Ancestral Health

Chronic disease is, by and large, a uniquely modern problem. Throughout most of our species’ existence, humans lived largely free of the illnesses that plague so many today. So what changed—and what didn’t? Our environment and our genes, respectively. We’re designed for the hunter–gatherer lifestyle, yet we live as sedentary shoppers, and our well-being suffers as a result. Ancestral health offers a path for helping yourself, or your clients, reclaim the natural vitality our ancestors enjoyed.

What Is Ancestral Health?

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, our ancestors laid out the blueprint for healthy living for us to follow: eat real food, move frequently and sometimes intensively, and give our bodies time to recover. Much has changed since the Paleolithic era. Our jobs often require we sit at a desk for hours on end; there are grocery stores, filled with food-like items at our fingertips—meaning that you may not be following that time-tested plan. Yet, as humans, we remain biologically adapted to life on the savanna.

When we don’t live as our ancestors did, we create a mismatch between our genes and our environment that drives chronic disease. Ancestral health is a prescription for correcting that imbalance. It’s the antidote to chronic illness, and its steps are simple. By eating nourishing meals, sitting less and exercising more, keeping a lid on stress, and getting good sleep, you can stave off the most common conditions and feel—or, if you’re a Functional Medicine practitioner, help your patients feel—their very best.

The Paleo Diet: Getting Started and Fine-Tuning Your Template

There’s no such thing as an optimal human diet, or one diet that works for every individual. However, there are foods that humans, from an ancestral health perspective, are designed to eat. These are the foods our Paleolithic ancestors consumed; thus, eating them is called following the Paleo diet or Paleo template.

Those foods include meats, especially organ meats, fish and shellfish, eggs, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, and starches like potatoes and sweet potatoes, along with healthy fats. You may also discover that full-fat dairy products are a healthful addition for you and that you enjoy and tolerate some legumes well. A wealth of delicious options abound.

Why You Should Exercise like Your Ancestors

When you picture a hunter–gatherer, do you picture him lounging lazily on the sofa? Of course not. Our ancestors were almost always on the move. They had to exert themselves, and often quite strenuously, to survive: they sprinted, jogged, climbed, carried, and jumped intermittently throughout the day, on top of walking and running.

Of course, this is in part why they stayed naturally lean and fit. You can too by mimicking the way they moved and embracing ancestral health. That doesn’t just mean hopping on a treadmill for 30 minutes or practicing a session of high-intensity interval training or lifting weights a few days a week. It also means sitting less—a lot less—and moving more every day.

How to Live an Ancestral Lifestyle

You focus on diet and exercise, knowing they’re crucial to being your healthiest self. But how much thought do you give to your sleep? Or to your relationships or the amount of time you spend in nature or let yourself play? These lifestyle choices have an equally important role to play in well-being.

While our Paleolithic ancestors ate high-quality, nourishing foods and moved almost constantly, they also allowed themselves to rest—to shake off the stress of fleeing a predator or a challenging hunt. Although we live in a culture that values productivity and activity above all else, we can say no to the chronic stress our busy lives create and embrace more ancestral lifestyles.