21st Centuty Caveman
200,000 years ago during the Paleolithic era Homo sapiens evolved genetically into the modern humans of today. What is most significant about being a human is the size of our brain compared to all other species found on earth. With the increased size of our brain comes the ability to perform many different neurological functions such as problem solving, abstract thinking, reading, writing, remembering birthdays (sometimes), etc. The brain is a very complex neurological structure that requires a very significant amount of energy to keep it functioning properly. The ability of humans to consume enough calories to make sure the brain functioned properly is how humans were able to thrive and develop to where we are today.
The life of a Caveman was obviously different then what our modern life experiences are. Daily life revolved around hunting and gathering the necessary food for survival, having shelter for protection from the elements and the local saber tooth tiger, and of course reproducing so you could have great, great, great, etc. grandparents. The good news is Homo sapiens became very good at survival. The bad news is that we actually still have some of the old outdated programing left over in our DNA, nervous systems and physiology that has not caught up yet with our present day circumstances.
Of course there were many stresses associated with being a caveman; finding enough food to eat, surviving droughts and famine, not being killed by a warring tribe, or being eaten by a hungry animal. You have physiological responses programmed in your body to adapt to stress. These responses come from the adrenal glands, a walnut sized gland that sits on top of your kidney. You have probably heard of the hormones that the adrenal glands release, adrenaline and cortisol are the most popular but there are actually many more. Adrenaline gives you the fight or flight response, and cortisol is released during times of stress to help the body fight pain and decrease inflammation, but it also slows metabolism and stores fat (potential energy) for use at a later time.
Stress might have changed its form from a saber tooth tiger to an upset boss, but the result is the same, the body feels the stress and releases the stress hormones. One of the biggest differences between the caveman and people today is after the stress occurred and the caveman survived, he would go rest and recover from the stress. Today we bounce from one stress to another like an endless game of pinball with all the noises and flashing lights and no rest in sight. These stresses have the effect of wearing us down little by little until we can no longer respond appropriately to the stresses of everyday life and our body begins to shut down.
Interestingly as the body releases the cortisol to deal with stress, it responds as if in a famine situation, causing the storing of the extra calories we take in as fat. We have a society that is filled with a lot of calories to consume and lots of stress to pack on the pounds, a very interesting predicament. Caveman did not have the convenience of the 24 hour seven eleven, or the drive through hamburger restaurant. Caveman had to work for their food, which in turn burned off a lot of calories too! The other big difference is caveman did not have refined carbohydrates and sugars to consume. Carbohydrates and sugar burn very fast when we consume them, but if we have leftovers they get turned to fat easily. Carbohydrate and sugar consumption is responsible for most of the health problems faced by our country today including diabetes, cancer, obesity, ADD, and more.
To change many of these health problems it is important to eat more like a caveman, a diet of vegetables, raw nuts, fruits, roots, and protein. This is the Paleo diet and there is a tremendous amount of information available about it on the Internet, in the library, or at the bookstore. A couple other caveman habits that increase health are to get plenty of exercise and fresh air, and sleep 7-8 hours each evening in a dark quite place, with no background noise like televisions or music playing, pure quiet lets your brain rest.
The adrenal glands and our response to stress is not the only thing left over from our ancestors. There are many comparisons that can be made between what we do and what we did as a species when we were caveman. There are still many ingrained fight or flight responses hard wired in our brain. The response of fear to dangerous animals and situations is hard wired. The fear of heights, snakes and spiders are a few good examples. Our tongue is hardwired to tell us about the food we eat. The taste buds for sugar are on the tip of your tongue. This allows you to know quickly if there are available calories in the food without ingesting it and risking poison.
As a species and as a society we obviously are not living in the Stone Age anymore. We do need to remember where it is we came from. Understanding why we do what we do, and the reasons for making choices, and what those choices can do to our bodies is important for our own health and wellbeing. We may not wear animal skins or sleep in caves, but we still have the physiology of our ancestors who did. Diet, exercise, and good mental and emotional health are the keys to a productive life. Knowing that deep down in your physiology there is still a caveman hiding there can help you understand why you make the choices that you do and what may be the result of those choices.