Have you listened to Dr Michael Mosley’s podcast Just One Thing? You should: it’s full of easy changes you can make to your daily life to improve your health and wellbeing, which is something most of us can use after over a year of on-and-off lockdown.
If you’re all caught up, don’t despair! Dr Mosley has prescribed us plenty of excellent health advice in his column in BBC Science Focus Magazine – so we’ve gathered together his seven top tips to help you eat better, sleep better and feel better.
Eat a Mediterranean-style diet to beat stress
Some of the components of the Med diet (such as oily fish and the olive oil) have a well-established anti-inflammatory effect, and there is mounting evidence that many cases of depression and anxiety may be linked to brain inflammation. But the foods that make up the Mediterranean diet also boost ‘good’ bacteria in your gut, and they, in turn, produce their own anti-inflammatory compounds. Foods which have a positive effect on our mood are called ‘psychobiotics’.
As part of a podcast series I’ve made for the BBC called Just One Thing, I interviewed Dr Kirsten Berding Harold, a researcher from University College Cork, who is part of a team who first coined the word, ‘psychobiotics’.
In one of her most recent studies she asked a group of volunteers to eat what she calls, ‘microbiota-friendly food’, which included more wholegrains, fruits and vegetables, but also fermented foods like kefir (a form of fermented yoghurt), which are rich in probiotics.
Their mood and microbiota were tested at the beginning and end of the study, and there were some impressive changes. Not only did their microbiome change, but as Kirsten explained, “after four weeks on the diet they felt a lot less stressed and had an improved mood. So the preliminary results suggest that it really does help your mood and mental health to eat a diet that is microbiota friendly.”
Read Dr Mosley’s full advice on psychobiotic foods.
Eat fermented foods to improve your gut microbiome
The current excitement around fermented foods is based largely on the impact that eating them has on your gut microbiome – the trillions of microbes that live in your gut and which have a profound impact on our health.
Kimchi is a Korean dish, made of cabbage, seasoned with chilli, garlic and ginger, and then fermented. It is rich in vitamin K and riboflavin (B2) and also contains plenty of Lactobacillus bacteria, which can survive the acid bath of the stomach and make their way down to your large intestine.
In a small study carried out a few years ago by Korean researchers (‘Beneficial effects of fresh and fermented kimchi in prediabetic individuals’), 21 patients with prediabetes were asked to either eat fresh (1-day-old) or fermented (10-day-old) kimchi for eight weeks. Then, after a four-week washout, they switched to the other form of kimchi for the next eight weeks.
Eating either type of kimchi led to a significant reduction in weight and waist size, but it was only when the patients were eating the fermented stuff that they saw significant improvements in blood pressure and insulin sensitivity, suggesting the Lactobacillus were doing something.
Read Dr Mosley’s full advice on eating fermented foods.
Keep an eye on your heart rate
Your resting heart rate is a good measure of fitness and also a powerful predictor of future health.
According to a study published in The Lancet in September 2008, patients with heart rates above 70 beats per minute are at greater risk of heart attack and hospital admission. With regular exercise you should see your resting heart rate fall.
Your resting heart rate is easy to find. Turn your hand so your palm is facing you. Use the index and middle finger from your other hand to measure it at the wrist, just below the thumb. Measure it when you’re sitting down and relaxed, preferably first thing in the morning.
Top athletes can have a resting pulse as low as 40 beats per minute. Mine is around 54.
So how can you get your heart rate down? Do more exercise and, if you’re overweight, lose a few kilos. The heavier your body, the harder your heart has to work to supply it with blood.
Read Dr Mosley’s full advice on monitoring your heart rate.
Eat plenty of beetroot and garlic to keep your blood pressure down
An ideal healthy systolic blood pressure is between 90 and 120mmHg, so what can you do if your blood pressure is slightly too high? Well, losing a bit of weight, exercising more and stopping smoking will all help, but so can consuming certain foods – or at least that is what we discovered on Trust Me, I’m A Doctor, when we did a small experiment with Dr Andy Webb at King’s College, London, a few years ago.
We wanted to test the claims that beetroot, garlic and watermelon could lower blood pressure. All three foods are said to work by boosting levels of nitric oxide in the body, which in turn causes blood vessels to open up and blood pressure to fall.
So what happened? Well the average systolic blood pressure of the volunteers at the start was 133.6mmHg. On the beetroot diet, this went down to 128.7mmHg. Consuming two cloves of garlic a day gave a similar result (129.3mmHg).
A fall in blood pressure of around 5mmHg doesn’t sound a lot, but studies suggest that if was maintained it would translate into a reduction of the risk of stroke and heart attack of around 10 per cent.
I love garlic and I am happy to pile my plate with beetroot and other nitrate-rich veg, such as rocket, spinach, chard and broccoli.
Read Dr Mosley’s full advice on lowering your blood pressure.
Caffeine isn’t all bad: it also has major health benefits
Apart from the flavour, what I love about tea and coffee is that they’re stimulants, rich with the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug, caffeine. A white, crystalline powder, it’s produced by plants to protect them against insect attack.
Not only do tea and coffee perk me up in the mornings, but there is strong evidence that caffeine consumers enjoy a range of other health benefits, with the benefits being clearer for coffee than tea.
A massive review of studies, ‘Coffee consumption and health: umbrella review of meta-analyses of multiple health outcomes’, published in the British Medical Journal, which looked at more than 220 studies, found that drinking coffee was associated with a significantly lower risk of heart disease and cancer, possibly because it’s rich in antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory compounds. Coffee drinking was also associated with a lower rate of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Try intermittent fasting to shed weight (and help fight off ageing)
Back in 2012 I made a science documentary called Eat, Fast And Live Longer which explored the science behind approaches to extending healthy life and holding back the hands of time. I concluded that the only proven way to do this was by calorie restricting.
Now, eight years later, there’s stronger proof of the benefits from calorie restriction or intermittent fasting (where you reduce your calories for two days a week).
In one study, CALERIE (Comprehensive Assessment of the Long-Term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy), researchers tested the effects of long-term calorie restriction on non-obese people.
In the study, 218 healthy people of a normal weight were randomly assigned to either cutting daily calorie intake by 15 per cent for two years, or continuing as normal.
Those in the calorie restriction group, not surprisingly, lost weight (an average of nine kilograms) but also saw big improvements in a range of risk factors, including cholesterol, blood pressure and C-reactive protein (a measure of inflammation). They also reported improvements in sleep, mood, sex drive and quality of life.
Read Dr Mosley’s full advice on intermittent fasting.
Soak up some nature
There is a wood near me that I walk or run through most days. Even on a wet winter’s day I get pleasure from being among the trees, though to be honest, when I am running, I wear headphones to distract myself from the pain in my lungs.
But perhaps I should be spending more time appreciating my surroundings by cultivating a sense of ‘awe’. Doing that might increase my sense of joy and even my ‘smile intensity’. Or at least that was the finding of a study I came across, published in the journal Emotion.
In the study, scientists from the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, divided 60 volunteers into two groups. One group were asked to go for a 15-minute walk once a week for eight weeks, and to spend their time thinking about holidays, work, children, anything ‘internal’. The other group were also asked to walk, but to notice the colour of the leaves, the pattern of light on the ground, anything that might induce a feeling of ‘awe’.
They filled in questionnaires before and after, and it was found that those who were paying more attention to their surroundings got more benefit from their walks.
Read Dr Mosley’s full advice on how to get even more from your daily walks.