Ancestral Health: What It Is and How It Can Help You


Ancestral health means eating, living, and moving like Paleo hunter–gatherers—like this man is doing during an intense trail run.

We’re living in a time of incredible innovation and advancement, yet we’re sicker and more overweight than ever before. And unfortunately, there’s every indication that, based on projected statistics, many people will never get healthy and stay that way.

Some days it seems as if there’s no solution for our health woes, not to mention the pain and suffering caused by the financial burdens of chronic illness. But I can assure you that that’s far from the case and that we can break this cycle.

It’s possible to halt and even reverse the current disease epidemic—using a strategy we have access to right now. It isn’t a brand-new drug, device, or surgical procedure. The solution is ancestral health. By following the blueprint for healthy living that our hunter–gatherer ancestors laid out for us so long ago, we can stave off the long list of uniquely modern chronic conditions, stay naturally lean and fit, and age gracefully.

Chronic disease has reached epidemic levels, and modern medicine can’t seem to halt its progression. Find out how ancestral health—moving, eating, and living more like our ancestors did—can stem the rising tide of chronic illness. #paleo #healthylifestyle #chriskresser

Chronic Disease Is Common, But It Isn’t Normal

Chances are that either someone close to you has a chronic disease or you’re dealing with one yourself, if not both of these scenarios. Chronic illness is so prevalent now that it’s almost impossible to imagine life without it: six in 10 U.S. adults have a chronic disease, while four in 10 suffer with two or more chronic conditions. (1)

Nearly six million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s. (2)
More than 100 million Americans have either prediabetes or diabetes. (3)
Some 50 million people in this country have an autoimmune disease such as Hashimoto’s, rheumatoid arthritis, or multiple sclerosis. (4)
Worldwide, an estimated 2.2 billion people are either overweight or obese; among the most populous countries, the highest prevalence of obesity can be found, you guessed it, here in the States. (5, 6)
One-third of Americans suffer from high blood pressure, with some statistics suggesting that hypertension may actually affect half of all U.S. adults. (7, 8, 9)

Yet throughout most of our species’ enduring existence, humans did live largely free of these illnesses that today shorten our lifespan and make us miserable. Chronic disease may be our “new normal,” but it definitely isn’t our “normal normal.”

Paleontological and archaeological findings have confirmed this, but perhaps the best evidence is the fact that remaining hunter–gatherer societies—who live as closely as possible to the way our Paleolithic ancestors did hundreds of thousands of years ago—don’t generally suffer from the most common chronic conditions.

One study of the Tsimané people in Bolivia found that they have a prevalence of atherosclerosis 80 percent lower than ours in the United States and that nine in 10 Tsimané adults aged 40 to 94 have completely clean arteries and no risk of heart disease. Researchers also found that the average 80-year-old Tsimané male has the same vascular age as an American in his mid-50s. (10) Studies of the Hadza of Tanzania reveal that less than 2 percent of Hadzan adults qualify as overweight. And type 2 diabetes is so rare among these and other contemporary hunter–gatherer populations that few reports looking into its prevalence even exist. (11)

Mismatch: Why Your Health Is So Different From Your Ancestors’ Health

So what happened? How did the majority of us go from being naturally inclined toward health to being seemingly guaranteed at least one debilitating diagnosis?

In a word: mismatch—between our genes (hardwired genetic programming), our physiology, and our biology on the one hand and the modern environment we’re living in on the other.

All organisms are adapted to survive and thrive in a particular environment. When that environment changes faster than the organism can adapt, mismatch occurs. This is a fundamental principle of evolutionary biology, and it applies to humans as much as it applies to any other organism in nature.

Our environment is almost unrecognizable from that of our ancestors, and we aren’t  eating, moving, or resting like the hunter–gatherers that we still are, biologically. We know from hard evidence that this mismatch—pitting environment against biology—is the primary driver of chronic disease.

Some of the starkest examples of this include studies and observations of existing 21st century hunter–gatherers reporting that when they leave their villages and trade their traditional ways for a Western lifestyle, they develop diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular complications. (12, 13)

Back in Balance: The Basics of an Ancestral Lifestyle

It’s clear: the fastest way to recover your natural health is to return to a way of eating and living that more closely matches what your genes and biology are designed for. I’ve written and talked extensively about this approach online, in my books, and on my podcast, but here’s a broad overview to set you on the path, right now, to reclaiming your vitality through ancestral health.

Eat Real, Nourishing, High-Quality Foods

We know, without a doubt, that our Paleolithic ancestors ate animal products. Indeed, most researchers believe that consuming meat and fish is what led to our larger brains and smaller guts compared to other primates. (14, 15, 16) Though no ancestral population following a completely vegetarian or vegan diet has ever been discovered, it’s evident that hunter–gatherers did also enjoy plant foods, such as starchy root vegetables. (17)

Some traditional cultures also consumed grains and legumes. But those who did went to great lengths to break down the natural nutrient inhibitors these foods contain; these methods included soaking, sprouting, fermenting, and leavening.

We also know, without a doubt, that hunter–gatherers did not consume refined sugar, flour, and seed oils, or what I call “the three horsemen of the apocalypse” because they promote overeating and inflammation, which is at the root of all modern disease. To my mind, the introduction of industrial food processing has had the most detrimental effect on our health of any other factor in the last few hundred years—and possibly in the entire history of humankind.

In addition to the harmful presence of refined sugars, flour, and seed oils, processed foods also deliver high levels of chemical additives and preservatives. Some of these ingredients have known negative effects, from leaky gut and autoimmune disease to stroke and kidney damage, while the effects of others are still unknown. (18, 19, 20)

Here’s your ancestral diet action plan:

Bypass bags and boxes. Of course, not all foods that come in bags and boxes are harmful, so this isn’t meant to be taken literally. It’s just a helpful guideline to steer you toward real food (see below). Butter is often packaged in a box, and frozen vegetables (and some fresh) come in plastic bags. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat butter and vegetables. But in general, if you follow this precept, you’ll minimize your intake of health-damaging flour, sugar and other sweeteners, industrial seed oils, and other processed and refined ingredients.
Base your diet on real, whole, nutrient-dense foods like meat, organ meat, fish and shellfish, eggs, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, and starchy plants like potatoes and sweet potatoes, along with healthy fats to aid in nutrient absorption.
Exercise caution with grains and legumes. If you choose to eat these foods, it’s best to soak them prior to cooking to maximize nutrient bioavailability.
Focus on quality over quantity. Choose local and organic produce and pasture-raised animal products or wild-caught fish whenever possible, which most closely mimic the foods available to our ancestors via hunting and foraging.

Sit Less and Move (Much) More—Sometimes Intensely

Movement played a major role in daily life for hunter–gatherers. After all, they spent the majority of their time, well, hunting and gathering. They had to exert themselves, and often quite strenuously, to survive: our ancestors sprinted, jogged, climbed, carried, and jumped intermittently throughout the day, on top of walking an average of six miles and running one-half to one mile per day. (21)

In other words, they didn’t sit all day like so many of us do. We spend endless hours working at computers, watching TV, and commuting by car. In fact, the typical U.S. adult is now sedentary for about 60 percent of his or her waking life and sits for an average of six or seven hours every day. (22, 23) Sitting has been called the new smoking, and for good reason: it’s linked to heart disease, insulin resistance, cancer, and the list goes on. What’s more, research has found these same negative health outcomes in those who exercise but still spend the majority of their day seated.

Your ancestral movement action plan:

Stand up. It’s the simplest way to sit less. I recommend standing for half of your day.
Talk a walk. Actually, take lots of walks and regularly engage in other low-intensity activities. Consider walking or bicycling to work, doing your own household chores, and finding a hobby like gardening that, quite literally, moves you. If you can build a daily walk into your workday—parking further away from your office, walking during your lunch break, or walking with your child or a pet after work or dinner—it becomes a habit that’s easy to keep.
Push yourself occasionally throughout the week with bouts of more intense exercise; just don’t overdo it. I recommend a protocol established by my friend and colleague Dan Pardi.

Sleep More and Stress Less

I’m sure if I asked you to conjure up an image of a hunter–gatherer, he or she wouldn’t be lounging lazily on a sofa. Although they were almost always on the move, these people relaxed, too. Our ancestors alternated strenuous and demanding days of physical activity with days of rest, an instinctual response that protected them from injury and fatigue.

Our modern lifestyle is a stark mismatch in this regard. We live in a culture that values productivity and activity above all else and is almost scornful of rest and relaxation. “Resting” for many people means browsing the internet or engaging with some other kind of sleep-sapping, artificial light-emitting electronic device that is anything but restful for the brain and the body. We’ve not only forgotten the value of rest—we’ve forgotten how to do it.

Thus, we’re stressed out. Constantly. Our ancestors experienced stress when fleeing a predator or out on a hunt. But, as I shared above, they punctuated these stressful times with moments of calm. We simply aren’t built for chronic stress, as evidenced by the immense amount of research illustrating that it wreaks total havoc on our bodies.

Your ancestral action plan for R&R:

Sleep soundly, and for seven to eight hours a night. You can’t be healthy without adequate sleep. Period. Check out my steps for beating insomnia and adopting good sleep hygiene.
Manage your stress. There’s no way to completely remove stress from your life, but you can avoid unnecessary stress by learning to say no to projects or commitments you can’t handle, staying away from people who get your blood boiling, and turning off the news (or at least limiting your exposure to it), as examples. To mitigate the harmful effects of the stressors you can’t avoid, try relaxation practices and techniques such as meditation, yoga, and calm breathing.
Prioritize pleasure. Listening to music, playing with your pets, laughing with friends, and spending time outdoors all can help you cultivate more pleasure in your life, and pleasure is the antidote to chronic stress.

Now I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Is your lifestyle in line with that of our ancestors? What changes can you make to your habits to get more in tune with your hunter–gatherer heritage? Comment below and let me know!

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