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Sunday, 30 July 2017

Run Back to the Wild: Part 2

Part 1 of Run Back to the Wild provided a general overview of how modern civilization is divorcing itself from nature, and how this is deteriorating our health. Part 2 goes into a few basic aspects of human health, and how returning to our ancestral roots can help us recover our health where modern living has undermined it. I try to weave my own experiences, living in the woods, into the picture.

So, without further ado:

Better sleep - since moving in to the cabin, my sleep has improved dramatically. And since listening to a podcast about sleep, I am learning about the multi-faceted reasons why I am sleeping better, and the magical driver behind it all, melatonin.

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland, in cadence with our circadian rhythms. It is classified as an antioxidant with surprising health effects. And research shows that regular exposure to the daily cycle of light (particularly sunlight) and dark, as well as fluctuations in temperature, stimulate healthy production of melatonin, which enables sleep.
Sleeping in nature puts us closer to our natural sleeping rhythms
Our modern lifestyle has interfered with melatonin production in several ways. During the day, we spend too much time indoors exposed to artificial light, not bright enough to tell our bodies it's day time. And at night, we spend too much time in front of screens, which emit a blue light, which is too bright to tell our bodies it's dark. In addition, temperature regulated houses remain too constant throughout the day, and too hot at night, given that our bodies prefer sleeping in colder than room temperature.

You may be surprised to know that our hunter-gatherer ancestors actually slept about the same amount of hours as modern humans. But they stayed up with the campfires, moon and the stars, which emit a different colour on the light spectrum, which still let their bodies know it's dark out, stimulating the melatonin production they need for better quality sleep and health.

There are so many unbelievable benefits to melatonin as well as sleep, so I'm really happy to be sleeping well in an environment exposing me to natural daily fluctuations of ambient light and temperature, and without screen based distractions.

Eat natural "eat what your grandparents ate", as my favourite food author, Michael Pollan, says. This is much more achievable than, say, eating like our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate. They ate a wild diet of foraged flora and large mammals, rich in high quality fats and nutrients, sufficient in calories. By contrast, modern humans eat a calorie excessive diet low in quality, causing illnesses such as cancer, to explode in the modern era.

Our bodies evolved over millions of years to eat wild, undomesticated foods. They are not evolved to handle the chemicals and preservatives in today's processed foods, or genetically modified foods for that matter. Studies are exposing the long term effects of accumulation of such chemicals in our bodies, as a direct result of our diet.
Wild strawberries on my boss's property - so sweet!
Another useful comparison to make between our ancestors' eating habits versus modern humans, is the quantity and frequency of food consumption. We eat much more, and more frequently today, which puts a lot of stress on our metabolic engine. Imagine revving the engine of your car constantly - eventually, the engine will burn out. Modern dietitians are promoting eating 5 times a day, but I say eat less.

On the other end of the spectrum is fasting. This habit is present in many religions and traditional cultures. Science shows that fasting actually helps our brains build connective tissue, like a hermetic stressor, in the same way that exercising tears our muscle fibres, allowing them to rebuild stronger than before. The hypothesis is that, when our ancestors got hungry, they needed to think about where to hunt or gather their next meal. As long as such habits do not become chronic, they remain acute or hermetic stresses, which stimulates the body in positive ways.

If you're not ready to try fasting, say one day, or even one meal a week, simply take snacking out of the scenario. I've fasted on a few occasions to varying degrees, and feel much more mindful and alive whenever I do it. Plus, I'm no longer a slave to my hunger.
A modest breakfast by my pond
Most of us really overthink and complicate what we eat, which is understandable because what we put into our bodies is probably the most important factor affecting our health. But the focus is misplaced on getting certain nutrients and avoiding others, when it should be on eating organic, unprocessed foods. The processing of foods takes on many variations, but essentially, if it's boxed or packaged, it's undergone some form of processing.

Eating what your grandparents ate, and eating just enough, is advice that is so simple and sensible, and erases the complexity of arranging our lives around fad diets, and focusing on, or off, specific nutrients. 

Looking back to our grandparents, and further back to our wild ancestors, it's time to turn the tables, and the clock, back on this food paradigm.

Unplug your Phone, Plug into Nature - worry less and de-stress! Studies show that being in nature lowers our cortisol (stress) levels. On the technology side, studies show that social media makes us less empathic and more self centred. School children are getting addicted to screens, which is reducing their attention spans and sleep hours. I've already mentioned the screen's effects on melatonin production and sleep.
I live here!
Some say there is literally something in the air in the forests, a mixture of microbes created by the trees and plants, that relaxes us. Whether that is true or not, we don't need science to tell us that. We know it just by doing it - just by being in the forest.

Or perhaps some of us don't know it right away, but once we start doing it, or once some of us get over the initial fears and discomforts of being in wild settings, we start to realize the differences between being in the forest versus the city.

Forests are tranquil, beautiful, calming, healing... the list goes on.

Forests are virtually void of any stresses, save the nagging discomfort of walking on uneven ground or, good heavens, getting dirty! The air is clean, the noises are musical, and the stimulation is intoxicatingly pleasant. In sharp contrast with social media, being in forests fosters humility through a feeling of awe, surrender to beauty, and interconnectedness with our natural surroundings. Being in forests slows life down, brings us back to the present, lets us forget about our worries, and dissolves our consumer attachments.
Meditating in the middle of my pond
Come slackline with me!
Again, this is not a black and white concept, and I'm not saying that screens are bad. But as the human race is gravitating towards urban environments, it is becoming further disconnected from green and natural spaces, and more and more hooked to screens. A better balance needs to be restored.

As for me, I get my screen time on weekends, but I try to keep that a second priority to my awesome life in the woods (by the way, friends in Ontario, why haven't you visited me yet?).

Walk barefoot - anyone who has spent significant time with me would know that I'm a huge advocate of going barefoot. Barefoot shoes have improved my physical health and changed my life.
Bare foot at a little concert
The human skeleton is evolved to strike any surface - whether textured like the ground, or flat like sidewalks,  flat-footed, without cushioning. The modern shoe contorts our feet into unnatural positions, changing our gait and altering how our bodies absorb the upward forces from walking and running. Cushioning in shoes (including arch support) has not eliminated these upward forces, merely dulled the pain. Over time, these upward forces act as chronic stress on our bodies, creating chronic pains and injuries that are difficult to reverse.

The episode of Nature of Things - The Perfect Runner wonderfully describes how humans evolved out of trees to become bipedal and run long distance in order to hunt animals. It describes the physics of running, and how modern cushioned shoes have altered those physics, atrophied the muscles in our feet and cramped our posture. I would also recommend the amazing and inspiring book Born to Run.

I'm not suggesting that everyone should try this, but that most of us overlook the potential of our bodies to rebuild its form around a more natural way of walking and running that aligns with our evolved physiology.

*~*~*~*

Some of these solutions for minimizing chronic stress and living healthier are startlingly simple. They are simple because they are rooted in our ancient culture and our ancestral DNA. Our hunter-gatherer lifestyle may be in the past, but in the grand perspective, it really wasn't that long ago, and many of the lessons from that lifestyle still hold true today.

Much of the information in this blog is inspired by the amazing podcast Rewild Yourself. Everybody needs a little more wild in them.

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