Ancestral Health Tips

Ancient Activities for Better Health

Sleep Right

Of all the possible lifestyle things a person can do to improve their health, sleeping like their ancestors did would likely reap the most benefits. I'm not talking sleeping on the cold ground in a cave...though as you read ancestral tips farther down you might be tempted to do that, and rightly so. But for now, lets focus on properly sleeping in the modern world in ways that benefit our prehistoric bodies.

The first thing is to simply get enough sleep. Yes, most people really do require at least eight hours of deep sleep every night. This is when the body does a lot of internal repairs and preventative maintenance. It's rebuilding damaged muscles and bones, allowing the heart to rest, cleaning out accumulated toxins, and rebuilding the brain's supply of critical neurotransmitters and other mood, memory, & focus-affecting molecules. This takes time!

How do you give it this time? The first step is developing a set schedule of going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, regardless of the day of week or your to-do list. Train your body's natural rhythm to under stand "now is the time for me to sleep, now is the time for me to be awake". Your body really like schedules!

Another thing is understanding the effects of light on sleep. Your ancestors had little light beyond the moon and stars...and not even those in the caves. Dark was the time to huddle down together and not move about. Moving around at night invited the local apex predators to make a snack out of you. Sleeping during the dark was actually a survival adaption. But the modern world is awash in light specifically designed to match the blue wavelengths of the day. This has been shown to screw up our internal clocks, making it much hard to sleep.

Controlling light becomes another key part of getting sleep. First, limit the use of artificial light as darkness falls night envelopes your home. You may be very surprised by how well a human's dark-adapted eye can still see with just tiny amounts of light. But yes, most people feel the need to have more light or they may be out somewhere where they can't control the light. What to do then?

The answer to that is invest in a set of blue-blocker glasses. These have a special film that reduces transmittance of "daylight-blue" wavelengths of light, and therefore block the rhythm destruction that artificial daylight causes. Put them on an hour or two before sunset and leave them on until you are snuggled in bed in a light-free room.  

What you eat and when you eat it also affects sleep. You would think people would understand that drinking a sugar-filled, caffeinated beverage before bedtime might keep the person awake but I see this over and over. From an evolutionary aspect, science suggests having your final food of the day at least four hours before going to bed, with no snacking afterwards! This allows the somewhat disruptive digestive action to be finished while filling your blood with the nutrients it'll need while you sleep. A full stomach may make you sleepy but it won't keep you asleep, especially with our modern, high-sugar, processed foods. Be sure to drink water as your body will use and lose it during sleep, but no more food once the four-hour countdown begins.

Speaking of water, herbal "sleepy time" time teas are in a gray area. They are fine for the occasional night when stress or other emotional issues make it hard to sleep. However, if you drink them every night you'll retrain your body to only sleep when those plant compounds are in your blood. It's not technically an addiction, but it may as well fall under that definition. Save the sedative herbal teas for extreme situations.

One more tip to help bring about sleep...move more. Not only does this help with all sorts of other health issues, but it has been shown to increase the speed and depth of your sleep. "10,000 steps a day" is just a marketing slogan. Science says you only need half that number to reap the many benefits of walking. Over the course of a day that's about 2.5 miles on a flat surface. Adding hills, dirt paths, and other obstacles reduces the necessary distances to about two miles or about 30 minutes of walking.

Helps: Immune, Brain, Serenity, Liver, Blood Pressure, Libido


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Walking on Uneven Ground

Let's talk about walking! When was the last time you had to pay attention to your step? When was the last time you couldn’t walk on autopilot? We have rendered our world flat and benign. Just about everywhere we go is level, safe, and hazard-free for our feet. Walking no longer requires observation, strength, or sense of balance. We flattened our world to make life easier not realizing how this hurts us.

We did not evolve on flat surfaces. Nature is fractal starting with the biggest mountains down to the smallest anthill. Our ancestors roamed across uneven terrain, loose scree, mud, sand, slippery leaves, and any number of hazards just waiting to break an ankle and turn us into wolf chow.

Walking in nature requires a high level of attention, balance, and core muscle strength. Not surprising, focusing on these three attributes has been found to be crucial for a healthy old age. As a person ages the parts of their inner ear responsible for balance weaken and begin to fail. Coupling this problem generally weaker muscle tone and inattention leads to crippling or fatal falls in the elderly. A study by George F. Fuller, COL, MC, in 2000 for the White House Medical Clinic in Washington, D.C. found that 70% of the accidental deaths of people 75 and older was due to complications from a fall.

Sure, there are exercises you can do to help with balance and core strength. Yoga is great but even just balancing on one foot whenever you are waiting in line helps a lot. Sidenote: one-foot balancing gives you a real workout in an elevator and also gives you an interesting topic of conversation with fellow riders.

Walking, running, and even dancing on uneven surfaces has been considered a key to long physical and mental health in Asia. Western science has come to this same conclusion in a study in 2005 by the Oregon Research Institute that has led a number of architects to incorporate uneven flooring in their designs to force people to reactivate their primate mobility skills.  Not only did such an obstacle-laden path lead to improved muscles and balance but also reduced blood pressure.

Please note, if you're getting up their in age you should consult with your doctor before trying to go off the beaten path. They have special tests that can determine both your risk of falling and how badly a fall may injure you. The more time you spend off the flattened Earth and walking in the wild the healthy and more stable you will be in your twilight years. 

Helps: Brain, Liver, Uric Acid, Immunity, Libido, Blood Pressure



Get Sun

It's currently winter and the sun is mostly just a dream. This is the time when your ancestors worried about food, warmth, survival of the tribe. Yet in this modern age the sun’s disappearance seems to be a reason for joy rather than fear. Somewhere over the years we’ve started thinking of the sun as our enemy…a bringer of cancers, cataracts…and perhaps worst of all, wrinkles! We hide from the sun behind layers of fabric and chemical creams. However, in these actions to protect ourselves we are setting ourselves up for worse. We are not vampires, the sun is actually our friend and a source of many good things.

To be part of nature as the ancient humans were requires us to be outside, out in the sun. The sun shines down on our skin and something wonderful begins happening, the creation of vitamin D. This crucial nutrient regulates over 1,000 other genes in our body. Lack of vitamin D affects the bones, blood, brain, and many important biochemical processes. You can't be healthy without vitamin D and your body doesn't absorb vitamin D well from tablets. It's best to get it the way you evolved to get it, standing in sunlight, with lots of skin exposed. Science says you'll need to have at least 30% of your skin uncovered to the sun for 10-30 minutes, three times a week. If you have naturally dark/black skin, you may need to spend even more time because the sun-protective ability of Black skin reduces its ability to make vitamin D. This has resulted in vitamin D deficiencies, and the associated health problems, being especially prevalent among Blacks.

Vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium and phosphorous from our foods. Without it bones weaken and turn brittle even if plenty of these elements are consumed. In children this leads to malformed bones, especially in the legs, a disease we call Rickets. Sadly, after nutritional advances wiped this deforming disease out decades ago in the 1st world, it has made a comeback. In older people, weakened bones lead to crippling breaks, which often lead to premature death.

Lack of vitamin D in the blood interferes with the proper functioning of insulin. This causes excessively high levels of glucose to be in the blood which all the associated diabetic results. The list goes on and on…lack of vitamin D has been found to accelerate the growth of certain types of cancers and even increase the risk of Multiple Sclerosis.

Our brain relies on vitamin D. Lack of it causes depression, mood swings, and other potential mental illnesses. This is due to depleted serotonin levels, another critical hormone dependent on our buddy, the Big D. Also, exposure to bright sunlight (as opposed to artificial light) during the day helps the body readjust its natural rhythms leading to better sleep, less insomnia. Runners talk about the “Runner’s High” they get from the brain releasing endorphins as the exercise but sunlight can do the same. I even wonder if part of their high comes from the sun-triggered endorphins rather than those caused directly from exercise. I know I feel a bigger rush from working out outside than indoors on a treadmill. Believe it or not, sunlight exposure even reduces the effects of premenstrual syndrome!

And the sun doesn’t just make vitamin D. It also triggers the formation of several different compounds that play important roles in our immune system. Melanocytes, cytokines, and neuropeptides all are produced by the sun’s UV rays striking our skin and each assists the body in fighting off foreign invaders…something which may be more and more important as antibiotic-resistant microbes develop.

True, artificial light sources will deliver similar health benefits…but why stand in a dark room filled with UV light when you can be outside under the sun. It’s where we truly belong.

Helps: Immunity, Blood Pressure, Brain, Serenity


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Throw Things at Stuff

How often per week do you throw stuff at things? It turns out the more often you do the stronger your brain becomes. The human arm, shoulder, eyes, and brain are specially designed to throw things with both force and accuracy. The unique combination of physical and mental structures was evolved by our ancestral hunters. What we lacked in raw power we made up for with force multipliers of rocks, sticks, and other thrown objects. You may have seen monkeys at the zoo throw their poo. Studies have shown the most accurate of these monkeys also score the highest on intelligence tests.

Throwing stuff at things has been shown to strengthen neural connections in the brain. The development of these connections is particularly good for children. Personally, I used to set aside time several days a week with my young daughters for them to throw beanbags at a target across the room. Each hit earned them a dime and it wasn't long before they finished the sessions with several dollars in their hands. That was almost a decade ago and they still have amazing eye-hand coordination as well as scoring at the tops of their classes at school. How much was due to throwing things at stuff is hard to know for sure but science says it helps.

If you don't have the space to throw things at stuff, consider throwing things to yourself...juggling! All it takes is three cheap beanbags or tennis balls and a room without much breakable stuff. At first it may be frustrating but as you practice you'll get better and better as your brain/body connection gets stronger and stronger. You'll also discover that juggling for five minutes is a good upper-body workout!

So, grab your tribe and head over to the nearest axe-throwing bar to rebuild the muscles and coordination your ancestors had. This will strengthen your brain as well as build the tribal social bonds. It's a win-win!

Helps: Brain


The Throwing Madonna

Time-source of neural plasticity in complex bimanual coordinative tasks: Juggling


 Benefits of Dirt #1 - Immune System

Several years ago I got a call from my daughter’s principle who was upset about my child. “Miniwether”, who was in 1st grade at the time, had been teaching edible plants to the other kids during recess. This did not go over well with the public school system.

Miniwether has been foraging by my side since before she could walk. Many an hour was spent with her outside getting dirty as we harvested many a green, nut, and tuber. She was intimately connected to the Earth from the time she was a baby…and it usually took a lot of scrubbing during her evening bath to get her clean again. This communion with the soil continues to this day.

And this contact with the Earth is what, hopefully, will protect her. It’s common knowledge that asthma is rare in “farm kids” and 3rd world children. Something about their constant exposure to unclean conditions educates their immune system, keeping it working properly. Asthma isn’t the only immune disorder common in the clean world. Lupus is another disease where the body’s defenses erroneously attack itself. Strangely, this disease is nine times more likely to hurt women than men. Why is this?

One recent theory put forth by Dr. Sharyn Clough is often girls, in their pretty clothes, aren’t allowed the dirt time that their brothers get. Boys, with their scrapped knees and muddy faces, test their immune systems over and over. Parents keep their daughter clean and inside…not realizing girls need dirt, too. According to Dr. Aoi Mizushima of Providence Medical Group Family Practice, “There is some thought that getting exposed to things, even parasites and different microbial elements in the dirt, might actually improve the overall immunity that a child develops,”.

Collecting wild plants is not a clean activity. When a particularly tasty flower or leaf appears we often pop it in our mouths without even washing it. Well, at least my family and I do. Foraging trains and toughens the immune system through constant exposure to the natural world. If the theory about Lupus being partially the result of too clean of an environment proves true then letting your daughters play in the dirt may be even better for them than you realize.

Helps: Immunity, Brain, Serenity, Liver, Blood Pressure


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 Benefits of Dirt #2 - Grounding

In a way, Doctor Frankenstein's use of lightening to bring life back into his creation contains a kernel of truth. Life, in a way, is electrical. Our nerves transmit electrical signals, our muscles use them to contract and expand, voltage differences play a role in blood pressure. The touchscreens of our phones and tablets rely on our body's innate electrical conductance. 

Moving out for a bigger picture...the Earth's magnetic field caused by the rotation of its iron core, induces a weak electrical current in anything conductive...including the human body. We evolved in direct contact with these unseen currents and then we separated ourselves from the natural sources while bombarding ourselves with unnatural sources out of sync with original power.

At first, the simple concept of "grounding", walking barefoot directly on Earth soil, was laughed at. Bust as we delve into what it truly takes to be a healthy human with our prehistoric body, grounding is being looked at with new appreciation. Scientific studies have shown there are statistically significant benefits in cardiovascular health, healing muscle damage after workouts, reducing pain, improving mood, and reducing inflammation. 

It is believed that by touch the soil with bare feet, or better yet laying on it for maximum body-soil contact, allows reharmonization between the Earth electrical field and that of the body, draining away secondary, unnatural energy build ups. This explanation is a simplification of what's going on during the process...but understanding the complexity of any aspect of nature is difficult so we have to rely on simplified models.  

Helps: Immunity, Brain, Serenity, Liver, Blood Pressure


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