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Is the Cure for Acid Reflux Found in the Blue Zones?

By Stu Leo

In 1995 a doctor named Gianni Pes made a startling discovery on the Italian island of Sardinia. In a mountainous region of the island called Barbagia, Pes discovered an unusually high number of centenarians.

He was baffled. In one Barbagian village, Pes found an astonishing 7 centenarians out of 2500 people—a number that was previously unheard of—especially given the fact that the United States centenarian rate was just 1 out of 5000.

Barbagia had about 14 times more centenarians than the US. 

Pes also found that the women to men centenarian ratio in Barbagia was an astounding 1:1—way better than the vast majority of the world, where women centenarians typically outnumber men 4 to 1.

Finally, Pes noted that the men in the mountains of Sardinia lived much longer quality lives than men almost anywhere else in the world. (1)

As fascinating as Pes’ findings were, they didn’t address what enabled these Sardinians to live so long.  

So in 2004, a National Geographic journalist named Dan Buettner and his team decided to investigate. They hopped on a plane and traveled to Sardinia to conduct more research.

After visiting Sardinia, Buettner and his team traveled the world in search of more people groups with an exceptionally high life expectancy and low rates of disease.

Ultimately, Buettner identified 4 other places in the world that were similar to Sardinia. He labeled the 5 places he discovered as blue zones. A few years later, Buettner published his findings in a book called The Blue Zones.

In this article, I’ll go over what people in blue zones eat and what they do to live a long, healthy life. Given the fact that blue zones have some of the lowest rates of disease in the world, adopting a blue zone lifestyle may help with or even prevent GERD. 

1. Sardinia, Italy

It’s estimated that from 1880-1990, when the population of Barbagia, Sardinia was only 17,865, 47 men and 44 women lived passed their 100 birthdays. This constitutes a centenarian rate that far exceeds the American rate from the same years by a factor of 30.

After interviewing several Sardinian centenarians, Buettner outlined 5 life principles that may explain why Sardinians from Barbagia live so long. He observed that:

• Sardinians eat a plant-based diet that included whole grains, beans, garden vegetables, fruits, pecorino cheese, and mastic oil in some regions.

The Sardinian diet consists of little meat. Meat is traditionally reserved for special occasions.

• Sardinians have strong family values. Children revere their elders, who typically live with their children towards the end of their life. Elders help with household duties and caring for grandchildren. Studies have shown that people with strong healthy families have lower rates of depression, suicide, and stress. (1)

• In addition to a plant-based diet, Sardinians also drink goat’s milk. Some have reported that goat’s milk contains compounds that can decrease inflammation and fight aging, heart disease, and even Alzheimer’s Disease.

Red Cannonau wine, which has way more heart-healthy flavonoids than regular wine, is a staple. Sardinians drink 1-2 glasses of Cannonau wine per day.

• Buettner also noted that Sardinian shepherds walk at least 5 miles a day while tending their sheep. Walking improves joint, bone, and muscle function. It can also improve your cardiovascular health.

• Finally, Buettner found that Sardinians have a ritual gathering in the street every afternoon to crack jokes and laugh. This can be another factor that explains low-stress levels among Sardinian men.

2. Ikaria, Greece

The second blue zone Buettner talks about in his book is Ikaria, Greece. Ikaria is an island located in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey and is known for its rocky mountainous land. The habits Buettner discovered in Ikarian centenarians were very similar to that of Sardinians.

• Healthy Ikarian centenarians ate a Mediterranean plant-based diet which includes a large number of fruits, vegetables, beans, potatoes, whole grains, and olive oil. 

Like Sardinians, Ikarians also drink goat’s milk.

Herbal teas are another part of the Ikarian diet. Popular Ikarian teas include wild rosemary, sage, and oregano.

• As in less industrialized countries, Ikarians also walk a lot. Whether it’s going to the market or visiting a neighbor’s home, or just gardening, Ikarians exercise normally and regularly.

That’s quite a stark contrast compared to other countries, where driving is the norm.

• Spending time with family and friends is also a big deal to Ikarians. Ikarians build many social connections in their life which is vital to staying healthy. Some studies have found that people who aren’t connected in communities have a 50% greater chance of dying.

• Fasting is big in Ikarian culture. Many Ikarians are Greek Orthodox Christians and fast for almost half the calendar year.

Research has shown that fasting or reducing the number of calories you eat, can slow down the aging process.

3. Okinawa, Japan

The third blue zone Buettner talks about in his book is Okinawa, Japan. The island of Okinawa is located Southwest of Japan and East of Taiwan and China. Okinawans have much lower rates of Western diseases than Americans.

Amazingly, Okinawans only have a fifth the rate of cardiovascular disease, a third the rate of dementia, and a fourth the rate of breast cancer than Americans do.

Some potential Okinawan longevity factors are:

• A plant-based diet. Okinawans, especially before WWII, lived on a plant-based diet. Principle foods include sweet potatoes, tofu, soy, miso, fermented soyfoods, and goya. Okinawans also eat herbs and spices, like mugwort, ginger, and turmeric daily. Typically, Okinawans reserve small amounts of meat for infrequent ceremonies.

• Okinawans have a tradition of meeting with a group of lifelong friends called a moai regularly. A moai provides financial and emotional support in the community and is thought to reduce stress.

• Exercise is a natural component in Okinawan life. Older Okinawans love to garden so naturally, they get a good amount of exercise. Okinawans also sit on the floor during meals, so the fact that they have to get up from off the floor helps keep them active and mobile in old age.

• Okinawans also have a clear, strong motivation to get up every day. They call this ikigai and ikigai can in part, explain how many Okinawans thrive at 100. Having a sense of purpose is motivating!

4. Nicoya, Costa Rica

A high number of centenarians are also found in Nicoya, Costa Rica. Nicoyans follow many of the same lifestyle principles that other blue zone people follow :

• Nicoyans eat a plant-based diet. For many years, a typical Nicoyan meal was fortified maize and beans.

Nicoyans also eat a light dinner. Researchers have linked eating fewer calories to a longer life.

• Nicoyans place a strong emphasis on family values. Parents usually live with their kids in old age. This can contribute to the mental wellness of the older population.

• Nicoyans are hard-working people that seem to enjoy physical labor. Physical labor is a form of exercise that can be beneficial for the body, especially the heart.

• The people of Nicoya are very social. It is common for neighbors in Nicoya to visit each other frequently, talk to each other, and support one another throughout life.

• Nicoyans take in plenty of sunshine every day, which can help their bodies produce adequate levels of vitamin D. The lack of vitamin D has been linked to cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.

5. Loma Linda, California

Currently, scientists have identified Loma Linda, California as the only blue zone in the Western world.

Why Loma Linda? Well, it’s because Loma Linda is home to one of the largest Seventh Day Adventist populations in the world.

Currently, they are the healthiest group of people in the United States. The lifestyle habits Buettner found among the Adventists of Loma Linda were once again, strikingly similar to the rest of the blue zones:

• The diet of Adventists is plant-based. The Adventist diet includes foods like beans, legumes, peas, tomatoes, whole grains, and nuts. The Adventist religion generally discourages meat except for fish. Adventists also encourage eating a light dinner.

• Setting aside Saturdays as the Sabbath day to rest is very important for Adventist Christians. On the Sabbath day, Adventists cease all work and unwind by spending time with family and socializing with friends to strengthen their social networks.

• Adventists are also pretty active people which can be a factor in their longevity of life. Many Adventists practice “nature walks” on the Sabbath as a way to relax and tune into nature.

So what do the Blue Zones have in Common?

First, people with the longest life in the world eat a plant-based diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and very little meat.

Secondly, it appears that all blue zone peoples are active. They may not necessarily go to the gym, but they aren’t couch potatoes either.

They walk, garden, perform manual labor, and in general, have a life habit of moving around. Social networks and close friends also seem to be a crucial component in the lives of blue zone people as well.

Closing Thoughts

The results of the blue zones study are very important because it identifies lifestyle principles that people with the lowest rates of disease and longest life have in common.

The key lifestyle habit is a plant-based diet. This is significant because we already have a few studies that indicate a Mediterranean diet may be effective for relieving reflux symptoms. (2) (3)

Imitating the way blue zone people live might just be the key to healing GERD and living a long, functional, healthy life.

Who wouldn’t want that?