Stepping Back in Time: How Ancestral Habits May Improve Your Health
Updated: Jun 29
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Now that that's out of the way....
Hello everyone! I'm Dr. Andray Voronov, an osteopath at Gravity Osteopathy, proudly serving the communities of Narre Warren, Berwick, Hallam, and beyond. Today, I'd like to take you on a unique journey.
But first, let me establish some pretense. It's a core belief of mine that we, as humans, often over complicate seemingly simple things. This is particularly the case when it comes to physical wellbeing. There are so many gadgets and fancy contraptions that sometimes I wonder, "If we need all these things to live a pain-free, healthy life, how the hell did our ancestors ever survive, let alone thrive?"
Imagine stepping back in time, shedding our modern habits and conveniences to adopt a lifestyle more akin to our ancestors. I know it sounds a bit unusual, but stick with me. You'll discover the remarkable health benefits that come with the habits of our forebears.
Movement Nutrition: Diversity for Well-being
Before we delve into the specifics, let's familiarise ourselves with an underlying concept - movement nutrition, a concept developed and popularised by biomechanist Katy Bowman (2017). Bowman argues that just like our diet requires a diverse array of nutrients to thrive, our bodies need a diverse range of movements. In our modern, sedentary lifestyles - full of desk jobs and prolonged periods in front of screens - we have drastically reduced our 'movement diversity', which Bowman contends is causing an array of health issues.
Bowman (2017) explains that this lack of movement diversity has led to 'movement malnutrition', with people not getting enough of the right kind of movement, much like a poor diet leading to nutritional deficiencies. This idea serves as a foundation for the practices we'll be discussing - a return to a more natural, diverse pattern of movement that our bodies are designed to enjoy.
A Pillow-less Slumber: Better for Your Posture?
First on our list of ancient practices is sleeping without a pillow, a concept that seems counterintuitive in a world where plush, luxurious pillows are seen as the epitome of a comfortable sleep. Especially when every allied health practitioner and their dog is trying to sell you "the perfect pillow", which may easily set you back over $100. But if we delve into the scientific literature, a different picture emerges.
In a research study by Gordon, Grimmer-Somers, and Trott (2009), it was revealed that the use of a pillow could be a contributing factor to neck pain and headaches. When we use a pillow, our necks are often placed at an angle, disrupting the natural alignment of our spine. By ditching the pillow, we can achieve a more natural alignment of the neck with the spine, leading to improved posture and a reduction in pain.
Personally, what I've found is that by sleeping without a pillow, sleep becomes an oppurtunity to stretch my neck and shoulders as I'm exploring different sleep positions using my own body. Also, what I've noticed through observation is that my kids will happily sleep without a pillow. Although, they haven't been habitualised through years of pillow abuse, which emphasises the importance of transitioning to pillow-less sleep in a stepped fashion.
Adopting this change might be challenging initially. It's not uncommon to experience some discomfort in the first few nights. Before throwing all your pillows out in the trash, I would first use a thinner pillow for a few days. Then gradually work your way towards getting rid of it completely. With time, your body will adapt to this, and you might find yourself waking up with less stiffness and discomfort in your neck and shoulders.
Grounding Sleep: The Perks of a Firm Bed
You might wonder how our ancestors managed to sleep without the luxurious, soft mattresses that we're accustomed to. While it may not sound appealing, sleeping on a firmer surface, even on the floor, could have significant benefits for our spinal health.
In a study conducted by Jacob and colleagues (2010), participants who slept on firm mattresses reported experiencing less musculoskeletal pain when compared to those who slept on softer mattresses. Although the idea of sleeping on the floor may not be for everyone, it could be beneficial to consider incorporating firmer sleeping surfaces into your routine. For instance, you might want to experiment with a few nights per week on a firmer mattress or even on a sleeping mat on the floor.
One thing to keep in mind when experimenting with sleeping on the floor is to, again, do it gradually and listen to your body. It might not suit everyone, and that's okay. The aim here is to explore and find what works best for you.
The Shikibuton: An Ancient Japanese Practice
What if I told you there's an entire culture that has been embracing the 'floor sleeping' practice for centuries? Let's turn our gaze to Japan, a country where the tradition of sleeping on the floor, on a futon, has its roots deeply embedded in their way of life.
The Japanese use a special kind of mattress for sleeping on the floor, called a 'Shikibuton' or a 'Futon' for short. A Shikibuton is a thin, cotton-filled mattress that is laid directly on the floor. Despite being much firmer than the mattresses we're used to in the West, many people find them surprisingly comfortable and supportive.
The question that arises is - how does this practice affect the Japanese population's health, especially in comparison with Western countries, where soft mattresses and bed frames are the norm?
While it's challenging to make direct comparisons due to many cultural and lifestyle differences, some research provides intriguing insights. A comprehensive study by Kovacs and colleagues (2003) showed that the incidence of lower back pain was significantly lower in Asian countries (including Japan) than in Western countries. In another study by Tamcan et al. (2010), the lifetime prevalence of back pain in Japan was found to be only 58%, significantly lower than in Western countries (often over 80%).
It's important to note that many factors contribute to these differences, and we can't solely attribute them to sleeping practices. Nevertheless, it's food for thought. Incorporating elements from different cultures, like the Japanese practice of sleeping on a Shikibuton, can lead us to a more diverse and healthful lifestyle.
In adopting this practice, remember to start gradually, just like any other lifestyle change. You might initially find the firmness of a Shikibuton (or the floor) somewhat uncomfortable, but give it time. Your body might just thank you!
Going Bare: A Foot's Natural Habitat
Next on our ancestral habits list is the practice of going barefoot. Today, we wear shoes for the majority of the day, confining our feet and limiting their movement. Going back in time, footwear was not as prevalent, and the footwear that was available was minimal and served primarily as protection. What effect did this have on their health, and how does it compare to our modern habits?
An interesting study by Hollander et al. (2017) shed light on the benefits of walking barefoot. Their research showed that going barefoot could enhance foot muscle strength and control, which can significantly improve balance, posture, and overall mobility. Plus, it can alleviate and prevent common foot conditions, such as plantar fasciitis.
Moreover, Lieberman et al. (2010) pointed out that when we walk barefoot, we tend to land more on our forefoot or midfoot rather than our heel. This change in landing can reduce the impact on our bodies, potentially leading to fewer injuries.
This isn't to say you should throw out all your footwear and trek barefoot on any and every surface. It's about striking a balance and giving your feet some free time, be it at home, on a grassy park, or at the beach.
Footwear: The Narrow Toe Box Epidemic
Dr Ray McClanahan, a renowned podiatrist and a staunch advocate of natural foot health, has spoken extensively on the detrimental effects of modern footwear on our feet. He points out an often overlooked but critical aspect of our shoes: the toe box.
Most conventional shoes come with a narrow toe box, which squeezes our toes together, altering their natural spread. According to Dr McClanahan, this unnatural toe compression can lead to a range of foot issues, including plantar fasciitis, bunions, hammertoes, and neuromas.
It's especially relevant for runners, a group notoriously plagued by plantar fasciitis. Taunton et al. (2002) reported that plantar fasciitis accounts for approximately 8% of all running-related injuries. That's an alarming statistic considering the number of runners worldwide.
Shin Splints: The Unseen Enemy
Let's shift our focus to another common running injury: shin splints. The term 'shin splints' refers to pain felt along the shin bone or tibia. It's commonly experienced by runners and can be incredibly frustrating due to its tendency to recur.
An interesting point to note is that shin splints, like plantar fasciitis, can also be linked to our footwear choices and our gait. Lieberman et al.'s study (2010), which we discussed earlier, explained how thick-soled shoes can encourage a heel-striking gait. Such a gait significantly increases the impact forces travelling up our legs, potentially leading to injuries like shin splints.
Going back to Dr McClanahan's approach and our barefoot ancestors, adopting a forefoot or midfoot strike, often seen in barefoot running, could help alleviate these issues.
Again, balance is the key. It's not about going barefoot all the time but rather about integrating barefoot moments into our lives, respecting our body's signals, and making gradual changes in our footwear choices.
Active Commuting: A Healthy Ancestor's Transportation
Finally, let's look at a simple but powerful change - swapping our four wheels for two feet. It's undeniable that cars have transformed our lives and enabled us to travel long distances quickly and conveniently. However, this convenience comes with a cost to our health.
Research by Kelly et al. (2014) showed that active commuting, such as walking or cycling, is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. Walking or cycling for transport, even for a few days a week, can dramatically increase your activity levels and improve your cardiovascular health.
Just as we mentioned before, you don't need to sell your car and commit to walking everywhere. It's about making small, sustainable changes, such as choosing to walk to the local shops instead of driving or going for a walk after dinner instead of sitting on the sofa.
Concluding Thoughts: Back to Our Roots
Embracing these ancestral habits might seem like a daunting task at first. The key is to take it slow and incorporate these practices gradually. It's not about a complete lifestyle overhaul overnight but about making small, consistent changes that align us with our ancestral roots and our bodies' natural inclinations.
It's my firm belief that many people may benefit from adopting each of these topics in one way or another, however it's important to remember, it's crucial to listen to your body during this journey. If a certain practice doesn't feel right, feel free to modify it or find an alternative that suits you better. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to health and wellness.
If you have any questions or need guidance, don't hesitate to reach out to us at Gravity Osteopathy by heading to this page. I'm here to support you on this exciting journey back in time, leading us to better health in our modern world.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Is it safe to sleep without a pillow?
Yes, it's safe to sleep without a pillow, provided you're sleeping in the right position. The goal is to maintain the natural alignment of your neck and spine. For back sleepers, sleeping without a pillow can help maintain this alignment. However, for side sleepers, I find that using your arm/shoulder almost always the perfect height for keeping your neck aligned.
2. Are there health benefits of sleeping on the floor?
While it might not suit everyone, sleeping on the floor (especially on a supportive surface like a Japanese Shikibuton) can potentially improve spinal alignment and reduce back pain. However, any change to your sleeping arrangements should be made gradually to allow your body time to adapt.
3. How does going barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes benefit me?
Going barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes allows your feet to move and function in a more natural way. This change can promote a forefoot or midfoot strike while running, which reduces impact forces and potentially lowers the risk of injuries such as plantar fasciitis and shin splints.
4. What are the risks associated with a narrow toe box in shoes?
Narrow toe boxes can compress our toes, leading to various foot problems such as plantar fasciitis, bunions, hammertoes, and neuromas. Podiatrist Dr Ray McClanahan recommends footwear that allows your toes to spread naturally (my favourite brand is VivoBarefoot, but I've also started making my own sandals recently too).
5. Is walking really better than driving?
While driving might save time, choosing to walk when possible is a healthier alternative. Regular walking can help improve cardiovascular health, aid in weight management, boost mood, and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Furthermore, it aligns with how our ancestors naturally moved and is an excellent way to incorporate more physical activity into your day.
Gordon, S. J., Grimmer-Somers, K., & Trott, P. (2009). Pillow use: The behaviour of cervical stiffness, headache and scapular/arm pain. Journal of Pain Research, 2, 137–145.
Hollander, K., Argubi-Wollesen, A., Reer, R., & Zech, A. (2017). Comparison of minimalist footwear strategies for simulating barefoot running: A randomized crossover study. PloS One, 12(5), e0177697.
Kelly, P., Kahlmeier, S., Götschi, T., Orsini, N., Richards, J., Roberts, N., Scarborough, P., & Foster, C. (2014). Systematic review and meta-analysis of reduction in all-cause mortality from walking and cycling and shape of dose response relationship. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 11, 132.
Kovacs, F. M., Gestoso, M., Real, M. T. G., López, J., Mufraggi, N., & Méndez, J. I. (2003). Risk factors for non-specific low back pain in schoolchildren and their parents: a population-based study. Pain, 103(3), 259-268.
Lieberman, D. E., Venkadesan, M., Werbel, W. A., Daoud, A. I., D’Andrea, S., Davis, I. S., Mang'eni, R. O., & Pitsiladis, Y. (2010). Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature, 463(7280), 531-535.
Tamcan, O., Mannion, A. F., Eisenring, C., Horisberger, B., Elfering, A., & Müller, U. (2010). The course of chronic and recurrent low back pain in the general population. Pain, 150(3), 451-457.
Taunton, J. E., Ryan, M. B., Clement, D. B., McKenzie, D. C., Lloyd-Smith, D. R., & Zumbo, B. D. (2002). A retrospective case-control analysis of 2002 running injuries. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 36(2), 95-101.