Do you like drinking tea or taking a walk in the rain? Did you know that walking backwards can help your memory – or that avoiding mouth breathing is good for your oral health?
This may sound like a bad mash-up of the ‘Pina Colada song’, but in fact these are all topics (and more) that I cover in the new series of my podcast, Just One Thing (launching next week) .
As a reminder, in each episode of this series I take a closer look at a different “thing,” something simple that could improve your mental and physical well-being in surprising ways. Here’s a taste of what I discovered…
Have a cup of tea
A recent survey shows that we have become a nation of coffee drinkers, with more Britons now drinking coffee than tea.
But has the pendulum swung too far: is it time to start drinking more tea?
The most popular tea in Britain is ‘black’ tea, which comes from Camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub native to East Asia. The leaves are exposed to the air to darken, which, among other things, increases the caffeine content.
They’re also packed with plant compounds called polyphenols, which have multiple health benefits, including being good for our bones.
The most popular tea in Britain is ‘black’ tea, which comes from Camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub native to East Asia.
A study in Australia, which followed more than a thousand women over the age of 75 for more than a decade, found that those who drank more than three cups of tea a day were 30 percent less likely to have a bone fracture due to osteoporosis, compared to those who they drank one cup or less per week. (I’m especially interested in this because I have a family history of osteoporosis.)
Plus, it won’t surprise you that drinking tea is a great way to relax. But not, as you might expect, just because of the ritual; you stop work, put the kettle on, maybe have a chat.
There’s even a compound in tea, L-theanine, that research shows increases alpha brain wave activity, which are linked to being calm and creative.
And after your cup of tea, why not put on your walking shoes and go for a walk? Backwards. This may sound eccentric, but it is a technique that has been used in physiotherapy for decades to rehabilitate lower leg injuries.
It can improve your gait, balance and mobility, and a 2018 Roehampton University study found that walking backwards can sharpen your memory.
The scientists behind this experiment think that when you physically walk backwards, it helps you mentally ‘walk back’ and reminisce about something you did before. So if you’re wondering where you left those keys, maybe a quick walk backwards will refresh your memory.
When I first heard about this, I was intrigued that something so simple and, frankly, strange, could have such an effect.
It can be done on a treadmill, but with care you can do it safely at home or outside.
If you feel like giving it a try, start slowly, take a few steps and then build up. Try it with a partner: the idea is that you stand opposite each other and hold hands, so while you walk backwards, they walk forward. Then you exchange.
0r when it rains
If walking backwards isn’t your thing, go for a conventional walk, but in the rain.
For starters, if you’re looking for fresh air, there’s no better time to go for a walk than on a rainy day, as rain improves air quality.
A recent study in Japan found that when rain falls, the droplets attract and wash away tens of thousands of pollutant particles from the air. These traffic-generated particles are very harmful because they are small enough to penetrate deep into our lungs when we inhale them.
And then there’s that wonderful, earthy smell just after it rains.
For starters, if you’re looking for fresh air, there’s no better time to go for a walk than on a rainy day, as rain improves air quality (Stock Image)
It has a great name: petrichor, from the Greek word ‘petra’, meaning stone, and ‘ichor’, the liquid that flowed through the veins of the immortals in Greek mythology. That earthy smell is created when water hits dusty or clay soils, releasing tiny air bubbles that scent the air.
The main component of petrichor is a chemical called geosmin, which is made by bacteria in the soil. There is some evidence that inhaling geosmin can make us feel good.
In a 2022 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers asked 30 adults to handle soil that contained geosmin and soil that did not.
After just five minutes of exposure to geosmin, the volunteers had higher levels of the mood-boosting chemical serotonin in their blood and reduced levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation linked to depression (although it is not yet clear why this happens) . clearly).
Try to breathe through your nose
I’ve always rejected the claim that breathing in through your nose is healthier than through your mouth – after all, it still ends up in the same place (your lungs). But as I’ve discovered, mouth breathing has significant drawbacks, including reducing the amount of saliva you produce, making your mouth drier, and increasing the risk of tooth decay and inflamed gums.
Nose breathing can also give your brain a boost. In a recent study, volunteers were given a memory test while in a brain scanner: when they breathed through their noses, they performed better, and the scans showed that their brains worked more efficiently (Stock image)
And nasal breathing can also give your brain a boost. In a recent study, volunteers were given a memory test while in a brain scanner: when they breathed through their noses, they performed better, and the scans showed that their brains worked more efficiently.
Studies at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have shown that nasal breathing increases levels of nitric oxide, a chemical that fights infections in your sinuses and increases blood flow in your lungs, raising oxygen levels in your blood and, presumably, your brain.
Listen to Just One Thing on BBC Radio 4 every Wednesday from September 20 at 9.30am – then you can also download the whole series on BBC Sounds.
Early nights can protect the brain
Trying to function after a bad night’s sleep is difficult: you feel tired, irritable and, if you’re like me, you also have a crazy craving to eat something sweet.
While one restless night won’t do much damage, poor sleep night after night can increase the risk of dementia.
One theory is that if you don’t get enough sleep, especially if you get restorative deep sleep, you get a build-up of toxins in the brain that can lead to brain damage.
That’s because when you’re in deep sleep, a network of channels in your brain known as the glymphatic system opens up and flushes out all the toxic waste from the day.
While one restless night won’t do much damage, poor sleep night after night can increase the risk of dementia (Stock Image)
Unfortunately, as we get older we tend to sleep less deeply, which means our brains aren’t as good at flushing out the toxins. Young people usually sleep deeply for a few hours a night, but when you reach my age (66), you are lucky with half an hour.
But the good news is that researchers at Binzhou Medical University in China have now identified a protein, pleiotrophin, that – at least in mice – may protect brain cells against damage from toxins. When mice are deprived of sleep, their pleiotrophin levels drop.
The hope is that we will find a way to pump up pleiotrophin levels. Until then, make sure you go to bed early so you can maximize the amount of deep sleep you get.
Eat green bananas for a healthy liver
In last week’s column I mentioned that cooking, cooling and reheating pasta converts the carbohydrates in it into resistant starch, which is not easily broken down in the intestines but acts more like fiber.
So not only will you experience less blood sugar levels after eating it (because less of it is absorbed), but it also feeds the friendly bacteria in your intestines. They in turn convert the resistant starch into a fatty acid called butyrate, which has many benefits for the intestines, including reducing the risk of developing colon cancer.
The good news is that you can easily increase your consumption of resistant starch by eating oats, legumes and green bananas
Now a study has shown that consuming more resistant starches also helps your liver. Researchers from Shanghai Sixth People’s Hospital in China recruited 200 people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a build-up of fat in the liver – one in three Britons have early signs of the condition, which is associated with an increased risk of heart attack, stroke and liver damage.
Patients in the study were given a resistant starch powder made from corn or maize twice a day for four months. Compared to a control group, they had 40 percent less fat in their liver.
They also had reduced levels of liver enzymes and inflammatory factors associated with NAFLD. The good news is that you can easily increase your consumption of resistant starch by eating oats, legumes and green bananas. Or by cooking, cooling and reheating rice, pasta or potatoes.