop.

In the West, we’re taught to clean our plates, finish what we start and “give everything 100%.”

In Okinawa, they make sure they never do this when eating.

To me, this is their longevity secret. They are practicing calorie restriction, which is a documented way to live longer.

This was discovered about 20 years ago, when researchers found a family of life-protecting genes called sirtuins (silent information protein regulators). Conditions of severe stress, such as starvation, turn the sirtuins on. And they transmit signals to every cell in your body to cancel out the effects of aging.

A Johns Hopkins University study showed that taking in fewer calories turns on the sirtuin genes, and makes organisms live longer.1

Another advantage Okinawans have is they have very low rates of heart disease. One of the reasons is that they have the lowest levels of homocysteine ever measured on Earth.
Homocysteine is a naturally occurring amino acid. But too much of it irritates the lining of your blood vessels and prevents them from dilating. This increases your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Turns out knowing your homocysteine level is even more useful than we thought. Homocysteine can predict other diseases as well. It’s linked to everything from gout and psoriasis to cancer and kidney disease.

The good news is, it’s easy to keep your homocysteine level low. The famous Okinawa Centenarian Study found that Okinawans keep their levels low because they eat foods high in B vitamins like folate, B6 and B12.2

For my patients with homocysteine levels higher than 7, I give them those same B vitamins. I also add riboflavin (B2) and Trimethylglycine (TMG) which protects your blood vessels.

California Blue Zone? You’re Nuts

I’ve read a lot of studies on places where people live a long time. Some of these studies seem to want to include Loma Linda, California. I don’t know if it’s just so they can claim someplace in the U.S. is a Blue Zone, or what.

I have a feeling there’s another agenda there, though.

That’s because they always tell you some form of, “The reason the people there live longer is because they’re all vegetarians who don’t drink.”

Meanwhile, they only live a couple years longer than the average American, and they have to live the life of a monk to get there.

No thank you.

Don’t get me wrong, I love vegetables, but animal meat is the only good source of some of our most important nutrients like vitamin B12 and CoQ10. Plus, it’s well-documented that a drink a day helps you live longer.

But, there is one interesting thing I learned about people in Loma Linda. Many of them eat a serving of nuts every day. Nuts are rich in vitamins, healthy omega-3 fats, and selenium… just like the foods they eat on Okinawa. That’s not a reason, but it’s something to think about.

Keep The Party Going

One Blue Zone where they do not live like monks is Icaria, Greece. The people there have three-day parties, feel no stress, go to bed well after midnight and sleep late. They also drink lots of wine and socialize with everyone who visits and lives there.

And this tiny island has the highest percentage of 90-year-olds in the planet – one of every three people. Icarians also have about 20 percent lower rates of cancer, 50 percent lower rates of heart disease and almost no dementia.

A brand new study may point to why visiting friends and going to parties might keep dementia away. Cambridge University followed over 1,100 people for more than 10 years. They found that the people who were the most socially active had a 70% slower rate of cognitive decline!3

The foods they eat on Icaria are simple, raw and whole. Milk and meat straight from the goat, raw vegetables from the garden, and olive oil with every meal.

One of the foods they eat a lot is mustard greens. High in vitamin A and vitamin K (most Americans are deficient in this nutrient), the spicy greens are good for your blood and bone strength. Icarians boil them with olive oil, garlic, and lemon.

The newest research into mustard greens tells us that they are high in sinigrin andgluconasturtiian, plant nutrients that are converted into cancer-fighting compounds in the body. In an animal study, the cancer-fighter AITC derived from sinigrin inhibited bladder cancer growth by 35%, and stopped 100% of the cancer from getting into the muscles.4

In a human study, AITC killed off 30 to 50% of liver cancer cells, and also stopped the cancer from spreading. Other studies show it stops colon, breast and prostate cancer cells, too.5

A Big Fatty Secret

Another island Blue Zone is Sardinia off the west coast of Italy. The town of Ovodda’s percentage of 100-year-olds is six times that of Okinawa. But where Okinawa’s 100-year-olds are mostly women, men live just as long as women on Sardinia. They socialize often, and always include the elders, who are respected for their storytelling and humor.

The people there eat all fresh, local foods like pork, lamb, oily fish and shellfish prepared simply with olive oil, lemon and garlic. They drink very dark red wines with meals.

Did you know that Sardinian wine made from cannonau grapes has up to four times the flavonoids of other wines? A study in the journal Nature showed that Sardinian wines are high in procyanidins, the most active and beneficial of the red wine antioxidants.6

They also drink sheep’s milk called pecorino, a raw milk rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

For dessert they eat cheese and fruit. One of the cheeses they eat is allowed to get a little rotten, because Sardinians believe the bacteria are good for your gut, which we now know is true.

For dessert, they make treats filled with pecorino cheese called Seadas. A Seada is like a fritter with cheese in the middle. And it’s made with almost 100 grams of pork fat and butter, honey, lemon and eggs. Yet the people who eat them are not overweight, and live longer than anywhere on earth. Put that in your “low fat diet” and smoke it!

Sardinians also have a tradition of walking. They raise sheep there, so the shepherds walk all day, of course. But the houses and gardens are far apart, and people walk rather than ride. It’s a social tradition to go for a walk with the entire family.

Sardinia also has a community festival called Sa Sartiglia, where masked riders gallop through the main streets of the town of Orisanto. People come from all over the island to participate.

How Do They Live So Well For So Long?

There are other places where the people who live there claim they live to be very old: Abkhazia near Georgia, which used to be part of the Soviet Union. The Hunza Valley in Pakistan. Bama, China where they say the climate is ideal for human life. Even a town called Montacute in England, where they claim the secret to their longevity is their local produce grown with zero chemicals.

So what else can we learn from the longest lived people on Earth? Can we use their secrets to live healthier for longer ourselves?

Well, here’s my short list of things we can learn from Blue Zones and actually do something about
Eat few if any processed foods.
Eat the right kinds of fat (omega-3s).
Take in very little sugar that is not from fruit.
Eat lots of real fiber (plant products).
Drink a moderate amount of alcohol almost every day.
Take in relatively few calories every day.
Focus on togetherness, family and community.
Stay very active and social, doing everything from gardening to celebrating with each other, not alone.
Celebrations, three-day parties, family fun, lots of social interaction, fresh local foods and wine... hmmm... seems I may have already been living in a Blue Zone.

1 Mark P. Mattson. "Energy Intake, Meal Frequency and Health: A Neurobiological Perspective." Annual Review of Nutrition. 2005; Vol. 25: 237-260.
2 “Okinawa Centenarian Study” www.okicent.org. Retrieved March 29, 2011.
3 Bryan D. James, Robert S. Wilson, Lisa L. Barnes, David A. Bennett. "Late-Life Social Activity and Cognitive Decline in Old Age." Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 2011.
4 Bhattacharya A, Li Y, Wade KL, Paonessa JD, Fahey JW, Zhang Y. "Allyl isothiocyanate-rich mustard seed powder inhibits bladder cancer growth and muscle invasion." Carcinogenesis. 2010 Dec;31(12):2105-10.
5 Eun-Sun Hwang and Hyong Joo Lee. "Allyl Isothiocyanate and Its N-Acetylcysteine Conjugate Suppress Metastasis … in SK-Hep1 Human Hepatoma Cells." Exp. Biol. Med. 2006;231:421-430
6 Corder R et al. Oenology: Red wine procyanidins and vascular health. Nature 2006;444:566-7

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