Many people tell me that Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday. It started originally as a time for communities to take a break and give thanks as they finish up the hard work of bringing in, preparing, and storing the fall harvest.
Of course, Thanksgiving Day also has a particular history in America. George Washington observed a day of thanks during the American Revolution. Abraham Lincoln made it an official observance during the Civil War. And FDR fixed an official date for a national holiday during the Great Depression and World War II.
On this day of thanks, I give thanks — especially — for these four things…
First, I’m thankful for a day dedicated to giving thanks.
Giving thanks and feeling grateful benefits your mind and body. Indeed, gratitude is one of our healthiest feelings. Sometimes, I will even make a list of things for which I am grateful. Seeing it on paper can give your mood a positive anchor. And this sort of list can also provide a sense of real progress through life’s challenges.
As the Classical Roman statesman, Cicero, said, “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”
Second, I’m thankful to spend time at Thanksgiving with friends and family.
This day together renews and refreshes relationships that last throughout the years.
This aspect is especially important, considering research links social isolation to chronic illness risk and a shorter lifespan.
In fact, during a U.S. Senate hearing on aging this year, Lenard W. Kaye, Ph.D., testified on behalf of the American Gerontological Society that helping older Americans stay connected socially can dramatically support their health and longevity. Dr. Kaye stated, “social isolation is a silent killer that places people at higher risk for a variety of poor health outcomes.”
And now, scientists at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, have found a mechanism to help explain why social isolation causes chronic illness. The Penn researchers studied fruit flies and found that social isolation leads to sleep loss, which in turn, leads to activation of a cellular defense mechanism—one that is found in virtually all animals (including humans and fruit flies).
Although short-term activation of this defense mechanism helps protect the cells, chronic activation can actually contribute to the aging process and to age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s. The lead researcher stated, “we suspect that stresses from the combination of aging and social isolation create a double-whammy at the cellular and molecular level.”
Third, I’m thankful to raise a glass to toast health and happiness.
As I explained earlier this week, drinking in moderation benefits your health, despite attempts by prohibitionists and the government’s politically correct ninnies to make drinking a problem for everyone.
Most previous studies on moderate alcohol consumption have looked specifically at heart health. (In my view, moderate alcohol benefits the heart primarily because it reduces stress.)
Now, newer research links drinking among older, white, middle-class adults to improved cognitive health.
In fact, in one new study, older, white, middle-class adults who moderately consume alcohol are more likely to live to the age of 85 without dementia or other cognitive impairments than non-drinkers. And perhaps more amazingly, men and women over 85 who consumed what they called “heavy” or “moderate” amounts of alcohol, five to seven days per week, were twice as likely to be cognitively healthy compared to non-drinkers.
I do, however, have some qualms about the guidelines the National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers used to define “moderate,” “heavy,” and “excessive” drinkers in the study, but that’s a topic for another day…
The bottom line is that enjoying a toast — or two or even three — over the course of the day benefits your heart and your brain. Especially on a festive social occasion like Thanksgiving.
For more details about that impressive NIH study, see the November 2017 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter. (If you’re not yet a subscriber, now is the perfect time to become one.)
Fourth, I give thanks for all the delicious, healthy food we consume on Thanksgiving.
As you know, the government’s dietary guidelines to avoid meat and fats were all wrong, all along.
Now, we know that eating butter, eggs, meat, and nuts benefits health. (Our grandparents knew this all along!) So, go ahead and enjoy your turkey today, including the dark meat. It’ll give you some much-needed protein and fat.
Of course, we also fill our Thanksgiving table with dishes made with the beautiful yellow, orange, and red bounty of the fall season. These colorful, seasonal foods include so many of my favorites — carrots, pumpkins, squash, sweet potatoes, yellow corn, and yams — and reflect the presence of healthy carotenoids.
My colleagues and I actually discovered the role of carotenoids like lutein, lycopene and zeaxanthin, in human nutrition and metabolism around Thanksgiving in 1984. The body safely converts these nutrients, which act as antioxidants, into vitamin A in the body. Lutein even crosses the blood-brain barrier to support brain and eye health.
Indeed, a new study links lutein levels to a more “youthful” brain. In that study, older men and women with higher intake of lutein and zeaxanthin from yellow vegetables performed as well on cognitive tests as did younger participants.
Many people also associate nuts with the fall harvest. I, for one, always put out a bowl of walnuts at Thanksgiving.
Like so many other foods and drinks consumed during this holiday, walnuts also benefit brain health — which perhaps isn’t so surprising, considering a walnut’s shape is similar to that of the human brain!
Indeed, according to folklore, the shape of a plant in Nature indicates the organ that it benefits. So ⎯ since walnuts look like the brain, they must benefit the brain.
In medieval Europe, these beliefs were part of “the doctrine of signatures,” which led colonial physicians in 17th- and 18th-century America to adopt Native American traditional remedies into regular medical practice. (I’ll tell you more about this in an upcoming article.)
We now know walnuts contain rich, brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids as well as phytochemicals, phenols, fiber, and antioxidants. In addition, research links walnut consumption with a reduced risk of cancer (including colon), Type II diabetes, and heart disease, and increased longevity. Recent research suggests walnuts may be so healthy because of their relationship with the GI microbiome and probiotics. (Subscribers can read more about the importance of gut health in the November issue of my monthly newsletter, Insiders’ Cures. Not yet a subscriber? Now’s your chance!)
Of course, no Thanksgiving would be complete without some homemade cranberry sauce. I always thought it helped add a bright, tart flavor to the meal. And now, a new study shows cranberries help improve digestion.
In fact, cranberries contain a compound that acts as a prebiotic (food) for the beneficial bacteria in your GI tract. Your body also uses prebiotics to produce energy. And you’ll need the extra energy to digest your Thanksgiving dinner and take a long walk afterward!
If modern medicine had any real solutions for chronic diseases, I could recommend them. But until that time, eating, drinking (in moderation), and being merry seem like a good prescription.
I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to use my brain — and my heart — writing to you this Thanksgiving… and every day. I am also thankful for the wonderful team of people who work with me (and put up with me) every day to put out useful information we can all be proud of.
And it goes without saying that I’m very thankful for you as well, dear reader. I love hearing from my readers and thoroughly enjoy sharing scientific knowledge to help better the lives of others.
May you enjoy a happy, healthy holiday with friends and family. Perhaps you will even share some of these health benefits at the dinner table, over a delicious Thanksgiving feast!
Kluss, Todd. “Social Isolation Threatens Well-Being in Later Life, Says GSA Member in Senate Testimony.” 2017, April 27. The Gerontological Society of America. Retrieved from: https://www.geron.org/press-room/press-releases/2017-press-releases/748-social-isolation-threatens-well-being-in-later-life-says-gsa-member-in-senate-testimony
“Reduced Sleep During Social Isolation Leads to Cellular Stress and Induction of the Unfolded Protein Response.” Sleep, Volume 40, Issue 7, 1 July 2017.
“Alcohol Intake and Cognitively Healthy Longevity in Community-Dwelling Adults: The Rancho Bernardo Study.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2017; 59 (3): 803.
“The Role of Retinal Carotenoids and Age on Neuroelectric Indices of Attentional Control among Early to Middle-Aged Adults.” Front Aging Neurosci. 2017 Jun 9;9:183.
“A human gut commensal ferments cranberry carbohydrates to produce formate.” Appl Environ Microbiol. 2017 Jun 30. pii: AEM.01097-17.
“Changes in the gut microbial communities following addition of walnuts to the diet.” J Nutr Biochem. 2017 Oct;48:94-102. doi: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2017.07.001.