Here’s How the Longest-Living People on the Planet Maintain Optimal Gut Health

Photo: Getty Images/ Yagi Studio
There's a reason why gut health dominates basically every conversation that has to do with staying healthy. Keeping your immune system on point, managing depression and anxiety, cognitive function... It all comes back to the gut. So it isn't exactly far-fetched to extend the connection to longevity.

The connection between gut health and longevity is a topic longevity founder Dan Buettner explores in his latest book, The Blue Zones Challenge ($14). Buettner is famously known for traveling all around the world and pinpointing five regions where people regularly live to be over 100 in good health, places he deemed Blue Zones. Even though the Blue Zones span the globe, there are some diet and lifestyle habits they all have in common—including several that directly affect the gut. In Buettner's book he highlights six of them, which he elaborates on here. This is one gut check that just might add years to your life.

Experts In This Article

6 gut health habits practiced by people in Blue Zones

1. Eat more whole grains, nuts, veggies, beans, and fresh fruit.

Not surprisingly, many of the gut health habits on Buettner's list have to do with diet. Can you guess the important nutrient whole grains, nuts, veggies, beans, and fruit all have in common? Yep, fiber.  “Fiber [helps] feed your gut microbes, so you maintain a diverse and healthy microbiome,” registered dietitian Samantha Cassetty, MS, RDN previously told Well+Good. She adds that as we age, the muscles in the digestive tract weaken. This makes it even more important to get enough fiber later in life.

Buettner says that all five of these foods are popular in Blue Zones, though each region prepares them differently. "The longevity all-star food is beans," he told Well+Good. "If you're eating about a cup of beans a day, it's probably worth an extra four years of life expectancy." Besides fiber, these plant-based foods are also great sources of other longevity-supporting nutrients, such as antioxidants which are linked to helping prevent chronic inflammation.

2. Brush and floss your teeth regularly.

"The bacteria associated with poor oral health can cause system-wide inflammation, which is the root of all age-related disease," Buettner says. Scientific studies back him up. For example, a study published in the journal Alzheimer's and Dementia found a connection between harmful bacteria in the mouth and Alzheimer's, a link pointing to body-wide inflammation. Poor oral health has also been scientifically linked to cardiovascular disease, the number one cause of death in the U.S.

"Your mouth is a mirror for what’s going on in your gut and your body,” Gerry Curatola, DDS and author of The Mouth Body Connection, told Well+Good. "What you do in your mouth can have profound effects on your gut microbiome, which is a close cousin to the oral microbiome. Your mouth goes one step further because it protects you from deadly viruses and bacteria.”

3. Eat fermented foods.

Buettner has eaten a lot of meals with people in Blue Zones and something he's seen first-hand is that fermented foods are eaten regularly. "In Ikaria, it's yogurt; in Sardinia, the fermented food of choice is congealed sheep's milk; and in Okinawa, it's tofu and miso paste," he says.

Fermented foods up the amount of good bacteria in the gut, which helps prevent chronic inflammation. Some fermented foods Buettner recommends consuming regularly that are widely accessible here in the States are sauerkraut, low-sugar yogurt, and tempeh.

4. Eat foods rich in polyphenols.

Polyphenols are active compounds that help protect the body from harmful free radicals including ultraviolet rays, radiation, and some pathogens. According to Buettner, many of the foods popular in Blue Zones are great sources of it. A few in particular include coffee, berries, nuts, spinach, and dark chocolate.

5. Season your food with garlic, turmeric, and ginger.

There are many anti-inflammatory herbs linked to longevity, but Buettner highlights these specific ones because they have especially been scientifically proven to help rid the body of harmful bacteria. "Garlic fights all types of infections—fungal, bacterial, parasitic, and viral—regulates blood sugar, lowers blood pressure, and lowers cholesterol, to name a few," naturopath Ariana Lutzi, ND, previously told Well+Good. Ginger and turmeric have become the (ahem) gold standard when it comes to warding off inflammation with herbs. Cooking with this trio (either separately or together) on a regular basis will benefit your body *and* your meals.

Watch the video below to learn more about the health benefits of turmeric:

6. Limit artificial sweeteners.

So far, Buettner has highlighted several types of foods that are common in all five Blue Zones. But something they collectively don't eat much of is sugar. They don't replace it with chemical sugar substitutes like Splenda either. "Honey is their go-to sweetener," Buettner says. "It's easier on the organs than sugar and also has more nutrients." He adds that Ikarian honey has even been linked to lowering inflammation and killing cancer cells in vitro. Some reasons why honey makes the best sugar alternative is because it's antibacterial, antimicrobial, and high in antioxidants. Sugar on the other hand, is directly linked to killing the good bacteria in the gut.

The great part about these gut health tips is that you don't have to live in a Blue Zone to put them to practice. Upping your intake of whole grains, veggies, fruits, nuts, beans, and fermented foods is something you can do no matter where in the world you live. Ditto for using honey as your go-to sweetener and brushing your teeth. Over time, these small habits have a big effect. One you'll likely be around to see pay off for many, many years.

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