Design Your Health: Create Your Own Blue Zone
FEBRUARY 6, 2019 by DR. HEATHER MODAY, MD
I used to believe in the ability to bio-hack. That is, the ability to use a quick fix to overcome a health problem or to prevent the adverse effects of behavior by taking a supplement.
What I have found in the years of practicing functional medicine is that this completely untrue. It simply never works for long term health. We are simply too complex.
I am constantly asked about singular supplements or nutritional items or even behaviors.
For example- Will fasting give me energy or make me lose weight? What about HIIT workouts? Should I be taking collagen? I’ve heard that CoQ10 will give me energy. Should I go keto? The list is endless.
Not to say that it is not beneficial to do HIIT workouts or fast or eat collagen. These can all be part of a healthy lifestyle, but they need to be used in conjunction with attention to other aspects of our lives. Sometimes the factors that make the biggest impact on our health and longevity aren’t anything that you can wrap up in shiny packaging and sell on Instagram.
The elements that make the biggest impact on our health are not always tangible and measurable. They are sometimes inconvenient in our busy lives, time-consuming or downright hard. We like to cherry pick what is fun and easy and try to make deals with ourselves.
The conversation might go something like this:
“Well, I try to get to the gym, but can’t with my commute/travel/kids”
“I’ve tried meditation- it doesn’t work for me”
“I hate my job but it pays the bills and I can’t change now”
“I will give up gluten but don’t tell me to give up cheese, sugar, wine, etc. It’s my only pleasure/vice”
“I hate to cook or I don’t have the time”
“I can’t give up TV in the bedroom – I can’t fall asleep without it”
The excuses we tell ourselves are non-stop. We tell them to ourselves so much in fact that we start to believe them. We surround ourselves with people who have the same habits and beliefs. We start to believe that we can ignore areas of our health and supplement our way out of it when we need to.
Sorry to be the party pooper, but that is dead wrong.
If that were the case, I would be out of business. No one would be calling with issues of chronic IBS, anxiety, depression, infertility, autoimmune disease, cognitive decline etc. There is a 40-billion-dollar supplement industry and growing. If was all about telling people what vitamins to take, we’d all be living to 100 without any chronic disease or need for medications.
Not to say that vitamin and minerals can’t play a small role. They do, and I recommend them and use them myself. They are however supplemental to a solid, varied diet. They also do not replace anything else. Most of my clients who can’t seem to move the needle on their health may be ignoring other aspects that contribute to their well-being. Supplements are not the holy grail and you cannot supplement your way out of bad health.
So what does bring us good health?
Luckily there are some good studies on this.
In Dan Buettner’s book, Blue Zones, he looked at areas of the world where the largest groups of people lived well into their 10th decade. These people were thriving into their 100s. They weren’t relegated to nursing homes with dementia and disease.
What he found was that the populations of these “Blue Zones” –although in all different cultures and locations around the globe- had some stark similarities. They identified 9 points.
Some of the more obvious findings were that they ate a heavily plant-based diet that was nutrient dense and devoid of processed foods. In addition, they did not overeat and would eat their biggest meal earlier in the day and lighter meals at night. They also did a lot of natural exercise and movement outside – things like gardening, walking, and hiking.
The centenarians woke up with a sense of purpose every day. They had in place routines to decrease stress, such as praying and meditation. Almost all practiced some sort of spiritual practice that connected them to something greater than themselves. They had strong family ties, often living with their families; and also had strong peer groups that shared their healthy habits.
All but one group consumed small amounts of wine with their evening meal.
None of these long-lived communities were obsessed with supplements.
So how do we extrapolate the lessons from the Blue Zone people living in places like Sardinia Italy, Okinawa Japan and Ikaria Greece to our own lives and our own health? After all, living in a big city, working in a cubicle and commuting on a freeway looks very different than a sheepherder with an organic garden living on a sunny Greek Isle.
You can use these principles and apply them to your current situation. You can create your own “blue zone” and therefore design your health to be the best it can be. In the next section is my recommendation of how to assess certain areas of your life and make some changes.
Look at all these areas and make an honest assessment as to where you score in each area. Are you ignoring certain aspects of your health because it’s not easy, you don’t have the time or you simply don’t feel like it? That is a recipe to keep you stuck in the exact place you are. You must focus on the weak areas of your health in order to move forward.
So let’s look at each area in a little detail so you can start making some changes and create your own health “blue zone”
What is your environment like? What is the quality of the water you drink? Are you constantly drinking tap water filled with chemicals or drinking water out of plastic containers? We pick up all sorts of contaminants from tap water and plasticizers leach into plastic water bottles. You want to filter your water from your tap and drink water from a glass or stainless steel to avoid contamination.
What is your light exposure? Do you get out into the sunshine on a daily basis to regulate your circadian rhythm and give you natural vitamin D? Are you flooded with extra blue light from TVs or cell phones which disrupts sleep?
How is your air quality? Indoor air is almost more polluted than outside air. Most of us are trapped inside most of the day exposed to the off-gassing of chemicals from rugs, furniture, and other objects. Do you filter your air, or have any plants that can decrease chemicals in the air and add oxygen?
What is your exposure to electromagnetic frequencies? Studies are showing significant changes in cellular health when exposed to ionizing radiation found in phones, tablets, and laptops. Do you sleep with these next to your head while you sleep?
Do you watch your toxin exposure which we know is cumulative throughout life? Do you attempt to eat organic foods and those that are not filled with GMOs? What about household cleaning products and self-care products?
Paying attention to all these factors in our environment may seem silly, time-consuming and expensive, but taken as a whole. They play a huge factor in our health as humans on this modern planet.
Stress reduction/ sleep/self-care:
This is a toughie for most people. Everyone wants to feel better while carrying on their lives exactly as how they have been. Unfortunately, it’s our lives that often get us sick in the first place. This is a non-negotiable area. If your job/commute/travel is killing you- it has to change period. If you are getting less than 6 hours of sleep, you need more. If stress management consists of scrolling through Netflix or Instagram, this doesn’t cut it either.
You absolutely must look at how you spend your day, what are the things that you could adjust or change? What might have you give up for better work hours or longer sleep? Do you have to take a pay cut? Stop going out so much? Take a leave of absence? Sign up for meditation class? Write in a journal every day? Say no to unnecessary obligations?
Who we spend time with molds how we live our lives. If we are around people who live healthy lives, eating well, exercising, having an optimistic and positive outlook. This will rub off on us and help us cultivate similar habits. This has been shown in multiple studies.
In addition, our health is improved if we are in loving relationships. This can be with friends, partners, community, and family. Toxic relationships are stressful to our core and deplete our energy. Whereas having strong family ties and close friends support us. Even being part of a community of like-minded people gives us a sense of belonging that is nurturing.
In this digital age, this is something that many of us have come away from and takes a little effort to re-kindle.
Sense of purpose/ spiritual health:
As in the blue zone populations, a sense of purpose of one’s life was crucial. Reminding yourself what you are grateful for and why you are getting out of bed in the morning fuels resilience. It makes it easier to bounce back from stressful events and set back. When you feel you have something to live for you more likely to practice health-positive behaviors and have less depression and more joy. Having a spiritual practice whether it’s faith or just a sense of something greater than yourself, has also been shown to lower stress, give a sense of peace and often provide a community as well.
When most of us look at our lives as adults, after working, time for family, chores, exercise we don’t see any other time for ourselves. Play is perceived as unproductive, petty or even a guilty pleasure. This is far from the truth. Play brings joy. And it’s vital for problem solving, creativity and relationships.
Play has also been found to boost immunity, decrease dementia and improve mental health. In addition, creative pursuits such as painting, drawing, or playing an instrument gets us into a state of flow that is calming while giving us a big dose of the pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter dopamine. Joyful creative pursuits outside your daily work life massively improve your sense of well-being and satisfaction with your life in general.
As in the blue zone populations, nutrition plays a central role in health. In today’s modern society we have access to so many foods which can be a blessing and a curse. The choices can be overwhelming, making it hard to figure out what to eat. It’s best to go back to basics- as Michael Pollen says in his book In Defense of Food- “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
In all the indigenous blue zone areas they were eating locally grown real food that was nutrient dense. They did not overeat, ate with their community/families and did not eat processed or fast foods. And even though most consumed small amounts of animal products. The bulk of their diets were plant-based and seasonal.
One of the issues is that many of us do not eat a varied diet, we under eat plant foods and overeat meat, dairy, processed grains, and sugar. Vitamins and minerals from foods are best absorbed in their natural states, another reason my supplements are not the answer. They can only help correct deficiencies in the short term.
Humans were meant to be people in motion. It’s in our DNA.
As Christopher MacDougall writes in his book “Born to Run” “You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running.” This doesn’t mean you need to run or should run, it means you need to continue moving to the ends of our lives. Whether this is walking, gardening, lifting weights, going up and down stairs, hiking, bicycling, yoga. Physical movement has such profound positive effects on our health, brains, mood, heart health. We should not think of movement as exercise. That demonizes it. Makes it an obligation. Makes it something that we just do 3-4 times weekly. Make movement a fun enjoyable part of your daily lives. Whether it’s chasing the kids in the yard, walking your dog 2 miles a day or ballroom dancing. Even sitting for too many hours a day is a risk for earlier death, hence the standing desk boom. But short walks around the office or around the block at lunch makes a big difference. Becoming sedentary is a great way to fast track the end of your life.
All of these changes are things that we can make if we just prioritize them. We must understand that humans are multidimensional and our health is affected by many outside influences. Once we truly understand and believe this, we can stop looking for that magic pill that is going to fix our health for us, and get about designing our own perfect health.
You can read more about Blue Zones and Dan Buettner’s work here.