The Optimal Life for Optimal Health

What is the optimal way of living for the best mental and physical health? In recent years there’s been a shift towards large-scale studies defining all sorts of aspects of our diet and life, from sleep, sun exposure, exercise, alcohol, specific foods, nutrients and so on that make it possible to define a way of living, exercising, eating, and supplementing that correlate to minimal risk of diseases and best cognition and mental health.

Knowing this ‘optimal lifestyle and diet’ is useful for us all at any age.

Much of this has come from examining risk factors for dementia – a subject I’ve been researching extensively this last year. This is very relevant because what’s good for your brain is good for your body. So, if you get everything aligned for brain health you’ll be healthy in all respects.

Even Hippocrates said so, believing the heart and mind were connected. Now we know there are more connections going from the heart to the limbic brain than the other way around. We also have the microbiome-gut-brain super highway.

Also, humanity’s USP is our highly evolved brain and that the brain consumes more nutrients that any other organ, closely followed by the liver, then heart in terms of energy production.

So here is what you need to take on board to live the optimal life for optimal health.

Sleep – why too much and too little is bad for you

The optimal amount of sleep for health, in large scale studies on almost half a million people from the UK’s BioBank project, is 7 hours. Sleeping one hour less, or one hour more increased future risk for dementia by a quarter. When you go to bed also makes a difference with 10pm being optimal. Going to bed much earlier, or later is linked to worse health outcomes. Not good news for owls.

But it isn’t just sleep but the balance of sleep, relaxation time and physical activity that counts. The best health outcomes occur in those who sleep 7 hours, have less than 4 hours of sedentary behaviour, eg watching the TV, and moderate to high levels of leisure time physical activity (more on this in the exercise section).[1]


While you might think the more the merrier, there is, actually, a limit. We tend of think of the positive side of making vitamin D in the skin in the presence of sunlight and possibly a boost to ‘happy’ brain chemicals such as serotonin. But too much sun exposure not only increases skin cancer and cataract risk but also literally overheats the brain and the radiation from the sun enters and ages the brain. In the summer those spending around 2 hours outdoors have the best cognitive function, while those spending under an hour or over 3 hours do worse.[2] Those spending 5 or more hours outdoors do steadily worse in terms of dementia risk. In the winter those spending an hour outdoors do better, yet the angle of the sun and being wrapped up, (therefore less skin exposure) makes this unlikely to be just to do with vitamin D (more in the Vitamin section).

Weight or Muscle Mass?

It’s not just what you weigh but how much of you is muscle than counts. Conventionally the metric most used in one’s Body Mass Index, which is your weight divided by your height, squared (kg/m2). You can find yours here: The best BMI is 27 to 30. Over 40 or under 25 cranks up later life dementia risk.[3]

But much more important is that portion of your body that is muscle. Muscle mass predicts, among other things, the density of your brain and fluid intelligence. In fact, it’s strength that counts the most so resistance training is where it’s at. In a study of 70 year olds doing eight repetitions of muscle building exercises, three times, twice a week for 6 months found that they had better cognition and more brain density, which is a good thing![4] The moral of the story is do something at least twice a week that ‘stresses’ your muscles. Holding yoga poses, pilates, hill walking, dancing, gym or weight work outs, chopping wood, being physical all count. Building muscle helps burn fat, stabilise blood sugar and strengthen bones as well as brains. It’s especially important to build or maintain upper body muscle mass as you age.

Keeping physically, mentally and socially active

One way to ‘measure’ your physical activity is with what’s called a MET or ‘metabolic equivalent’. Each of these deliver 700 MET minutes a week as the amount you need to be for optimal physical and mental health.

60 min light gardening/day
• 45 min housework/day
• 30 min brisk walking/day
• 30 min pilates/day
• 20 min light swimming/day
• 20 min weightlifting/day
• 20 min dancing/day
• 15 min stair climbing/day
• 5 min sprinting/day

As well as being physically active it’s important to be mentally and socially active and learn new things. In fact, retiring early is a significant risk factor for dementia. Comparing those who retire at age 60 those retiring after 66 more than halve their risk. Why our culture thinks young people should keep learning and older people should stop is, in itself, strange. Learning something new keeps you young. In one study both new and professional musicians gained the same benefit. Whether it’s a skill, a sport, an instrument or a language, much like you have to stress a muscle for it to grow, the same is true with the mind. It’s also really good to have social interaction. Hearing different points of view and debating issues gives your mind a good workout.

Build Stress Resilience

While sleep is the time you can ‘recover’ from all the strains of exercise – both physical and mental – too much stress puts a spanner in the works. Whether it’s subjective stress or stressful events – family deaths, financial problems, health problems and relationship breakdowns – stress increases risk for everything from heart disease, diabetes, weight gain and dementia. The problem is cortisol. In prolonged stress the cortisol switch stays on, and that ages the body.  Interestingly, animals that make vitamin C produce less cortisol when stressed. Cortisol and vitamin C work together. You could think of vitamin C as a stress hormone – it’s actually stored in the adrenals. So, if you are under stress make sure you supplement at least 1 gram twice a day without fail.

If you find yourself stuck in stress my book The Stress Cure, co-authored with Suzannah Lawson, is a great book to ‘work through’. There are simple, practical exercises and ways to climb, step by step, out of any hole. I teach Heart Math on my retreats.

The Optimal Diet for Brain and Body

If you read my report ‘The Alzheimer’s Prevention Diet’ you’ll know the keystones for keeping your mind sharp – and exactly the same guidelines work for keeping you physically well and free from disease.

Essential Fats

Essential fats come in two families: omega 3 and 6. Although omega-3 is most often thought of as the keystone for good brain health, higher levels of both omega-3 and 6, and most of all higher plasma levels of the two combined cuts dementia risk by 14 per cent. This means eating lots of nuts and seeds, good quality salad dressings, tahini, as well as supplementing. [5] Supplementing omega-3 fish oils cuts dementia risk by 7% but it might be even better to supplement both omega-3 and omega-6 (GLA) daily as I do. Phospholipids, found in eggs and seafood, are really important too. I supplement them every day in Brain Food. On the diet front:

  • Eat an egg a day, or six eggs a week – preferably free-range, organic, and high in omega-3s. Boil, scramble or poach them, but avoid frying.
  • Eat a tablespoon of seeds and nuts every day – the best seeds are chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin, higher in omega-3. They’re delicious sprinkled on cereal, soups, and salads. The best nuts are walnuts, pecans, and macadamia nuts. Each are high in omega-3 but all nuts, including almonds, hazelnuts and unsalted peanuts are good sources of protein.
  • Eat cold-water, oily carnivorous fish – have a serving of herring, mackerel, salmon or sardines two or three times a week (limit tuna, unless identified as low in mercury, to three times a month). Vegans need to supplement algae omega-3 DHA. It is an essential omega-3 fatty acid found in fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring, and is often, as well as choline or lecithin capsules or granules, rich in phosphatidyl choline.
  • Use cold-pressed olive oil for salad dressings and other cold uses, such as drizzling on vegetables instead of butter. Substitute frying with steam frying with olive oil, coconut oil or butter, e.g. for onions and garlic, then adding a watery sauce such as lemon juice, tamari and water, to ‘steam’, for example, vegetables perhaps with tofu, fish or chicken.
  • Minimise your intake of fried or processed food and burnt fats. Minimise your consumption of deep-fried food. Poach, steam or steam-fry food instead.

Say No to Sugar

Probably the single diet change that will have the most impact on your health is avoiding sugar as much as possible. Don’t buy it and don’t buy foods with added sugar. Whether you go low GL, or try a ketogenic diet, or my 5 Day Diet from time to time, it’s important to eat slow-release carbohydrates when you do. This needs to be your baseline.

  • Avoid adding sugar to dishes and avoid foods and drinks with added sugar. Keep your sugar intake to a minimum, sweetening cereal or desserts with fruit.
  • Eat wholefoods – whole grains, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit, and vegetables – and avoid all white, refined and over-processed foods, as well as any food with added sugar.
  • Snack on fresh fruit, preferably apples, pears and/or berries, especially blueberries.
  • Avoid fruit juices. Eat fresh fruit instead. Occasionally have unsweetened Montmorency cherry juice or blueberry juice (made from unsweetened concentrate).
  • Have up to three slices of dark chocolate, minimum 70% cacao, or drink unsweetened cacao with milk or plant milk. I make a sugar-free hot chocolate, adding lots of cinnamon, a little nutmeg and a drop of vanilla essence. It’s great in the winter as the sun goes down. The polyphenols in chocolate are good for your brain and heart.

Fruit and veg – Shoot for Seven Servings

Almost all studies show that the more fresh fruit and veg you eat the better. I’d also say ‘eat organic’ but there’s not enough evidence yet to back that up unequivocally. It’s just a matter of avoiding herbicide and pesticide residues that are designed to kill things. If you can, grow some of your own food, even herbs if you don’t have a garden.

  • Eat half your diet raw or lightly steamed.
  • Eat two or more servings a day of fresh fruit, including one of berries.
  • Eat four servings a day of dark green, leafy and root vegetables such as tenderstem broccoli, broccoli, kale, spinach, watercress, carrots, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, green beans, or peppers, as well as mushrooms. Choose organic where possible.
  • Have a serving a day of beans, lentils, nuts, or seeds – all high in folate. Note: peanuts are a good source of folate.

Eat enough protein

  • Have three servings of protein-rich foods a day, if you are a man, and two if you are a woman.
  • Choose good vegetable protein sources, including beans, lentils, quinoa, tofu, or tempeh (soya) and ‘seed’ vegetables such as peas, broad beans and corn.
  • If eating animal protein, choose lean meat or preferably fish, organic whenever possible.

Alcohol – in moderation

Studies consistently show some benefit from alcohol despite it being an anti-nutrient and not great for the gut. Red wine seems to come out most protective for the brain with optimal protection in those drinking not more or less than 125mg a day (one small glass). Abstainers do worse for both heart disease and dementia than light to moderate drinkers.

Supplements – the 100% Health package

Having come through covid, then delved into the depths of Alzheimer’s prevention, it is interesting to see the same ‘hero’ nutrients emerge for so many different conditions.

An example of this is a recent research paper on the seven key nutrients that help dampen down the ApoE4 gene that increases Alzheimer’s risk.[6] Apart from listing almost all the food factors written about above, the role of omega-3 DHA, quercetin, resveratrol, vitamin D3 and k2 and homocysteine lowering B vitamins (B6, folate, B12) are all highlighted. All these are included in my daily 100% Health Pack, taking two strips a day – with one exception, quercetin.

For those who don’t know the pack it consists of two multivitamins, two ImmuneC (vitamin C with black elderberry and zinc), two Essential Omegas (EPA, DHA, GLA) a Brain Food (with B vitamins and phospholipids) and an AGE Antioxidant containing the full family of antioxidants explained in this short animated film – How Antioxidants Work.

Recently I re-formulated the vitamin K2 in the Optimum Nutrition Formula to 100mcg – it helps vitamin D to work. In the winter I also take an additional 3,000iu of vitamin D3, the most bioactive form, but use a vegan source if this from lichen, so vegans don’t lose out. Getting your vitamin D level above 75nmol/l(30ng/mL) and closer to 100nmol/l (40ng/mL) reduces the risk of so many diseases. Analyses of observational study findings indicate that having a vitamin D above 75 nmol/L (30 ng/mL) reduce the risk of  dementia and Alzheimer’s by a third compared to those with a level below 30 nmol/L(2 ng/mL).  Taking the pack in the summer months and adding 3,000iu a day from October until the end of March which, in the UK, is the season when we don’t make enough from sunlight, has kept my vitamin D level at 90nmol/l. I recommend you do the same.

I also love quercetin, rich in red onions, and aim to eat one a day. It’s also concentrated in the supplements Allex and Glucosoamine &Theracurmin, designed for joint support. Both quercetin and curcumin from turmeric (Theracurmin is a highly absorbable form of curcumin) are excellent all-rounders, but come into their own in people with inflammatory conditions, especially for lungs and joints. Curcumin also helps moderate the toxins in alcohol so it’s good to have some if you’ve over-indulged.

In Summary

So a quick recap of the eleven areas you should be thinking about to live the optimal life for optimal health.

  1. Sleep
  2. Stress
  3. Sunlight
  4. Active Lifestyle
  5. Fruit and veg
  6. Carbs and sugar
  7. Essential fats and fish
  8. Supplements
  9. Vitamin C
  10. B vitamins
  11. Minerals – magnesium, zinc


[1] Huang SY, Li YZ, Zhang YR, Huang YY, Wu BS, Zhang W, Deng YT, Chen SD, He XY, Chen SF, Dong Q, Zhang C, Chen RJ, Suckling J, Rolls E. T, Feng JF, Cheng W, Yu JTSleep, physical activity, sedentary behavior, and risk of incident dementia: a prospective cohort study of 431,924 UK Biobank participants. Mol Psychiatry. 2022 Oct;27(10):4343-4354. doi: 10.1038/s41380-022-01655-y. Epub 2022 Jun 14. PMID: 35701596.

[2] Ma LZ, Ma YH, Ou YN, Chen SD, Yang L, Dong Q, Cheng W, Tan L, Yu JT. Time spent in outdoor light is associated with the risk of dementia: a prospective cohort study of 362094 participants. BMC Med. 2022 Apr 25;20(1):132. doi: 10.1186/s12916-022-02331-2. PMID: 35462547; PMCID: PMC9036798.

[3] Deng YT, Li YZ, Huang SY, Ou YN, Zhang W, Chen SD, Zhang YR, Yang L, Dong Q, Feng JF, Suckling J, Smith AD, Cheng W, Yu JT. Association of life course adiposity with risk of incident dementia: a prospective cohort study of 322,336 participants. Mol Psychiatry. 2022 Aug;27(8):3385-3395. doi: 10.1038/s41380-022-01604-9. Epub 2022 May 10. PMID: 35538193.

[4] Herold F, Törpel A, Schega L, Müller NG. Functional and/or structural brain changes in response to resistance exercises and resistance training lead to cognitive improvements – a systematic review. Eur Rev Aging Phys Act. 2019 Jul 10;16:10. doi: 10.1186/s11556-019-0217-2. PMID: 31333805; PMCID: PMC6617693.

[5] Yu JT et al, BMC medicine (pending publication) Circulating polyunsaturated fatty acids, fish oil supplementation, and risk of incident dementia: a prospective cohort study of 440,750 participants

[6] Norwitz NG, Saif N, Ariza IE, Isaacson RS. Precision Nutrition for Alzheimer’s Prevention in ApoE4 Carriers. Nutrients. 2021 Apr 19;13(4):1362. doi: 10.3390/nu13041362. PMID: 33921683; PMCID: PMC8073598.