A brand new year always seems to bring with hopeful intentions of new starts. Almost as if the bad conscious and debt of poor choices on one’s personal health account is wiped clean. It’s perhaps not unusual then that New Year’s fireworks and celebrations are often followed by a spark of resolutions, most of them along the lines of things such as slimming down, training more, reducing stress or being more climate conscious.
I myself am constantly trying to gain new good habits. Despite periodic setbacks, I never give up and I continue trying new methods to stay on track. Currently while writing this post I am actually on a health retreat by the sea in Sri Lanka. Here I have the time to read books I haven’t had the time for, reflect on thoughts I haven’t had the time for and soak up some sun during my walks on the beach with my good friend who has accompanied me. Those of us who find ourselves in northern hemispheres this time of year are definitely in need of light. Even my trillions of bakteriell sidekicks are cheering for the sunlight. The phrase “practice what you preach” is exactly what I am doing, I am literally applying all the principles that combined research has shown leads to optimal intestinal flora and thus a healthier brain. Although the media’s advice regarding intestinal flora is mostly aimed towards obesity and weight loss, it’s my brain’s health not a couple of pounds here or there that I am interested in. So, what does my brain-optimizing diet look like in Sri Lanka? Well, it’s quite easy really if you just use a science backed concepts which I’ve dubbed The Five F-method:
Full of color: Our microbiome loves colorful, organic and unprocessed vegetables. Believe it or not, I eat over 30 different vegetables everyday, prepared with tasty ayurvedic herbs. Because if you recall; something that characterizes an optimal intestinal flora is, diversity. Perhaps a bit of our hunter gathering ancestry still showing up today- they ate hundreds of different plant species.
Fermented:I certainly do not get my daily fix of kimchi and kombucha here, but instead I get to try other exciting fermented vegetables. Even though kimchi is considered to be a bacterial bomb, all vegetables that have been sufficiently fermented contain useful lactic acid bacteria, which will cause both your “second brain” in the intestine and your primary brain inside the cranium to cheer.
Fiber: Water-soluble fibers feed good bacteria. Therefore, I round off each meal with a plate of fresh fruits consisting of mango, passion fruit, watermelon, oranges, carambole, papaya and other exotic fruits I can’t name. Fruit, despite its sugar content, has been shown to strengthen several beneficial bacteria. So don’t be overly afraid of fruits. Instead, eat them whole and not as juices, that way you’ll get the beneficial fiber, vitamins and antioxidants.
Fisk:Omega-3 that you find in fish has been shown to create new synapses and nerves in the brain and repair stress-related damage to the intestinal flora. However, here on the retreat I’m not actually eating fish. My New Year’s resolution is to try to eat more plant-based. Instead, I’m eating other plant-based oils that feed important bacteria. It is the bacteria that produce anti-inflammatory fatty acids, which have been shown to strengthen the brain.
Fasting: Currently I apply the most recommended form of periodic fasting, 16:8, which means that I skip breakfast, have lunch at 12.30 and dinner at 19.30. Then it can go at least 16h between dinner and the following days lunch. With this I am banking on that I gain a lot of Akkermansia bacteria, which have been shown to reduce inflammation. Periodic fasting reduces oxidative damage and oxidative damage accelerates aging when combined with inflammation. So if you want to live a long time, try to implement periodical fasting in some form into your life.
In addition to the Five F method, I care for my intestinal flora and brain with exercise. In Sri Lanka, it means beach walks and swimming in the Indian Ocean every morning. But then there is the digital stress we have in today’s society, which we know is extremely harmful to the intestinal flora and the brain. Here, this is being managed by the retreat only allowing two hours of digital connection per day. So lovely. It’s forcing me to check my mail concentrated for a while in the morning and then completely shut down. Imagine if I could introduce this rule at home (will definitely try it). In the afternoon it is time for treatment, usually two hours of deep oil massage (after all, it is a retreat). This is when all thoughts dissolve and I fly away from all the incense and aroma to another world. The day is rounded off with a stress-relieving yoga and meditation pass, which grounds all the senses in the body. No wonder my gut bacteria are cheering!
Okay, everyone understands that it is not difficult to feel damn good while at a health resort. But, the question is, how can I keep some of these habits when I am back in the concrete jungle with its everyday metropolitan stress. It will be a tough nut to crack. Because even if my impatient self wants to revolutionize my health “overnight”, a wise voice within me says that it is probably more sustainable to gradually introduce new habits. Which habits or, rather, what health investment should I start the year with? Even if I am a big proponent of exercise, diet and which types of food we eat has proven to be crucial for a healthy intestinal flora. Therefore, the focus will be on the Five F-method combined with daily meditation. Any exercise will just be a bonus. What will be your new habit and health investment this year?
Soki Choi, PhD, MD, has researched complex systems at both the Karolinska Institutet and Harvard. After working for ten years within the realm of healthcare, Soki’s mission today is to spread revolutionary knowledge that could help people to protect their crown jewel (before it’s too late): our brain. She is the writer of the book “Kimchi and Kombucha – The New Research on How the Gut Bacteria Strengthens Your Brain”.