How Thanksgiving dinner can save your brain, your gut…
and even your life
Many people tell me Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday of the year. It’s a uniquely American holiday, but anyone and everyone can participate.
Beyond the “harvest home” traditions in which people give thanks for autumn crops, Thanksgiving is directly tied to American history… from George Washington observing a day of thanks during the American Revolution, to Abraham Lincoln naming an official observance during the Civil War, to FDR fixing an official date for a national holiday during World War II.
Perhaps we should give thanks for Thanksgiving itself, as the activities we typically associate with this holiday have some significant health benefits.
In fact, today I’d like to share some new research showing how eating, drinking, and being “merry” is a good prescription not only for Thanksgiving, but year round.
How you can keep a major “silent killer” from striking this holiday season
We’ve known for decades how important it is to stay connected with friends and family. And some recent evidence shows, once again, why you should take the valuable opportunity presented by the holidays to gather with loved ones.
Earlier this year, a representative from The Gerontological Society of America testified during a U.S. Senate hearing on aging issues that social isolation in older Americans is a “silent killer.”¹(This same Society stated there’s no reason to give toxic statin drugs to older Americans for health or longevity purposes, so I tend to pay attention to what they’re saying.)
And now, scientists at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania (where I’ve been asked to help plan our 40th reunion), have found a mechanism to help explain why social isolation causes chronic illness.²
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.”
So, if you have the opportunity to share Thanksgiving dinner with friends or family this year, do it not just for the sake of being polite, but for the sake of your own health as well.
And if you’re looking for a good host or hostess gift, a nice bottle of wine is always appropriate. Especially in light of some more new research…
A toast or two can boost cognition in older people
When it comes time to make a Thanksgiving toast, be thankful that reams of research show that alcohol consumption in moderation is beneficial for your health. Even despite the efforts of prohibitionists and politically correct “scientific” guidelines designed to make drinking a problem for everyone… because of problem drinkers.
Most studies on moderate alcohol consumption have focused on the heart health benefits (which in my view, is due to stress reduction). But new research shows that moderate drinking is also linked to cognitive health in older age.3
The study tracked alcohol consumption in 1,344 older adults in San Diego County from 1984 to 2013.
Researchers found that men and women over age 85 who consumed “moderate” or “heavy” amounts of alcohol five to seven days per week were twice as likely to be cognitively healthy compared to non-drinkers.
They defined moderate consumption as one drink per day for adult women of any age and men age 65 and older, and up to two drinks per day for men under 65. “Heavy” drinking was defined as up to three drinks per day for women and for men age 65 and older, and four drinks per day for men under 65.
Bottom line: It’s beneficial to your body and brain to have a toast—or two, or even three, over the course of the day—especially in social circumstances like Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving side dishes may hold the secret to ultimate health
When it comes time to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, be sure to fill your plate with all the traditional side dishes: pumpkin, squash, sweet potatoes, yams, carrots, spinach, leafy greens, and yellow corn. (Be sure that the corn variety is “yellow corn,” and not “sweet corn,” which is often genetically-modified. Yellow corn also contains the carotenoid zeaxanthin, which I’ll touch on momentarily.)
The yellow, orange, and red colors in these foods are due to a type of nutrient called carotenoids.
I remember Thanksgiving 1984, when I and my colleagues at the National Cancer Institute and the USDA had just discovered the role of red-orange-yellow carotenoids like lutein, lycopene, and zeaxanthin in human nutrition and metabolism. These nutrients act as antioxidants.
So it makes sense that a new study links higher lutein and zeaxanthin levels to a more agile and “youthful” brain.4
The study included 60 men and women, ages 25 to 45. Each participant was given a series of cognitive tasks and their brain activity was measured. The researchers found that the older people with higher lutein and zeaxanthin levels had similar brain activity to the younger participants.
Of course, no Thanksgiving dinner would be complete without cranberries. And, as luck would have it, they also play an integral role in the health-promoting properties of the traditional Thanksgiving meal…
In January 2013, in a breakthrough edition of Insiders’ Cures, I reported on the emerging importance of the human microbiome—including probiotics in the GI tract—for nutrition and metabolism. I was also interviewed by a Boston Globe reporter on this topic.
Now, a new study demonstrated that a compound found in the cell walls of cranberries acts as a prebiotic (food) for the beneficial bacteria in the human GI tract. This and other probiotics are key for energy production, which you need to not only digest your Thanksgiving dinner, but also take that long walk afterwards.
And speaking of probiotic foods, one other item to consider including in your Thanksgiving meal: walnuts. Not only are they versatile and compliment a wide variety of dishes, but they also have many health benefits. In fact, recent research suggests the reason walnuts may be so healthy is because of their relationship with the GI microbiome and probiotics.
A new study on animals found that walnuts markedly altered probiotic balance. In essence, walnuts spurred the animals’ GI microbiomes to produce more beneficial probiotic bacteria and fewer harmful intestinal bacteria.6
So as the holiday season approaches, remember to fill your table with healthy foods, drink in moderation, and don’t stint on the merriment with your loved ones. You’ll be thankful for all of the beneficial effects this healthy philosophy has on your life and longevity.
1Kluss, 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
2“Reduced Sleep During Social Isolation Leads to Cellular Stress and Induction of the Unfolded Protein Response.” Sleep, Volume 40, Issue 7, 1 July 2017.
3“Alcohol Intake and Cognitively Healthy Longevity in Community-Dwelling Adults: The Rancho Bernardo Study.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2017; 59 (3): 803.
4“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.
5“A human gut commensal ferments cranberry carbohydrates to produce formate.” Appl Environ Microbiol. 2017 Jun 30. pii: AEM.01097-17.
6“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.