How to balance what we knew with what we know: using ancestral health in a changing world

How to balance what we knew with what we know: using ancestral health in a changing world

 

Here we are. At the epitome of our human evolution so far, with incredible medical advancements, technology and information at our fingertips and many achievements to celebrate. 


And yet the health landscape we are currently facing poses huge issues; our healthcare system is in crisis,  we are suffering an epidemic of common chronic illness -including increases in cancer, heart disease, childhood obesity, autoimmune diseases -  and, according to a new report from the McKinsey Health Institute (1), we are spending more years in poor health than at any time in our history. In so many ways, ‘we’ve never had it so good’, and yet we are seemingly more unhappy and struggling with more mental health issues than ever before. 


We don’t have all the answers today. This global issue sits squarely in the “it’s complicated” status. However, we can't help but notice that alongside the downturn in our collective health and happiness, there has been a huge disconnect from our natural world, biorhythms, dietary practices and how our ancestors once lived. 


The world has changed significantly over the last few hundred years, some of it good, some of it arguably not. Perhaps a large part of the issue is that our bodies simply are not equipped to deal with the challenges of the modern world.  There is a distinct mismatch between our hardwired genetic programming, our physiology, and our ancient biology on the one side and the modern environment we’re living in on the other. 


“Whilst it’s true there has been much to gain over the past 1000 years of ‘domestication’ from our wild selves -

There have also been many prices to pay, and our health may be one of them” - Arthur Haines


Have we forgotten how to live with nature?


We now predominantly live our lives indoors, within our homes, offices, workplaces, supermarkets and cars. We no longer know all the names of the herbs and plants that used to heal us. We’ve forgotten how to and no longer have the time to cook from scratch, plan and prepare meals. We no longer use our kitchens as our medicine cabinet. We’ve forgotten how to wait, how to be slow and methodical with our hands and bodies. We’ve misplaced our grandparents' wisdom as old wives tales, not ‘backed by science’. 


This, alongside other chronic modern stressors (heavy mental workloads, processed foods, polluted air and increase in toxicants) is having a significant impact on our whole-body health from our microbiome, nervous system, metabolism and immune system. 


Finding the balance 


This isn’t to say modernity is all bad and we should not view the past completely through rose-tinted glasses.  Our average global life expectancy has more than doubled between 1800 and 2017 – from 30 to 73 years. There are many medical advancements to behold, from anaesthetics, antibiotics, medical imaging, organ transplants, stem cell therapy, gene therapy, emergency care. We deviated from our ancestral norms in order to advance as a species with the emergence of agriculture and advancements in modern technology which facilitated a significant surge in the global human population.


And yet, "With great power comes great responsibility”. Amidst these wonderful advancements, we've stepped too far away from the very elements that our bodies use to foster health and prevent disease. 


At Ancient + Brave, we embrace a perspective on health that integrates ancient wisdom with modern innovations. We aim to balance what we knew with what we know; using ancestral health in a changing world.

In a world drowning in information and extreme health trends, we must also look to  simplify. By using the past to inform us, we can step away from extreme health trends and use this way of thinking to help us decide what is right for each individual. 

There is good news of course. Our body has the potential to respond quickly when given the right ingredients for wellness. Locked within our ancient DNA, woven into all of our histories, there is a part of us that knows and remembers how to be well. Accessing health through simple principles, rituals and practices  - both ancient and modern - is a way to incorporate wellness into your life without adding yet another thing to your list.

It’s time to remember

Anamnesis; the act of remembering what the soul already knows


Our ancestors laid the blueprint for a healthy life; eat a diverse diet of real foods, move often, spend time in nature + sunlight, and give our bodies and mind time to rest and reset.   They held an intuitive understanding of how to use food and plants as medicine and this wisdom still holds true today. When we drift away from our ancestors' time-tested plan, we’re left with a mismatch between our genes and our environment. Tapping into our ancestral code can help us correct the imbalance and return to a way of eating and living that more closely matches what our biology is designed to do. Whilst we don’t need to return fully to the past, we can learn from how we once lived and elevate it using our innovative and modern techniques. 


It is important to remember that there’s no one single perfect diet, lifestyle or approach to healing. Taking a look at the evolutionary adaptive behaviours allowing our ancestors (and ourselves) to thrive is the starting point; 


Key pillars in our ancestral health blueprint:


  • Nutrition + an intuitive understanding of how to use food and plants
  • Move + Challenge 
  • Rest + Sleep 
  • Living with Nature + her cycles 
  • Community 

  • Once you have some consistent practices within these foundational areas, then you can tweak, upgrade and improve further. 

    The Nutrition Pillar: Eat Real, Nourishing Foods

    The modern diet, dominated by processed foods, challenges our innate intuition about what we eat. Stepping into a predominantly whole foods diet can be challenging in the modern world and yet we should take steps towards this goal. Not all processed foods are created equally however, some offer convenience, others offer forms of pleasure - it’s about understanding exactly what your food choices are, the ingredients you eat and the dose which may cause harm.


    Eating foods from the earth (plants, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds), natural fats and high quality proteins,  nose-to-tail eating, growing and foraging all play a role in ancestral health in some way. Taking this further, it's helpful to consider seasonality—not just consuming foods when they're in season, but also preparing them differently throughout the year. For instance, many of us naturally gravitate towards hearty soups in the winter and refreshing salads in the summer, aligning with our body's seasonal needs. However, when we consistently opt for the latest iced-smoothie trend for breakfast each morning, even in the depths of winter,  we are missing a factor which influences our health. 

     

    Alongside this, when we eat is an important factor to consider within our nutrition. Our evolutionary biology, based on scarcity, is at odds with our environment of food abundance. Practices such as fasting, reducing snacking or simply having an early dinner to allow the digestive system to rest across the evening, has been shown to have a positive impact on our overall health. 


    The tradition of a Kitchen Pharmacy is both ancient and universal and remains another powerful ally in our health journey. It’s only in the last few decades that we have fallen out of the habit of healing with nourishing foods, plants and herbs. 

    You most likely already know some natural remedies without even realising it. Lemon, ginger and honey for a sore throat. Prunes for constipation. Lavender oil for burns.  Modern scientific research confirms what has been empirically observed over the centuries. It has been able to show the workings and mechanism of action behind why certain ingredients work by isolating compounds which helps us to understand and use them effectively. 


    Areas to focus on when re-balancing this pillar: 


    • Cooking from scratch - master the foundations.
    • Balanced nutrition using whole-foods when possible
    • Planning + Preparing ahead of time
    • Working with the seasons 
    • Explore herbs, spices, adaptogens and botanicals 
    • Find innovations that make balanced nutrition easier

    The Move + Challenge Pillar: 


    Movement is one of the best predictors of longevity and throughout the ages we have moved our bodies for necessity as well as enjoyment,  yet our modern lives have us more sedentary than ever. 


    Exercise offers remarkable advantages for overall health. Not only does it help strengthen bones, but it has been shown to bolster the immune system, balance hormones, lower the risk of some cancers and diseases, enhance mood, and may even help prevent cognitive decline. Additionally, studies have shown that being active for just eleven minutes daily after the age of forty can extend life expectancy by 1.8 years, while engaging in an hour or more of activity per day can increase life expectancy by 4.2 years (2). 


    A way to improve this pillar, inspired by those before us, is to find ways to inconvenience yourself. Rather than sitting for extended periods, prioritise movement: walking, standing, and actively seeking opportunities to be on the go. Embrace actions like taking the stairs, opting for a stroll during breaks, or implementing a standing desk. Even tasks like chores, tending to a garden, or carrying children echo our ancestors' active lifestyles


    Weaved into this day-to-day movement is the aspect of challenge. At times our ancestors will have challenged their bodies through running, hunting, building, lifting and carrying. Challenging our cardiovascular health, mental resilience and musculoskeletal health can be achieved through functional and primal movements and using weights and our own body weight. 

     


    Areas to focus on when re-balancing this pillar: 


    • Inconveniencing yourself with daily movement
    • Functional Movement, challenge + weights
    • Find variety in movement across the week 
    • Dancing, carrying children, chores all contribute to your movement practices

    The Rest + Sleep Pillar


    Balanced against the movement pillar is time for rest. When our ancestors weren’t busy using their body, they were conserving energy - a practice lost in modern times where many of us feel guilty even when given the opportunity to stop or slow down. 


    This pillar is closely tied to our stress response which seems at a mismatch with our modern environment.  The stress response served as a valuable tool for our ancestors, facilitating swift reactions to immediate threats. However, this response was built to be activated when necessary and subside when the danger passed. In contrast, modern life introduces a myriad of stressors from our work and family roles to additional challenges such as insufficient rest, undernourishment, excessive noise, information overload, heightened exposure to toxins, and diminished family support systems. This onslaught of stressors can overwhelm our adaptive mechanisms, leading to chronic stress and its associated health implications. Taking moments to pause, rest, breathe and reset has never been more important.


    We can utilise our stress-response for our own benefit -  stress isn’t inherently bad. In fact, some ‘hormetic stressors’ can also be beneficial to our overall health. Examples include intermittent fasting, exposure to cold (think cold water swimming) and heat, high-intensity interval training, and specific phytonutrients found in foods like cruciferous vegetables (e.g., glucosinolates). 


    It is important to balance these types of stressors out. Before you engage in the more intense activities, such as intermittent fasting or HIIT, assess your current stress levels. Key to this pillar is engaging in active rest, down time, small micro-doses of calm through rituals and optimising your sleep. 


    Areas to focus on when re-balancing this pillar: 



    Living With Nature and Her Cycles Pillar


    This pillar includes everything from our day-to-night cycles (circadian rhythm), seasonal cycles and even hormonal cycles. There is a cyclical nature to everything. Nature's cycles are human cycles too.


    Underlying our intricate cellular physiology, our bodies and minds operate best when in harmony with underlying rhythms, known as our biorhythms. In the context of evolution, every cell in our body has its own biological clock, evolved to be finely attuned to the natural rhythms of the Earth and the sun. Ensuring we are exposed to natural light at key points throughout our day and bathe ourselves in dimmed and darker light in the evening supports this. 


    Woven deep into the tapestry of this pillar is respecting the wisdom of nature and spending time within it. Prescribing diet protocols and even exercise regimes can be so unique - tailored for individuals,  yet nature is something we all benefit from that doesn’t need specifics. 


    We have become an indoor species and yet the benefits of a dose of nature include; 


    • Boosting cognitive function
    • Reducing stress
    • Increasing energy
    • Decreasing inflammation
    • Reducing blood pressure
    • Supporting immunity
    • Increasing serotonin release
    • Improving sleep quality

    Our affinity with nature is deep rooted in evolution. Our genes literally tell us to be in it. In fact we are nature. 


    One of the many reasons time in nature has such a profound effect on our wellbeing is through the sensory experience it gives us. Fractals in particular are patterns that the laws of nature repeat at different scales - think leaves, trees, flowers, waves and cloud formations. Research is finding that viewing fractals induce staggering changes to the body, including significant reductions in the observer’s stress levels. 


    Grounding is also a practice we now look to in order to optimise our wellbeing. Just putting our feet on the ground sounds simplistic, yet our ancestors would have always walked barefoot or even with shoes with leather soles that become conductive when wet - ‘grounding’ constantly. Although more studies are needed, the benefits of grounding consistently are potentially huge; improving sleep, supporting immunity, reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, reducing pain like in arthritis, improving cardiovascular health, supporting mental health issues and speeding up wound healing.


    Our ancestors also cultivated a deep knowledge of the natural world, a wisdom which is being lost in each generation. This included; seasonal eating, moon cycles, gazing at the stars, knowing the tides and identifying plants, birds and animals.

     


    Areas to focus on when re-balancing this pillar: 


    • Daylight exposure at key moments
    • Eat with the path of the sun 
    • Dim the lights in the evening 
    • Optimise your Rise + Rest rituals 
    • Take your shoes off and feel the earth 
    • Spend some time each day in nature (e.g. look up at the sky for 5 minutes) 
    • Spend longer stretches of time in nature when you can
    • Get some plant babies 


    The Community Pillar


    Thanks to social media we are the most connected we have ever been. Whilst there are advantages to this, signs point to many of us feeling more lonely. 


    We evolved to live our lives in a large supportive group - a tribe or a village. Humans are not designed to be alone. We raised children together, worked together, socialised, celebrated and mourned together. 


    In his book "Loneliness: Human Nature and the Importance of Social Ties," John Cacioppo, PhD, discusses how our evolution has wired us to feel uneasy and threatened when alone, triggering a cascade of negative emotions and physical responses. This underscores the vital role of social connections in our overall health. Loneliness has far-reaching consequences beyond mental health, including increased risks of cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes. 


    While there's no magic number of connections we need, fostering diverse and deep relationships is beneficial. In a beautiful way, every positive interaction we have not only enhances our own well-being but also contributes to a ripple effect, improving the lives of those around us too.


    Areas to focus on when re-balancing this pillar: 


    • Balance online connection with face-to-face interactions
    • Create space for socialising
    • Nurture positive relationships
    • Join groups which align with your passions 
    • Reach out to others in times of need - it’s a gift. 



    “There was never a moment when we had it ‘right’ and this era we live in is now full of miraculous ways to come together and adapt. But it is time for a reckoning. We have run as far as we can from the hardship of previous ages, and now we need to find a balance between what we know with what we knew. 


    If we start to re-enchant the most fundamental parts of our existence; the food, the objects we use, the places we inhabit - we can begin to restore our connection between our bodies and the land. This can’t be achieved in the abstract. We must learn to become better keepers of the things that matter.”


    Katherine May; The Wintering 


    1. https://www.mckinsey.com/mhi/our-insights/adding-years-to-life-and-life-to-years
    2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3395188/
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