How Our Ancestors Stayed Healthy - Public Goods Blog

How Our Ancestors Stayed Healthy

By 2040 the U.S. is predicted to drop from 43rd to 64th in life expectancy rankings among high-income nations.

woman in bathing suit, bubbling water, spa

Antidepressant usage is up 65% since the start of the 2000s, with one in four American women taking mental health medication. U.S. rates of autism have risen by 15% in a two-year period, with 1 in 59 children diagnosed with the condition as of 2014. Roughly 40% of Americans, were found to be obese in 2016. According to the CDC, 610,000 Americans die of heart disease every year — that’s one in every four deaths.

Between an average diet consisting of processed foods, refined carbohydrates, sugar and sedentary lifestyles, ill health among Americans has become the rule, not the exception. This faulty sustenance is responsible for the development of gut dysbiosis among most Americans, which in turn is a major factor of the various mental illnesses that relentlessly plague us: anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, etc. For these diseases of the mind, synthetic pharmaceutical medicines are prescribed, with the underlying causes rarely or never addressed.

So we’re in trouble. What can we do? How do we protect ourselves and begin to heal?

Despite how sick and desperate we’ve become, we aren’t out of options. We’re struggling to be healthy — that’s a clear indication there’s something about the way we’re living that we should change.

It’s a time honored human tradition to look to the past to see what old ideas we can bring into the present to solve our problems. Instead of going up against modern problems armed with only modern solutions, perhaps it’s time to expand our arsenal of health-maintaining tools to what people of the past believed — and science now confirms — would lead to healthier living.

So, in the past, what exactly did people do?


Once a year, for the duration of the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims around the world refrain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. The basis for this fasting comes from the Quran: “O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, even as it was prescribed for those before you, that ye may ward off (evil).” Notice the word, “prescribed,” present in most translations. It’s as a doctor would say, for your health and well-being.

In recent years intermittent fasting has quickly entered mainstream health and wellness consciousness and seems to provide several benefits, including stem cell production, lowering risk of heart disease, reducing pain and increasing secretion of growth hormone in humans. Fasting has also been shown to increase metabolic rate in humans and is as such a useful means for weight loss. Studies show rats that fast live longer, and other animal studies demonstrate preventative properties related to cancer and inflammation.

Fasting can take the form of abstaining from food for 16 hours a day and eating for the remaining eight. Other methods are to restrict oneself to approximately 500-600 calories a day for two days a week, or the occasional 24 hour fast.

An easily implemented method of wellness, I encourage fasting among all those able and in whatever way works best for you. Don’t be afraid to play around with it, and pay close attention to how you feel.

As opposed to most health-oriented actions, all fasting requires is not doing something one might normally do. This fact makes it a feasible means of wellness for those who, like myself, have something of a lazy streak.


The sauna, a small room designed to reach high temperatures capable of eliciting rapid perspiration, has been used for millennia for wellness and enjoyment, most notably among the Finnish. Medical experts believe the excessive sweating can aid in the expulsion of toxins from the human body, which is especially useful to us modern humans, who are constantly exposed to toxic heavy metals and microplastics. Saunas have also been shown to be useful in relieving depression, preventing Alzheimer’s, helping sleep, reducing blood pressure and aiding the recovery of — as well as relaxing and soothing — muscles.

If you don’t have access to a sauna, don’t fret. Hot baths also elevate mood, aid sleep, reduce blood pressure and relieve muscle pain. You might benefit from the addition of epsom salts to optimize the therapeutic qualities of a hot bath.

Don’t forget that baths are fun. Thankfully, maintaining health doesn’t always have to be a pain.

Bigu (Grain Avoidance)

Bigu is a Daoist term that literally translates to “avoiding grains.” The ancient Daoists believed grain-eating evil spirits lived in the human body, and they meted out punishments of sickness and early death, reporting one’s evil deeds to heaven every 60 days.

It would be easy for us modern, sophisticated humans to reject this belief as an ancient and nonsensical superstition of the days of old. But myths can be true in ways beyond the literal. Before science, metaphor was — and perhaps still is, at least sometimes — the best way to talk about abstract and complicated concepts.

The connection between the human gut and brain has only become known to us relatively recently, but now the effect of the gut microbiome on the brain, and the rest of the body, is hard to deny. A compromised microbiome leads to inflammation, and inflammation has been held up by healers of old — and now modern science as well — as a sign leading to degenerative disease, such as cancer, autoimmune disorders and heart issues.

So back to the Daoist myth. Why avoid grains?

The evidence shows that high-starch foods such as wheat, which contains gluten (linked to a number of harmful conditions of the body and mind), tends to feed negative pathogens in the gut. Wheat and other grains, especially refined grains, are all standard elements of the average American diet and these tend to wreak havoc on our gut flora.

The negative pathogens are the evil spirits that usher us into disease and early death. Many Daoists eschewed grains as part of their spiritual practice and instead sought out methods that would lead to longevity or literally translated “immortality.” It’s unclear what exactly the Daoists did eat, however, because the texts of old provide different dietary recommendations, with not all Daoists practicing bigu.

The ketogenic (or very low-carb) diet has recently come into popularity, being shown to positively affect gut flora, reduce inflammation, as well as improve longevity, memory and general cognitive function, at least in mice. It’s also been shown to help fight depression and autoimmune disease, with some sufferers of autoimmune disease going so far as to embrace full-blown carnivorism to feel relief from their conditions.

Looking to the Past to Ensure Our Futures

Those who came before us had lots of ideas about how exactly to stay healthy. Now it’s up to us to decide whether or not to implement those ideas and see what works for us. We’ve grown out of touch with our bodies and nature, and there are lifestyle changes we can take that may help us to heal.

Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.

From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.

Comments (3)

  • Weston A. Price found a few cultures where grains were not locally available, such as the Inuit people and a few Pacific Island nations. However, he found quite a few where properly prepared starches and grains made up part of the people’s daily diet. The Swiss, the Scots living on the Outer Hebrides, Native Americans, multiple African tribes, Aborigones, and more all included properly prepared, soaked, sprouted, and even fermented grains in varying ratios within their daily diets. In at least one case they removed intestines from a butchered animal (while carefully preserving the half-digested grasses and plant matter inside the intestine), positioned two men on either end of the length of intestine, and had a contest to see who could eat their way to the middle first. These people ate grains.
    Please don’t use a man’s research to promote a diet for modern Americans that he himself did not promote, and without presenting all the available facts from his research. Yes, most cultures ate a lot of fat. But this was not to the exclusion of grains except in a very few cases, and that was due to lack of local availability, not a focus on or goal of creating ketosis.

    • Hi Sarah,

      I removed the section on Mr. Price. I hadn’t thought about how the mention might not be appropriate. Thank you for educating us!

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