According to legends, the Greek island of Ikaria in the Aegean Sea was the birthplace of the god of wine Dionysus and a favourite place to unwind for the goddess of hunting Artemis. Rumour has it that this is also the very place where Hercules buried the hapless Icarus, giving the island its name. Had the ancient Greeks lived to see this day, they would have likely cultivated new myths about the immortality of this island’s inhabitants and their associated way of life.
Indeed, people who live on this island tend to live longer than even their neighbours. “We simply forget to die,” is how they humbly encapsulate it. Teleporting a mere 15 kilometres away to the nearby island of Samos, we see a local diet that features a similar homemade yogurt, people who breathe the same air and fish in the same sea, and yet its inhabitants can hardly boast the same longevity and health. It seems that when it comes to the Ikarian lifestyle, there is a multitude of elusive factors at play. Let us try and get to the bottom of it.
Naps after lunch
The fact that the Greek islands are a cradle for a whole generation of ancient philosophers has undoubtedly left its mark on the lifestyle of its inhabitants today. If anyone it is the Ikarians that have truly learnt to embody the philosophy of slow life, intuitively following the principles of conscious living and staying out of the hustle and bustle. According to researchers, this is one of the key indicators of mental health which has a direct influence on our ability to handle stress.
Rather than scheduling each day by the hour, Greek people leave more wiggle room for spontaneity and flexibility. To many this approach might lack accountability in the context of our hyper busy times. But taken in moderation, it can lead to an almost Stoic state of mind, where we let go of the attempts to control everything around us. To accommodate this kind of conscious mindset, it is important to stay in tune with yourself and learn to remain present in the current moment. Much like Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter:
`Ah! that accounts for it,' said the Hatter. `He won't stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him [Time], he'd do almost anything you liked with the clock.
While the laid back Ikarians might not stand the competition when it comes to navigating the demands of modern businesses, they certainly win at life in other respects. The paradox is that the locals believe that life cannot be planned, meaning that there is abundant time to be had. What this time is allocated to is completely up to you, whether you want to wake up without an alarm clock or take a nap in the middle of the day.
In fact, sleep is an important part of the Ikarian lifestyle and rightly so. According to medical researchers at the University of Athens, people who take an occasional daytime nap are 12% less likely to develop coronary heart disease. The chances are 37% lower for those that practice napping at least three times a week. A post lunch nap also helps break up one day into two, with even more potential to live each to the full. And what better way to escape a hot summer’s day than to take a nap?
A healthy diet
The Ikarian diet echoes the eating habits of the other so-called Blue Zones associated with longevity. They have a strong preference for seasonal fruit, homegrown potatoes and beans (including chickpeas, legumes and lentils), domesticated and wild herbs, natural yoghurts and locally produced honey. The Ikarians drink wine in moderation and have a very low refined sugar intake. Their bread is baked using whole wheat. Roasted pork is a rare feast typically saved for Easter or Christmas.
Many of these dietary traditions are associated with living longer. For instance, low consumption of saturated fats found in meat and dairy (with the exception of goat milk, which remains popular in Ikaria) is known to minimise the risk of heart disease. Meanwhile, olive oil and a vegetable-rich diet lowers “bad” cholesterol and increases “good” cholesterol.
Fish for mental health
Depression is a lot rarer in Ikaria than in other parts of the world, affecting only 11,8% of the population. And diet seems to have a lot to do with it. A study of almost 700 elderly Ikarians demonstrated a correlation between the consumption of two portions of wild-caught fish (i.e. salmon, tuna and mackerel) per week and lower symptoms of depression. This is likely due to its abundance of healthy omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, which is essential for serotonin synthesis.
Sufficient serotonin levels are necessary to enable our resilience to stress. By blocking negative and destructive emotions, it helps us fight back in response to any external circumstances, which can otherwise put our mental health out of whack. Serotonin molecules are the building blocks of our mental defence system, helping promote a healthy impartiality to circumstances outside of our control. Therefore, sufficient levels of this neurotransmitter has an all-encompassing impact on our lives.
Serotonin deficiency not only effects our mood but also our neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change and grow. This in turn effects our cognitive functions resulting in poor concentration and memory. Cumulatively all of these symptoms contribute to a less stable mental state when it comes to routine life challenges as well as to a number of mental health conditions, including depression and dementia.
Consuming foods rich in vitamin D and fatty acids is one sure way to counteract the development of such conditions. Other than fish, foods which are known to boost serotonin levels include goat milk, dark chocolate, spinach, eggs as well as foods rich in fibre.
Ikarian people start their day with a spoonful of honey and end it with a cup of local tea. Its main ingredients happen to have powerful antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory elements, which have been known for centuries. They have a huge potential and are claimed to help fight cancer, hypertension and Alzheimer's disease as well as increase productivity and memory, irrespective of the person’s age. Here are some of these herbs.
- Rosemary. Stimulates cognitive function and improves mood. Regular consumption of 2 teaspoons of rosemary in a glass of water over the course of two months is known to help stabilise the nervous system and prevent burnout.
- Peppermint. Not only does it keep our breath fresh but it also promotes digestion and helps improve concentration. Its benefits can be experienced purely through aromatherapy, which increases oxygen content in the bloodstream. The more oxygen there is in the brain, the better it functions.
- Oregano, otherwise known as marjoram. Short-term use can help with digestive issues and long-term use can promote brain health. Researchers from the Zelinsky Institute of Organic Chemistry have discovered that this herb is one of the three most active antioxidant herbs alongside cinnamon and cloves.
By drinking this type of herbal brew every evening, the Ikarians support their heart and brain health. It is possible to adjust this ritual by using essential oils instead, given the proven benefits of aromatherapy.
Another important element of this island’s lifestyle is a seasonal reduction in calory intake and periodic fasting. To put it simply, many Ikarians are Orthodox Christian and follow religious fasts. According to researchers into anti-ageing from the National Institute of Health, this helps keep the body in shape much like any other form of intermittent fasting.
By fasting for any period of time (from around 12-16 hours, including sleep time), the body’s cells begin to use ketone bodies as an alternative energy source to glucose. This process is sometimes known as ketosis. With the first meal that breaks the fast, the body once again returns to consuming glucose. This shift is known as a metabolic switch and is an evolutionary mechanism which allowed our ancestors to go by without food for prolonged periods of time in between successful hunts.
One study suggests that intermittent fasting gives our digestive system a break and kickstarts the body’s internal cleansing processes. It reduces the cholesterol content in the blood and the atherosclerotic vascular strain, normalising the levels of glucose. With this comes a clarity and lightness of the mind, which can also make it easier to process any new information. Fasting also reduces blood pressure and the risk of other factors associated with cardiovascular conditions.
Whether it is the strict diet which imitates the lifestyle of our prehistoric ancestors or the religious doctrines followed by the people of Ikaria, limiting calory intake by a third certainly has its benefits. Regular detoxes or periods of intermittent fasting (with the exception of herbal teas and water) are a good step towards longevity and health.