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RHR: How to Cultivate Health: Beyond Diet and Lifestyle, with Dallas Hartwig


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Ancestral health is all about correcting the evolutionary mismatch between our bodies and our modern lives. In this episode of Revolution Health Radio, I talk with Dallas Hartwig about how that mismatch extends to our relationship with the seasons and how the natural cycle mirrors the way we live our lives. We also delve into the benefits that come when we zoom out of a narrow focus on nutrition, exercise, and other specifics and embrace a more integrated approach to health.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Taking an integrated approach to health instead of a granular one
  • Finding a sense of purpose
  • How being “good enough” benefits your overall health and well-being
  • The definition of health
  • How we build resiliency
  • The impact the four seasons can have on our approach to health
  • The mismatch between our modern lives and the seasonal cycle

Show notes:

Hey everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m really excited to welcome Dallas Hartwig as my guest. Dallas is The New York Times best-selling co-author of The Whole30 and It Starts with Food. He’s a sought after speaker, nutritionist, Functional Medicine practitioner, and physical therapist who specializes in treating lifestyle-related health issues.

He’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Dr. Oz Show, The View, and Nightline and is the co-host of the Living Experiment podcast. In his newest book, The 4 Season Solution, Dallas shares a paradigm-shifting plan that shows you how to boost energy, improve health, and feel happier by living more in tune with the seasons. This podcast is a little different than the normal subjects and topics that I cover on the show. But it’s one that’s really close to my heart and it ended up being one of my favorite conversations that I’ve ever had in probably 10 years of doing the podcasts. So I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Let’s dive in.

Chris Kresser:  Dallas Hartwig, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show. It’s been a while since we’ve connected.

Dallas Hartwig:  It has, but I think we’ve just been doing lots of things and you moved.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah and doing our stuff.

Dallas Hartwig:  Doing our stuff, yeah.

Taking an Integrated Approach to Health Instead of a Granular One

Chris Kresser:  Let’s take a step back. I’d love to get the history and the backstory. So, when I originally met you, it was through the Paleo, nutrition, lifestyle movement, if you will, and we’d see each other at Paleo f(x), and you were instrumental, [as] co-founder of The Whole30 and [author of] It Starts with Food. And then I think we haven’t been in touch as much over the past few years, and I know that you’ve, you’re still interested in all of that, too. But you’ve taken, your path has sort of taken a new direction. So I’d love to hear about what inspired that new direction for you. What is that new direction? And how did it culminate in writing this new book The 4 Season Solution?

Dallas Hartwig:  Well, that’s a fun and really big question. I think there’s kind of two parts to it. I’ll answer the question you asked, and then I’ll answer the question you didn’t ask.

Chris Kresser:  Great. Fair enough.

Dallas Hartwig:  What I’ve been kind of working on, obviously, leading up to the release of The 4 Season Solution, is kind of taking and stepping back from nutrition as a focus and stepping back even from specific health behaviors as a focus and saying, “Okay, what do we need to do to live in this crazy modern world with success, with peace, with feeling kind of gratified and like we belong to our lives in a way that feels really deep and good?” And I don’t think that the answer to living a sane, healthy, balanced life is in more physiological research and diving deeper into the genome and all that kind of stuff. That can undoubtedly give us more understanding and more information about how our bodies work and what to do with them. But I don’t suspect, this is just a plain suspicion, I don’t suspect that the answers to people’s woes lie in getting progressively more granular. And I described The 4 Season Solution as the prequel to It Starts with Food.

So it’s kind of the conceptual framework that predates my specific work on nutrition. Because as the title of the first book kind of would suggest, it only starts with food. It’s the starting point. And there are all these other lifestyle areas to address, but it’s, those are just starting points. Even if I’d written it starts with sleep, and then I’d written it starts with movements, then I’d written it starts with connection, all those things would only be starting points. And really, the larger framework that I wrote about in The 4 Season Solution is this way of integrating these pieces into what I think is a simple, integrated system.

And it’s not simple and integrated because I’m some kind of crazy genius. It’s because I just looked at the natural world and said, “Oh, this is how it works.” And that’s what we did so much of in the Paleo and ancestral health communities is we looked at the natural order, and we said, “Oh, this is how it works in the natural world. What can we glean and what ideas and patterns can we bring with us into the modern world?” And this is just more of that same premise for me, but with a broader umbrella.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, it’s really fascinating to hear you talk about that, because I’d say we’ve been on a similar journey in the sense of moving from granular to more general principles, foundational principles that can certainly include a granular approach when it’s necessary and helpful. But it is really more about pulling the lens, zooming out a little bit, and looking at the patterns and the principles more so than the percentage of carbohydrates or whether you do 16:8 or 12:12 intermittent fasting. And look, I think we’ll both agree that people can get a lot of benefit from those things.

Dallas Hartwig:  Certainly.

Chris Kresser:  But it seems that the exclusive focus on that final five or 10 percent of how you might adjust your diet can actually preclude a focus on some other areas that might even be more transformative or more fruitful.

Dallas Hartwig:  Well, I totally agree. And I might go one step further, and I might say the focus on perpetually tweaking our lifestyle, whether that is movement, or sleep, or nutritional supplementation, or diet more generally, or the way that we interact with radiation. Like, all these things, like, we could think about and get really granular with in the modern world, I think we could, I would say that we could get so granular with any of those things and all those things collectively so as to preclude us from really living. And that’s kind of my personal and conceptual push back against kind of the sort of biohacking to excess kind of way of living is that, and this is just totally my personal opinion, but it seems to really get in the way of doing much more interesting things other than focusing on the things at the very base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, right? It’s all the things that we’re, like, all this health stuff is really just that very first or maybe second layer, the very foundational stuff.

Finding a Sense of Purpose

Dallas Hartwig:  And so the question that you didn’t ask, but I’m going to answer anyway about what I’ve kind of been up to the last little bit is also, yes, kind of putting my ideas into a book about how to integrate and oscillate these lifestyle pieces. But really, my personal and kind of creative journey leads me to places that are far more conceptual and relational and psychological in nature, because for my own personal interest or my own kind of interest in writing about and sharing my thoughts with the world, I’m no longer interested in health as a primary focus. It is foundational. I don’t think anyone would disagree that it’s foundational. But it’s only foundational.

So the other stuff that I’ve been kind of thinking about and reading about and doing personal work on has been the higher order things in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs of thinking about legacy and belonging, and community building and contribution and mentorship, and some of these sorts of things that I’m not necessarily self-appointing myself into. But those are the things I’m thinking about and interested in, because those are the things that as we sort of transcend ourselves, we start to get to a place of a real sense of deep purpose and in contribution to something larger than ourselves and often larger and beyond our own lifetimes. So that’s the stuff that I’m thinking about these days.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that was actually my next question, and I want to follow up on that in a moment and ask you to go a little bit deeper there. I think we’re really on the same page with this. I call what you’re referring to the end of the “me project.”

Dallas Hartwig:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  Which is everything that we’re talking about here, like, this myopic maybe focus on tweaking every last aspect of our diet and our lifestyle and our behavior or sleep, physical activity can, again, just be kind of utterly consuming and overwhelming. And it’s all me, me, me, me, me, me.

Dallas Hartwig:  Totally.

Chris Kresser:  And we know from so many different angles, whether it’s actual research, I mean, you can look at research showing that social connection, lack of social connection, for example, is a greater risk for early death than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Dallas Hartwig:  Right.

Chris Kresser:  So, and where does that fit into this discussion of lifestyle? We know that, there was an interesting article that just came out in The New York Times looking at service and volunteering and how people who volunteered during times of crisis, this was COVID-related, of course, not only feel a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives, they actually cope better with crisis than people who are not actively engaged in service. We know this from the mystics; the importance of shifting focus away from our own egocentric desires and self-improvement to benefiting humankind is like part of the process of awakening.

Dallas Hartwig:  For sure.

Chris Kresser:  Part of becoming more fully human. And it’s so interesting to me that you have, that your journey has taken you here, and I’d love to hear a little bit more, if you’re willing to share, about what prompted this. Was there a particular moment? Were there a series of moments that led to this shift in your focus?

Dallas Hartwig:  Yeah, it’s a great question. There was definitely a series of moments, and I just want to kind of clarify, I’m not to the end of the me project. I like to think that I’m wrapping up the last couple chapters of the me project in terms of, for me at this point, it’s no significant focus on my physical health and it’s purely a psychological and emotional healing experience for me. And for me personally, just with my story, that looks like meditation and psychotherapy and lots of time spent in nature and lots of time spent behind my camera, doing creative work and appreciating the natural world and the beauty that’s all around us. And for me, that’s a sort of meditative practice.

And it is being a half-time single parent and trying to kind of do the best job that I can do as a father, and more broadly, it’s saying, “Okay, I very much recognize from a sort of career track perspective that this focus on health is not something that I am going to continue as a primary, as a solitary focus.” But that does leave a big gaping hole where I’m not quite sure what exactly that new thing is. So I’m very much in a transitory spot. To answer your question a little more directly about what sort of prompted my shifting, it was a series of realizations over the last five or so, that my deepest fear was that the rest of my life would look like the first half. And kind of the obvious implication there is that I needed to make some changes in the way that I was living. And I didn’t even know what that meant or where to start with that.

So I’ve done a great deal of rededicating myself to the me project in the sort of psycho-spiritual sphere and not so much in the physiological sphere. But the project really is the same and it’s interesting that we touched briefly on the sort of getting too granular, because I did that in the sort of psycho-emotional sphere, as well. I got too granular and too self-focused, and too almost obsessive about learning about my psyche and healing my childhood trauma and that kind of stuff. And so there is, there was a rebalancing that had to take place, and to a certain extent, it’s still taking place for me in that sphere, as well. And that’s why I say I’m not to the end of the me project, I’m just getting closer to it.

Because I do need to continue to kind of heal and integrate stuff. And I look back on my life and I say, “Man, how did I, I’m 41 now, and how did I survive four decades on earth with such limited skills?” Like, how did I, how do they do that? And then the, and then, like, “Oh, right, because it sucked most of the time.” Because I just didn’t know how to be a grounded, sane, loving human. And so, yeah, my process has been deeply personal, and in my 20s and most of my 30s, I was extremely resistant to and almost antagonistic to any sort of spiritual reality. I was sort of a hardcore rationalist atheist and that’s very much shifted and changed for me. But I’m not quite sure where I land. So this is very procedural for me. I’m very much in it. So there’s the, there’s the behind-the-scenes look.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, thank you for that. It’s generous of you to share that and I’m always very interested in the meta process that goes on.

Dallas Hartwig:  Right.

Chris Kresser:  Not just where we end up and what the milestones are along the path, but what’s happening internally to get us there. And in my own experience, and certainly to be clear, like the end of the me project is kind of a flippant quick way of referring to what we’re talking about. Because we can’t live without ego. Ego is a focusing and centralizing course that allows us to still stay coherent.

Dallas Hartwig:  Right.

Chris Kresser:  [If] we’re completely without ego, we’re kind of dissolved and probably in a, not here anymore in one fashion or another. So we need that. And we also still need to attend to our health in various ways, of course. I’m not suggesting, I think people who listen to this podcast, know my work, know that I still think that that’s critical and important for most people, and it will kind of, in my experience, ebb and flow, the level of attention that’s needed and be different for each different person.

So, if we take somebody who has just been diagnosed with a chronic illness and has been living a relatively unconscious life as it pertains to health and wellness, then that person would be probably very well served by paying more attention to what they eat and how they sleep and all of that. What happened for me in my own journey with very severe complex chronic illness, and then also now in treating patients with chronic complex illnesses for 15 years, is that I came to realize that at some point, once you’ve done all those things, doing more and more of them is generally not going to provide the greatest return on your time and energy investment, so to speak.

Dallas Hartwig:  Right.

How Being “Good Enough” Benefits Your Overall Health and Well-Being

Chris Kresser:  And that for many of my patients, and for me at one point in my journey, it made way more sense to shift the focus to a lot of the things that you’re talking about. To our psychological, emotional, and even spiritual well-being and to loosen the grip on some of the other diet and lifestyle and behavioral factors, especially insofar as that can free up more of our energy and time to focus on those things that are higher on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Dallas Hartwig:  Totally.

Chris Kresser:  And the amazing thing, and I’m curious if this has been true for you, for me and for many of my patients is that in doing that, a lot of the health stuff actually improved where it was not before.

Dallas Hartwig:  For sure.

Chris Kresser:  It’s somewhat counterintuitive that if we zoom out and don’t focus as much on the ostensible things that lead to physical health and well-being that actually we might arrive there more quickly or more fully.

Dallas Hartwig:  For sure.

Chris Kresser:  So what has your experience been like with that?

Dallas Hartwig:  Yeah, that’s been exactly, exactly the same as far as recognizing that there is a place you can go that is obsessive and unbalanced, and ultimately antithetical to the end goal of living a grounded, healthy, gratifying life. And that’s not to say that that is the way to live. That’s just what matters to me.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Dallas Hartwig:  And I think, to your point about kind of a little bit kind of backing off of the obsessive stuff about health specifically, that helped me in my own physical health, just to not push that as much. It’s interesting, in the realm of child development and psychology, there’s this concept of attachment theory. And I don’t know if you’ve ever covered that here, but [Donald] Winnicott talks about this idea of a good enough parent. That’s written as detachment research in several different places.

But a good enough parent is a parent that is present and compassionate and attentive and supportive most of the time. And that’s not all the time. It’s not a perfect parent. You don’t have to get it right all the time. But there’s this concept of good enough. And just that phrasing kind of struck me because in society now, and it was probably different 50 years ago, but now, to say something’s good enough sounds very, like, dismissive and like you’re giving up.

And I think we would all do well to recognize that good enough is actually a tremendous achievement in different areas of our life. And whether that is, we have reached the place where our nutritional strategy is good enough, what that does is it frees up resources, time, energy, attention, willpower, whatever, to do other things. And there [are] so many facets to being a human that freeing up energy from one area and being able to allocate it somewhere else for me is a tremendous sign of growth and success.

So if you can get your lifestyle from a sort of healthy lifestyle standpoint, to a good enough place, I think that’s an amazing achievement. And I think that that concept, even though I didn’t write about it specifically in The 4 Season Solution, it’s very much there in the background that the premise with The 4 Season Solution is that this is how you can live a good enough life in all these four basic areas of healthy living, such that you have tremendously enhanced bandwidth and interest and energy and sort of life force to apply to far more interesting, complex, nuanced, and uniquely human experiences. So yeah, there’s that kind of good enough concept that has sort of really stuck with me over the years and is in the background of a lot of my work now.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that’s a great frame. And, of course, different people have different values and all you can speak to is what is meaningful for you and the same for me, right? For me, the people I most admire are the people who have found that good enough in the greatest number of areas in their life.

Dallas Hartwig:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  There are many people in the world who have been absolutely phenomenal and even peerless in one area of their life of a particular achievement, right? And I admire that and I think we need that to some extent in the world. And yet, I don’t aspire to be that person myself, because the sacrifice that is made is that the other areas of life for that person are usually a total catastrophe.

Dallas Hartwig:  Absolutely.

The Definition of Health

Chris Kresser:  So you think of someone, I didn’t know Steve Jobs personally, but I read his biography and somebody like that who just made just incredible accomplishments in a particular area of his life, but also didn’t seem to relate very well to other people, at least in a way that I respect and aspire to relate. And you, of course, we hear all the time about spiritual teachers of various denominations that have attained a high level of understanding or awakening or awareness in a certain realm. But then they’re sleeping with their students and their relationships are disasters, or they’re abusing financially, they embezzled money from their organization or whatever.

And we know people who maybe are extreme, like the picture of what we aspire to in terms of physical health and achievement, athletics, or whatever, but their lives are kind of falling apart in lots of other different ways. And so, this notion of, like, what it means to be healthy to me has been really interesting to explore. And I still don’t have a definition that I completely am 100 percent comfortable with, but I think the one that gets closest to me is from Moshe Feldenkrais, who is the founder of the Feldenkrais Method.

And it’s the, he defined health, I’m going to paraphrase it, but as the ability to live your dreams. And that’s just really fascinating for me to contemplate because it shifts the idea of health as the absence of disease or the absence of physical symptoms or limitations to a much broader perspective of how you can be a fulfilled, happy, and well person in the world.

Dallas Hartwig:  That’s so great. And certainly, and so in line with the way I view kind of some of these kinds of basic health and lifestyle factors. I don’t remember, actually, if I actually wrote this specific phrase into the book at this point, but something I’ve talked a lot about and thought a lot about is this space that, or the idea that, when people, and this is drawing largely from my observations of people who completed The Whole30, hundreds of thousands of times I saw from a both personal and sort of distance online perspective, I saw people take 30 days to eat different food and spontaneously transform into totally different people.

And certainly, you’ve seen this thousands of times in your own practice. And that observation really struck me because I’m like, all we’re doing is eating different food for one month out of our whole life and the spontaneity with which these changes, these transformations, these motivations, these ideas, this new energy came to people, like, it was spontaneous. We didn’t direct people to think about changing careers or restarting their creative practice or reassessing their unhealthy relationship. We just told people and gave people supportive resources to eat different food and that other thing happened spontaneously.

And I think, and that’s very much informed all my subsequent work because I think what happens with humans is when we get closer to alignment with our natural way of being, whatever, however you want to define that, and that’s obviously very variable personally. But when we get closer to that place, the effortfulness of living starts to really decrease and things just, the doors start to kind of open for us, metaphorically speaking. And so I think that when we are able to put some of these basic lifestyle factors into place in a way that really works for us, then we can have that spontaneous, I guess, ascension.

Because humans are so naturally buoyant, that if we’re stuck and sort of submerged in the muck of the modern world, when we can cut away some of those unhealthy destructive anchors that are holding us down, holding us in place, we spontaneously rise. And I think that that lack of limitation really aligns with Feldenkrais’ comment there about health that, like, we can then go and do whatever we are destined to do if you believe in destiny.

Chris Kresser:  Right, exactly. And it’s also true, I imagine you would agree with us, that even if we can’t resolve our chronic pain or our chronic illness in the full sense, meaning, like, if we can’t attain a cure, that need not hold us back from living our dreams.

Dallas Hartwig:  Right.

How We Build Resiliency

Chris Kresser:  And all you have to do is look at history to find abundant examples of this. In fact, I’m actually writing, starting to think about my third book, and this is part of the research that I’m doing for that book, virtually everyone we’ve heard of from history had some kind of physical or emotional or psychological struggle that they have dealt with. And my hypothesis is that it is through the relationship with that struggle and the transformation that occurred as a result of that struggle that they were actually able to obtain greatness and achieve what they did.

Dallas Hartwig:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  Not in spite of it, but because of it.

Dallas Hartwig:  Right. Yeah, I mean, I totally agree with that. And I love that premise. And I can’t wait to read your work on that. I remember, this is years ago now, five plus years ago, I was speaking to a group of Navy SEALs who were asking questions. And it was the SEALs and their partners. And they were asking a little bit about sort of resiliency and relationship stress related to coming home from deployment and some of that kind of stuff. And there was a question about, like, because we were talking about how so much conflict arises when they kind of come back to the real world, so to speak.

And one of the gentlemen asked, “Like, my wife and I don’t really ever have conflict. Like, we don’t ever fight, we don’t ever kind of struggle with that. Like, is that okay?” And I answered it carefully because I was talking to a person in front of a live audience, so there was sort of a degree of kind of compassion and gentleness there. But I don’t think that the lack of struggle or conflict in a romantic relationship is any indication of its health or success. And the analogy that I used in that particular instance was talking about, and I think I delivered it awkwardly, but I basically said, like, that’s the equivalent of, sort of, relational centrism.

Because in the same way as our physical bodies need the movement and challenge and resistance of gravity and external devices to kind of make functionality, we need that same thing sort of psycho-emotionally. And whether we’re talking about Viktor Frankl or Helen Keller or anybody else that you might write about, there’s a tremendous amount of sort of psycho-emotional exertion that takes place to deal with the realities and the challenges of their situation. So I applaud that train of thought. So I love it.

Chris Kresser:  I also know we launched a health coach training program a couple years ago. And initially, when a lot of people come into it, they figure they’re going to learn to prescribe nutrition plans and make lifestyle recommendations and all that, and they do learn that. To be fair, it’s an important part of the program. But what they may not know and expect is that they’re going to learn how to build trust and rapport in a relationship. How to deeply listen to somebody and reflect what they’re hearing in a way that creates that kind of mutual understanding and trust. How to be an ally for somebody and a guide rather than an expert that just tells them what to do. How to really listen to someone so that you’re getting to the true needs that they’re trying to express rather than just the surface level observations may be that you might take away from the conversation. How to help people to resolve ambivalence and overcome obstacles.

I mean, what we consistently hear from people as they go through the course is like, “This changed my life in ways that I had no, I was not expecting at all.” And those are the aspects, actually, of this work that are so transformative and so exciting to me at this point, because they include all the diet and lifestyle stuff, but they go so far beyond that.

Dallas Hartwig:  Totally.

Chris Kresser:  And it sounds like that’s a frame that you are really working with right now.

Dallas Hartwig:  No doubt, no doubt.

What’s our connection with the seasons, and what can we learn from the natural cycle? To find out, check out this episode of RHR with author and nutritionist Dallas Hartwig. #optimalhealth #chriskresser #healthylifestyle

The Impact the Four Seasons Can Have on Our Approach to Health

Chris Kresser:  So let’s talk a little bit about the seasons, because that’s another frame, right?

Dallas Hartwig:  Right.

Chris Kresser:  There’s probably many different frames that you could have chosen as a way of talking about this stuff in your book and you chose the seasons. So tell us a little bit about how the seasons and awareness of seasons can inform the way that we approach these topics.

Dallas Hartwig:  Yeah. So, I think you and I share some of the same sort of historical DNA of really recognizing the value and wisdom, both sort of in a literal sense, encoded in our DNA from sort of an evolutionary history standpoint.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Dallas Hartwig:  And then also sort of more broadly and sort of culturally and socially. But I chose, well, first of all, I’ll kind of back up and say my early life history of living in, effectively a homestead. My parents had a cabin on 100 acres with no electricity and no running water.

Chris Kresser:  I didn’t know that.

Dallas Hartwig:  Yeah, and we were deeply connected to the earth because you can’t not be. We lived in Eastern Ontario, and it gets cold and dark in the winter and hot and muggy in the summer. And there’s a pretty significant variation in length of day across the course of the seasons. And particularly the absence of artificial light really, really grounds you into that cycle, into that rhythm. And later in my childhood and in my young adulthood, I totally abandoned that connection and that way of living and became very conventional, to great detriment to myself. But that was kind of always in the background.

And so, when I started to look at the world, particularly through an evolutionary biology lens, the more layers of circadian biology and the sort of rhythmic aspects of things that got layered in there, the more I started to see emerging patterns at its most basic level expansion and contraction. And then with a little more complexity, kind of different phases within the expansion, different phases within the contraction, and it started to look a lot like what happens across the course of a year in a temperate climate where we have four seasons.

And really, the concept was basically so much of our behavior, both in very tangible ways, like what foods we eat, but then also in less tangible but equally important ways in terms of the way we connect with ourselves, the way we are either looking outward and focusing on kind of social connections out there with relative superficiality with a huge number of people, or we are more withdrawn and closer to home and contracted and deeply connected to ourselves and our place and our home and those people who are most important and closest to us. The more I looked at all that stuff in sort of this big soup of health behaviors, the more I recognized that there was a pretty consistent pattern that nested nicely into the four annual seasons. And the more I looked at the sort of motivational and psycho-emotional parts of that, the more I recognized that it happens on a 24-hour pattern and it also happens on this longer kind of lifetime timeline.

And I’m very interested in repeating patterns. And so there is sort of a fractal aspect to this where that expansion-contraction cycle happens on a literal physical level every single day that we wake up. We go from a very small safe kind of home bed environment to going out into the world exploring and exposing ourselves to new ideas and new people, and then bringing important things, ideas, and resources home and contracting again and being really present with the people most important to us. And that cycle occurs across the course of a year and across the course of a lifetime.

And so, as I was doing my own personal journey in the last few years, what I noticed was that as I was getting around 40, or kind of coming up to 40, there were new thoughts and queries and wonderings showing up in my head about like, “Where do I go from here? What’s next?” And there became this shift away from working hard, being successful, doing the thing and kind of being in a very intensely summer-like go, go, go, kind of mode, and there became this, and it’s still present for me, but there was this sort of upwelling of desire to think about slowing down and reconnecting and sort of contracting my life into a place that felt better for me.

Spring and Summer

And then I just started to look, and then everywhere I looked, I saw the same pattern. And so that’s what I tried to convey in the book is this idea that the seasons, while they are literal and biological, they’re also metaphorical, and sort of almost archetypes in and of themselves. So then I gave sort of symbolic placeholders to each of the seasons and in the sort of hormone and neurotransmitter realm, spring is so much about dopamine and excitement and energy and motivation and novelty-seeking, and the draw toward things. The sort of anticipatory feeling. And then that draws us into the full-scale frontal assault of summer, which is all about adrenaline and cortisol and stress and focus and productivity and doing the thing and, of course, each of those hormones helps us adapt to and be successful in that particular phase. And, unfortunately and tragically, most of civilization, that kind of the modern world is built around spring and summer:

  • Perpetual expansion
  • Dopamine and adrenaline
  • Stress
  • Productivity
  • Acquisition
  • Accumulation of wealth
  • All of that kind of stuff

Fall and Winter

And we forget that there is an equal and opposite contraction phase, the fall and winter, and fall is so much about serotonin and connection and community and belonging, and gratitude and generosity. And those types of things are so nicely illustrated in the tradition of Thanksgiving. Because Thanksgiving is the harvest celebration and the generosity and the connection and the grounding and the homecoming. And I think there are still elements of that there, but it’s become a much stranger and unrecognizable thing in the modern world. But fall is that experience.

And then the serotonin gets both biochemically and also metaphorically transformed into melatonin, and then there is this deeply healing restorative, maximally contracted state of winter and of sleep, different timelines. And that’s super important because it allows us to fully rejuvenate and restore ourselves and detoxify ourselves, and really recover from the stressors of either the earlier part of the day or the earlier part of the year or the earlier part of our lifetime, such that we can emerge in the next literal or metaphorical morning or spring, rejuvenated, energetic, and having that spring titillation energy. And I think one of the things that often comes up for readers and commenters is that there’s an important reframe there for the end of our lives.

Because we think about death and mortality, and we think of it in this very dark morbid way, and we mostly try to avoid thinking about it at all. And we get caught up with the cult of youth. But really, there’s an opportunity there. And this kind of speaks to the looking beyond ourselves, sort of transcendence of self kind of experience, because the fall into the winter of our lives doesn’t have to be a sad, morbid kind of experience. It can be the recognition that we can spend those later years of our life contributing to and setting the stage for a beautiful, energized, healthful, and really vital next generation. And I think that’s what I find as a really beautiful idea and I think an important reframe when it comes to mortality.

Chris Kresser:  So beautifully articulated and I can speak personally to those cycles and my move to Utah. I experienced my first winter, true winter ever in my life. I grew up in Southern California where there are just different versions of summer throughout the year. A warmer summer and then a colder summer.

Dallas Hartwig:  Right.

Chris Kresser:  [There are] 300 days of sunshine a year. And I’ve lived for short periods of time in other places that had more of a winter. I lived in the Bay Area, and there’s arguably more seasonality there. But not to the extent of somewhere like Utah, right? And it was just a deeply healing and restorative season for me. I worked way less, I slowed way down, [and] I spent a ton of time outside, which I know is not necessarily consistent with the winter rubric. But in Utah it is. There’s plenty of opportunities.

So I was skiing a lot and that felt really good to be on the mountain and connected to nature in that way. And it just really struck me, like, going through that whole experience how, as you said, I think how starved many of us [are], and I was, for that kind of cyclical shift that naturally happens. And because we have artificial light and because we have a kind of 24/7 always on mentality in our culture, so many of us miss out on the opportunity to experience that. My wife actually spent over 10 years on a small little island in BC [British Columbia]. You probably know that, Dallas. Lasqueti Island.

Dallas Hartwig:  Oh yeah, nice.

Chris Kresser:  She built her own house there and lived a very rural bucolic lifestyle where there’s no power on the island other than the power you generate yourself. There’s no car ferry, so people have cars, but a lot of times they walk or ride their bikes. And she would talk about winters there.

Dallas Hartwig:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  And it was probably like what you experienced on the homestead growing up where people just kind of hunkered down; they spend a lot of time reading, contemplating the mysteries of life, hanging out with each other, [and] having meals together. And everything just slows down. And she, when she moved out from Lasqueti into the Bay Area, it was a shock. I mean, it was a, I think she, it took her years to kind of readjust, and even now, [she] is still kind of yearning for that more explicit, and in some ways enforced, seasonal rhythm.

The Mismatch between Our Modern Lives and the Seasonal Cycle

Dallas Hartwig:  Right. Well, and I think that’s the thing, right? Is that we have this mismatch. And in the Paleo ancestral health communities, we’ve long talked about this whole concept of evolutionary mismatch. And it’s especially referred to in the terms of nutrition where our bodies are evolved to expect a certain food source and we give it something totally different and wonder why the result’s kind of wonky. But there are mismatches not just between sort of our evolutionary past and our current modern environment. But there are also mismatches within our modern choices in different areas, different venues, different facets of our life. And that was something that I observed a lot in the ancestral health community is that I would, we’d see people doing a, let’s say, a Paleo-type diet or a low-carb, high-fat kind of diet, but then they would be doing a huge amount of glycolytic physical activity. And I was like, “Well, hold on.”

Over the course of time, and I’m sure you saw this in your clinical practice, too, over the course of time, some of the mismatches between different aspects of our healthy living really started to clash against each other and really create problems. And so I’m kind of veering off in a different direction here, I guess, but jumping off from the sort of, the way the world is wired, the way that we have built this civilized modern world, almost requires us to be deliberately, almost contrarian. Because pretty much everything that we do in the realm and with the ethos of perpetual expansion will eventually lead us to the wrong place.

Because in as much as shifting and let’s say to a low-carb, high-fat dietary approach might actually be a really important and healthful adaptive strategy for some people for some period of time, what invariably happens is over the course of time, that same strategy when overextended, when extended beyond its natural, adaptive phase, becomes problematic. And so, you talked about sort of this idea of it being enforced that there are seasons. And I think what I’m trying to do with The 4 Season Solution is not so much enforce it, but draw people’s attention to the fact that when we recognize the natural environmental inputs, and the change in the light/dark cycle is a good example, when we recognize the importance of those things, and we allow them to influence us to a greater degree, then when we’re completely divorced from it in the modern world with artificial light and temperature-controlled homes and all this stuff, we then have access to a whole other realm of, this is circling back to our early part of [the] conversation, but a whole other realm of ways of being in the world, ways of living, ways of existing.

Because we remove some of the friction between those mismatched components. And so I love your story, your illustration there of your wife’s experience, because we really have to do that exact thing. We have to remove the roadblocks, really, that we have built into the modern world. And that requires us to be extremely unconventional. And I’ll kind of shout out to my podcast co-host, Pilar Gerasimo, who recently published a book called The Healthy Deviant. And she talks extensively about what we need to do to be unconventional in a world that simply isn’t working for people. And I think listeners of this podcast will probably largely agree that, like, the way we’re doing it isn’t working well. And there’s much argument and discussion about how to do it well for any particular person’s goals. But we’re off track.

And so, this book is an attempt to kind of provide a simple template for people to recalibrate in ways that feel natural and healthy for them, much in the way that your family has done this past winter.

Chris Kresser:  Yes. Dallas, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I hope all the listeners have, as well. Where can people learn more about your book and pick up a copy?

Dallas Hartwig:  So The 4 Season Solution is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and independent bookstores everywhere right now. If you can find an independent bookstore online, that would be what I would really encourage readers to do to really support the independent booksellers. And there’s also more information at my website DallasHartwig.com. I’m moderately active on Instagram @DallasHartwig. And other than that, I’m head down trying to figure out how to do this human thing.

Chris Kresser:  Yes, great. Well please keep sharing with us. I’m sure a lot of people have benefited from this, hearing more about your process. And that’s, we’re all on this journey together. And so, to the extent that we can share what’s been helpful and illuminating for us, I think that can always be useful for others.

Dallas Hartwig:  Awesome.

Chris Kresser:  So thank you again for your time.

Dallas Hartwig:  Thank you so much.

Chris Kresser:  It’s a pleasure to have you on the show.

Dallas Hartwig:  Thanks very much.

Chris Kresser:  Hey everybody, thanks for listening. Continue to send your questions in. ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion. We’ll talk to you next time.

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