The fascinating and comprehensive evolutionary perspective on human health presented in Go Wild by Dr. John Ratey and Richard Manning compellingly describes the importance of nutrition, exercise, sleep, socializing and contact with nature in our lives. While the tone can seem bombastic at times, the writing brings together a great collection of research findings and stories into an enthralling arc. It’s like The Social Conquest of Earth meets The Wild Life of Our Bodies meets Your Brain on Nature and then some.
Here are some passages from the book I found quite striking.
Humans are the Swiss Army knives of motion.
The evolution of our unique brains was locked into the evolution of our wide range of movement.
…nomadism, bipedalism, and omnivory—are defining for our entire genus and have accrued over the course of two million years of hominid history.
…the calorie content made available to your body is, in fact, to some degree dependent on the type of bacteria in your digestive system, a population that varies wildly from person to person.
…a study in 2011 showed that eating trans fats greatly increases the risk of clinical depression…
“One researcher in education—not in nutrition—performed a meta-analysis of all peer-reviewed research on proven methods to increase a child’s intelligence (that is, boost academic performance). The conclusion: “Supplementing infants with long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids [specifically omega-3s], enrolling children in early educational interventions, reading to children in an interactive manner, and sending children to preschool all raise the intelligence of young children.”
Annual per capita sugar consumption in the United States was 5 pounds per person in 1700, 23 pounds in 1800, 70 pounds in 1900, and 152 pounds today.
Fermentation uses bacteria to digest lactose, meaning that people with lactose intolerance can still get nutrition and vitamin D from fermented dairy products.
Eating a diet high in sugar decreases BDNF. Eating foods with folate, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fats increases BDNF in the brain, just as exercise does.
…the more a species needs to move, the bigger its brain—a relationship particularly pronounced in mammals.
In [Frank W.] Booth’s analysis of all of this, there is a simple sentence that greatly adds to the urgency. We are not just talking about sick people or physical debilitation. He writes: “Sedentary lifestyle is associated with lower cognitive skills.” Stated more bluntly still, our inactivity is making us dumber. If anything, this conclusion can now be stated even more confidently, given the wealth of research in the decade since Booth made it. Both epidemiology and neuroscience have described the biochemistry that makes it so.
…exercise delivered marked improvements for people suffering all the cognitive impairments examined, from minor memory loss to full-on Alzheimer’s.
Cognitive impairment is not so much a consequence of aging as it is a consequence of our sedentary lives.
…stiff [shoe] soles robbed the feet of proprioception, and robbed our brains, our neural circuitry, of the refined information and information processing that directed us for millions of years.
In order to sleep properly, we need to pay attention to what is going on around us, using that awareness to guide us through the necessary stages of sleep. Isolating ourselves in soundproof rooms may be about the worst way there is to go about this—but, more to the point, so is isolating ourselves from other people.
Studies have linked the disruptive effects of artificial light at night to depression, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity.
“For a short time, one or two hours, stress does wonderful things for the brain,” Sapolsky told the conference. “More oxygen and glucose are delivered to the brain. The hippocampus, which is involved in memory, works better when you are stressed for a little while. Your brain releases more dopamine, which plays a role in the experience of pleasure, early on during stress; it feels wonderful, and your brain works better.”
Natural scenes and association with nature did indeed show positive results with alpha waves, and both also had a positive effect against anxiety, anger, and aggression.
…people in hospitals get better measurably faster if they are in a room with a window or have a bit of green as simple as a potted plant. Placing potted plants in view of workers at one factory reduced time lost to sick leave by 40 percent.
…the dominance of forests alone decreased death rates from cancer.
The benefits of green space were strongest for those with anxiety disorders and depression.
Trees and other plants exude literally scores of phytochemicals that make their way to our olfactory system, which provides a direct pathway to the brain. The class of chemicals involved are called phytoncides, and many of them have profound effects on the brain, such as lowering stress hormones, regulating pain, and reducing anxiety. Notably, some of them up-regulate powerful tools in our immune systems called natural killer cells, first-line defensive weapons against infections like influenza and common colds.
No matter what ails you, you are not going to think your way out of it or read your way out of it. Living well is something you do.