One of the latest trends in mainstream society is the Ancestral Lifestyle. Its followers broadcast a simple message – to do as our early ancestors did and rise above the blanket of depression and anxiety that covers every part of the modern world. Our ignored primal instincts do in fact echo loudly in our minds in the form of negative thoughts, self-hatred, crippling anxiety, and unnecessary violence today. And based on evolutionary psychology, much of what we perceive to be helpful in feeling better is tarnishing our mental health.
Yeah, yeah…another health fad that claims to have it all figured out. It’s a bold statement to say that someone’s health and happiness can thrive by following only a few daily practices to strengthen connection to nature. If you’re skeptical, you’re correct because there is no universal truth or path to happiness for everyone. Every individual will have a different recipe that works for them. But advocates of this lifestyle are absolutely onto something here when it comes to some of the basic building blocks of our days, as they usually remain behind the veil of western medicine.
Fact: The way we eat has changed
We don’t have to eat the raw meat or organs of our mammalian friends to be happy and strong, however eating whole natural foods does in fact help truthful happiness to arise. If things feel good because they’re good for us, eating foods that contain only (or mostly) the nutrients needed to sustain all bodily systems seems like a simple way to feel good. These foods are also typically harder to chew, and humans used to chew for hours a day due to the food’s density. Science has shown that chewing and the clenching of the jaw releases stem cells and can improve bone density, even into old age when we typically believe everything is destined to break down. Feeling stronger means our primal senses are more confident to withstand the challenges it perceives we will face. This leads to an overall increase in feeling of safety, which is a prerequisite for sustaining the flow of happiness.
Fact: Moving more feels good
Since we didn’t have surpluses of food at grocery stores, restaurants, and delis almost instantaneously available, then how did our ancestors get food? By moving their bodies and looking for it until they found it. They fought off the elements and ferocious predators hunting for the very same thing – their next meal. It was eat or be eaten. The terror of being the hunted and not the hunter activates the oldest branches of our nervous system, which paralyze everything but basic utilities to conserve energy and appear motionless, as well as charge us to fight back or run away. And even with all the safety and protection the modern world offers from threats like this, millions of people still suffer from this type of psychological paralysis. Nervous system energy that is trapped in our bodies is ageless.
So how do we channel it and essentially hack our primal instincts into submission and let us modern humans run the show?
The reason we're still hardwired with primitive instinctive response to non-threatening situations is perhaps due to the speed at which we integrated technology as a civilization. We hunted and gathered for hundreds of millions of years before we, only recently on the evolutionary timeline, began to farm and industrialize resources. It's as if our nervous systems were left in the dust. Physical exercise or general movement in space while exerting effort is how we simulate what it was like to hunt. And if you woke up without having fed yourself or your family in several days, chances are you wouldn’t say “Eh, I’ll go look for something to eat later”. You’d be up and at it the second your eyes opened. This is perhaps the reason exercise is often encouraged to be done in the morning, first thing upon waking. It’s possible our hormones evolved to behave in the way that they do to increase the chances of hunting first before any other activity, and to be skilled at it. With testosterone flowing, we experience bursts of strength and sharper hand eye coordination. We also release the cortisol that has kick started us to wake up and move, and having this flood your system can cause long term health problems.
I’ll admit, it’s a groggy drive to the gym at 5am but the feeling when you walk out is unmatched. Going back to the discussion on the evolution of our feelings, exercise feels good because repeatedly simulating the hunt for food sends a relaxing signal to the primal brain, as it believes it has done what is required to fill one of the most basic needs. Repeating the simulation also makes us bigger, stronger, or faster – making us better hunters. As better hunters, we’re safer. The safer we are, the happier. And then we get to enjoy the spoils of the modern world and prepare a meal within minutes or pay someone else to do it.
Fact: Sleep can improve by connecting to nature and grounding
There are other components of the ancestral way that have scientific basis for being incorporated into our daily routines to maximize holistic health. Getting the morning sunlight on us, even if it’s cloudy or raining, helps regulate the hormones that affect various bodily systems, and plays a major role in the process of falling asleep. Falling asleep more naturally leads to better sleep, more energy upon waking, which means more energy to hunt, which means…you get the idea. Another practice that enhances our vitality similarly to the sunlight is connecting the bare feet or our bodies to the ground, not a paved road or floor. This has been studied and shown to increase circulation, cardiovascular health, reduce inflammation and again, prepare us for better sleep.
So the message of the ancestral lifestyle is to do as our ancestors did to thrive with holistic health. Is it fact or fad? It's what you feel it is for YOU and you can take these ancient daily life practices, implementing them into your life, and see...
It’s important to remember that wellness is a spectrum of functioning, not just 2 binary categories of either “well” or “unwell”.
There are other challenges we face that are often beyond anyone’s control, and we do the best we can with what we have available.
But eating whole natural foods at least 75-80% of the time, exercising and simply being outside in the morning can stack up to have an exponentially positive effect on your physiological and mental health. These are also meant to supplement whatever we already do to improve our mental health, not replace it, and thrive in this modern life.
Sean O'Connor is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling in Scarsdale, NY.
Sean specializes in sports psychology and trauma informed counseling to helps adults and athletes overcome anger, depression, anxiety, PTSD and stress.
Sean loves working with athletes and survivors of childhood trauma and helps them heal from the past, love the present, and have hope for the future.