As holistic health gains hold, a number of ancient wellness practices are being embraced and promoted. According to a March 2, 2020, article1 in The Guardian, many of these practices are rooted in the European wellness culture. Following is a sampling of ancient holistic health traditions making a comeback. How many of them have you tried?
Spain has a long history of taking a siesta during the hottest time of the afternoon. To this day, many Spaniards will take a break from work in the afternoon and work later into the evening to compensate. The Guardian quotes Paul Joseph, founder of Health and Fitness Travel:2
“Even just slowing down for a short period of time allows you to disconnect from the world and subsequently boost energy, focus and creativity.”
The research on napping is mixed, however, with some studies showing benefits such as lowering the prevalence of heart disease (particularly among working men),3 improving learning,4 boosting emotional stability and lowering blood pressure, while others show it may actually increase the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and cognitive decline, especially in older adults.5
While it’s unlikely that naps are directly causing these health problems, the association exists nonetheless, and more research is needed to determine who benefits from naps, who doesn’t and why.
The Nordic Diet
You’re probably familiar with the Mediterranean diet, but the Nordic diet, with a focus on fish, may be part of why Iceland “consistently ranks highly in metrics such as life expectancy and blood pressure,” The Guardian states, adding:6
“The Nordic diet shares some similarities with the life-extending Mediterranean diet, although it is lower in fruit and vegetables, advocating moderate consumption of fat and protein along with canola oil (a type of rapeseed oil), wild berries and root vegetables.
A diet high in fresh fish, and therefore omega-3 fatty acids, is considered key to a healthy diet in Iceland. Haddock, herring and cod — including the cheeks and tongues, the most prized parts — are all dietary staples. Fermented shark is a national dish.
It is also common for Icelanders to take a daily supplement of cod-liver oil during the winter months, when it is difficult to get enough vitamin D from sunlight alone.”
The EPIC-Potsdam study,7 published in 2018, compared the Nordic and Mediterranean diets, assessing the ability of each to lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke and cancer.
Looking at data from 27,548 participants who were followed for 10.6 years, they found the Nordic diet “showed a possible beneficial effect on [heart attack] in the overall population and for stroke in men, while both scores reflecting the [Mediterranean Diet] conferred lower risk of [Type 2 diabetes] in the overall population and of [heart attack] in women.”
Small fatty cold-water fish such as herring, anchovies, sardines and mackerel are excellent sources of marine-based omega-3 fats. If you don’t fancy these types of fish, consider taking an omega-3 supplement such as krill oil, which has several benefits over regular fish oil.
Krill is also the most sustainable form of omega-3, as harvesting is strictly regulated. You can learn more about this in “Research Demonstrated Superiority of Krill Oil Compared to Fish Oil.”
Mud treatments and mud wraps, which have been used therapeutically for 25 centuries,8 were popularized by the Italians during the Roman Empire. Mud therapy is often referred to as fangotherapy, after the Italian word “fango,” which means “mud.”
Mud is generally advertised as having cleansing and relaxing, antistress effects, but science suggests its health benefits may be far-reaching. As reported in the Spanish journal Anales de Medicina Interna:9
“Mud has a place as a non-pharmacological tool in certain clinical settings, such as degenerative articular processes, skin disorders, and others. … Fangotherapy in arthritis patients seems to cause variations in amino acid involved in cartilage homeostasis, and also produce reduction in pain ratings in gonarthrosis.
Mud modifies nitric oxide, myeloperoxidase and glutathione peroxidase serum levels in arthritic patients and beta-endorphin and stress hormones in patients affected by osteoarthritis by reducing inflammation, pain and therefore diminishes the cause of stress.
[It] has been confirmed that the thermal stress associated with Fangotherapy activates the pituitary gland … Furthermore, steroids and antimicrobial activity of certain therapeutic mud has been suggested.”
Contrast therapy typically involves the use of sauna followed by cold-water immersion, either in a lake, pool, shower or bath. In the winter, immersing yourself in snow is another option. Sauna bathing has a long history in Finland.
To this day, most homes in Finland have a built-in sauna. Sauna bathing has been shown to strengthen heart health and offer significant protection against cardiovascular diseases,10,11 and adding the contrast of a cold dip afterward can further magnify those effects.
Sauna bathing is one of my favorite therapies as it generates heat shock proteins that repair protein misfolding, which is a major part of aging and disease. I believe this is why all-cause mortality is so radically decreased in Finns who sauna more than five times a week.
Sweating in a sauna will also help eliminate toxins, improve blood circulation, kill disease-causing microbes and improve your mitochondrial function. Research has even shown that regular sauna use correlates with a reduced risk of death from any cause, and may help stave off Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
For example, researchers in Finland found that men who used a sauna four to seven times a week for an average of 15 minutes had a 66% lower risk of developing dementia, and 65% lower risk of Alzheimer’s, compared to men who used the sauna just once a week.12,13
Recent research14 has also demonstrated that sauna bathing helps modulate your autonomic nervous system, which governs your stress responses.15 This helps explain why most people feel “nice and mellow” afterward.
As detailed in “The Many Health Benefits of Cryotherapy,” there’s a compelling body of evidence showing exposure to harsh conditions can be highly beneficial and that extreme temperature variations help optimize many biological functions.
Like exposure to heat, exposure to cold boosts mitochondrial function and numbers. Cold thermogenesis has also been shown to:16,17,18
Strengthen joint tissue and improve
Support weight loss efforts by increasing metabolism
Increase blood circulation
Reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety by at least 50 percent19
Speed rate of recovery following joint or muscle injury20
Provide temporary relief lasting about 90 minutes from pain associated with arthritis21
Reduce pain and swelling following injury
Reduce your risk of developing cognitive decline and dementia by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress22
Improve symptoms of eczema23
Enhance benefits of physical therapy
Reduce pain associated with migraines when applied to the back of the neck for about 30 minutes24
Improve muscle function and strength
Boost mental focus and attention by increasing production of norepinephrine in your brain.
Norepinephrine can be increased twofold just by getting into 40-degree F. water for 20 seconds, or 57-degree water for a few minutes
Forest Bathing and Uitwaaien
Forest bathing is the English translation of the Japanese term “shinrin-yoku.” As the term suggests, it refers to the restorative and “cleansing” effects of spending time in forests and other nature spaces. In Japan, it’s a revered and long-standing tradition known to promote health and well-being.
The benefits of forest bathing go beyond the obvious. As explained in the film, “Call of the Forest,” trees have medicinal properties. For example, limonene, produced by trees, is an anticancer compound used in chemotherapy.
Linolenic acids aid brain functioning and pinenes have antibiotic properties. Inhaling these and other compounds emitted by trees can provide a mildly narcotic effect while boosting immune function and relaxing your body. The soil of the forest also has healing powers, including soil bacteria shown to improve mood, so don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.
The Dutch word “uitwaaien” is a similar term, but refers more specifically to spending time outdoors in “wild, windy weather.” According to The Guardian:25
“By replacing ‘bad air’ with ‘good air,’ it is believed to leave you feeling clear-headed and refreshed. ‘It feels exhilarating — wind is distracting, so it’s sort of meditative, in the sense you cannot think about anything else,’ says [Global Wellness Institute research director, Beth] McGroarty.”
Without doubt, spending more time in nature is one of the simplest ways to improve your general well-being and emotional health.
A massive study26 involving data from more than 140 trials and 290 million people revealed exposure to greenspace — defined as open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation — led to significant reductions in diastolic blood pressure, salivary cortisol (a physiological marker of stress) and heart rate, along with significant decreases in Type 2 diabetes and mortality from all causes and those specifically related to the heart.