In this day and age there seems to be a wealth of advice, countless different schools of thought and self-empowerment programmes about the right way to live – to be healthy, happy, fit and super successful. Yet, the number of overweight, unhappy, disillusioned, poorly nourished, sleep deprived and stressed out people is higher than ever.
Apparently, John Ratey (Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and one of the world’s leading experts in Neuropsychiatry) and Richard Manning (an environmental author and journalist) claim to know the real deal when it comes to resolving our core problems and finding the one true path for optimal living in this hyper-paced and high-tech world. Let me put it simply for you: GO WILD!
I wonder what sort of images start to conjure up in your mind when you are told to go wild. I don’t know about you, but the gory images of Bear Grylls killing a moose then drinking its blood and then gnawing on its heart still haunt me sometimes.
Well, let me put your mind at rest – the book will not seek to erase your sophisticated manners and make you literally wild and free; nor will it transform you into a wild hunter-gatherer, shaman, sorcerer, or a witch. What John Ratey and Richard Manning set out to do is to tune your brain and body for peak performance, so you will remain happy, sharp, and fit. And in their book they do strip down everything to the core basics, filtering through all the fads and hype until only the truth remains – one which has been hidden in our DNA all along and what makes us human, after all.
Their underlying thesis is that although civilization has rapidly evolved, our bodies have not kept pace. There has been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years – everything we call culture and civilisation is we have built with the same body and brain our ancestors had. We were designed to act, move, eat, sleep, commune and be in nature like our ancestors did, however, we are clearly not doing that through our modern ways of living.
The net result is that this mismatch affects every area of our lives, from our general physical health to our emotional wellbeing. They say that by tapping into our core DNA and re-wilding our ways of living, we have a much better chance to combat some of the modern diseases and psychological afflictions, from depression to diabetes and obesity. They believe that by going back to our prehistoric days, it is possible to secure a healthier and happier future.
So when and where did things go so wrong? They instigate that the reason we became tame and soft was due to the impacts of the agricultural revolution. Agriculture which historians like to call the ‘cradle of civilisation’ because of its immense impact on us practically took us out of our natural, wild environments and started to organise and domesticate us as humans. So it was more than just a new way of growing our food.
All sounds great to me so far, however one question remains: how should we go about re-wilding ourselves? Well, relax, you do not need to rush quitting your day job and setting up camp in the caves of Cheddar Gorge or google ‘how to kill my first moose’. It all comes down to seven principles which you can start applying to your life right away.
Ditch the sugar and wheat from your diet
The industrial revolution and the aforementioned agricultural revolution are regarded as the greatest and most impactful event in human history. These also affected our nutrition, for example, our sugar and wheat intake has been exponentially increasing over the past couple of hundred years.
Whilst in the in 1700s the average sugar intake per person per year was a mere 2.27kg, today it is a shocking 68kg (which is about 30 times higher!). This is way above the recommended average of 10kg a year. Looking at the average wheat intake per person per year, it grew from zero to a whopping 60kg.
A lot of different researchers have reached the same conclusion that higher levels of sugar and white flour are toxic to our brain and body because these inflame us. Inflammation occurs when your immune system’s switch gets stuck in the ‘on’ position. As a result, it wages a continuous war on your own cells—a war that packs pounds on you (especially around your waistline), ages you quickly, and damages your nerve and body cells. Neurologist David Perlmutter’s book called Grain Brain- The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers shows a direct correlation between a grain heavy diet and alzheimers, dementia, and lifestyle diseases such as anxiety, chronic headaches, and depression.
The bottom line is that our brains thrive on fat and cholesterol, not grain and sugar, so like our ancestors, we really should follow an anti-inflammatory diet of high-quality proteins, bone broth, vegetables, healthy fats, fruits, and nuts – this is the natural diet we’re genetically programmed to need. Our ancestors lived on a low carb, high fat, moderate protein based diet to keep their weight and energy levels stable, plus they were more movement oriented, so we did not see obesity for a long time throughout history.
Of course, making these changes is not as easy as it sounds. Sugar for example is highly addictive and it lurks in almost every processed product you take off the shelves of the shop. Even supposedly nutritious products that are aimed towards health conscious people are pumped with sugar – just think about popular sports drinks and breakfast cereals.
How to re-wild your diet:
– Learn to read the labels properly so that you can make educated food choices and give your cells what they crave: natural, unprocessed foods that will crush your inflammation.
– Try to substitute anything white (which is the indication of starch i.e. heavy sugar being present) with brown coloured versions when you buy rice, pasta.
– You may even want to experiment making your own staples such as bread, sports drink or flavoured yoghurt – there are plenty of recipes on Pinterest.
(Re)buid your brain through movement
In today’s modern world with all the conveniences and technological advances which make our lives easier and very comfortable, it is easy to forget that we are born to move. In order to survive, our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to be very agile and smart to find their food and to defend themselves – they ran, walked, climbed, swam, lifted heavy stuff to negotiate all kinds of situations. The relationship between food, physical activity, and learning is hardwired into our brain’s circuitry so this is why a sedentary lifestyle can pose one of the biggest threats to our continued survival, even in this day and age.
Unfortunately, our modern cultures seems to treat the mind and body as if they are separate entities. However, neuroscientists have made some riveting discoveries about the relationship between the body, the brain, and the mind. In his other book called Switch!, John Ratey points out that in order to keep our brains at peak performance, our bodies need to work hard. ‘Science of exercise cues the building blocks of learning in the brain; affects mood, anxiety, and attention; guards against stress and reverses some of the effects of aging in the brain; and in women can help stave off the sometimes tumultuous effects of hormonal changes.’
By making regular exercise a priority, you can pave the way not only for happiness, but also growth in all other areas of your life.
How to get your wild *ss into gear:-
– The best forms of exercise are those that are functional i.e. where you can transfer your fitness which you gained from exercises into improved performance in your daily activities. So think about exercises that allow your body to move in all directions and challenge you in more than one way. For example, instead of restricting yourself to fixed weight- and cardio machines which allow you to move only in limited directions and which focus on isolating muscles, try running, hiking and walking outdoors, participating in different fitness classes which challenge your coordination to help you build optimum strength and performance.
– Running is an excellent form of exercise – We are not only adapted for running but running defines us: our ancestors were endurance predators who ran game animals to death who were fast, but had much less endurance. Humans have evolved to be the best endurance runners on the planet through the practice of persistence hunting. However, instead of hitting the treadmill, try trail running – it stimulates your brain and body much more effectively.
Reconnect with nature
We evolved spending most of our time in nature outdoors – not in a sea of grey cubicles.
According to a study published on the American Psychological Association’s website, we get both mental and physical restoration from nature. The good news is that even just a glimpse of nature from a window could help – in a study they found that patients whose hospital rooms overlooked trees had an easier time recovering from surgery than those whose rooms overlooked brick walls.
Dr Joseph Juhasz, a professor of architecture and environmental design at the University of Colorado, believes that one plausible explanation for the current epidemic of depression lies in our ‘nature deprivation’ i.e. lack of time outdoors: ‘what we desperately need is connection with our blood and soil (…) We are estranged from our blood-ourselves as human beings, and our soil, our natural environment-at this moment in our culture.’
Another study by the University of Illinois suggests that time spent in nature connects us to each other better and the larger world – people who had trees and green space around their homes reported knowing more people, having stronger feelings of unity with neighbours, being more concerned with helping and supporting each other, and having stronger feelings of belonging than those without trees. This phenomenon could be explained by other studies which used MRI scans to measure brain activity – when participants viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up.
How to re-wild your relationship with nature:
– This could be tricky as most us spend our times at work, in the aforementioned sea of grey cubicles. So why don’t you suggest to your colleagues that you have some ‘walking meetings’ – this way you can kill two birds with one stone as you will not only cover off all the important subjects but will also get a great workout outdoors.
– Outdoor gyms seem to be springing up everywhere – visit your local council’s website or The Great Outdoor Gym Company to locate one near you. If you scan the QR codes on their equipment, you will see video instructions and tips. Alternatively, download the Park Workout app by Openair Fitness – this includes some great workouts you can do anywhere.
– Why don’t you try a fun and challenging outdoors fitness class? British Military Fitness are the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes which are run on various locations.
Practice awareness and mindfulness
Our ancestors were constantly aware of what was going on inside and outside their direct environment, they had to be very connected to the world because at the end of the day, their lives were at stake.
Again, a lot of research has been conducted into the benefits of practicing mindfulness. Ellen Langer who is a reputable mindfulness expert and a professor of psychology at Harvard University found that the mindless following of routine and applying other automatic behaviours all the time can lead to error, pain and a predetermined course of life: “To be mindful (…) allows free rein to intuition and creativity, and opens us to new information and perspectives.”
Mindfulness can be practiced for example through meditation. It is not turning yourself into a levitating Yoda and completely emptying your head. It is being objectively aware of your thinking and emotions, which can free you up to be more present with what you are doing and who you are with, and appreciate what you have. Practicing mindfulness daily has a number of benefits: it helps you filter through the chaos of your thoughts giving you better clarity on what is really important; it helps you develop empathy and therefore can help you improve your relationships; it helps you develop your own levels of self-awareness so you can see things more objectively before making important decisions; it lowers stress levels and therefore contributes to improved health and happiness.
How to bring mindfulness into your daily life:
- Certain activities such as trail running encourages better awareness as you pay attention to your surroundings, coordination and balance.
- Here is a great Youtube video teaching a very easy one minute meditation technique which you can do anywhere, any time.
Sleep 8 hours a day and observe digital sunsets
In the past, our ancestors slept as much as they needed. Unlike them, we often get nowhere enough sleep, with the average person clocking in less than 7 hours a night. This is maladaptive, as we are no longer tuned to our 24 hour circadian rhythms (a so-called biological clock which regulates the timing of periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day).
Ideally, everyone should get around 8 hours sleep at night. It is important because it is during sleep that your body recharges, regenerates and heals, that memories are consolidated and emotional events are processed. Good quality sleep has also been proven to effectively treat episodically depressed people due to its mood regulating effects. When we skimp on sleep, we are not only making ourselves tired and compromising our ability to fight off everyday illnesses, but we are also speeding up the aging process, driving weight gain, and increasing our risk for diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular problems.
The second part of the problem is that our ancestors had long periods of dark and unlike them, we are exposed to lots of unnatural light and digitals. If we are exposed to these for too long, they inhibit the release of melatonin which helps us fall asleep.
How to re-wild your sleeping habits:
– Observe digital sunsets – when the sun goes down, ideally all electronics should go off and your home should turn into a darker, cave-like state.
– If you need sleep aids, natural sounds are best – download some sounds on your phone which our ancestors heard when trying to drift into sleep in their caves, such as fire crackling, chicadas, rain and thunder, frogs, owls, breathing of dogs/cat purr and so on.
– Download an app on your phone or kindle which places a crimson filter over your device’s blue light – this will reduce eye strain and will not disrupt your internal body clock.
Connect with your tribe
These days we are more connected than ever, all the time and everywhere, thanks to technology. However, unfortunately, we are often not connected emotionally or physically with each other.
Being connected to other people stimulates a very powerful hormone which helps brain cells work optimally. When we are with people we love, our oxytocin levels are up – I just jokingly call it as the ‘cuddle hormone’ which plays an important role in the formation and maintenance of one on one bonding, and befriending people.
This is actually reflected very well in the South African humanist philosophy of Ubuntu, which is based on a belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. In Zulu it literally means that ‘a person is a person through other people’. Here the idea of community is one of the building blocks of society.
How to find your tribe:
– Arrange to meet up face to face, instead of connecting over the phone or Internet all the time. Sharing a good old fashioned cuppa together can go a long way!
– Join a social group or club where you can meet and bond with like-minded people.
– If you need some extra motivation and push to achieve your fitness goals, try Crossfit – these classes boast an incredible success rate getting people into shape. The main driver behind this is the community it has fostered. Ask any Crossfitter and they will tell you they feel like a family in their ‘box’ (their gyms), which is like a home to them. A safe haven where they struggle, sweat, achieve, and build lasting relationships.
Hopefully this article has inspired you to more closely examine your current lifestyle and think about what areas may need a bit of re-wilding. The important thing to remember is to allow yourself to experiment and explore, and look at this as an adventure of a lifetime!
If you are unsure about where to start this journey, one final piece of advice I would give you is to identify one key habit you will change and which has the potential to have a ripple effect on your life. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit book, describes this as a ‘keystone habit’ which is correlated with other good habits. For example, regular exercise often goes hand-in-hand with better eating habits, spending more time outdoors and so on.
Are you ready to invite wildness into your life and tap into your dormant inheritance?