We have more access to more information about health and disease than at any other period of human history and yet, we are arguably the most unhealthy we have ever been.
Here in the U.S., the sky-rocketing rates of obesity are a daily news story. Rates of chronic illness like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and autoimmune disease are increasing at alarming rates. Diseases we thought only happened in aging adults are occurring in younger children.
If you’re old enough, you may remember a time when obesity was rare; when cancer was rare and only your rapidly aging grandpa has developed ‘diabeetus.’ So what happened? What has caused such a profound change in our health?
There are many answers to that question and as of yet, no proven smoking gun. Searching through the myriad of possibilities would take time we don’t have. What we need is a framework for understanding what effects health and gives us a blueprint to search for the place where we seem to have gone off the map.
The concept of ancestral health is that framework.
We think that cavemen lived ‘short, brutish’ lives, but archeology says that is not really the whole story. Sure, life expectancy was low, but that was a population average, mostly skewed because childbirth was such a dicey proposition. There were plenty of early humans who survived well into old age if they managed to survive disease epidemics, broken bones or becoming a meal for another creature. The point is, even if they made it to past all those hurdles, obesity heart disease and poor health weren’t destined for them simply by virtue of having reached that age.
From what archeology studies tell us, hunter-gatherers were lean, well-built with little tooth decay and no need for orthodontics. By studying modern hunter-gatherer tribes, we have inferred that they spent an average of 20 hours a week engaged in activities necessary for survival, spending the rest of their free time visiting relatives, creating art, or engaged in other leisure activities.
Can you imagine? All your needs met in the space of a part-time job? Very little stress and plenty of time to kick back, relax and enjoy life. No running yourself ragged, running in literal circles, going to gym to keep fit. No having to watch every last piece of food you ate in order to stay trim. No smartphone constantly ringing with requests from people who need something from you…right now! Growing old gracefully, with a strong, supple body. Getting plenty of restful sleep each and every night. Unburdened joy. Not sounding so bad, eh?
So how do this relate to health?
Well I’m glad you asked because you see, we have those same bodies. Bodies that want to be lean and fit and healthy and strong. It is our genetic potential and can be our genetic reality under the right circumstances. The problem is that we have changed the rules of the game much faster than our ancient bodies can keep up with and adapt sufficiently to. Since World War II, we have introduced 50,000 novel chemicals into our environment. We haven’t studied the long-term safety of most of these, let alone the combinations of them that we are exposed to daily. GMOs in our food supply, animals raised on grain instead of grass, pharmaceutical drugs, indoor lighting, smartphones, tablets and laptops, constant stress, automobiles- all are things that are completely new to humans beings in the last 100 or so years. All are interacting in ways that eroding our health.
The sad fact is that many of us don’t eat real food anymore. Many of us spend hours a day only exercising the tiny muscles in our hands while sitting on the biggest muscles of our hips and thighs. This is not how our bodies were designed to function and it is slowly killing us.
Using this framework, I make recommendations to my patients to get their current reality to be more congruent with their ancient genetics. Why? Because when these two are aligned, improved health is often the outcome. I may encourage patients to eat a more whole food diet, or to sleep in pattern that aligned with their brain’s ingrained circadian rhythms or to move and exercise in way that builds so-called ‘functional movement’ patterns. In doing so, we honor the innate wisdom of our bodies and their desire to be healthy.