Though a nutritious diet and adequate physical activity are at the foundation of a healthy lifestyle, many in the ancestral health community expect to achieve optimum health through diet and exercise alone. I’ve written several articles on the other major components of health that are often overlooked, such as exposure to nature, good sleep hygiene, managing stress, and taking control of negative thoughts. I also recently wrote an article on New Year’s Resolutions that can greatly improve your health and wellbeing but have nothing to do with diet or exercise.
Even though many of my articles revolve around proper nutrition and strategies for moving more, I strongly believe that there are many other lifestyle factors that play an important role in health. For some people, these factors may be the key difference between health and sickness.
This is why Mark Sisson’s new book, The Primal Connection, will be a great resource for those who have already tweaked their diet and exercise routines but are still feeling less than satisfied with the state of their overall health. This 237-page book is full of insights and recommendations that Mark has collected over the years, promoting the lifestyle changes that truly optimize not only health but life satisfaction as well.
Mark dives into topics such as the mind-body connection, proper posture and biomechanics, connecting with the natural rhythms of nature, improving social relationships, and reintroducing play back into your adult life. The advice in this book is great for everyone from the desk jockey that spends far too much time in front of a screen, to the stay-at-home parent who wants to enrich their children’s lives in a primal way, to the college student who needs an excuse to join the intramural ultimate frisbee team. Mark has an entertaining, engaging writing style, and he backs up his recommendations with plenty of supportive research and groundbreaking science.
I think that most of us in the ancestral health community would benefit from making some of the changes that Mark recommends. I decided to ask Mark a few questions to find out more about why he wrote the book and how he thinks the information can help further improve his readers’ health.
Here’s what Mark has to say about The Primal Connection:
What was your motivation in writing The Primal Connection?
Food and fitness have been done – pretty much to death. As far as general health for the general population goes, I’ve said my piece, at least for now. But I think we all intuitively know that health and wellness come down to much, much more than what you put in your mouth and the exercises you do. We may not think about it in those terms, and we may not hear it from most health authorities, but when they stop to think about it, everyone kind of knows about the connection between physiological health and psychological health:
- How you get the best sleep ever when you go camping.
- How you tend to get sick during finals week or when the stress mounts at work.
- How those happy-go-lucky types always seem to be the healthiest.
- How those down-in-the-dumps types tend to be sicklier.
- How depression goes hand in hand with physical biomarkers like increased inflammation or metabolic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
Seeing as how evolutionary biology informs and elucidates best practices for nutrition and exercise, I figured applying the ancestral principles to other realms of health and wellness would also pay similar dividends. I was right, and I think the payoff is at least as meaningful, if not bigger and better than with food and exercise.
Who would benefit most from reading this book?
Your average tech-savvy (perhaps tech-reliant) Primal eater and exerciser. The person who’s bought into the ancestral angle on food and fitness but still stresses too much, works too much, obsesses over the excruciating but ultimately insignificant details, is wedded to their smartphone/laptop/tablet/email, and chases happiness without really knowing what it means or feels like. They may be working a job they hate – or even too many hours at a job they might even like. They’re probably eating lunch at their desk, rather than going outside for their only shot at actual sunlight. They’re constantly consuming (information, news, tweets, stock quotes, sugar) without ever becoming satisfied.
Anyone who lives in today’s modern, fast-paced world will benefit, really. They don’t even have to buy into the Primal/paleo food stuff. Just addressing the mental health and stress reduction will be hugely beneficial. I fully expect, for example, hardcore vegans who think fruit is man’s ideal diet to really dig The Primal Connection. It transcends dietary beliefs by avoiding them almost entirely.
What kind of health benefits can readers expect to see after implementing the lifestyle changes recommended in The Primal Connection?
The health benefits may not show up on a standard biomarker test. Your blood lipids may not change, for example. However, you’ll likely reduce stress, or at least mitigate the negative effects it has on your life, and this will bring about a number of physiological health benefits beyond “just” feeling better. Your sleep, workouts, libido, and general sense of well-being should all improve. If your hypertension is stress-related, this will likely improve. If you’re insulin-resistant due to sleep disruption from stress-related cortisol imbalance, you’ll probably grow more insulin-sensitive.
Our stress bank deals with one currency. Physical stressors, like exercise or fasting or trauma, convert to the same body currency as psychosocial stressors, like traffic or a blaring alarm clock or money trouble. Stress is stress is stress, so heaping large amounts of psychosocial stress onto your body will lower your threshold for physical stress, too. The stress of going through a divorce, for example, will hamper your ability to heal from physical injuries. It’s all coming from the same pot, so implementing the Primal Connection lifestyle changes will improve your physical health by virtue of reducing the net stress load.
Ultimately, you will be happier, because the Primal Connection is literally about doing the things that our bodies are hard-wired to love and desire. You’ll be giving your body what it “wants” and “expects,” and this should provide a sense of calm, of preternatural relaxation and fulfillment and contentedness. It’s no magic bullet, but at least you’ll be providing a solid foundation for your genes. The rest is up to you.
What suggestions do you have for low income and/or urban readers who don’t have access to the kinds of financial and environmental resources that make primal living more feasible?
At it’s heart, The Primal Connection is about cultivating an internal ecosystem of evolutionary and ancestral congruence. Going on expensive wilderness excursions isn’t a requirement by any means; it’s just a nice, “easy” way to reconnect with our Primal natures. The rules all apply, wherever you are.
Urban air is still outside air, and it’s better than stuffy apartment or office air. People are still people, and spending quality time with people whom you care about doesn’t require money – just presence. You can still hug a friend, pet a dog, walk barefoot, keep houseplants, visit a park, listen to nature sounds, get a bird-feeder (gluten-free seed mix, of course!), start an herb garden, meditate. It’s important to realize that while our bodies expect certain environmental cues, they can be tricked by emulators. You don’t need the majesty of the redwoods or the roar of ocean surf to get your body to “think” it’s in the presence of nature; a stroll through a city park and an MP3 of ocean sounds can be an effective, if partial, replacement.
Did you learn anything new while researching and writing this book? Have you made any changes in your own life in response to this new knowledge?
I learned a lot about the concrete connections between our thoughts, our physical and social environments, our genes, and how our genes turn on and off in response. Some people might think establishing the physiological, neurological, and epigenetic foundations of happiness would somehow cheapen the whole thing, but I found it made the human psyche all the more beautiful and engrossing. We’re not some magical ethereal beings whose inner workings can only be chalked up to mysticism; we are an impossibly complex arrangement of interrelated genes (with on-off switches), hormones, neurotransmitters, sensory apparati, neurons, desires, emotions, thoughts, and consciousness, and I find that to be fascinating and truly magical.
In response, I’m finally unable to escape the realization that our thoughts and actions have very real physiological consequences. Those late nights spent reading emails or research papers might help my business or my writing or fill in some tiny fragment of missing knowledge, but there’s a cost to my health. Skipping the weekend hike, forgetting to kiss my wife in the morning, failing to pet the dog or hug my kids, falling prey to considering play an elective luxury – these things have real consequences. I won’t say that I’m getting much better at reducing my workload and enjoying more free time, but at least I know it’s a real problem!