Have you ever thought about how our ancestors long ago lived compared to how we live today? And how our modern conveniences have changed the world we live in and what that means for you?
When you stop to think about it, the differences are drastic. We don’t move, eat, or sleep the same as people did thousands of years ago. Even our grandparents had a different life than those thousands of years ago, though they were much closer than we are today.
Let’s look at the impact that our current culture and environment have on our health and see what we can do to honor what our bodies have always needed.
Food, Movement, & Sleep for Our Ancestors
Thousands of years ago our ancestors were dependent on the land. They didn’t have any other source of food than that which they could provide for themselves.
As hunters and gatherers, they needed to move much of the time. They walked many miles to chase prey. They spent a lot of time gathering food from plant sources - berries, roots, etc. - but oftentimes food was scarce.
Even when they relaxed, they had to physically support their bodies, sitting on the ground or a bench made of logs. In general, movement didn’t need to be an intentional decision, it was simply built into their everyday life.
Our ancestors also tended to follow the rhythm of the sun. Since their light was limited to the sun, stars, and possibly a fire, they likely did not stay up to all hours of the night. Bright light in the morning and darkness at night supported a healthy circadian rhythm.
Food, Movement, & Sleep Today
Now, unless you are in a food desert, our food options are endless. Food is nearly everywhere. In the city and suburbs, you can hardly drive a mile without passing many fast-food options and possibly a grocery store or two.
Not only is food easily accessible, but it is often processed to the point that our ancestors wouldn’t recognize it as food! So, we have to wonder if our bodies recognize it as food either.
And since we don’t have to move to get our food, many of us live our can lives without much movement at all. Our survival is not dependent on movement, so we need to choose to move intentionally.
Many people sit at their desks all day, and then come home to comfortable chairs and couches. Even those who decide to exercise typically don’t get the movement that our ancestors did.
In addition, we are not limited to natural light. We are able to stay up as late as we want to, often with lots of blue light from the many screens in our home. These differences matter, they affect our health in ways we may not expect.
How These Differences Affect Our Health
For years and years humans evolve to fit their environment. Recently the world has changed so drastically in a relatively short amount of time, but our genes haven't.
If our bodies were designed to thrive with our ancestors' way of life, it will be a challenge for them to adjust to the way our culture lives today.
Our genes have simply not evolved to live in the environment in which we find ourselves. We still need the movement, nutrition, and sleep our ancestors needed to survive thousands of years ago.
A Special Word to Those with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
You may not see PCOS as an advantage, but for our ancestors the symptoms of PCOS could be extremely beneficial. Let’s consider some of the main concerns women with PCOS often have.
Putting on weight is easier when you are insulin resistant which is one of the primary root causes of PCOS. In an environment where food is scarce, and meals are not always available this extra weight would provide an advantage for survival.
Irregular periods would often result in fewer children who were spaced farther apart. This was a huge advantage in an environment with scarce resources, little medical care, and dangerous land.
The genetic mismatch we live in is important to recognize; it proves that none of the symptom's women with PCOS struggle with are their fault. It’s hard to fight against years of evolution and for some it is harder than others.
Even the difference of the light in our environment impacts women with PCOS in a drastic way, because when our circadian rhythm is off it messes with our hormones. Hormonal imbalance is a huge contributing factor of PCOS symptoms.
How Can We Use this Knowledge to Our Advantage?
It would be impossible to imitate our ancestors' way of life, but there are things that you can do to move towards it a little.
Being mindful of the foods we eat, and how often we eat them, can make a huge impact on our health. But many people only focus on this issue and our health is so much more complex than simply eating the “right” foods.
Making sure that we are moving through the day and not just in the gym is also a powerful thing. Even something as simple as setting an alarm to get up and walk for a few minutes each hour or watching a show while sitting on the floor instead of the couch can be beneficial.
Most people don’t realize that our sleep is just as important as our nutrition and movement. Our body heals as we sleep, and our hormones are dependent on a good circadian rhythm. Getting natural light in the morning may be the most important aspect of resetting your sleep cycle.
Another thing that I haven’t mentioned is the type of connection our ancestors had to their community. Long ago a person’s survival literally depended on being a part of a community. If they were kicked out of their community, they would not be able to live long. They lived with extended family and other community members. Everyone worked together towards the community's good.
In today’s culture true community is hard to find. Our culture makes it difficult to survive if you aren't working long hours. This limits the amount of time people have for connection. Families are often spread across the country and isolation is common. It takes intention to get together with friends and loved ones as it is not built into our daily life for survival.
Research is clear that social connections have an impact on our health. In fact, the American Association for the Advancement of Science published a study that found that “a lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure.” So, finding a community or a couple close friends doesn't just feel good, it can actually be a huge health benefit.
I share this to let you know that many of the health issues we face are not your fault! We are living in an evolutionary mismatch, with our environment setting us up for many of our health concerns. This is especially true if you are a woman with PCOS. When we understand this, we can begin to work with our genetics instead of fighting against them.