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In Praise of the Primal Lifestyle

Improve happiness and life satisfaction by meeting your physical and emotional needs as nature intended

Modern primal man
Primal needs still apply

What is the best way for you to live your life? How do you need to live to be fit, healthy, happy, fulfilled, and useful to other human beings?

Let me put it another way. Do you suppose our hunter/gatherer ancestors suffered the same rates of obesity, heart disease, depression, or insomnia as we do? Sure, our Stone Age forebears had other problems (like the necessity of finding food, shelter, and fending off big bad beasties), but could it be they also enjoyed lifestyle advantages over us?

Getting what you need from the life you live

We all have basic needs for the right amounts of exercise, the right levels of fat, protein and carbohydrate in our diets, the right exposure to light and dark (the right quality and amount of sleep), the right amount of social connection and meaningful work, the right amounts of time not working and not eating. These needs haven't lessened through time.

But the way we lived pre-civilization may have met these needs more efficiently than modern life does now.

This is a startling thought. 'Progress' is not even. We have gained in some areas (antibiotics, travel, and education) but lost in others.

Hunter/gatherers didn't need gym memberships or to seek out dating agencies. Of course, we shouldn't cast off all the advantages of the progress we have made, but we shouldn't blind ourselves to the idea that we have something to learn from our primal ancestors either. Let's take a whirlwind glance at our lives as they are now.

Desperate times to live

We live in desperate times. Depression, anger, and anxiety disorders are skyrocketing (1). We fear terrorism, global economic collapse, the end of the world through climate change. Jobs are no longer for life as many of us run the gauntlet of insecure 'contract work' and redundancy. For the first time in history, millions are dying from being too fat as 'the obesity epidemic' stalks industrialized nations and lays waste to millions.

We may be living into our seventies and beyond, but millions of us exist on a cocktail of medications and suffer ill health for decades before we die.

With constant digital stimulation, never-ending supplies of carbohydrate-rich foods, stressful situations that don't require a fight or flight solution, light when it should be dark, lack of exercise and time spent outside, we are, millions of us, living in ways for which we are not physically and psychologically adapted. No wonder people are dying from lifestyle.

Losing the lifestyle knack

Many of us have lost the knack of sleeping well at night. People report feeling dissatisfied; that “something is missing” from their lives. It's as if we've forgotten how to live!

But am I just being nostalgic for a time I never knew? After all, life has to be better now, right?

Rose-tinted time goggles?

I know it's easy to look back through rose-tinted historical binoculars, but despite the ways we've progressed, millions of us are still suffering and, in some ways, more so than our ancestors.

Okay, let's get more specific: In terms of physical health and fitness, what have we lost? And what can we learn from our muscular, buff, non-antidepressant-dependent ancestors that could help us lead happier, fitter lives?

Mark Sisson over at MarksDailyApple has some interesting and effective answers. Here I want to outline his ideas and take them a little further as regards emotional, as well as physical, fulfilment (and yes, of course the two are connected).

We still need many of the same things

Primal bumbells

Physically and emotionally, you and I have changed very little for hundreds of thousands of years. We are not meant to be fat, tired, or constantly sustained by prescription medications; really, we didn't evolve to munch Prozac by the bucketload. We weren't meant to be exposed to artificial light well into the night (2), to drive everywhere, or to be indoors so much.

Physically, we developed over millions of years. City-states are less than five thousand years old, mass electric lighting less than a hundred years old, and mass TV and computer usage less than fifty years. The more at odds we live with the way we evolved, the more likely we are to feel a sense of incompletion and even suffer illness.

We only stopped hunting and gathering (and all that Raquel Welch One Million Years B.C. stuff) around 10,000 years ago when we settled down and started farming rather than hunting. There were risks, of course, but our primeval ancestors weren't living in a way that meant their day-to-day lifestyle choices were killing them (3).

Old responses in a modern world

Take panic attacks. People are given medication for them as if they were a 'disease'; but of course, we evolved to panic, to be flooded with adrenaline to fight off that attack or run like an Olympic qualifier. This old and essential, natural human response is ancient; it's our heritage. Yet in the modern inactive world, it feels unnatural. So disconnected have we become from our physical beginnings. So seldom do we sprint at top speed.

Getting back to basics

Sisson doesn't suggest that to become less fat, depressed, anxious, and disease-ridden we need to cast off every accruement of modern living (there is no way I'll ever give up coffee or decent chocolate!). But if we look to the needs that were being met back then and try to meet them now with sensible adjustments to modern living, then we have a hope of living healthier and happier.

Cutting-edge psychology (4) had delineated what we all need (regardless of time or culture) to thrive as individuals. When these needs are not met, we become mentally and physically ill. But first let's look at how we need to be to stay/become naturally slim and fit and healthy, because I think I'm right in saying that hunter/gatherers didn't need to invent the gastric band before the wheel.

Gong back to our roots

In his excellent book The Primal Blueprint (5), Sisson lays out a…well, blueprint for living healthily in ways that we were meant to live. His premise is that we evolved over millions of years to eat meat, healthy fats, lots of plants and in-season fruits; get sunlight; get exercise (but not too much); take daytime naps; and sleep deeply at night. He is an advocate of a low- (preferably no-) grain-diet and convincingly argues that farming grains, a mere 10,000 years old, is simply too recent a development for human evolution to adapt to these additions to our diet. It's not whether your system is intolerant to grain-based carbohydrates, but to what extent, says Sisson.

What exactly is it that makes you fat?

Millions of people are suffering obesity, he claims, not because they are eating too much fat, but because they are consuming large quantities of grain-based carbohydrates such as pasta, bread, rice, and potatoes (along with nutritionally lacking artificial foods and sugars). It's the insulin release caused by these new additions to our diet that makes us fat and causes diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, not fat as we've been taught to believe (which we consumed in bucketloads as we evolved). Sisson backs all his assertions with copious research references, as well as common sense and years of working as a trainer to athletes (and having also been a world-class endurance athlete himself).

Part of Sisson's primal lifestyle advocates:

  • An avoidance of grain-based carbs (we get all the carbs we need from fruit and veg).
  • An avoidance of “chronic cardio” workouts. We didn't evolve to run miles at a time or sweat for hours in a gym. Over-exercise can cause muscle tone depletion, impair immune response, and cause premature aging. Sisson suggests lots of slower movement: we didn't run for miles when hunting as, he rightly says, if we'd failed in the hunt we'd then have burnt off too much energy - instead, we trekked and climbed slowly with occasional all-out efforts.
  • Lots of meat for protein, lots of “plants” (vegetables and in-season fruit), and occasional fasting (we would have had lean times occasionally between hunts).
  • Lots of sleep and also daytime naps.
  • Regular lifting of heavy things (shorter but more intense workouts). Too much strength training can diminish growth hormone and testosterone, he says.
  • Exercise should be based on energy levels and not just be about ticking boxes.
  • Occasional all-out sprints to encourage testosterone production, which also normalizes fat, muscles, and delays aging.

Grok: the daddy of living well

Sisson talks about “Grok” - a kind of hunter/gatherer everyman/woman - and when in doubt as to making lifestyle choices, he asks us to ask ourselves simply: “What would Grok do?” He points to evidence that genes alone don't make us fat; rather, he talks about “gene expression” - the way we live coupled with our gene potential. When you live right, you have “healthy gene expression”. Of course, we'll not all run as fast as Mr Usain Bolt, but we all have a personal physical potential that can be achieved by avoiding too much exercise or avoidance of fats.

I know, I'm sick of hearing about diet fads, too. But I've been following the “primal diet” (eat as much as you want of the right stuff) and exercise recommendations myself for several months now and whilst fit and by no means fat to start with, I feel stronger, fitter, and have effortlessly lost a few pounds of surplus fat.

Perfectionism is an imperfect strategy

I love the fact that Mark Sisson advocates a non-tyrannical, non-perfectionist approach to lifestyle. Rigidity and healthy lifestyle just don't coexist well. Aim for 80% primal living and you'll find it much easier to adapt to it (and naturally find yourself surpassing this level of healthy choice).

Sisson's primal blueprint for healthier and happier living flies in the face of much so-called official wisdom (eat plenty of grains; exercise at set times, the more the better; avoid too much meat and fats), but he backs it all up with detailed research and science as well as masses of common sense. And just take a look at him and his wife, both well into their fifties and both looking as naturally buff as any naturally toned thirty-year-olds.

Can we take primal living further?

Sisson's recipe for healthy, long, fit living focuses mainly on the physical; although, as we know, physical health and sleep have profound impacts on your emotional stability.

But whilst being physically fitter and healthier will have an inevitably powerful positive effect on our mental wellbeing, it's not the whole story.

The precepts of psychological fulfilment

We are not just fed and encouraged to eat bad food or follow unnatural exercise regimes; we're also surrounded by fake messages as to how to live in other ways. Our so-called Celebrity Culture shapes childhood expectations. A recent survey in the UK found that children no longer want to attain traditional professional roles but expect to be pop stars or just “celebrities” (6). It's great to have aspirations, but not in lieu of developing real skills.

How can we live in such times without becoming disappointed, depressed, anxious, fat, or ill? I think a clue is in our beginnings. How did we used to live before our lifestyle began to make us fat, ill, and depressed?

Primal meets the Human Givens

Psychologist Joe Griffin and my own father Ivan Tyrrell established the understanding of ‘The Human Givens' approach to healthy living for all people, everywhere, in all times.

The 'human givens' is a descriptive term; the 'givens' of human nature: our innate physical and emotional needs, as well as the resources nature gave us to help us meet these needs. They are our genetic inheritance: templates 'downloaded' from the DNA into the brain of the foetus, mainly during the last trimester of pregnancy. These templates are completed into patterns, which continue to be adapted by the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

All psychological problems occur through one or more of the basic needs not being met. Once we really understand these needs, we can be clear about what all people need when they are unhappy and why they have become unhappy.

When we are meeting our innate human emotional needs, we are, in a way, fulfilling our gene potential in just the same way as when we eat and exercise right.

Grok had feelings too

“Grok” - the archetypal caveman - needed to meet his psychological needs just as surely as “Bob” the 21st century IT consultant or “Sally” the mum and business owner.

All psychological problems (and 'problem behaviours') can be traced back to the non-fulfilment of one or more of our basic socio/emotional needs.

We all evolved to need:

  • A sense of safety and security : This might include a stable home life, relationship, and generally a safe environment as a basis to learn and progress and relax enough to enjoy life. It also means the absence of undue anxiety.
  • To give and receive attention: Attention can be seen as a kind of nutrition. We all need the right quality and quantity of attention and we also need to exchange attention with other people. This might also include a need for privacy and a limiting of attention sometimes.
  • Friendship.We all need to have fun, a sense of companionship, love, and emotional and physical intimacy.
  • A sense of autonomy and control over our environment and our lives. The 'learned helplessness' of depression or the over-controlling behaviour of the 'control freak' both illustrate the primary importance of healthily meeting this need.
  • Being part of a wider community to feel we belong and are connected to people around us.
  • Physical needs: Good diet, adequate sleep, exercise, vitamin D from sunshine.
  • Self-esteem : A realistic appreciation of our merits, not over-valuing ourselves at the expense of others, but not under-valuing ourselves either.
  • A sense of achievement which comes from stretching ourselves to achieve meaningful goals, however small, and also aids healthy self-esteem (and a sense of control).
  • A sense of status within social groupings.

Once these needs are met adequately, we have a pervading sense of meaning and purpose in life. We also have the 'spare capacity' to focus on projects and real learning without, say, the unconscious drive for more attention or self-esteem corrupting and polluting our stated aims.

I encourage you to really think about how the different parts of your life either encourage or block the completion of these needs.

Spanning the eons - timeless needs

Early man (and woman) had all these needs exactly as we do. But so many of his needs were met by living in groups, having cohesive belief systems, focussing on the needs of everyone and not just the self, and resting when tired.

If someone is behaving badly or strangely or suffering 'mental illness', we might look deeper and ask: “What need is this behaviour trying to meet?” It's also interesting to note that so important are these needs, all torture and bullying involves the blocking of the completion of one or more of these needs in another person.

We are all different; we are all the same

Of course, we are all different and some people need more attention than others or more of a sense of security or status, but we all have all of these needs to varying degrees. Some aspects of modern life make it harder to meet these needs easily; such as the breakdown in family life (particularly the role of the extended family), loss of small intimate communities and the growth of impersonal 'cityscapes', as well as the constant fear pumped through the media 24/7. Study these basic needs and think about times you haven't felt so good. What was lacking, what need or needs were not being met by the way you were living?

But spread your risk

We advise people 'spread the risk' by meeting their needs in many different parts of their life. If someone 'means the world to you', then if your relationship ends you are at greater risk of becoming depressed than if you meet emotional needs in lots of different areas. If someone's needs are all met through their job and they are suddenly made redundant...

Likewise, cults will try to be the only source of a person's basic needs, in order to make a person dependant on the 'source of all needs' and forget that emotional needs can also be fulfilled away from the cult.

So Mark Sisson's Primal Lifestyle is a wonderful blueprint for living as nature intended on a physical level (and the inevitable psychological benefits of doing so), and I think if we add an awareness of basic, universal, and timeless emotional needs to his blueprint, we really do have a design for healthier human living for everybody.

Once we find out what we really need to thrive based on how we evolved to live day-to-day, we have a chance to begin structuring our lives around those needs and, as an inevitable result, become happier, fulfilled, and useful human beings.



(1) According to the World Health Organization (WHO), clinical depression has increased by 1000% since 1945. Or to put it another way, people born after 1945 are ten times more likely to become depressed. See also: Danton, W., Antonuccio, D., and DeNelsky, G. (1995) Professional Psychology Research and Practice, 26,574.

(2) Exposure to too much light at night may cause depression, suggests a new study. Ohio State University researchers found that mice kept in a lighted room 24 hours a day had more depressive symptoms than mice that had a normal day-night cycle. The study also found that mice that lived in a constantly lit room, but could take refuge in a dark tube when they desired, had fewer depressive symptoms than mice that couldn't get away from the 24-hour light.

"The ability to escape light seemed to quell the depressive effects," said lead author Laura Fonken, a graduate student in psychology, in a news release from Ohio State University.

(3) Lifestyle influenced cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and depression are at the top of the league of disease in industrialized societies but not in more “traditionally organized” communities, according to the World Health Organization. Dr Richard G. Cutler, a molecular gerontologist and longevity expert, has published more than 100 papers on this subject and estimates the natural lifespan potential for people living 15,000 years ago would have been 94 years - longer than the current figure of 91 for modern humans.

(4) See: Human Givens: A New Approach to Emotional Health and Clear Thinking (2003) by Joe Griffin, Ph.D., and Ivan Tyrrell.

(5) The Primal Blueprint: Reprogram Your Genes for Effortless Weight Loss, Vibrant Health, and Boundless Energy (Jun 2009) by Mark Sisson. Published by Primal Nutrition.

(6) Researchers quizzed 3,000 British parents with children aged 5 to 11 about their offspring's dreams and asked about the parents' own career hopes when they were young. Becoming a sports star or pop star has pushed ambitions like “being a scientist” way down the list. The top three ambitions today are: 1) sports star, 2) pop star, 3) actor. The top three ambitions 25 years ago were: 1) teacher, 2) banking/finance, 3) medicine. Laverne Antrobus, a child psychologist, said the findings reflected today's celebrity culture and cautioned children against unrealistic dreams over the development of real skills.

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