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Unlocking Optimal Health With An Ancestral Approach

Feb 10, 2022 | Blog, Lifestyle

We live in a time where innovation and technological advancement have risen exponentially. As a result, we have more options, opportunities and choices, exciting places to be, and heightened stimulation all around us.


But despite all we have, are we that much better off than our ancestors once were?


Ever since the introduction of agriculture, the mass production of genetically modified crops, the expansion of artificially-lit environments, and the rise of sedentary jobs, there’s no doubt we’ve been at a steady climb toward chronic stress and disease.


A Mismatch in Modern Society


Let’s examine the problem we’re facing today.


Chris Kresser, an integrative functional medicine practitioner states that “All organisms, big or small, are adapted to survive and thrive in a particular environment. So, when that environment changes faster than the organism can adapt, a mismatch occurs. This is a fundamental principle of evolutionary biology, and it applies to humans as much as it applies to any other organism in nature.


He goes on to explain that as humans, we’re facing a mismatch between:


  1. Our genes (the hardwired programming within us)
  2. Our physiology & biology makeup (the vessel that we came with)
  3. Our environment (our modern way of living)


Given this mismatch, it’s important to acknowledge that humans aren’t particularly hardwired for the modern advancements we have so rapidly undergone as a society. But, we are perfectly hardwired to:


  • Live in harmony and balance with nature, our bodies, and our survival needs.
  • Consume whole anti-inflammatory foods, emphasizing quality, nutrient-dense animal protein.
  • Wake up when the sun rises and go to sleep when the sun sets.
  • Move frequently through walking, standing, sprinting, running.
  • Connect with others face-to-face in close-knit communities to laugh, share, build, co-create and enjoy precious life moments together.
  • Rest during times our bodies need it most.



An Ancestral Approach on 5 Modifiable Lifestyle Factors


So what is ancestral health? The ancestral health (or Paleo) movement is a collection of people who apply an evolutionary perspective to health through lifestyle changes.


As a health coach at Best Life Functional Medicine, I love to apply traditional health principles to support health and lifestyle in modern times.


So in this blog post, I’ll dive into ancestral health from the lens of Dr. Libby’s 5 modifiable lifestyle factors: Relationships, Sleep, Stress, Diet, and Movement by providing you some tips you can start implementing today.


Maximize Relationships To The Fullest


One contrast between our ancestors’ relationships and our present-day relationships is that our ancestors lived in close-knit family ties for survival, protection, and companionship. Due to the rise of globalization, many of us today have been forced to live miles apart, away from our communities or family members.


While technology has undoubtedly improved our ability to communicate and connect with others, there really hasn’t been much improvement in the quality of our social time. In fact, technology has made us so dependent, that face-to-face interactions are becoming increasingly rare, especially with the turn of the pandemic. So how can we apply ancestral principles to improve our relationships?


  1. Be communicative and present in the lives of people that matter most.
  2. Schedule regular meet-ups with family, friends, colleagues, and those who bring you laughter and joy.
  3. Be intentional in how you communicate and even say goodbye to someone.



Move Our Bodies Just Enough, But Not Too Much


Movement played a significant role in daily life for hunter-gatherers. From sprinting, jogging, climbing, and carrying objects, our ancestors often had to push themselves to protect themselves and survive.


We can incorporate ancestral-like movement into our daily lives by moving our bodies just enough to reap the benefits, but not too much so that we don’t stress our bodies out. Here are 3 levels of movement to incorporate daily:


  1. Low Level: Stand up. It’s the easiest way to sit less. Wash the dishes. Fold laundry. Use a standing at the desk at work. Watch TV while doing some light stretching.
  2. Medium Level: Take lots of walks. Our ancestors walked at least 10,000 steps a day. Incorporate hobbies like gardening, household chores, bicycling to work, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking your car far away from your office, walking during your lunch break, walking with a child or pet after work or dinner.
  3. High Level: Push yourself occasionally with bursts of intense exercise throughout the day. This will not only speed up your metabolism and improve insulin sensitivity and other biomarkers, but will keep your mind sharp and mood happy.



Practice Good Sleep Hygiene


We all know what it feels like not to get a good night’s sleep. It affects our mood and energy levels the next day and even has an impact on how we interact with others. Our ancestors knew the importance of sleep, so they could sustain the energy they needed to continue out their daily activities. But what did they do?


They went to sleep as soon the sun set, and rose as soon as the sun came out. This helped regulate their circadian rhythm by producing adequate levels of cortisol to jumpstart their day and melatonin to help them wind down at night. Here are some tips to help you sleep like our ancestors:


  1. Aim for 7-8 hours a night.
  2. Avoid blue light from mobile screens, computers, and other devices at least 1-2 hours before bedtime. This will promote melatonin production and help you fall into a deeper and more restful slumber.
  3. Sleep in a cool room. Studies have shown that melatonin production increases while sleeping in a cooler environment. This will help you fall asleep faster allowing you to wake up feeling more refreshed.
  4. Wind down with evening activities that will lower your cortisol levels like reading a book, taking a warm bath, or sipping a cup of herbal tea.



Don’t Let Stress Get The Best Of You


Even though our hunter-gatherer ancestors were always on the move, they knew how to rest, relax and unwind when called for. They were constantly switching between more intense activity to short periods of sleep, rest, and social connection in between.


This was an instinctual awareness on their part to protect themselves from injury and fatigue so they could regain the energy and stamina needed to maintain survival.


Unfortunately, our modern culture prides itself on productivity and activity above anything else. But, what if the solution isn’t to do more to feel great, but to do less? Here are some ancestral tips to reduce stress in modern times:


  1. Control your stress, so it doesn’t control you by avoiding unnecessary stress. Learn to say no to projects or commitments you can’t take on.
  2. Keep your inner circle full of people that bring you up instead of down.
  3. Turn off or limit the chatty world of tweets, social posts, news feeds, opinions and facts.
  4. Prioritize play and pleasure. Find one small thing that brings you joy each day that doesn’t involve technology, spending money, eating, or drinking.



Nourish Yourself With Real Food


In Chris Kresser’s book The Paleo Cure, he noted that scientist and author Jared Diamond once called agriculture, “the worst mistake in human history” and that “hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history and they were all guaranteed a healthy diet because of the diversity and nutrient density of the foods they consumed. As soon as humans switched diets and became more sedentary, our species’ naturally robust health began to decline.”


When it came to nutrition, our ancestors adopted a well-balanced, nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory approach that helped them maintain the energy needed to hunt and survive. It’s evident they primarily relied on nutrient-dense animal proteins to support them. In fact, most researchers will say that eating animals is what contributed to our bigger brains and smaller guts compared to other primates.


While a strict vegetarian or vegan diet has yet to be discovered amongst the ancestral population, they surely didn’t avoid plant foods. The difference is they knew they couldn’t solely rely on plants for survival and therefore highly valued animal meat and fat, especially in times of scarcity. So, here are my top tips for eating like our ancestors:


  1. Avoid processed, refined foods. Read and understand food labels.
  2. Base your diet on natural, whole, nutrient-dense foods like pastured raised and grass-fed meat, organ meat, fish and shellfish, pasture-raised eggs, fruits and vegetables, starchy plants, and healthy fats.
  3. Exercise caution with grains, legumes, nightshades, raw nuts and seeds, raw vegetables, conventional dairy products if you are sensitive to them.
  4. Focus on the quality vs. quantity of the food (obviously without overeating on any particular food)
  5. Avoid refined vegetable seed oils like the plague. Limit sugar and gluten as much as possible.


Moving Forward with An Ancestral-Based Approach to Health


There isn’t only one path to optimal health. Just like there is no one diet that works for everyone or one exercise program that is the answer for all people. However, we can certainly learn much from the ancestral approach. Newer isn’t always better.


Written by Health Coach Lydia, NBC-HWC

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