In many countries, heart disease is a major problem. People's lives are cut short because of health conditions related to heart disease.
It’s surprising, yet reassuring, to know that in a time when non-communicable diseases are our biggest killers, there are still some communities where people are still living longer. In these places, people die from old age, not because of conditions like diabetes or heart disease.
And what is it about them that enables their members to live longer?
Heart-healthy communities – people living longer lives
What do Okinawa, the Nicoya Peninsula and Loma Linda, California have in common? Well, more centenarians live in these regions than anywhere else in the world. But the best example of a heart-healthy, long-lived community is a little Greek island called Ikaria.
The secret of the longevity of the Ikarians is actually not a secret at all. The people on the island follow a healthy diet and are involved in more physical activity than people in most countries, even into their later years. Social connectivity, frequent napping and an ability to take their time also contributes to long life.
The Ikarian diet is very heart-friendly: it’s low in dairy (with the exception of goat's milk) and meat products, but rich in olive oil, vegetables (such as potatoes), wild greens, locally-produced honey and beans (such as black-eyed peas, garbanzo and lentils). They also consume moderate amounts of alcohol.
Because their intake of saturated fats (derived from meat and dairy) is low, Ikarians have a lowered risk of heart disease. Their use of olive oil, particularly unheated and untreated oil, effectively lowers their bad cholesterol levels, while increasing good cholesterol.
Some of the wild vegetables they consume contain more antioxidants than the red wine they also drink. On a daily basis, Ikarians also have about two to three cups of coffee per day (but not the milk and sugar-rich lattes we’re used to in the Western World), which may contribute to their lower rates of heart disease. Also, the potatoes they eat on a regular basis contain potassium, which is an important mineral for heart function.
It is important to note that Ikarians may live longer because most of the food they eat is fresh and unprocessed. They grow their own vegetables, their intake of refined sugar is very low and the breads they incorporate into their daily meals are usually made from stone-ground wheat.
As for physical activity, walking long distances is quite normal for the average Ikarian. The islanders spend most of their day working in their gardens or doing other manual labor. They never rush through their tasks…some cynics say they don’t even have a concept of time. They wake up late and work late into the night, but always find time to connect with other members of their community. They often take naps, which is another practice that when done occasionally, has been found to help lower the risk of coronary heart disease.
Cortisol and stress – a threat to heart health
Ikaria is a long way from the hustle and bustle of a city, and this probably contribute to their robust health. After all, the simple life of Ikarians leaves little room for stress. Stress is often considered a major threat to heart health, especially to those who live in the city…but there is something else that is just as serious: cortisol.
Cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone, but stress is not the only trigger for it to be released into the bloodstream. It is often viewed in a negative light because of its association with heart disease, high blood pressure, weight gain, memory loss and bone density, but it has several important benefits as well: for example, it is involved in glucose metabolism and insulin release. (It is important to note that cortisol is only helpful in small doses; excessive and prolonged levels of the hormone can be bad for your health.)
In stressful situations, cortisol is released into your bloodstream as a response mechanism. After the stress has passed, your body relaxes and functions normally again. But if your body remains in a stressed state, it cannot recover, due to the constant activation of the stress response. If cortisol is continually released into the system, health problems are inevitable.
The cost of living in a high-stress environment
People at most risk from diseases associated with high levels of cortisol, are those who work in the city or other stressful environments. They are the 'burn the candle at both ends' people who work hard all day as well as long nights. They probably don’t get enough sleep either: with so much to do, it’s common to go to sleep late and wake up early.
Are you one of these people? Signs that you have too much cortisol in your system include frequent headaches and backaches, gastrointestinal ailments (like abdominal cramps, constipation or diarrhea), lowered sex drive and feeling tired even when you’ve had enough sleep.
You can turn things around by putting in some foundations for good health. How about lowering your cortisol levels by taking a page out of the Ikarians' book? Choose healthier options when it comes to food and beverages – take time to look for better, healthier alternatives. Use a supplement to make sure you’re getting everything you need. Be active and stay active. Socialize as often as possible…it does wonders for your emotional and mental health.
Encourage other members of your community to do the same. Help others by helping them create a less stressful and healthier environment. Stay positive and be the health-driven leader of your community. Who knows, your little corner of suburbia could be the next Ikaria!