The wellness world seems confused about something. If I scroll through my Instagram account, I get the impression that to be healthy, I need to buy lots of things. In a world of brand ambassadors, luxe wellness events, and expensive functional medicine consults it appears that wellness is inaccessible to all but the ultra-rich.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are still far too many folks struggling to meet their basic needs (access to food, shelter, healthcare, etc), the stress of which obviously does not allow for wellness to thrive. The gap between these two extremes seems increasingly large. Clearly, most of the world will never be able to participate in any of the wellness trends that abound. Does that mean that the masses simply cannot be well because they won’t ever be able to buy a $15 herbal adaptogenic smoothie? (That is a rhetorical question but I’ll answer it anyway...NO). After going through my own period of reduced income, I came to understand more experientially how “out of touch” a lot of wellness recommendations seem.
It’s seductive to look towards the latest supplement, workout fad, or expensive cream as the solution to what ails us. It’s an iteration of a pill for every ill. The desire to fix ourselves by purchasing something is alluring. It deepens our cultural narrative that something quick and external is the solution. Relatedly, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the confluence of fashion, wellness, and consumerism. These elements are converging at a time when it seems vitally important to rethink our rampant consumerism in order to combat climate change and environmental degradation, especially since a thriving planet is our ultimate “wellness” resource.
On this note, I recently came across a refreshingly different framework for approaching wellness. This new roadmap is laid out in a scientific paper that posits that modern society is experiencing “paleo deficiency”, or a lack of essential inputs derived from engaging with nature and as a result experiencing high levels of modern chronic disease. The authors offer solutions based on increasing nature-based inputs that create ecosystems leading to human well-being. This article is not discussing the shaky definition of paleo that is being touted as the latest diet trend, but rather the common natural elements that our physiology and genes expect to be in contact with because of years of coevolution. Things like appropriate exposure to cycles of light-dark that sets our internal circadian rhythms, natural sounds and environments (which appear to have a restorative effect on our brains and immune systems), exposure to a wide diversity of microbes which sets the stage for a healthy microbiota, etc. When we are removed from these inputs, due to modernization, urbanization, and increased technology-use, there are both mental and physical health consequences.
The paper provides an incredibly useful figure that illustrates the essential wellness ingredients that modernization reduces our exposure to. Surprisingly, (or not), not one thing listed needs to be purchased over Amazon. These missing elements were all nature-based and free.
In case you’re not up for reading an academic paper, here’s a recap of some of the factors that can lead to poor physical and psychological health:
Too much time indoors, not enough time outdoors ( Why it matters? negative ions, attention restoration effects, phytoncides -- aromatic chemicals secreted from trees, increased microbial diversity, light cues, more activity)
Lack of movement
Too much processed foods ( ie. not enough fiber and a lack of phytonutrients)
Mismatched light cues (too much blue light at night, not enough bright natural light during the day)
Not enough nourishing time in solitude (appropriately balanced by time in interconnected community and nourishing relationships).
Using this framework, there are indisputable, common ingredients that facilitate well-being but the individual expressions of how to build a lifestyle that includes these things is a creative act. This is a creative task wrought with much challenge and tension, particularly given that much of what’s built into modern society is in direct opposition to these things. The expression of what it means to create a life well-lived is never going to be able to be condensed into a one-size-fits all protocol or a product you can purchase. And contrary to what the wellness zeitgeist on the internet is telling you, rather than buying more stuff, it actually involves stripping away barriers that prevent you from accessing the essential, nature-based inputs.
Inspired by this paper and my increasing discomfort with a capitalistic approach to wellness, I brainstormed a list of ways to increase these vital “paleo inputs”. I made sure all my suggestions are low or no-cost and don’t require buying more stuff.
Cultivate hobbies that connect you with the natural world and get you outside. Examples: gardening, foraging, hiking, camping, outdoor cooking.
Walk or bike more for your transportation.
Develop a habit of taking a morning walk first thing in the morning (this has the added benefit of aligning your circadian rhythm by signaling to your system that it’s daytime and thus to be alert).
Start to work for your food in some way -- walk to the farmers market or grocery store, forage, grow some of your own food and cook it! Bad things happen when we completely uncouple the need to move for our food--(I’m looking at you Seamless!)
Spend more time in silence. Seek out quiet (whether it’s a place in nature or your home, a meditation practice, or simply turning off the music and podcasts during parts of your day) and learn to disconnect from constant noise. The Headspace app is a wonderful way to get started with a home meditation practice.
Conversely, spend intentional time in community. Offer and seek support from your community. Plan weekly communal meals and join supportive networks. Feeling a sense of belonging is one of the best ways to reduce stress.
Create an environment of total darkness at night to sleep in. Strip away the technologies that keep you seeing blue light into the night. Make your bedroom totally dark and create a habit of disconnecting from all screens and devices at least a half hour before bedtime. More on the importance of light cues for health here.
I’m very curious about creative, non-consumerist ways people have found to bring more of these elements into their daily lives. What does your unique, ecosystem of wellness look like?
*DISCLAIMER: I am not trying to make anyone feel guilty about existing in a consumerist society. I’m as complicit as anyone! I’m just offering what I hope will be an empowering alternative perspective on wellness that reminds us we don’t need anything extra to access our innate sense of well-being.
Logan AC et al. Natural environments, ancestral diets, and microbial ecology: is there a modern "paleo-deficit disorder"? Part I. J Physiol Anthropol. 2015; 34(1): 9.
Logan AC et al. Natural environments, ancestral diets, and microbial ecology: is there a modern “paleo-deficit disorder”? Part II. J Physiol Anthropol. 2015; 34(1): 9.