Over the past few decades, the prevalence of chronic diseases has skyrocketed within the United States. Currently, one in two Americans has a chronic disease such as diabetes, obesity, autoimmune disease, or cardiovascular disease. A shocking one in four Americans has multiple chronic diseases. (1) The rates of chronic infectious diseases, such as Lyme disease, are also on the rise; since the late 1990’s, the number of reported cases of Lyme disease in the U.S. has tripled. (2) These statistics are overwhelming and indicate that something is seriously amiss in our society to produce a chronic disease epidemic of such epic proportions. While we could place the blame for this epidemic on any of a number of factors, such as the food industry, our “factory” model of healthcare, and environmental pollution, I personally believe that the roots of our chronic disease epidemic lie much deeper. I believe that a fundamental disconnect from our ancestral way of life – including our ancestral diet, living environment, movement habits, values, and community – are responsible for the chronic disease epidemic.
In my own journey of recovery from chronic Lyme disease and mold illness, I have taken an ancestral approach to healing that I feel is a sustainable way to not only regain health but build optimal long-term wellbeing. In this post, I want to outline the seven principles upon which I have created my "ancestral healing approach to healing chronic illness." None of these principles works in isolation; they work synergistically. In my experience, a lifestyle developed around these principles has incredible healing power.
Principle 1: An Ancestral Diet
For the past five years, an ancestral diet has been the foundation of my healing strategy. When I say I eat an “ancestral” diet, I am referring to a diet that mimics the types of foods our pre-agricultural ancestors ate. For me, this includes eating organic meat, poultry, and fish, lots of non-starchy vegetables, low-glycemic index fruits, healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, and wild-caught fatty fish, and starchy vegetables such as cassava, Tigernuts, and sweet potatoes.
A large body of anthropological and archaeological research indicates that our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who ate these types of foods, lived lives largely free of the chronic diseases we face today. While they did struggle with warfare, acute infectious diseases, and exposure to the elements, those who survived these difficulties had lifespans nearly equivalent to our own. (3) This stands in stark contrast to the common misconception that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lives were “nasty, brutish, and short.” (4) However, research indicates that once our ancestors began to farm and transitioned to an agricultural diet heavy in grains, they began to experience significant decrements in health. This included alterations in the bone structure of their jaws and faces (a little-known sign of malnutrition), shortened stature, enamel defects in the teeth, a four-fold increase in iron-deficiency anemia, and bone degeneration. This agricultural diet has continued into the present day. I believe that the diet of modernity is a key precipitating factor in the chronic disease epidemic because it malnourishes the body, impairs metabolism and immunity, and promotes a “terrain” that is hospitable to disease.
I believe that transitioning from the modern, processed, grain-heavy diet back to an ancestral, hunter-gatherer diet is key for reversing chronic disease, whether you suffer from type 2 diabetes, autoimmunity, or chronic Lyme disease. Your diet does not need to be strict “Paleo;” archaeological evidence shows that our hunter-gatherer ancestors did eat some ancient grains and legumes. The key is to focus on nutrient-dense, whole foods and find an ancestral dietary template that works for you.
Principle 2: Nature exposure
Modern-day humans are grossly disconnected from nature. We spend the majority of our time indoors, in artificially-lit, toxic environments. As someone who has been an intense lover of nature my entire life, I have always understood that spending time in nature was crucial for my health. However, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that many people live in areas where nature is inaccessible and has thus become a novelty; research indicates that this “nature disconnect” has serious health implications. One study found that the less “green” a person’s surroundings are (i.e. the less nature exposure they have), the higher their risk of morbidity and mortality. (4) A lack of nature exposure has also been associated with depression, anxiety, Type 2 diabetes, ADHD, infectious diseases, cancer, poor healing outcomes from surgery, obesity, birth outcomes, cardiovascular disease, migraines, and respiratory disease. The relationship between a lack of nature exposure and an increased risk of chronic disease makes complete sense when we consider that our humans evolved in an environment where they spent essentially their entire lives outside. I believe that returning to nature, by spending significantly more time outdoors, is crucial for recovering from chronic illness and building lifelong health. In my own healing journey, spending time in nature has been the cheapest and most powerful health intervention I have tried – and to top it off, it is an entirely pleasurable experience! I recommend trying to get outdoors at least four days a week for thirty minutes; I can almost guarantee that this small amount of nature immersion will make you crave even more!
You can read more about the health benefits of nature exposure in my previous blog post, “A Prescription for Nature: The Ways in Which Contact with Nature Promotes Health.”
Principle 3: Sunshine and Circadian Rhythms
Living in sync with the rhythms of the earth has helped me immensely in my recovery. I have accomplished this by getting as much sunlight as possible and my syncing my circadian rhythms to the natural cycles of light and dark with which our ancestors evolved.
The health benefits of sunshine
- Sunlight is antimicrobial. Research has shown that blue light (which is abundant in sunshine) has antifungal activities. (5) I credit sunbathing with helping me recover from systemic mold illness. You can read more about my experience with sunbathing for mold illness in my previous blog post “Why I am Using Sunlight to Heal from Mold Illness.”
- Sun exposure normalizes circadian rhythms and enhances immunity and detoxification. Optimized circadian rhythms, a strong immune system, and efficient detoxification capacity are all crucial for recovering from chronic illness and maintaining a healthy body. (6)(7)
- You need sun exposure to initiate the process of vitamin D production in your skin. Vitamin D3 plays many important roles in human physiology, including regulating immunity, gastrointestinal health, and inflammation. Low levels of this secosteroid hormone have been linked to chronic diseases such as autoimmune diseases, diabetes, and cancer.
Syncing circadian rhythms
Circadian rhythms govern countless aspects of our physiology, including sleep, immunity, the absorption and assimilation of nutrients from food, and detoxification capacity. When we live lifestyles that are out-of-sync with the earth's natural cycles of light and dark, such as by staying up late at night on blue light-emitting technological devices, our circadian rhythms are thrown out of whack, and this adversely impacts our physiology. Syncing my own circadian rhythms has helped me increase my energy, reduce inflammation, and enhance my immunity. I have accomplished this by wearing blue-light-blocking glasses at night, putting blackout curtains in my bedroom, and exposing myself to plenty of sunshine during the day.
The only time I use sunscreen nowadays is when I know I will be outdoors for more than a few hours under the beating sun with lots of skin exposed. Even then, I only wear an entirely natural, non-nano zinc oxide sunscreen by Living Libations, pictured below.
Principle 4: Exercise
Our ancestors did not spend all day sitting at a desk, in a car on a commute, and on the couch watching TV at the end of the day. They were active throughout the day. This has led me to personally adopt a lifestyle where I am active throughout the day. When I work from home, I work at a standing desk (I like this one).
When I am at my co-working office, I sit at a desk but get up and walk around at least once an hour. Finally, I exercise for at least an hour every day. For me, exercise does not involve cranking out reps on a machine and then hopping on a treadmill. Rather, I prefer to run outdoors, hike, rock climb, and do yoga; I prefer these more “organic” forms of movement that perhaps mimic some of the physical movements hunter-gatherers would have performed. No matter what chronic disease you suffer from, I firmly believe that physical activity is crucial for your recovery. Of course, if you are acutely ill, don’t try to go hike 12 miles outdoors in the wilderness; instead, try a gentle yoga class or a slow walk in the park. These forms of movement will help get your lymphatic system moving, promote blood flow, and increase your body’s production of mood-boosting hormones and neurotransmitters, which promote a parasympathetic healing state.
Principle 5: Botanicals and bacteria
Over the course of my experience with Lyme disease and mold illness, I tried a bunch of different pharmaceuticals, including many antibiotics. While some of these drugs seemed to offer benefits in the short-term, I can honestly say that all of them backfired in the long-run, severely disrupting my gut microbiome and liver health. While many pharmaceutical drugs have life-saving effects, I believe that natural compounds, such as those that would have been ingested by our ancestors, are more conducive to promoting long-term health. Botanicals such as olive oil and olive leaf, soil-based microorganisms (the types of bacteria to which our ancestors would have regularly been exposed outdoors), and the regular ingestion of “binding agents” such as clays, citrus pectin, and activated charcoal have been instrumental in my healing process. Research has shown that hunter-gatherers used botanical medicines and even consumed clay to treat ailments such as food poisoning and infections. (8)(9)
Principle 6: Community, connection, and respect for the earth
The people you spend your time with have a significant influence on your health.Studies have shown that social relationships are an important indicator of health. (10) I think finding your “tribe,” a group of people who share your interests and values, is a key part of recovery from illness and long-term maintenance of health.
Hunter-gatherers lived in close-knit communities where multiple generations lived together. They shared common values, including a deep respect for the earth. I think the absence of this particular value is a key contributing factor in the chronic disease epidemic - we have been disrespecting our earth by poisoning it with toxins, and now those very toxins are coming back to haunt us by promoting chronic disease. I think connecting with other people who value the earth and the wellbeing of nature and humans alike is very important for reversing the diseases that afflict us and the collective "dis-ease" that affects nature as a whole.
Principle 7: Stress reduction
Finally, no discussion of health would be complete without talking about stress reduction. While hunter-gatherers had acute stresses, they did not suffer from the unrelenting, daily stresses we face today. Stress impacts numerous aspects of our health; it promotes chronic inflammation and lowers immune function, which disrupts the normal metabolic activities of our bodies and makes us hospitable to disease. (11)(12) I believe creating a lifestyle in which stress is significantly reduced is essential for healing. For me, my strategies for stress-reduction include not biting off more than I can chew when it comes to my freelance work (easier said than done!), spending the majority of my weekends outdoors in nature, ground myself in nature (try walking barefoot outside, I guarantee you'll feel your stress decrease almost immediately!) exercising almost every day of the week, meditating with my favorite meditation CD, having a regular spiritual practice, and letting go of relationships, habits, and situations that are stressful and not helping me be my best self.
Overall, the implementation of these ancestral healing strategies into my life has allowed me to make enormous strides in my recovery over the past year. Whether you struggle with diabetes, an autoimmune disease, chronic Lyme disease, or mold illness, I believe that incorporating these concepts into your treatment plan can help you experience significant improvements in your own health!
If you are interested in getting more individualized help in creating an ancestral healing protocol, I can help! In a health coaching or nutrition consulting session with me, we can dive into the details of an ancestral healing protocol and make a plan uniquely suited to your needs. Click here for more information about my health coaching services, and here to learn more about my nutrition consulting services.