The Greek island of Ikaria is one of the so-called Blue Zones. Blue Zones are geographical locations, which are famous for their distinctive number of centenarians (people who are 100 years old or older). See my article about another Blue Zone, the Okinawa islands, here.
Ikaria Island has an area of about 160 square kilometres and is located 50 kilometres off the west coast of Turkey, in the Aegean Sea. The island’s population is 10.000 inhabitants. Ikaria already had a reputation as a resort destination 25 centuries ago. The Greeks travelled to the island to relax in the hot springs of Therma. In the XVII century, Bishop of Ikaria Joseph Georgirenis, described its inhabitants as “proud people who sleep on the ground.” “The most outstanding thing on the island is their air and water”, he wrote. “They are so healthy that people live very long, it is a very common thing here to see people in the age of one hundred years.”
Ikaria had been repeatedly attacked by the Persians, the Romans and the Turks, which resulted in the population being grouped in the central part of the island. This created an isolated culture. The islanders are well aware of their neighbours and dedicate a lot of time talking to them. They regularly drink wine together, play domino till late in the evening and generally have a relaxing pace of life. Thanks to the pure air and the warm climate, the island’s inhabitants spend a lot of time being physically active outdoors.
The Icaria study
In 2009, Dr. Christina Chrysohoou, a cardiologist from the University of Athens School of Medicine, together with a team of scientists, initiated the “Icaria” study. From June to October 2009, scientists studied the lifestyle and nutrition habits of 631 men and 699 women aged 64 to 84 years. Researchers have found that the study participants were eating six times as much beans than the Americans. They also ate fish twice a week, meat five times a month, on average they drank two to three cups of coffee a day, two to four glasses of wine and consumed olive oil in liberation. Researchers also noted that the islanders regularly consumed local “mountain tea” made from dried herbs. The main ingredients are oregano, sage, mint, rosemary, wormwood and dandelion leaves. Dr. Chrysohoou notices that mountain herbs are traditionally used by the Greeks for therapeutic purposes. For instance, wild mint is believed to fight gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) and gastrointestinal diseases; rosemary is used as a gout remedy; wormwood is believed to improve blood circulation. Most of these herbs are known to be mild diuretic (promote often urination). Doctors often use diuretics to treat hypertension. It is probable that traditional tea promotes the optimal blood pressure of Ikaria residents throughout their lives. Honey is also considered a panacea. It is used by the Greeks for everything from treating wounds and the flu to getting rid of a hangover. The elderly start their day with a spoonful of honey.
The inhabitants of Ikaria owe their long life not exclusively to their diet. It is a combination of geography, culture, nutrition and lifestyle. The following five easy steps adopted from the islanders will help you feel a little bit like them, and possibly improve your health and prolong your life.
- 1. Eat a diet in the Mediterranean style
The diet of Ikaria residents is a variety of the Mediterranean diet. Its distinctive features are large amounts of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, potatoes and olive oil.
- 2. If you use dairy, go for goat milk
Goat milk is a great source of calcium, potassium and the anti-stress hormone tryptophan. It is hypoallergenic and is generally well tolerated by people suffering from lactose (milk sugar) intolerance.
- 3. Stock up on herbs
Ikaria residents like to drink herbal tea with family and friends. This drink is a natural antioxidant. Wild rosemary, sage and oregano are also diuretics, which release the body of excess sodium and water, and hence, can keep blood pressure under control.
- 4. Engage in physical activities
Ikaria centenarians are mostly poor people who live in the mountainous region of the island. They engage in daily gardening and household duties, and if they are done with all their own work, they help their neighbours.
- 5. Allow yourself to take a nap
Follow the example of the inhabitants of Icaria and break your day by taking a short nap. People who regularly doze are 35 percent less likely to die from heart disease. This may be because sleep reduces the level of stress hormones or gives your heart a rest.