For thousands of years, people have been searching for the “elixir of immortality,” but where can we uncover the secret to longevity? In Okinawa, Japan, the number of centenarians is remarkable, with 90 individuals (pdf) per 100,000 people—three times higher than the number in the United States among a similar population. Mr. Lobsang Gyaltsen, an expert in cellular immunotherapy, pointed out that Okinawa’s diet and lifestyle not only contribute to longevity but also provide significant benefits for the cognitive well-being of the elderly.
Elements of Okinawan Cuisine
Okinawan cuisine is characterized by its predominant use of plant-based whole foods, with sweet potatoes being a staple. Sweet potatoes are rich in magnesium and calcium, both of which are essential minerals for brain neurotransmission and promoting restful sleep. Additionally, they contain flavonoids, which possess anti-inflammatory properties that reduce chronic inflammation in the body.
In contrast to the modern notion of reducing starch consumption for a healthy diet, traditional Okinawan cuisine includes a significant portion of starchy sweet potatoes. According to Mr. Gyaltsen, sweet potatoes offer a healthier source of starch compared to refined starches. They have a low glycemic index (GI), leading to a gradual increase in blood sugar levels after consumption.
On the contrary, consuming high glycemic index foods such as bread, desserts, and other refined sugars can cause a rapid spike and drop in blood sugar levels. This can lead to increased inflammation, weakened immune system, and accelerated cellular aging due to the production of free radicals. Additionally, significant fluctuations in blood sugar levels can contribute to mood swings.
Research has found that consuming sweet potatoes can help control blood sugar levels. A study published in the Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin in January 2000 demonstrated the remarkable anti-diabetic activity of sweet potatoes. Researchers fed white-skinned sweet potatoes to experimental mice with diabetes and observed a remarkable improvement in their hyperinsulinemia, with a 60 percent improvement by the sixth week of oral administration.
Fruits and Vegetables
The second characteristic of Okinawan cuisine is the abundance of dark-colored and yellow-colored vegetables and fruits. These offer a rich source of dietary fiber, which promotes digestive health and nourishes beneficial gut bacteria. In addition to supporting a healthy gut, they also help stabilize emotions, boost the immune system, enhance metabolism, and improve blood circulation, thereby reducing the risks of obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, and neurological disorders.
A study published in Nutrients in 2020 found a significant association between consuming fruits and vegetables and mental well-being. Particularly, consuming berries, citrus fruits, and green leafy vegetables may contribute to higher levels of optimism and help prevent depression.
The third characteristic of Okinawan cuisine is healthy fats, such as fatty fish, nuts, and legume products, which are abundant in unsaturated fatty acids. Mr. Gyaltsen pointed out that the fats obtained from walnuts, almonds, and cashews provide exceptional brain protection, effectively reducing the risk of dementia and cognitive decline in older adults.
Research has found that the intake of unsaturated fatty acids, DHA and EPA, can contribute to improved memory function in older adults.
Mr. Gyaltsen recommends that older adults incorporate a variety of oils into their diet, including olive, flaxseed, sacha inchi, avocado, and walnut. These oils are rich in unsaturated fatty acids such as omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9. They can increase the levels of good cholesterol, provide anti-inflammatory benefits, and strengthen the immune system. Mr. Gyaltsen personally chooses one or two types of oil to consume or use for oil pulling every day, as it not only benefits the brain but also promotes dental health and aids in the lubrication of the digestive system. For individuals with gastrointestinal issues or undergoing chemotherapy, incorporating these oils can enhance their immune recovery capabilities.
3 Habits to Prevent Chronic Inflammation
Mr. Gyaltsen believes that chronic inflammation is the root cause of all diseases. If it occurs in the brain, it can lead to dementia and Parkinson’s disease; if it occurs in the colon, it can result in colorectal cancer; if it occurs in the liver, it can lead to liver cancer. To prevent chronic inflammation, it is crucial to adopt three essential lifestyle habits.
1. Quality Sleep
A study published in Nature Aging in 2022 revealed that deep sleep plays a vital role in effectively eliminating waste products and toxic proteins from the brain, including amyloid-beta associated with Alzheimer’s disease. For adults, the recommended optimal sleep duration is around seven hours. Those who sleep excessively, inadequately, or experience poor sleep quality are more susceptible to cognitive decline and emotional issues.
Mr. Gyaltsen believes that sleeping pills do not improve sleep quality. They simply help you fall asleep without promoting deep sleep, which is not particularly effective in reducing brain inflammation.
2. Adequate Hydration
A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2018 found that when water deficits exceed 2 percent body mass loss (BML), it can impair cognitive performance, especially attention, executive function, and motor coordination.
“Water is the best medicine when it comes to disease prevention,” stated Mr. Gyaltsen. Approximately 20 percent of the body’s blood circulation occurs in the brain, supplying it with oxygen. Maintaining proper hydration levels enhances blood flow, thus preventing impaired circulation in the brain.
3. Stress Management
Excessive emotional fluctuations and stress can lead to an increased risk of stroke, blood vessel rupture, and high blood pressure. It can also result in brain fogginess and difficulties in recalling information, posing a hindrance to brain health.
Moderation in Consumption and Social Connections
Another characteristic of Okinawan cuisine is the practice of Hara Hachi Bu, which means eating only until 80 percent full. This not only helps in managing calorie intake but also contributes to improved sleep quality. Mr. Gyaltsen also emphasized the importance of avoiding food consumption within three hours before bedtime. Whether from the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Indian yoga, or Buddhism, overeating hampers the body’s ability to activate its energy reserves.
In fact, intermittent fasting is widely recommended in modern healthy diets due to its ability to induce cellular autophagy, thereby boosting overall immune function. Mr. Gyaltsen himself practices fasting for one to two days per month, as he believes in its positive effects on enhancing the immune system, brain, and overall health.
A study conducted by researchers at Yale University and published in Science showed that a moderate reduction in food intake can slow the process of physiological decline. The report also references a clinical trial revealing that a 14 percent decrease in calorie intake over a two-year period among healthy individuals enhances the production of T cells in the thymus.
The final key to longevity is social engagement, and there are many social activities for the elderly in the Okinawan community. The KGB84 is a girl band from Okinawa, consisting of members with an average age of 84. They are often referred to as the “Idols Closest to Heaven.”
Mr. Gyaltsen mentioned that he has encountered many elderly individuals who express a desire to retire. However, retirement life at home often leads to increasing dissatisfaction and resentment toward partners, causing discord. He also believes that the purpose of life is to contribute, and when individuals feel they lack value, they may become disheartened, leading to feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety, which in turn accelerate cognitive decline. Therefore, increasing social engagement is also crucial for maintaining emotional well-being and a healthy lifestyle.
A longitudinal survey of elderly individuals in California revealed that those who frequently engage in volunteer work have a 63 percent lower mortality rate compared to non-volunteers. Additionally, a study involving over 300,000 married couples, with follow-up for 33 months, found that individuals who volunteered had a 25 percent lower risk of mortality, but their partners did not show a similar reduction in mortality rates. This suggests that the relationship between volunteering and mortality risk is not influenced by family or economic factors but is more likely attributed to the direct impact of volunteer activities.
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