As much attention as “paleo” has received as the latest fad diet, the people who are looking into its basic tenet as a guide to what a human is meant to experience – how we are to live, not just to eat – are much fewer.
It may be understandable only too easily.
“Do you want us to go back to the Stone Age?!?” is a popular reaction to e.g. environmentalists’ calls for degrowth and to remember lessons from earlier times, after all – and surely we wouldn’t want to literally live like cavemen.
That said, if you believe that maybe we are not physiologically well-adapted to eating modern foodstuffs (yet), it is all the more likely that we are not adapted to many other modern conditions.
At most about a century of artificial light, for example, has not changed billions of years of the evolution of life under the rhythms of day and night.
The question of how natural rhythms, artificial light, and our modern sleep patterns interact has, indeed, received quite some attention (just not under the label of paleo, probably for the better)…
It may well be, however, that these relationships go even deeper and that they show us to be misunderstanding the balances we need.
One of the arguments around the paleo diet (and others), for example, seems to be that blood sugar needs to be kept low and constant.
Eat with too much sugar and your blood sugar will suddenly rise, your insulin levels will spike a bit later to get that sugar out of your blood stream, and low blood sugar and the desire to eat again will follow. Keep that up too long and low insulin sensitivity will follow; you’ll be on the path to metabolic syndrome, the argument goes.
Parts of that reasoning are likely to be true, and fructose (fruit sugar) may well play a particularly dangerous role in all of that – but if we look at what is normal for a human being (which, mind you, does not have to translate into “what is good/healthy in the long term”), then it certainly is to have blood sugar spikes at times, even from fruits and their sugar: Whenever fruits were in season and available, you can be sure that people ate them.
The problem is, perhaps, not so much with the ingestion of sugar in and of itself but in the lack of this dynamic balance between times with an excess and (many more) times without.
Nowadays, after all, all we tend to have are times of excess.
When it comes to sugar, in particular, these times never end and don’t even depend on income levels anymore. In fact, it is often costly to try and avoid the sugar-laden and calorie-rich things in favor of, well, even fruit and other foods with actual flavor.
What can be talked about so nicely and science-y when it comes to diet is an even more difficult thing to consider when it comes to other conditions and other balances.
Consider how we are among those animals with a constant body temperature, for example.
What it has led to us doing is keeping our houses and homes and workplaces heated (or cooled) to a comfortable and often constant temperature.
Is that really what we need, though?
Again, there have been some considerations of this question when it comes to sleep.
You have probably come across the advice that your bedroom should be kept at a lower temperature than your other rooms.
Considering financial and ecological health more than individual health, there have also been some recent calls to return to warming people, not places.
Basically, consider if maybe you are doing something wrong if it’s winter and you are sitting in your home in a T-Shirt rather than a sweater (especially if you also feel like complaining about your heating bill).
(And, just while I was writing here, The Atlantic’s James Hamblin reported on “The Benefits of Being Cold” when it comes to burning calories and supporting healthy weight…)
Just consider all the (not uncommon but few) people who go to saunas, go ice-bathing, and engage in similar practices with a heat-cold-effect (and all the more people who seem to consider that crazy).
Maybe the knowledge that we need such inputs that are uncomfortable-but-good isn’t lost?
An ecological balance – and a body’s physiology is one of those – is a dynamic balance, after all.
What the bodies and minds of “higher” animals, and certainly of humans, are made to experience is definitely not a static balance where things stay within the ever-same comfortable zone, but a dynamic range of conditions.
Anything you experience all the same, all the time, becomes boring and, maybe, even sickening.
You cannot lie comfortably in bed all the time, nor can you always be running around – and healthy functioning needs both.
You cannot feel good never doing anything to make a living (uncomfortable as it is to have to worry about the bills), but always having to scramble to just get by or because your job keeps you busy, busy, busy is a recipe for psychological and physical disaster, too. – And again, it takes both, in a dynamic balance.
Heat and cold, darkness and light, heavy eating and none, stress and joy – maybe in all that, we need to let go of the stale drive to be always-happy and always-comfortable and aim for dynamic balances in their own natural rhythms and seasons instead.
Sure, once again, it will take a push – be that one you take from me or give yourself – but the discomfort involved in it all will make the comfort all the sweeter.
And getting started is easy.
Just skip a meal.
Turn down the heat in your bedroom if you haven’t always done that.
Take your shower cooler, at least for a bit, at least for some of the time.
Jump into the next mountain stream – or go running in the snow.