Few, if any, people in contemporary industrialized societies are truly healthy. If you ask a dozen people on the street to answer honestly about their current health condition, the majority will probably tell you that they are struggling with one or more chronic health problems, whether it’s lower back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, eczema, acne vulgaris, fatigue, overweight, or disorders that are generally considered more serious, such as type-2 diabetes, breast cancer, or cardiovascular disease. Some may say that they’ve tried what feels like every diet, drug, and supplement under the sun in an attempt to overcome their problems – but with little to no success.
A common belief is that the so-called diseases of civilization that plague us in the modern world emerge because the human body is inherently flawed, and that to find solutions to these problems, we have to look at each disorder individually, establish which pathways, receptors, and hormones that are involved. and develop drugs, supplements, and other similar therapies. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t take evolutionary theory and ancestral health principles into account – and it typically fails at addressing the underlying causes of the diseases.
As opposed to modern medical research and practice, which largely focuses on the molecular and physiological mechanisms underlying health and disease, the goal of Darwinian medicine is to understand why people get sick, not simply how they get sick. When we look at human health through the lens of evolution it quickly becomes clear that many, if not most, of the chronic diseases that plague us in contemporary, Western societies don’t appear because there is something inherently flawed with the human body, but because there has been inadequate time and selection pressure for natural selection to sculpt the human body into one that is well adapted to our modern environment.
In the modern, industrialized world most of us subject our bodies to stimuli that fall in the category of being too much, too little, or too new, and as a result, mismatch diseases present themselves.
When we realise that the so-called diseases of civilization are a manifestation of an evolutionary mismatch, we immediately get a better understanding of what it takes to combat these conditions. The first priority is to resolve the conflict between our environment and our ancient genome (1, 2). Here are 8 lifestyle changes that can help you do just that…
1. Eat more fiber-rich fruits and vegetables
In my recent article on the topic I talked about how consumption of fermentable fibers help promote an anti-inflammatory gut microbiota, healthy intestinal barrier, and properly functioning immune systems, and I discussed data which show that fiber intake has plummeted since our days as hunter-gatherers.
Most of the carbohydrates in the typical Western diet are digested and absorbed in the small intestine, leaving little for the critters in the colon. In my mind, there’s no doubt that this low intake of indigestible (to the human host) carbohydrates in contemporary societies is an important cause of many chronic diseases; in particular colon cancer and IBS, but also a wide range of other health disorders that are seemingly unrelated to the gut.
We evolved to eat a diet that not only feeds our human self, but also our microbial self. I’m willing to bet that you are probably taking in less than optimal amounts of fiber, even if you are adhering to a Paleo-style diet or healthy whole foods diet. Onions, leeks, artichokes, tubers, broccoli, slightly green bananas, and apples are some fiber-rich foods that you could probably benefit from eating more of.
P.S. Getting full benefits from fiber-rich foods requires having a gut microbiota that is matched to the diet (See point 4 for more info)
2. Do more strength training
Fossil evidence shows that our physically active Paleolithic ancestors had strong bones, broad and well-developed shoulders, and low incidence of osteoporosis (3, 4). This is in stark contrast to contemporary, industrialized societies, where a lot of people spend the majority of their wakeful hours sitting in front of a computer, have to take breaks to catch their breath when walking up the stairs to the office, and develop fragile and weak bones, poor posture, and back and knee pain.
Many of the readers of this blog are probably already doing some form of strength training on a regular basis, but if you aren’t, it’s time to get started. Not just because adding some muscle can help you look better naked, but also because doing squats, deadlifts, presses, push-ups, kettlebell swings, and other multi-joint exercises can improve your posture and help prevent and possibly reverse many musculoskeletal problems.
The best way to get started depends on your current health condition and goals. If you’re someone who’s struggling with fatigue, HPA axis dysfunction, and/or other similar problems that reduce your ability to perform strenuous activities, simply doing some bodyweight exercises a couple of times a week may be more than enough.
For those who are already performing strength training on a regular basis, focusing more on progressive overload in the compound lifts and improving exercise technique may be more important than just adding more exercises and volume.
3. Get more beneficial microorganisms into your gut
I can’t emphasise this point enough. Overuse of antibiotics, excessive hygiene, consumption of highly processed foods, reduced exposure to biodoversity from the natural environment, and many other factors associated with our modern lifestyle have left the gut microbiome of the typical Westerner in a sorry state.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that we’ve lost some old microbial friends that co-evolved with our ancestors for millions of years. This loss of biodiversity is an important underlying cause of many chronic diseases; in particular those associated with poor immunoregulation (5, 6).
I often get e-mails and questions from people who are constantly tweaking their diet in an attempt to resolve chronic health issues such as food intolerance, fatigue, low libido, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, and acne. Sometimes, an unhealthy diet, perhaps lacking in dietary fiber or containing high amounts of sugar, is largely to blame. However, many of the people who suffer from these health problems are already eating a very healthy diet. After all, they’ve often spent years adjusting their diet in an attempt to overcome their issues, so it’s only natural that they’ve landed on a plan that isn’t too off base.
Usually, in these cases, the main problem isn’t the quality of the diet, but rather the body’s inability to properly digest and metabolize the food that is consumed. Hundreds of bacterial species are needed to break down those components of the diet that the human host doesn’t possess the genetic capabilities to digest itself (7). Without a diverse gut microbiota that is matched to the diet, symptoms of food intolerance and health problems associated with chronic low-grade inflammation, such as the ones mentioned above, will occur.
So, how can you get some more critters into your gut? As you know if you’ve read my work or followed what’s going on in the world of the microbiome; there are many ways, including, but not limited to, getting a dog, eating more fermented vegetables, doing some gardening, eating raw, minimally cleaned fruits, vegetables, and herbs, and taking high-quality probiotic supplements.
4. Reduce your exposure to artificial lighting the last couple of hours before bed
I talk a lot about sleep on this site – and for good reason. There are few things that are more important to our health than making sure we get enough high-quality sleep.
Exposure to artificial lighting (e.g., computer screen, lamps) at night messes with our melatonin production and makes it harder for us to fall asleep and sleep well throughout the night, and consequently, one of the most important things we can do to improve our odds of getting a good night’s sleep is to turn off the lights when bedtime approaches. It’s particularly important to avoid using blue-light emitting electronic devices right before bed.
Ideally, we would just turn off all of our electronic devices and lamps when the sun goes down and bring out a book and some candle lights – but that’s clearly not an option for most people. However, making some small adjustments to your lifestyle, such as not using your phone the last 1-2 hours before bed, installing f.lux on your computer, turning down the lights late at night, and/or buying a pair of amber goggles that block blue-spectrum light, can really go a long way towards optimizing sleep.
5. Eliminate or reduce your consumption of highly processed foods, acellular carbohydrates, and foods with a very high fat density
The Western pattern diet bares little resemblance to the diet our East African Paleolithic ancestors consumed. It’s higher in starch, salt, sugar, refined fat, and omega-6 and lower in dietary fiber, omega-3, most micronutrients, and protein, among other things (8).
While I would argue that the deterioration of the human diet started already with the Agricultural Revolution approximately 11.000 years ago, it’s probably the changes that have occurred over the last two centuries that have had the most harmful effect on human health.
Of all the issues with the Western diet, the high intakes of highly processed foods, acellular carbohydrates such as refined grains and refined sugars, and foods with a very high fat density, like refined vegetables oils and very fatty meats, are high on the list of the most problematic ones. As I’ve previously described on the blog; a high intake of these foods sets the stage for a suboptimal gene expression pattern, gut dysbiosis, leptin and insulin resistance, weight gain, and chronic-low grade inflammation.
Many readers of this blog have probably already taken most of these foods out of their diet, but if you haven’t, doing so could very well en up being one of the best decisions you ever make for your health. Replacing these Westernized products with meat, seafood, fruit, eggs, and vegetables will cool down inflammation, help you achieve the body composition you want, and contribute to the prevention of chronic disease.
6. Log off the internet, log onto the real world
While we have become increasingly more connected to the rest of the population on this plant in the online world, we’ve become increasingly more disconnected from people in the real world – in the sense that more and more communication happens through e-mail and phone, and a lot of people spend most of their days staring at a computer screen.
Our increased use of electronic devices is problematic for a number of reasons, one of which being that our constant connectedness can make us chronically stressed. When kept within reason, the use of the internet can help enhance our lives. However, it can quickly get out of hand, especially if we end up constantly checking our phone and spending hours each day watching the online lives of other people on social media.
For 99% of the species on earth – and also for our species throughout most of our evolutionary history – acute stress is the dominant form of stress. While the short-term stress our ancient ancestors faced when attacked by a predator lead their bodies to adapt to rapidly changing environmental conditions, the repeatedly or continuously activated stress response that often accompanies life in the 21st century can become maladaptive. In other words, natural selection never equipped us with the mechanisms to deal with constant stimulation of the fight-or-flight response and a steady supply of stress hormones such as catecholamines.
While I generally follow my own advice/practise what I preach, I do have a way to go in some areas. As a blogger and contributing writer for various sites, I pretty much have to spend a lot of the time on my computer if I’m to get things done. However, I have certain rules regarding my use of electronic devices – and in particular social media and web surfing. I also make a conscious effort to be present in the moment when I’m with people, instead of spending time checking my phone and e-mail. I definitely have a way to go in this area; and I’m willing to bet that you probably do too…
7. Start buying more organic and grass-fed foods, as opposed to conventionally produced food
Those who get their information about nutrition from the media might be led to believe that it doesn’t really matter whether you buy organic or conventionally produced food. After all, some studies seem to indicate that organic foods don’t contain more micronutrients and health-promoting phytochemicals than non-organic (9). However, the thing that is often forgotten is that many studies do show that organic fruits and vegetables have a superior nutrient profile when compared with conventionally produced varieties (10, 11).
Perhaps more importantly, there are several other factors besides the nutrient composition that have to be taken into account. By choosing organic instead of conventionally produced food you reduce your exposure to pesticides and help support a more sustainable form of food production.
As for animal source foods, emphasising food quality is especially important; not just because animal welfare is something that should be taken into account, but also because organic, free-range eggs, grass-fed meat, and wild-caught seafood have a superior fatty acid profile when compared with conventionally produced products.
What most people don’t realise is that when they eat raw, minimally cleaned fruits and vegetables, they aren’t only providing their body with nutrients, they are also ingesting plenty of food-borne microorganisms; some of which may pass through the acidic barrier in the stomach and contribute to the biodiversity of the gut microbiota. Recent research shows that “humans are exposed to substantially different bacteria depending on the types of fresh produce they consume with differences between conventionally and organically farmed varieties contributing to this variation” (12). While the importance of these differences is still to be elucidated, I have a strong feeling that there are some benefits to choosing food that is produced in a way that is closer to the way nature intended.
Last, but not least, as I think most people will agree, a grass-fed steak from the farmer’s market tastes so much better than a conventionally produced piece of meat that contains residues of antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones.
8. Get toxic products out of your life
Cultural innovations and technological progress have allowed us to design plastic bottles, fancy cosmetics, drugs and supplements for virtually every condition known to man, cleaning detergents, and a wide array of other products that contain ingredients that even those with a PhD in chemistry can’t spell. These products benefit us in various ways, but they can also harm our health.
Many of the ingredients (e.g., dioxane, formaldehyde, lead/lead acetate, parabens, and phthalate) found in cosmetics and beauty products we put on our skin and in our hair could disrupt he hormone system and in other ways adversely affect our health (13, 14, 15, 16).
Soaps and anitbacterial gels help decrease the spread of pathogens, but they also reduce our exposure to beneficial bacteria and alter the skin microbiome in ways that we are just beginning to understand (17).
Completely removing all of these modern products from the bathroom closet is not on the table as a possible solution for a lot of people. However, a lot can be gained from replacing the worst offenders with more natural products and making a conscious decision to reduce your use of conventional cosmetic products and harsh cleaning products.
Now I want to hear from you: Which of the 8 lifestyle changes above do you feel are the most important for you to make?
Pictures: 1: CC picture by thephotographymuse. 2: Free picture. 3: CC picture by Crossfit Fever. 4: CC picture by Surat Lozowick. 5: Free picture. 6: CC picture by Jason IIagan. 7: CC picture by Gandydancer. 8: Free picture.