(Myself and Dr. Merry, write of this article, at the Wellness For Doctor Events!)
This week’s Friday Focus is probably the most exciting to date. I actually ended up being able to share the Friday Focus on The Blue Zones in TWO parts at the last minute, thanks to the fantastic writer of this article – Dr. Concepta Merry. If you followed my ‘Wellness For Doctors’ events in June (you’ll find link to the blog post on those here), you probably saw me pictured with and raving about Dr. Merry. Dr. Merry is a Dublin-based medical consultant, a specialist in the fascinating area of infectious diseases, as well as being a writer, blogger at The Indie Doctor and pretty much what I consider an expert in the realm of integrative medicine and health. She has been a total role model to me in inspiring me to pursue this growing area of preventive/integrative/lifestyle medicine, and was beyond generous with her time, knowledge and positivity in helping us with our wellness events.
Dr. Merry is the person who sparked an interest in me in the Blue Zones. I had heard of them prior to a wonderful talk she gave us junior doctors in May of this year, but after this, I really started reading more. After our wellness events in June, I asked her if she would consider writing a guest article for my blog on the Blue Zones, to share the secrets of these fascinating parts of the world with you guys, so that we can learn to integrate these daily habits into our lives. Happily for me and you all, Dr. Merry generously agreed.
So this article is what you can look at as ‘The Blue Zones: Part 1.‘ Dr. Merry will introduce you to these incredible parts of the world and explain why they are so fascinating, as well as share what we can learn from them. In my own ‘Part 2: The Happiness Project‘ article which I will publish this Monday (20th August), I’ll share my review of ‘The Blue Zones of Happiness’ book, with tips for how you can integrate Blue Zone ways of life into yours, to improve your happiness. Amazing, right?! Whether you do or don’t have a notion of what the Blue Zones are, it doesn’t matter – keep reading, and you’ll see why we’re talking about them so much. And now, let’s tuck into this wonderful piece by Dr. Concepta Merry.
Modern medicine is amazing. Scientific advances coupled with meticulous research have helped us eliminate the diseases that killed our ancestors.
That being said, modern medicine is far from perfect.
Western medicine focuses largely on disease management and not wellness. According to the World Health Organization:
‘Health, is not merely the absence of disease, but a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being’.
I think that we can all agree that sounds pretty good. That’s exactly the kind of medicine that I signed up for when I joined medical school. Sadly, that is not exactly what I found when I graduated as a doctor. Until now.
Each doctor-patient touch-point is a chance to promote wellness. Science has shown that only 25% of how long we live is genetic. The other 75% relates to the lifestyle choices that we make every day. Compound interest accrues from all the small decisions that we make each and every day.
I have been looking for ways to shift my own medical practice from disease management towards wellness for quite some time. I ran into a practical problem. There is so much advice out there on how to be healthy – how do I distill it down into evidence based, soundbites that I can share with patients in a busy clinic?
Hang on, it’s not just about patients. Physician heal thyself. Is there a system or matrix that I can use to be healthier without being overwhelmed?
The very best system that I have found is the Blue Zones Project. This was a joint collaboration between National Geographic and the National Institutes for Health. These researchers set out to find the secrets to living longer from people who live the longest, healthiest and happiest lives.
These researchers figured that success leaves clues.
They came up with a formula that says:
Wisdom = Knowledge + Experience.
Surely people who have lived to be 100 years or more have some insights into ‘best practices’ for living a long life?
The researchers used a blue pen to mark places on a map that had an exceptional number of people who lived to be over 100 – hence the name, The Blue Zones Project.
These places are:
- Nicoya, Costa Rica
- Okinawa, Japan
- Loma Linda, California
- Sardinia, Italy
- Ikaria, Greece
They interviewed centenarians in these countries and distilled down the lifestyle habits that they had in common into 9 themes.
I have modified the 9 Blue Zone recommendations into my own system that I use in clinic.
I have to confess that I also share this with friends, other passengers on flights & essentially anyone who will listen!
Here goes: Eat, Pray, Love, Move & Belong.
People who lived to be over 100 tended to eat mostly plants and nuts.
They enjoyed a glass of ‘wine at five’.They only ate until they no longer felt hungry. They did not eat until they felt full. This was called ‘Hara Hachi Bu’ in Japan.
Centenarians prayed to a higher power and trusted this power to look after them. This is know as an ‘external locus of control’ and basically reduces the pressure of responsibility that can be overwhelming. They also had ways to downshift eg meditation, yoga, meeting with friends.
Centenarians put family and loved ones first.
They also had a passion project – something that made it worthwhile to get out of bed every day. This was called a ‘plan da vida’ in Costa Rica.
They were also loveable people.
Centenarians exercised daily but they never exercised for the sake of exercising. They gardened, farmed, walked to the market, washed dishes etc
Centenarians lived in communities that made it easy for them to live a Blue Zone Lifestyle. Their community gave them what was called an ‘invisible lift’.
While there is no guarantee that following the Blue Zone lifestyle prescription will help you reach the age of 100, it certainly stacks the odds in your favor.
In many ways, that is not the point. One of the researchers on the Blue Zone project was so impressed by how happy many of the centenarians she interviewed were that she decided to give up her successful but stressful career in favor of a simpler Blue Zone lifestyle.
Some years later she described her new life as ‘feeling complete’.
In shamanic medicine, there is a concept that we don’t really have in western medicine. Soul sickness. In my experience, many patients and doctors intuitively know what ‘soul sickness’ is.
The Blue Zones Lifestyle is one of the very best antidotes to soul sickness that I have come across. After all, who wants to just live a long (or longer) life? Deep down, we all want to feel ‘complete’.
I want to say a massive thank you to Dr. Merry for writing this brilliant article for my blog, and I hope it has left you guys as inspired as it did me! If you want to read more, stay tuned for Monday’s blog post, and also check out Dr. Merry’s fascinating blog at The Indie Doctor! As always, we would love your feedback – you know where to find me, @theirishbalance on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook!
Ciara 🙂 x