Henrik Ennart

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110-Year-Old Panchita’s Healthy Breakfast

Two years ago, 110-year-old Maria Francisca Castillo Carrillo died (her name was a bit long and complicated so everyone called her Panchita). A few months earlier, I met her when I visited the blue zone on the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica. Blue zones are places where you would have the highest chance of living to 100 years old, and other such zones are located on the Japanese island of Okinawa, on the Greek Island of Ikaria and in the Sardinian mountains.

I have visited all these blue zones and interviewed both researchers and elders, always surprised by the well-being, energy and health of the elderly living in the blue zones. The most alert of all was Panchita. For more than 60 years, she had lived in a wooden shed in the tropical forest. She shared the house with her oldest son Pablo, 93, who would soon move out to live with his new girlfriend.

A large number of seniors are aging with a combination of vision loss and hearing loss, and most of the 110-year-olds that I have met get tired in social situations. Panchita, however, was full of energy and did not look a day over 75. She could easily talk for an hour about everything from the story of her life to politics. Turned out, Panchita was a feminist who never married because she despised the macho culture in Costa Rica. “Men are much better nowadays”, she explained.

In order not to become the husband’s property, her lovers were the fathers of her five children. Exactly how many descendants she had, she did not know. Last time someone counted there were 165 children, grandchildren and, believe it or not, great-great-grandchildren’s children.

Panchita had also served as the village’s medicine woman. She prescribed traditional herbal medicines, a knowledge that had been inherited for generations.

So what did she eat for breakfast, I asked? Here is Panchita’s daily breakfast. Unfortunately, the ingredients are not always easy to find outside her Costa Rican forest.

  • 2 oranges
  • Costa Rican sweet lemon (I would compare it to the bergamot orange, grown in France and northern Italy)
  • Zapotillo tea (also sapodilla) – the tea is made from both the green fruits, the bark and the leaves, and is used to treat everything from cough to gastrointestinal disorders. Seems to be available online.
  • A little bit of strawberry yogurt. Homemade.

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Henrik Ennart

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What You Need to Know About Alcohol

During the summer season, most of us socialize more, and maybe drink a bit more alcohol than usual. In the short term, alcohol can cheer you up and relieve stress, but let’s make one thing clear: in the end, alcohol will make you more depressed – not less!

That said, you have probably heard of studies indicating benefits from drinking one (women) or two (men) glasses of wine a day. According to these studies, it’s linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

But think twice! Higher quantities are harmful to one’s health. That’s also why alcohol is considered the world’s third largest risk factor for disease and disability, and it’s linked to 6 percent of all deaths. In the world. Also, studies have found an increased risk of breast cancer associated with increasing alcohol intake.

But ok, I’m not here to preach. I just want to remind you of what your intestinal bacteria think about all this.

I’ve traveled a lot in so called blue zones – places where you would have the highest chance of living to 100 years old – and realized that many of the very old men and women drink a lot of wine. But not all of them. On the Japanese island of Okinawa, old women drink a small cup of rice wine once in a while, if even so. And alcohol consumption is low on the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica as well.

However, alcoholic beverages are more than popular on the Greek Island of Ikaria and in the Sardinian mountains, especially among men. But you still can’t compare it to the habits and behaviors we have here. Unlike them, we don’t drink pure wine made from grapes from the backyard, we don’t walk miles in the mountains every day, we don’t breathe the same fresh air as they do, we don’t eat their fresh vegetables or raise our own animals for food.

The obvious conclusion is, therefore, that you don’t have to drink wine to get old and stay healthy. Some do, as part of an extremely healthy lifestyle. Perhaps they would have lived longer without the wine? Who knows.

When mice drink alcohol, they react as if they were given sugar: it destroys the good gut bacteria, and helps the bad bacteria thrive in the digestive tract. In general, alcohol consumption alters the gut flora and leads to poor bacterial diversity within the intestine. And that’s usually a bad sign.

If you’re looking for a reason to have a glass of red wine, it’s supposed to boost the Lacto and Bifidobacteria in the intestine. Also, feel free to eat some unpasteurized cheese and a piece of dark chocolate. If you’re looking for arguments against that same glass of wine, it will lead to lower levels of good Prevotella bacteria.

Also, a new study suggests that bacteria in the gut may play a role in alcohol addiction. During the first three weeks of sobriety, the addicts suffered from increased inflammation in the intestine. As a result of this, they felt even more anxious and depressed.

Other findings suggest a link between imbalance in the intestine and the risk of developing an addiction. For example, if you disturb an animal’s intestinal flora with antibiotics, it will experience a stronger sense of reward when they get cocaine. 

Ok, this is early research, but it provides new and interesting input to ongoing research.

So, who’s asking for that extra glass of wine? Is it you, or is it your intestinal bacteria?

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Henrik Ennart

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Families and Dogs Share Microbiota

Our dog Lovis doesn’t like it when I’m writing. I totally get it, it’s much more fun when we play together. They say dogs are our best friends, and now, scientists suggest they have similar intestinal flora to humans. They are actually more similar than we would like to believe, especially thinking about all the things Lovis would chew on if given the chance.

Researchers in Heidelberg have studied Labrador Retrievers and Beagles and they found that, just like in humans, their daily diet have a significant influence on the balance of microbes in the gut. In that respect, humans and dogs are much more similar than humans and mice, and yet we use mice for experiments all the time. However, I don’t want scientists to perform lots of laboratory tests on dogs…

Among other findings, they observed that dogs fed a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet had decreases in the ratio of Bacteroidetes to Firmicutes bacteria – just like in humans. If the dog was overweight, it would also lose weight. Also, dogs that ate a high-carbohydrate diet had instead higher abundances of Bacteroidetes. The researchers hope to see the research translate into real-world ways to modify pet food.

There are a lot of theories about this. Researchers say that simply owning a dog can have an effect on overall microbe-sharing. People share microbes on the surfaces they touch, and therefore, family members who live in the same household tend to have more similar gut flora if they have a dog. Also, married couples share more microbes with one another if they have a dog. Interpret that as you will.

Ok, dogs can be pretty dirty, especially after playing around outside. And, they spread the dirt to their surroundings as soon as they come indoors. But remember, this is actually beneficial to your health, and even more, to the health of your children as they crawl around on the floor. Children who grow up around animals are less likely to get allergies, especially if there was already a dog in the family when they were born, or even better, before they were born.

Some scientists suggest that dogs have played a key role in every stage of human development.

The earliest strong evidence for domestication, dating back 14 700 years, is the remains of a dog found buried with its owner. However, some findings suggest that there was a strong connection between humans and dogs more than 40 000 years ago – long before the agricultural revolution and the domestication of other animals.

A theory suggests that early humans and their dogs drove Neanderthals to extinction. Mainly because of the fact that the dogs helped our ancestors hunt more efficiently, and that they could be used as guard dogs.

Well, I’m not sure Lovis would be much use as a guard dog, or what would happen if she ran into a mammoth. But ok Lovis, I’ll stop writing now. Our joint gut feeling tells us it’s time for a walk.

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Henrik Ennart

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Thumbs Up For Physical Activity, But Don’t Forget to Keep Your Gut Happy

Spring is finally here, and it’s time for your first sunny morning run in the park. Physical activity is absolutely great for your overall health, but is it also good for the intestinal flora? Some say it is, but I wouldn’t be so sure about it.

There is a common misconception that you can eat whatever you want as long as you exercise. In fact, this statement is only backed up by a few studies. The most famous one is an Irish study in which scientists studied professional athletes from an international rugby union squad. The results provided evidence for a beneficial impact of exercise on gut microbiota diversity.

Case closed? Nope. The rugby players didn’t just exercise more than the participants in the control group, they were also eating a more varied and balanced diet. What if it’s all about the food? If you exercise a lot, your will probably eat more and thereby provide the gut bacteria with more fibers. However, this doesn’t always happen. Just because you exercise, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you eat well.

And as always, the results are affected by what the scientists are looking for. Other studies show that both mental and physical stress can have harmful effects on your gut flora. Let’s have a look at this Norwegian study in which scientists looked at soldiers during a 4-day cross-country ski-march. The study showed an association between the stressful military training environment and increased intestinal permeability, also known as leaky gut.

Blood and stool samples were collected before and after the ski-march to measure inflammation and stool microbiota. The results showed an increased amount of potentially harmful bacteria in stool from participants who had experienced a lot of mental and physical stress. There were also less of the good bacteria, the ones that normally fight inflammation and help strengthen the immune system. To avoid these problems, the findings suggest that the soldiers eat high-fiber foods prior to stressful activities.

Animal research has provided evidence for a beneficial impact of exercise on gut microbiota diversity. That’s usually considered a good thing. But if you look closely, the results are often similar to the ones in the Norwegian study. They often show an increased amount of potentially harmful bacteria, and less of the good ones.

Sounds complicated? It gets worse. A recent study suggest that if you’re skinny, endurance exercise is good for the intestinal flora. But if you’re overweight, the same kind of exercise may have negative effects. Simply put, people with happy guts and well-balanced intestinal bacteria will get the best results from their workouts.

This study has been all over the Internet lately, often treated as evidence when it comes to the supposed benefits of exercise. But the scientists had their eyes set on increased production of butyric acid (butyrate is good for gut health) – and did not look for potential inflammation caused by the heavy exercise.

And remember, the results may have been affected by whatever the participants were eating at the time. As said before, high-intensity workouts will probably make you hungrier. Most of the time, the participants were free to eat whatever they wanted. And if you look closely, you will see that their diets consisted of lots of insoluble fiber. Yup, that’s right. Great foods for the butyrate producing colon bacteria.

Time for the conclusion. Simply put, exercise is not necessarily the key to a well-balanced gut flora, at least not on its own. Exercise can alter the composition of your gut microbiome, but we’re not completely sure if it’s always for the better. Further research is definitely needed.

Leading a healthy lifestyle is a complex task, and there are many factors contributing to overall health. Exercise is a key factor, but don’t forget about diet, friends, sense of meaningfulness, healthy amounts of stress, a good night’s sleep, fresh air, clean water, self-esteem, and the list goes on. Every single one of these things will affect your intestinal flora. But all-in-all, what seems to be the most important factor? That’s right, you guessed it: diet. In fact, a few simple changes can completely transform your health.

Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health. But don’t forget to keep your gut happy.

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