Contributing writer for Wake Up World
Let’s face it, modern life can be taxing. From jammed packed schedules to environmental toxins, along with questionable food and water quality, we need all the help we can get to stay fit, energetic and disease-free. However, more often than not, we forego health-enhancing practices because we just don’t have the time or energy. What we need are supercharged practices, foods and herbal remedies that will support well-being and vitality without requiring a large investment of time, effort or cash. As luck would have it, traditional cultures discovered the secret to a robust life long ago and have preserved this knowledge so people like us can reap the benefit today.
Power of the Breath
Used for thousands of years by Indian yogis, pranayama is a practice of ultimate simplicity, yet offers profound results. In just a few minutes a day, alternate nostril breathing helps to calm an agitated mind and smoothes ruffled emotional states, clarifies thinking, improves sleep and soothes the nervous system. Since stress is the underlying cause of a majority of health complaints, facing life from a place of tranquil equilibrium can go a long way in improving the quality and length of life. On top of that, yogis believe many diseases are linked to erratic nasal breathing because the nose is intimately linked with the brain and nervous system. In addition, the practice synchronizes both hemispheres of the brain — the creative, feeling right side and the thinking, analytical left — which leads to increased lucidity.
Another way alternate nostril breathing reduces stress is by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby calming unruly emotional storms. It also quiets an over-active mind. Add to this a nice dose of oxygen to both brain hemispheres, while also detoxifying the lungs, and alternate nostril breathing is an invaluable technique for tackling our daily demands.
Begin by closing off the top right nostril at the bone with your thumb.
Slowly inhale through the left nostril.
Next, close the the top of the left nostril with the ring finger at the bone. Release the thumb off the right nostril.
Exhale through your right nostril. Then inhale through the right nostril.
Once again, close the right nostril with your thumb.
Breath out through the left nostril.
This completes one basic cycle. In the beginning, start with 2-3 cycles and slowly increase. You can also breathe in counts of four during each inhalation, holding and exhalation.
A word of caution: Do not pause your breath if you are pregnant or have high blood pressure.
How to Improve Immunity in 20 Seconds or Less
Beating the chest isn’t just for gorillas — it also happens to be an extraordinary practice for humans that stimulates the release of white blood cells by the thymus gland. These cells are the vanguard of the immune system, which help protect us against disease and contagious illness. A major player in keeping us healthy, the thymus gland sits right behind the sternum (sometimes referred to as the breastbone). To give you an idea of the importance of this gland, the Greek word thymos means “life energy.” It’s also known as the happiness point and — when working properly— can dispel negativity, encourage calm, provide energy, and increase vitality. As part of the lymphatic immune system, the thymus needs to be stimulated regularly since it can atrophy with age. Fortunately, it’s easy to activate the gland with a few quick thumps to the sternum. Here’s how:
While breathing deeply, thump up and down your sternum with a closed fist. You can also say any meaningful and positive affirmation during the practice. Continue thumping for 20 seconds. A tell-tale sign your thymus has been activated is a tingling sensation and gentle feeling of joy. Ideally, you will want to engage in the practice 1-3 times per day, more if you are under stress, anxious or feeling under the weather.
Barefoot, Happy and Healthy
Associated with reduced inflammation and cardiovascular disease, a strong immune system and slowed aging, earthing is a fabulous practice to adopt on a daily basis. Simply place your bare feet on a stretch of beach or a patch of ground and soak up the healing energy of the earth. Moist grass will work too. Really, that’s it. But the benefits are truly spectacular. Earthing has been linked with:
- Sound sleep
- Heightened clarity
- A serene nervous system
- Reduction in depression
- Decrease in PMS symptoms
- Accelerated healing
- Boundless energy
- Protection from electromagnetic fields (EMFs)
Dr. James Oschman, an expert in biophysics energy medicine, believes the earth is a powerful tool for healing. When we connect bare feet with the earth, we absorb the most potent antioxidant known: free electrons. By scavenging and counteracting free radicals in the body, antioxidants reduce inflammation along with cell and tissue damage. Remember, excessive inflammation is the curse of health and plays a major role in everything from heart disease to cancer and diabetes. With the advent of rubber soled shoes, we have fundamentally blocked ourselves from the earth’s supply of healing free electrons — all the while promoting the rise of modern disease.
As children, we instinctually relished walking barefoot. As it turns out, there’s a valid reason for this pleasure — the foot contains an intricate (and sensitive) network of nerves and acupuncture points. Because of this, the feet are especially proficient at absorbing free electrons.
One of the ultimate sources of free electrons can be found in salt water. If we want to enjoy the ultimate benefit of earthing, walking barefoot in the water along a seashore is your best bet. A close second would be planting your feet squarely on dewy grass in the morning. For optimal results, practice earthing for a minimum of ten minutes each day.
The Five Rites of Rejuvenation
Brought to the West by a retired British army officer in the early 20th century, the Five Rites of Rejuvenation are renown for their ability to increase longevity, strength and energy. Believed to have originated in the Himalaya’s, the rites only take a few minutes a day, but have a profound impact on health. A series of five exercises, the movements improve digestion and circulation, while quelling depression and fatigue. Those who have embraced the practice rave about increased clarity, vitality and zest. The five rites are said to quickly balance the hormonal system, which subsequently promotes longevity, discourages disease and slows aging.
Individuals who consistently practice the five rites report the following benefits:
- Weight loss
- Enhanced vision, digestion and sleep
- Deepened stamina and concentration
- Increased happiness and well-being
- Reduced stress and lower blood pressure
- Diminished back, neck and joint pain
- Improved management of diabetes
The entire sequence is easy to learn and takes under ten minutes to complete.
Consult with your health care provider before attempting the following exercises if you are on medication or have health issues. Begin slowly with seven repetitions of each exercise and gradually work your way up to the maximum of twenty-one. Always complete each rite by coming into a standing position, back straight with hands on the hips, and taking two deep breaths.
First Rite – Stand straight with arms extended horizontally, palms facing down. Turn in a clockwise direction until slightly dizzy. Like push-ups for the inner ear, this rite helps to improve balance and stability — especially as we age.
Second Rite – Lie flat on your back with arms at your side, palms facing down. With the lower back pressed flat into the floor, inhale and raise legs to a vertical position with straight knees. While holding legs in this position, lift your head off the floor — tucking the chin into the chest. Gently lower both legs and head to the floor while exhaling. Benefits include improved thyroid function and digestion, increased metabolism and overall better health of the lower back.
Third Rite – Kneel on the floor with toes curled under. Keep the back straight and brace the hands (palms down) against the back of the thighs. Inhale and arch the head, neck and spine backwards. Exhale as you return to an upright position. Helps to fortify core muscles and stimulate the solar plexus, heart and throat chakras.
Fourth Rite – Sit on the floor with a straight back and legs extended, spaced about 12 inches apart. Keep arms at your side with palms pressed to the ground. Tuck the chin towards the chest. Inhale and drop the head backwards while raising the hips and knees to a flat plank position. Exhale and lower the body back to a sitting position. Strengthens the arms, back and thigh muscles.
Fifth Rite – Lie face down on the floor with arms bent and palms pressed flat into the mat. Gently raise the upper body and balance on the balls of the feet while inhaling and arching the head and neck backwards. Next, bending at the hips, pull the body up into an inverted “V” and tuck the chin against the chest. Exhale and return to starting position. Supports all chakras and fortifies the entire body.
Detailed instructions can be found in Chris Kilham’s book, The Five Tibetans: Five Dynamic Exercises for Health, Energy and Personal Power, Inner Traditions / Healing Arts Press 2011.
Time-Tested Herbal Superstars
Schizandra (Schizandra chinensis)
Asian cultures have a long history of using herbs and plants to promote vitality and increase lifespan. One of the most treasured is schizandra, a remarkable adaptogenic herb that counteracts everything from nervous exhaustion to aging and poor libido. A tiny, bright red berry, schizandra is part of the magnolia family and native to China, Japan, Korea as well as Russia.
According to Taoist masters, the berry is one of the few herbs to contain all three treasures (the energies of Essence, Vitality and Spirit), which is why they recommended the berry to their students. Anyone working with the inner energy of the body could greatly benefit from its use, especially to promote mental acuity and agelessness. Schizandra also embodies the five flavors — sweet, sour, salt, bitter and pungent. For this reason, the berries are not palatable in the conventional sense and are specifically used as a medicinal tonic. An authentic adaptogen, schizandra is non-toxic and safely reduces stress while encouraging stable energy. It demonstrates superb antioxidant and anti-inflammatory characteristics as well, which, in turn, fosters radiant skin and offers protective benefit for the liver, particularly in the treatment of hepatitis.
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Yet another potent adaptogen, eleuthero is a top notch herbal remedy for creating bulletproof health. Considered a valuable medicine for over 2,000 years, eleuthero is native to northeast Asia, parts of Russia, China, Japan and Korea. Famously used to improve performance (both athletic and mental), the herb helps to increase oxygen uptake. It also prevents illness and fatigue, and boosts sexual function. Eleuthero’s beneficial impact on the cardiovascular system is attributed to flavonoids; polysaccharide content have anti-tumor properties; sexual and adrenal support is due to sterols, while the sedative activity is owed to coumarins in the herb.
Fo-Ti (Polygonum multiflorum)
As a legendary longevity tonic reputed to boost libido, support functioning of the heart and brain, and return gray hair back to its original color, fo-ti is a medicinal tonic to be reckoned with. The adaptogen has been used for high cholesterol, fatigue, insomnia, diabetes, tuberculosis, cancer and vertigo. From a scientific perspective, fo-ti (sometimes known as ho-shou-wu), contains resveratrol and lecithin — two compounds that help lower cholesterol levels and improve circulatory function.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Celebrated as the “mushroom of immortality” in the Taoist tradition, reishi is used to heal cardiovascular disease, arthritis, cancer and immune disfunction. The mushroom also boosts energy and acts as an tonic for overall well-being. Science has discovered that reishi stimulates brain neurons and also thwarts the development of new fat cells in obese individuals. It has therapeutic value for asthma, allergies, autoimmune disorders, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, diabetes and liver complaints. Studies have found the life-extending properties of the mushroom to be 9% to over 20% — or, in human terms, 7 to 16 years.
Gynostemma (Gynostemma pentaphyllum)
A member of the cucumber and gourd family, gynostemma doesn’t produce the typical fruit, but instead, bundles of small black berries. Native to Vietnam, China and Japan, gynostemma is naturally sweet. An adaptogen, the berry helps to promote equilibrium and robust health. Trials suggest the herb is beneficial for the liver and blood. Moreover, it’s a powerful antioxidant and has gastroprotective properties.
Maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba)
Considered a “living fossil” which was around during the time of the dinosaurs, ginkgo biloba has been used in Chinese Traditional Medicine for centuries. Maidenhair trees are extremely long-lived, with the oldest documented tree being 3,500 years old. Ginkgo is celebrated for its ability to increase circulation to the brain, which in turn is helpful for those suffering from Alzheimer’s, dementia and vertigo. The herb is also used to treat varicose veins, hemorrhoids, macular degeneration, glaucoma and erectile disfunction. Additionally, ginkgo is an outstanding antioxidant and helps to shield against free radical damage to DNA.
One of the most important medicinals in Ayurveda, shilajit is known as the “conqueror of mountains and destroyer of weakness.” Used for diabetes and regulating blood sugar, the compound also purifies the blood, reduces fat, dissolves tumors, improves digestion and strengthens the pancreas. Shilajit is considered a tonic for boosting virility as well.
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
A fungus that grows on birch and other hardwood trees, chaga is effective against a range of cancers — including those of the liver, uterus, breast, colon, skin, cervix and lung. A unique feature of the mushroom is that it only attacks tumor cells without troubling normal tissue. Researchers in Seoul, South Korea established that cells treated with an extract of chaga had 40 percent less DNA mutations compared to untreated cells. Scientists believe chaga’s immune enhancing characteristics are due to the presence of beta glucans, which trigger T-cell activity and the production of antibodies. The mushroom is also a rich source of sterols, flavonoids, polysaccharides, polyphenols, vitamins and minerals. What’s more, chaga is antiviral and anti-inflammatory. Natives of China, Siberia, Finland, Japan, Poland and North America have all appreciated chaga’s outstanding healing merits for hundreds of years.
Learn From Healthy Hotspots Around the World
No list concerning longevity would be complete without exploring the influence of diet. In 2000, Dan Buettner, a National Geographic explorer, set out to solve the mystery of centenarians around the world. Subsequently, the book The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, was born. He found that these communities all had similar qualities in common. They move, a lot. They carve out time to relax. Community is important, many times with a religious focus. Their social circles support healthy behaviors. And they’re devoted to family life.
Now Buettner has tackled the question: what do Blue Zone communities eat? How much and when? To qualify, the group had to be mostly free of ailments like obesity, cancer, heart disease and diabetes. This is what he discovered:
Inhabitants of Ikaria, Greece consume potatoes, goat’s milk, honey, wild greens, a bit of fruit, legumes (mainly garbanzo beans, lentils and black-eyed peas) and small amounts of fish. They also enjoy lemons and herbs like marjoram and sage in their tea. Sometimes Ikarians will eat goat meat, but not often.
For those in Okinawa, Japan, their diet includes bitter melon, tofu, garlic, green tea, brown rice, seaweed, turmeric, sweet potato and shiitake mushrooms. While Sardinians in Italy focus on goat’s milk and sheep’s cheese, sourdough bread, barley, fennel, fava beans, chickpeas, tomatoes, almonds, milk thistle tea and wine made from Grenache grapes. And residents of the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, also known for their longevity, eat beans, corn, squash, papayas, yams, bananas and peach palms — a Central American fruit brimming with vitamins A and C.
Surprisingly, a community in the United States made Buettner’s list. Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California focus on a “biblical diet” with plenty of grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables — with water as their only drink. Sugar is shunned, unless it comes from natural foods like dates, figs or fruit. Pesco-vegetarians in the community embrace a plant-based diet, but also includes one serving of fish per day. Studies have found pesco-vegetarians lived longer on average than vegan Adventists. Staples encompass avocados, salmon, nuts, beans, oatmeal, whole wheat bread and soy milk.
All Blue Zones shared the following characteristics concerning diet:
- Eat the lightest meal of the day in the late afternoon or early evening.
- Only eat until about 80% full to side-step weight gain.
- Adhere to a mostly plant-based diet, one with an emphasis on beans. Meat is consumed infrequently (about 5x a month), and always in small portions of 3-4 ounces.
- Moderate alcohol consumption — 1-2 glasses a day.
Not included in Buettner’s research, but known for their life expectancy of 100+ years, people living in Bama Yao, China have traditionally included a novel element in their diet: hempseed. As with other hot spots of longevity, residents of Bama Yao thrive on a nutrient-rich diet and benefit from a pristine environment. But it appears a tiny seed of the hemp plant is the secret to their exceptional life span.
Hempseed is rich in a range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and healthy fats — like calcium, magnesium, potassium, sulfur and iron, with ample amounts of A,B, C, and E. Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids round out the stellar nutritional profile and encourage a keen mind and robust heart health. One rare omega-6 oil found in hempseed — gamma linolenic acid (GLA) — combats inflammation, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, atherosclerosis, diabetes and cancer. As an added bonus, the seed also contains noteworthy levels of phytol (a powerful antioxidant), which reduces the risk of cancer.
Back in the West, another food is making waves on the health front. Researchers have found that people who eat a 1-ounce serving (about a handful) of nuts a day live longer than those who don’t consume nuts on a regular basis. The team believes part of the reason nuts are so beneficial is because they curb appetite, ultimately leading to less food intake and weight gain. They also help manage blood sugar levels.
Whether you opt for a specific yogic practice, embrace herbal remedies, look to food as medicine or try a bit of everything, one aspect is certain: we need not be at the mercy of genetics or our environment. Instead, we can take an active roll in our health, and in the process, enjoy a bright and buoyant life now and in the future.
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