Our Naturopath, Di Wallace, recently went on a walking trip in Bulgaria and discovered that it had more to offer than the promise of a brown bear sighting. Read on to find out how the folks of the Rhodope Mountains are some of the healthiest people on earth.
Are you familiar with the Rhodope Mountain Range in Bulgaria? Most likely, no. For me, Bulgaria had been on my “to go” list for a few years and as I have a very active husband and we both have a love of the outdoors, a city trip to Sofia or a bus tour, was not going to cut it. Neither was as a self-guided walk as all my research said Bulgaria was quite complicated to navigate, and boy, that’s no lie. For one, the Cyrillic language is unfamiliar and complicated and once you get out of Sofia it appears getting lost is not that much of an accomplishment!
Anyway, we did spend a few days in Sofia before meeting our walking guide Nelly and our other walking companions, eleven of us in total. All aboard a coach we were off to Yagodina, approximately 4 hours south of Sofia towards the Greek border. This would be home for the next 7 days and we traversed the ranges, gorges and caves near the hotel, clocking up 75km in 6 days. The Rhodope Mountains are wild, rugged and mostly untouched by modern civilisation, except for mobile towers, which appear across most landscapes these days. The ranges are covered in black pine trees interspersed with soft rolling meadows, the occasional sheep and goat herd with their dogs and Shepherd, as well as an endless supply of crystal clear spring water fountains scattered across our paths, an untouched wilderness and beauty I had not imagined.
The locals of our village were predominately Bulgarian Muslims and are generally thought to be the descendants of the local Slavs who converted to Islam during Ottoman rule. According to the 2011 census 61.4% noted they were irreligious, 19.6% were Muslim and 19.1% said they were Orthodox Christians. Whilst most villages have mosques and churches seldom frequented.
According to the locals… and also backed up by several scientists, this part of Bulgaria has some of the oldest and healthiest individuals in the world. This is due to a number of factors; the local strain of probiotic, Lactobacillus Bulgaricus, the local variety of mountain tea and a diet high in vitamin D.
Lactobacillus Bulgaricus is one of the first probiotic strains ever studied. The Russian Nobel Prize winner, Ilya Mechnikov, first isolated Lactobacillus Bulgaricus around 1882 when he discovered the probiotic’s role in beneficial digestion. In the 1960′s and 1970′s there was extensive research on this probiotic by Russian researchers such as Dr. Ivan Bogdanov. Here is a full list of the benefits:
Researched Lactobacillus Bulgaricus benefits1,2,3,4
- Decreases triglycerides, LDL levels, total cholesterol
- Increases immunity and fight viruses
- Decreases leaky gut symptoms
- Decreases diarrhoea & nausea
- Improves dairy digestion
- Decreases inflammation
- Improves IBS symptoms
- Decreases tooth decay
- Fights dyspepsia
The people of the Rhodopes eat large quantities of dairy as each meal was not complete without a serving. Each morning from our hotel we witnessed locals bringing in their three cows for milking. None of us could work out why three cows, but that appeared to be the usual number of cows per milker. Shortly after the milking, a bucket of fresh milk was delivered to our hotel and the staff began transforming it into yoghurt (rich in Lactobacillus Bulgaricus), butter and a form of clotted cream. In addition, warm fresh milk was served with its thick layer of cream to accompany our much-needed morning coffee in preparation for our 10-15km daily walk. I have to confess, each morning as our guide explained our daily trek I would begin to feel the nerves rise. I was the least experienced walker on the trip, and dreaded walking down the wet goat tracks we had experienced the previous day. My fellow walkers managed to make it look like a doddle in the park and offered words of encouragement as I “bottom slid” down some of the slippery steep paths, but by day three I was beginning to find my legs. Yes, they were attached to my pelvis and actually did function quite well, when given the chance, nerves put aside. The days became more relaxed as I looked for wild mushrooms, orchids, beetles and salamanders. Sadly, we did not find bears, wolves or wild boars as was written in the trip notes, however, their presence was noted by tracks and scat which was quite exciting.
Nevertheless, back to health. Each night after diner we drank cups of a specific variety of herbal mountain tea, Sideritis scardica spp (Ironwort), only available in the Rhodopes. The tea is highly prized and grown behind locked barbed-wire fences to prevent theft with only small plots of land being cultivated. It is similar to Greek mountain tea, though not as naturally sweet. It has traditionally been used to aid digestion, strengthen the immune system, suppress viral infections, and to treat allergies and shortness of breath, sinus congestion, pain and mild anxiety.5 I was certainly keen to see if it would help my stiff and achy legs, but sadly I found Tiger Balm massages to be more beneficial.
One of the observations we made was the amazing teeth of the locals. They were bright white, and looked incredibly strong. It was not until my flight home when I was watching a documentary by Dr Michael Mosely did the penny drop. The probiotic, Lactobacillus Bulgaricus, increases the absorption of available calcium in the yoghurt and not only that, it also helps people with lactose intolerance to absorb the calcium. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine some of the local population can be up to 60% lactose intolerant, making this probiotic functionally important.
The same documentary also explained how the local people of the Rhodope pick wild mushrooms, slice and sun dry them. The sliced mushrooms, especially the gilled area, having a greater surface area, convert vitamin D from the sun. We are all familiar with the correlation between vitamin D and calcium and its effect on bone health. Bone is not stagnant, it is constantly renewing itself like all the cells in our body and as we age this process becomes less efficient, hence osteoporosis. The locals of the Rhodope Mountains have worked out how to naturally combine vitamin D and calcium all year round, meaning they keep their bones and teeth strong and healthy. In addition to the nutrients, they work physically hard, this too encourages new bone formation.
Unfortunately, we were a few weeks too early to see many of the flora in bloom that I had hoped for and many of the wild herbs were also not quite awake from the winter. We did see the famous Orpheus Flower near the Yagodina Cave! The flower, Silivriak is a perennial plant with dark green serrated leaves, its flowers are shades of purple. It grows on limestone rocks and is a remnant of ancient flora resisting the changes of the ice ages. Legend has it, that it sprouted from the blood of Orpheus. According to another Rhodope legend, the little purple flower is born from the tears of Orpheus lost in his beloved Eurydice. Silivryak, a symbol of the Rhodopes is the only one in the world. Botanists have discovered that can survive 31 months its dried form, and then starts growing again when moistened.
As my trip came to a close it was a reminder of how removed from nature we become living in urban areas, buying our food from shops and rarely visiting our countryside. I guess this might be why the “Forest Bathing” movement is on the increase. I truly admire people who live in harmony with the land and their innate ability to nourish their bodies with the nutrients required to sustain health. I grew up on a farm and couldn’t wait to run away to a city. Now I seek holidays where I can reconnect to the land once more.
Written by Di Wallace
DipNut. Adv Dip Naturopathy. DipBM. DipPM. GradCert Bus
- Jain PK, McNaught CE, Anderson AD, MacFie J, Mitchell CJ. Influence of synbiotic containing Lactobacillus acidophilus La5, Bifidobacterium lactis Bb 12, Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and oligofructose on gut barrier function and sepsis in critically ill patients: a randomised controlled trial. Clin Nutr. 2004 Aug;23(4):467-75.
- Mater DD, Bretigny L, Firmesse O, Flores MJ, Mogenet A, Bresson JL, Corthier G. Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus survive gastrointestinal transit of healthy volunteers consuming yogurt. FEMS Microbiol Lett. 2005 Sep 15;250(2):185-7.
- Dimitonova SP, Danova ST, Serkedjieva JP, Bakalov BV. Antimicrobial activity and protective properties of vaginal lactobacilli from healthy Bulgarian women. Anaerobe. 2007 Oct-Dec;13(5-6):178-84.
- Kano H, Mogami O, Uchida M. Oral administration of milk fermented with Lactobacillus delbrueckii ssp. bulgaricus OLL1073R-1 to DBA/1 mice inhibits secretion of proinflammatory cytokines. Cytotechnology. 2002 Nov;40(1-3):67-73.
- Khela, S. 2013. Sideritis scardica. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2013: e.T203271A2762714. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2013-2.RLTS.T203271A2762714.en.