Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of questions from Mark’s Daily Apple readers about how I do my day. What do I eat each day? What are my favorite snacks? What do I do for exercise? How do I work out when I’m on the road? What supplements do I take (and how often)? Even what personal products I use… I feel like I’ve covered about everything there is, but then I’ll get something new. In this case, some readers over the last year have asked me about my bedtime. Do I have a routine? Just what do I do to get a good night sleep?
Quality sleep isn’t in any way optional for good health. In fact, it’s a Primal Blueprint Law. That means I consider the hour or two leading up to bedtime as important as my workout time.
Here’s my nightly ritual rundown. As you’ll see in the video, it takes advantage of the relaxing effect of heat along with the Grok Tip of finishing cold—a theme I continue with attention to the ambient temperature of my room. Check out how I wind down my day (and even what I’m reading before bed) below.
Thanks for stopping in today, everybody. Do you have a question for me to answer in a future video? Shoot me a line below. Otherwise, be sure to share your favorite tips for enjoying a great night sleep. Have a great week, everyone.
The post My Evening Routine: How I Manufacture a Great Night Sleep appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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If you feel restless at night, try this seven-minute pre-bed yoga flow to help you drift right to sleep.
We get it: Even though you try to go to bed at a certain time, you’d rather stay up and watch TV. Then, you wake up feeling tired.
Sleep deprivation can cause all sorts of trouble aside from just morning grogginess. When your body doesn’t get enough z’s, you’re at risk for ailments like brain fog, hormone imbalance and irritability.
Tonight, when it’s time for bed but you just don’t feel like it yet, follow this relaxing, seven-minute yoga flow sequence to get you in the mood to catch some deep, quality sleep. You might want a pillow nearby in case you decide to sleep right where you are!
I recommend setting the mood by dimming the lights, playing some soft relaxing music, removing your shoes, and dressing comfortably. This flow can be done on a yoga mat or right in bed for even more comfort and in case you fall asleep in the last pose.
Stay in each pose for at least five slow deep breaths (approximately 30 seconds), then gently transition to the next restful pose.
Seated Breathing Exercise | 5 slow deep breaths
- Sit in a comfortable position (however you feel most at ease).
- Place both hands on your belly, close your eyes, and sit up tall with good posture.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose to fill your lungs completely.
- Allow the air to seep out effortlessly through your nose as you feel your body melt into relaxation.
- Continue deep slow and full breaths.
Seated Side Reach | 10 breaths (5 per side)
- In that same seated position, place your right fingertips down on the ground to your side.
- Reach your left arm up and over your head as you lean slightly to the right.
- Take a deep breath and switch to the other side.
- Continue alternating sides for 10 breaths.
Child’s Pose | 5 breaths
- Get in an all-fours position, then sit back on your hips.
- Touch your feet together and widen your knees as much as you comfortably can.
- Walk your hands out in front of you and rest your forehead on the mat.
- Lengthen your spine and extend your arms straight all the way.
- Relax in this pose for five deep breaths.
Cat Pose | 5 breaths
- Lift back up into an all-fours position and allow your feet to separate to the same width as your knees.
- Press your palms down into the ground as you round your spine and tuck your chin.
- Feel the stretch in your upper back and hold the pose for five deep breaths.
Cow Pose | 5 breaths
- Arch your back and lift your chin to come into cow pose.
- Press your shoulders back and down and lift your tail bone up.
- Hold this pose for five deep breaths.
Down Dog | 5 breaths
- Tuck your toes under and lift up into a downward dog.
- Straighten your spine and allow your neck to relax.
- Don’t worry about pressing your heels down, stretching your shoulders or straightening your knees fully—just enjoy the inversion.
- Get comfortable and take five deep breaths.
Resting Pigeon Pose | 5 breaths per side
- Lift one knee up underneath your chest and lay your foot down underneath your belly.
- Fold forward and rest your head on your forearms.
- Get comfortable and begin breathing deeply.
- After five breaths on one side, lift back up to downward dog.
- Transition to the other side and hold for five deep breaths.
Gentle Seated Forward Fold | 5 breaths
- Sweep your legs around to the front of your mat and straighten your knees.
- Flex your feet so your toes are pointing up towards the ceiling.
- Hinge at the hips and reach forward to touch your shins.
- Do not worry about reaching as far as you can or feeling an intense stretch—let the stretch sensation be mild and comfortable.
- Close your eyes and take five deep breaths.
Lying Figure 4 Twist | 10 breaths (5 per side)
- Lie down on your back and plant your feet on the floor.
- Cross your right ankle over your left knee to form a figure 4 shape.
- Tilt your hips to the right until your right knee reaches the ground (or close to it).
- Use your palms down on the ground to help with balance and keeping your shoulders grounded.
- Begin your deep breaths and hold for five breaths on this side.
- Lift back up to center, cross your legs in the other direction and twist to the other side.
- Hold for five deep breaths on the left.
Lying Knee Hug | 5 breaths
- Stay on your back, and bring both knees in towards your chest.
- Hug your knees gently with both arms and rest your head on the ground.
- Feel a slight compression in your hips, but allow it to be restful.
- Hold this for five deep breaths, then release.
Savasana | 5 breaths (or until you drift off to sleep)
- Release your legs back to the ground and let your feet fall to the sides.
- Adjust your position until you feel comfortable.
- Rest your hands by your sides with palms facing up.
- Tilt your chin up just slightly for easy breathing.
- Begin your deep breaths. Stay as long as you like, or until you fall asleep.
Practice this seven-minute pre-bed flow as often as you need it. It’s gentle enough to be done nightly.
Share this with a friend or anyone else you know who is struggling to find good restful sleep.
Thanks again to Jessica Gouthro for today’s ideas. I’d love to hear if you’ll be trying this flow for yourself or if you have another nightly practice that’s worked for you. Have a great end to the week, everybody.
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One of the biggest mistakes I see among people who exercise is they forget this core truth: we get fitter not from training, but from recovering from training. This doesn’t just occur in beginners either. Some of the most experienced, hardest-charging athletes I know fail to heed the importance of recovery. Hell, the reason my endurance training destroyed my life and inadvertently set the stage for creation of the Primal Blueprint was that I didn’t grasp the concept of recovery. I just piled on the miles, thinking the more the merrier.
It didn’t work.
What is recovery, anyway?
There’s short-term recovery. Your heart rate slows back down, your body temperature drops, your sweat dries, your muscles and lungs stop burning.
Long-term recovery is less conspicuous, more internal. You replace lost energy stores, repair damaged muscle, clear out waste products, and begin the process of adaptation to the training.
When both short- and long-term recovery happen together, you “feel ready” to go again.
Some portion of how quickly we recover from training is out of our direct control.
Genetics is one factor we can’t control. Researchers have found genetic variants of collagen-encoding genes that increase or decrease the rate at which we recover from exercise-induced muscle damage, muscle tissue genes that increase resistance to exercise-induced muscle soreness, immune genes that affect the speed of adaptation to training. But even many genetic variants purported to affect recovery act through decisions carriers make. A carrier of a genetic variant linked to muscle power experienced more muscle damage and required more recovery after a soccer match, but only because that carrier “performed more speed and power actions during the game.”
Age is another factor out of our direct control. Sure, living, eating, and training right can stave off many of the worst effects of aging. Sure, a sedentary 70-year-old will recover from a workout far more slowly (if he or she can be cajoled into training) than a 70-year-old master athlete. But time does tick on. Following training that fatigues but doesn’t damage the muscles, like easy cycling, light weight training, or a sub-aerobic threshold jog, older athletes recover muscle function and performance at similar rates to younger athletes. After intense exercises that damage the muscles, like sprints, heavy lifting, intervals, or longer race-pace runs, however, older athletes recover more slowly than younger athletes.
Other factors, while preventable and modifiable over the long haul, inexorably inhibit workout recovery once they’re in place:
If you’re sick, you won’t recover as quickly. Illness diverts some of the resources that would otherwise be used to recover from training.
If you have heart disease, you’ll recover more slowly. In one study, having heart disease was the greatest predictor of a slower rate of heart rate recovery after exercise.
If your hormones are out of whack, you’ll likely recover more slowly. Hormones are the messengers and managers that tell our cells what to do. That includes muscle repair, hypertrophy, fuel replenishment, inflammatory signaling, and every other cellular function related to recovery.
Now I’ve got bad news and good news. Everything else that slows down workout recovery is under your direct control.
Factors We Can Control
Stress is stress. Traffic is a stressor. A job you hate is a stressor. Procrastinating until you absolutely must get working is a stressor. And yes, exercise is a stressor. Too much of the psychological, lifestyle, or mental stress we all face impairs our ability to recover from exercise-induced stress.
Recent research confirms that “mental stress” impairs workout recovery, and it doesn’t speak in generalities. Thirty-one undergrads were assessed for stress levels using a battery of psychological tests, then engaged in a heavy lower body strength workout. At an hour post-workout, students in the high stress group had regained 38 percent of their leg strength, while students in the low stress group had regained 60 percent of their strength.
I developed my anti-stress supplement Primal Calm (now, Adaptogenic Calm) back in the chronic cardio days as a way to improve my training recovery. That’s what gave the product so much momentum in the endurance community—it turns out that beating back stress of all kinds quickened recovery from a very specific type of training stress.
Some stress is unavoidable. But most of us create additional stress in our lives and fail to do enough to counter or manage it. Stop making unforced errors.
Sleep debt impairs exercise recovery primarily via two routes: by increasing cortisol, reducing testosterone production, and lowering muscle protein synthesis; and by disrupting slow wave sleep, the constructive stage of slumber in which growth hormone secretion peaks, tissues heal, and muscles rebuild. That’s probably why sleep deprivation has been linked to muscular atrophy and increased urinary excretion of nitrogen, and why the kind of cortisol excess caused by sleep deprivation reduces muscle strength.
Additionally, sleep loss can increase the risk of injuries by decreasing balance and postural control. If you trip and fall, or throw out your back due to poor technique, you won’t even have a workout to recover from.
Most people think bad sleep is unavoidable. It happens to the best of us from time to time, but a night of bad sleep here and there isn’t going to slow down recovery. The real recovery killer is chronically bad sleep, and that’s the kind most of us can avoid by sticking to a good sleep hygiene regimen.
Since every physiological function requires a micronutrient substrate—vitamin, mineral, hormone, neurotransmitter, etc.—and physiological functions increase with exercise and recovery, active people require more micronutrients in their diet. “More of everything” is a safe bet, but there are a few key nutrients that working out especially depletes:
Zinc: Exercise, especially weight training, works better with plenty of testosterone on hand to build muscle and develop strength. Zinc is a key substrate for the production of testosterone, and studies show that exercise probably increases the need for zinc. In fact, one study found that exhaustive exercise depleted testosterone (and thyroid) hormones in athletes, while supplementing with zinc restored it.
Magnesium and Other Electrolytes: Magnesium is required for a number of physiological processes related to workout recovery, including oxygen uptake by cells, energy production, and electrolyte balance. Unfortunately, as one of the main electrolytes, lots of magnesium is lost to sweat during exercise. The same could be said for other electrolytes like calcium, sodium, and potassium, but most people get plenty of those minerals from a basic Primal eating plan. Getting enough magnesium, however, is a bit tougher, making magnesium deficiency a real issue for people trying to recover from workouts.
Iron: Intense exercise depletes iron, which is instrumental in the formation of red blood cells and oxygen delivery to your tissues during training and the immune response after it. They even have a name for it—exercise-induced anemia.
Post-workout delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is no joke. While many of you folks reading this probably enjoy DOMS and take it as feedback for a job well done, it’s a hurdle that many beginners never move past. They join a gym, d0 a workout, feel great, go to bed feeling awesome, sleep like a baby, then wake up and find they have the bipedal capacity of a three-month-old. They can barely walk. Lifting their arms to brush their teeth is agony. Walking downstairs is out of the question. Some will move past the DOMS and get back into the gym. Many will not.
Low Fuel Availability
Working out expends energy. That energy must be replenished before you’re fully recovered and prepared to do another workout. Unless you’re trying to increase efficiency by training in a state of low fuel availability, like the “train low-carb, race high-carb” method, you should recover what’s been lost. What you replenish is conditional on the type of exercise you did. If you went for a long hike or easy bike ride that burned primarily body fat, you don’t need to—and probably shouldn’t—”replenish what you lost.” If you’re coming off a 30-minute full body CrossFit session that left you gasping on the ground in a puddle of sweat, you probably have some glycogen stores to refill.
This is a common issue for folks trying to lose weight through diet and exercise. Inadequate calorie intake coupled with intense exercise sends a “starvation” signal to the body, causing a down-regulation of anabolic hormones. Instead of growing lean mass and burning body fat, starvation (whether real or simulated) promotes muscle atrophy and body fat retention. Either alone can be somewhat effective, but combining the two for too long will only impair recovery.
Drinking directly impairs muscle protein synthesis, the essential step in muscle recovery and adaptation to training. Moderate or “social” drinking is probably safe (just don’t use alcohol as a post-workout recovery drink), but even just a single day per week of binge drinking is linked to 4x the risk of sarcopenia, or muscle-wasting. It’s hard to recover from your workouts if your muscles are atrophying.
Oddly, drinking directly after a training session also increases testosterone levels. One theory is that testosterone levels rise after drinking because it becomes less bioavailable; your muscle cells’ resistance to testosterone goes up, so it just circulates and gives “false” readings.
Things You Can Try
The obvious thing to try is the opposite of all the modifiable and preventable recovery-inhibitors mentioned above. Get good sleep, don’t drink too much (especially post-workout), get a handle on your stress, eat enough food, eat enough protein, get your micronutrients. What else?
L-citrulline is an amino acid found in watermelon that shows a significantly ameliorative effect on post-workout muscle pain, or delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). You can also supplement directly with L-citrulline, which may work, but watermelon is so good right now with a little salt, lime juice, and cayenne pepper, and it’s actually lower in carbs than you probably think (about 10 grams per cup of watermelon). I recommend fresh watermelon over pasteurized juice, as heat treatment reduces the effect.
Beets (and beet juice) aren’t only good for exercise performance. They also reduce DOMS. Nitrates have been posited as the primary constituent responsible for the effect, but beet juice works better than pure sodium nitrate.
Tart Cherry Juice
Tart cherry juice is best used to recover during competition, when your primary concern is to get back out there and perform. Its extreme effectiveness at killing muscle pain, reducing local and systemic inflammation and exercise-induced muscle damage suggests it may hamper training adaptations, however. It does also improve sleep, which should translate into better adaptations.
Massage feels great, and the evidence shows that it’s great for recovery from exercise. It alleviates DOMS. It speeds up the recovery of muscle strength and enhances proprioception. It improves central nervous system parasympathetic/sympathetic balance, even if the masseuse is one of those weird back massage machines.
These aren’t just for show. A recent meta-analysis of the available research concluded that compression garments enhance muscle recovery after strength training and improve next-day cycling performance.
Although we get creatine from red meat and fish, supplementary creatine can boost our recovery from exercise via a couple mechanisms. First, it increases muscle content of phosphocreatine. That’s the stuff we use for quick bursts of maximal effort, so carrying a little extra can do wonders for our ability to perform. Second, it enhances muscle glycogen replenishment without increasing insulin.
Fish Oil (or Fatty Fish)
A cold water plunge after training enhances the recovery of muscle function. However—and this is a big “however”—post training cold water plunges also seem to impair long term muscular adaptations to resistance training. In other words, a cold plunge might help you get back in the game for the short term at the cost of long-term adaptations.
I always say “Eat the carbs you earn.” While that often means eating fewer carbs than before, it can also mean eating more if you’ve trained hard enough to warrant them. This even applies to keto folks; depleting glycogen through exercise creates a “glycogen debt” that you can repay without inhibiting ketosis or fat-adaptation too much. The carbs—which you don’t need much of—go into muscle glycogen stores for recovery and later use without disrupting ketosis.
Don’t take this final section as a blanket recommendation, however. Before taking ice baths, dropping $500 on massages every week, taking a long list of expensive supplements, and walking around in a full body compression suit, make sure you’re sleeping, eating enough food, and giving yourself enough time between workouts. Quite often, handling the basics will be enough.
What have you found to be the best way to recover from your training? What are the biggest roadblocks? Let me know down below, and thanks for reading!
The post What Causes Slow Post-Workout Recovery—and What Can You Do About It? appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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We’re in the last few days of the 21-Day Challenge now…. Successes so far? Stumbling blocks along the way? Lingering ideas/questions coming to the fore? I’ll be announcing winners to the contests throughout the rest of this week, and tomorrow you’ll all be voting on the best Grok Pose of 2018.
But for today, we’re kicking back and focusing just on R&R. A few of the staff volunteered to share their favorite ways to recharge. The Primal Blueprint isn’t a diet after all. It’s a full lifestyle—a path to living awesome, and rest and relaxation are critical parts of that endeavor. Grok excelled in this area in fact. How are your relaxation routines working for you these days? Hope you find some inspiration this morning, everyone. Wishing you well.
“I love doing yoga – taking time to move my body and breathe deeply. It’s amazing how quickly I can relax and refocus after spending even 10 minutes on the mat. I think it’s super important to stretch and get to you know how your body moves. Yoga has helped me a ton as an athlete, and I really think it’s made me a more balanced human overall.” – Annie M.
“I love this little remote spot by one of the lakes in Pheonix, AZ. It’s so peaceful during the early springtime when the snow has partially melted. The air is crisp and clean, the foliage is new and green. A great place to chill and relax.” – Michelle F.
“Seeing Buddhist sculpture/art is an instant reminder for me to breathe, be calm, stay mindful and aware of the moment. The combination of the Buddha with the flowing water puts me in a more tranquil mood.” – Sabrina T.
“I have so many relaxation routines, I didn’t know which one to choose! This pair of intertwined spruce trees are what I call The Turnaround Trees. From my front door to these trees is two miles; if I “turn around” here, I can log a 4-mile meditative country walk to my day. I don’t need any special shoes, wearables, or gadgets to get this done. I’m not trying to crush a PR. It doesn’t have to show up on Instagram… I just go as I am — barefoot, sometimes; sometimes carrying my evening glass of wine. If I time it just right, I can catch the sun setting over the Rocky Mountain foothills. Normally my phone isn’t allowed to come on this walk with me – a non-negotiable element of all of my relaxation rituals! – but I made an exception just this once, so the MDA crowd can see that a meditation practice can be as simply unstructured as this.” – Erin P.
“Relaxation for me happens outdoors. I do my deepest meditation outside, and I feel the most recharged after a morning on the trails or (more to the rest theme) under the trees. I got to spend a few hours in this hammock a couple of weeks ago, and even the image itself helps re-ignite the relaxation response.” – Jen W.
Thanks for stopping by today, everybody, and I hope you’ll share what you do to kick back and de-stress. And if any of the images or ideas got some thoughts going for you, let the bees and I know.
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Even after I fixed my diet, ditched the chronic cardio, and cleaned up my overall lifestyle to be more in line with our evolutionary upbringing, one big problem remained: my response to stress.
This had always been an issue for me. Part of it was that I kept a full plate at all times. Whether it was my training load, my businesses, my overall type A personality, stress was simply unavoidable, I thought.
How did I approach the situation and manage my stress differently over time?
First, I agonized over the existence of stress. My entire modus operandi throughout life had been to handle problems when they arose. I didn’t let things fester, I didn’t accept bad situations and learn to deal. I took care of things. If a problem didn’t resolve quickly , I assumed I was doing something wrong. Applied to stress, though? Man, what a disaster. I quickly realized that it was impossible to avoid stress, or eliminate it altogether. I needed a new approach.
So the first major step was admitting that stress is a fact of life, that stressors would arise, and what mattered was how I responded to them. My response could make the stress worse, or it could make it more manageable.
The first way I figured out how to improve my stress response was with smart supplementation. When I was still competing and doing the chronic cardio training required to succeed, I developed a supplement you might recognize by its old Primal Calm label and now called Adaptogenic Calm—designed to mitigate the negative effects of all that training stress. Both Brad Kearns and I used it, and it actually became an underground hit in the endurance scene. Athletes of all kinds were taking it and seeing great results. Of course, most of us just used it to allow our bodies to train even more and accumulate even more stress, which was one of the problems that got me into this mess in the first place.
The next step was realizing that even if I couldn’t eliminate stress entirely, I could eliminate unnecessary stress. First on the list was my training. You’ve heard the story before, so I won’t get too deeply into it. Suffice it to say, I was engaged in way too much endurance training—what I call chronic cardio—and spending way too much time out of the aerobic zone in the no-man’s land of moderately high-intensity that leads to sugar-burning and depresses fat-burning. This training was killing me, taking up all my time, necessitating an inflammatory high-carb, high-sugar diet that led to chronic GI distress and joint pain, and getting in the way of living. If any of you can identify a big stressor upstream of a bunch of things going wrong in your life, take action and eliminate it. Changing how I trained led to the development of the Primal Blueprint and the resolution of most of my health problems.
Meditation always intrigued me. Even before it became an Internet sensation and every podcaster/blogger/CEO/coach out there credited their success to their morning meditation routine, I was surrounded by meditators. My wife, Carrie, has done it for decades. Lots of my athlete friends used it to—you guessed it—fight stress. And Malibu, CA, where I lived until a few months ago, is no stranger to yoga studios, health food stores, and other similar hives of mindfulness. I tried it. But it didn’t work for me. My mind was too active to become aware of its (lack of) self. Still, the science was convincing and I didn’t want to give up on what looked to be a potent anti-stress tool:
- Lengthening of telomeres.
- Upregulation of genes responsible for energy metabolism, longevity, mitochondrial function, inflammation, and insulin secretion.
- Blood pressure normalization.
- Stress reduction.
- Greater resistance to stress.
- Improved cognitive function by reshaping the actual brain.
- Promoting neuroplasticity.
- Anxiety reduction.
- Immune system improvements.
If sitting meditation didn’t work, maybe there was another way to get to a similar mindstate.
In a post I wrote about meditation alternatives, I gave 15 options and readers followed up with dozens of awesome suggestions in the comments. Standup paddling, hikes (or just hanging out) in nature, and guided meditations were my alternatives. They help me achieve the hyper-present flow state I’d only had glimpses of during “real” meditation. And sure enough, stress melts away as I’m doing the activity, I’m far less reactive to stressors (I have an extra split second or two to decide how I want to respond) throughout the week, and I appear to have greater resistance to stress. It’s almost an adaptogenic effect: rather than blunt or eliminate the stress response across the board, I’m able to call forth cortisol when the situation is serious. A car honking at me doesn’t trigger it, in other words.
Where am I today?
Stress is still there. It won’t ever go away, and I’m okay with that. I’ve got a growing food and supplement business, I’m as busy as ever with the writing, I just moved to Miami.
Meditation has gotten easier, but I’m still not a “meditation guy.” I don’t expect to be doing a 10-day silent retreat anytime soon.
Adaptogenic Calm remains a staple for me. The nutrients it contains are supraphysiological responses to the supraphysiological doses and durations of stress we receive in the modern world.
I welcome stress. If I align myself with the things I truly find meaningful and maintain active participation in life and avoid becoming a passive character in someone else’s storyline, the stressors become obstacles that make the narrative of my life more interesting. They propel me forward. Without stressors, I’m not living. I’m not doing anything. Stressors indicate action. They mean you’re bouncing up against reality and testing its mettle (and it, yours).
What’s your stress response journey? I’d love to hear how you’ve handled stress in the past, what you’ve learned along the way, and how you handle it now. Thanks, everybody.
I’ve got a contest coming up later this morning, so be sure to check back.
The post How My Response to Stress Has Changed Through the Years appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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I can’t complain about my existence in modern culture. My life is great. I have a loving family. My kids are happy and successful. My wife is a friend and lover and confidante and partner. Business is good and interesting. I care about what I’m doing. Every day is meaningful—and unburdened by concerns around mental well-being. Depression isn’t an issue for me.
But it’s not the case for everyone. The numbers don’t lie. Depression rates are climbing. Antidepressants are among the most common drug prescriptions, even among children. And because it can be embarrassing to admit you’re depressed—like there’s “something wrong” with you if you say as much—many people with depression never seek help, so the real numbers could be even higher. Depression isn’t new of course. The ancients knew it as “melancholia,” or possession by malevolent spirits. But all evidence suggests that depression is more prevalent than ever before.
What’s going on?
First of all, the way we speak about depression makes getting to the root of the issue harder.
“It’s all brain chemicals.”
“You have a neurotransmitter imbalance. There’s nothing you can do but take this pill.”
“You were born with it.”
This is an admirable attempt to de-stigmatize depression, turning it into a medical condition that “just happens” and “isn’t your fault.” Some people get brain tumors, some have type 1 diabetes, some have depression. There’s no shame in getting treatment for legitimate medical condition. This is an important development, but there’s a cost: It removes agency. If depression is just something you get or have from the outset, many (certainly not all) people believe there’s no reason to investigate the root cause or pursue alternative solutions.
While there’s definitely a genetic component to depression, and neurotransmitters play key roles, most depression requires some precipitating series of environmental inputs. The vast majority of babies with “depressive genes” don’t come out of the womb listless and morose with “bad brain chemicals.” They may be more or less susceptible to the environmental factors that can trigger depression later in life, but they still require those factors.
What’s happening? Clearly, something novel is afoot. Although we don’t have data on the mental health of paleolithic hunter-gatherers, extant hunter-gatherers exhibit an almost complete lack of depression.
What might help fill in one neglected dimension is to examine what’s unique about modern society.
It Is Atomized
People exist in their own bubbles. We sit in cars, in cubicles, in houses, in separate rooms. Even friends out to lunch are often seen gazing into their smartphones, half-ignorant of the normal waking reality occurring around them. Families gather in the living room not to play board games and chat about the day, but to access their personal portals into cyberspace. Together but apart. It may feel like we’re connecting, but we’re really just lonely. Like something out of a post-Sergeant Peppers Beatles dystopian concept album, the UK even just established a Ministry of Loneliness.
Loneliness has stronger associations with depression than any other social isolation indicator.
Lack Of Tribe
Robin Dunbar came up with Dunbar’s Number after studying disparate tribes and communities across the world: The maximum number of fulfilling, meaningful social relationships a person can reasonably maintain is about 150. We’re geared to desire social acceptance from our tribe, because social acceptance in a tribe of 150 people is both feasible and desirable. It increases survival. If “desire for social acceptance” is mediated by genes to at least some extent, it undergone positive selection; it was helpful and beneficial and supported species survival. Consider what the tribe originally meant: these are the people you grew up with, the people who will have your back. It’s important that your tribe accept you, and that you accept them. Things work better that way.
Today, our tribes are enormous and unwieldy. There’s the city. The state. The nation. The globe. Twitter. Our social media feeds. We can’t know everyone in our city, state, or Twitter feed, yet we get feedback from them. We see the best parts of their lives—what they show to the world—and compare them to the lowest parts of ours—what we hide from world but cannot escape internally. And then ironically, many of us feel estranged from or ignore the people who could actually comprise our true tribes—family, friends, loved ones, neighbors—even when they’re in the same room in favor of the larger, faker tribe. Yet the desire for social acceptance from this sprawling “tribe” persists. And it’s impossible to achieve for most people. Letting your tribe down hurts. We have tribes. They’re just not real or realistic.
It’s Devoid Of Higher Meaning
The roles of religion and other binding schools of philosophy and morality in society are waning. Most people can’t lean on the church or patriotism to find meaning or direction anymore. They must create their own, or discover it. That isn’t easy. It’s far simpler to ignore the void within, flip through your Netflix feed, and obsess about the latest superhero movie than it is to find your purpose.
Having a sense of life meaning is inversely associated with depression.
Life Is Easier
Most people (most reading this, anyway) aren’t walking three miles each way just for moderately fresh water that they still have to dose with iodine tabs or risk parasitic infection, slaving away their entire lives just to produce enough calories for their feudal lord and family, building their own homes out whatever they can manage and fixing whatever breaks (or not). They just turn the tap, order food from Thrive Market, call the plumber.
Work Is Increasingly “Information Work”
Rather than manipulate material objects in the world, we’re manipulating data, filling spreadsheets, fiddling with abstract numbers. Information work is no less real, but it doesn’t feel like that to our psyches.
Life Isn’t As Tragic
There are fewer “classic tragedies.” Fewer people lose loved ones to warfare, babies to disease. While we still have plenty of wars going on, they aren’t logging death counts like the World Wars or Genghis Khan’s conquests. Major civilian centers aren’t being leveled regularly by bombing raids. This is a positive development, but there’s a catch: Research shows that real life disasters strengthen bonds between friends, the neighbors, and the community. If we aren’t facing difficulties, we may not be living to our fullest potential.
Powerful Technology Is Widely Available Almost Everywhere
You can follow Maasai herders on Twitter. You can engage in live video chat with anyone in the world. No need to visit Grandma in Del Boca Vista; you can Facetime her!
Material Problems Are Disappearing
Most people get enough to eat, can get from here to there, can access the Internet, and get medical care if required. You have to try really hard in a modern Western society to die in the street. Even worldwide, poverty is falling. In 1981, nearly half the world’s population was “extremely poor.” As of 2016, it was under 10%. All that’s left are psychological problems.
Why am I here?
What’s the purpose of life?
Why should I continue working this job I don’t really like just to support the same boring routine?
This kind of rumination is a major factor in depression.
In Tribe, Sebastian Junger shows how veterans returning from war—on paper, a hellish experience no one would ever miss—feel suddenly lonely, lost, and often depressed back home. War compresses human experience and intensifies human bonding like nothing else. When these men and women leave war, they’re leaving the strongest, most cohesive tribe they’ve ever known. They’re leaving people who’d die for them and for whom they’d die. What, are they supposed to stand in line at Starbucks, staring at their phones like everyone else and think everything is just fine?
Why are potential root societal causes ignored?
For one, they’re huge problems. A pill is way easier than restructuring the fabric of modern society. If you did that, you’d have to get it right the first time. You can’t exactly run an RCT on social upheaval.
Two, we assume a shared environment. Most of the people you see walking around eat the same basic diet, do the same basic exercises (or don’t), and deal with the same societal pressures and conditions. If you look at things wrong, it seems immutable and unavoidable. Even if they’re aware on some level that modern living is involved in the etiology of depression, most clinicians are assuming, based on prior experience with patients and their own misconceptions about what’s possible and what’s not, that we just have to accept it and apply the best band-aids we have. But if you’ve approached diet and exercise from an evolutionary angle and had incredible results where nothing else had ever worked—you know that common is not normal. You know that the environmental inputs shared by so many in the industrialized world might be persistent and tempting and hard to avoid, but they are avoidable. You can change your surroundings, your inputs, even your mindset.
Three, it isn’t clear what the solutions even are. The world is better today in many ways. Just because many veterans find their tribe in war and suffer upon returning, it doesn’t follow that we should go to war more often for our mental health.
We can’t rely on technocratic overlords to engineer the perfect utopia. Those always end in dystopias—more Brave New World than 1984. No, any change has to start within each individual, at dinner tables, in friend circles, in one person—you—deciding to do things differently.
I won’t get much into diet or exercise or sunlight or sleep today. Those are major parts of the equation, but I prefer to focus on how the structure of our society impacts depression and how we can transcend it.
These are some ideas. They’re not perfect. They’re not the whole story. And they’re not meant to replace medication or therapy or anything like that. But they won’t hurt….
Listen to the “first voice.” Every time you get that little voice saying “I should finally pick up that book” or “I should walk the dog” or “I wonder what my friends are up to,” DO IT. Don’t let the other voice override you and say “Nah, let’s just stay inside today.” That second voice is destroying you. Do everything you can to ignore it.
In low moments, rather than try to cheer yourself up, be of service to someone. A concerted effort to cheer oneself up often produces the opposite effect. We’re not great at doing it for ourselves, perhaps because at some level we sense it’s all a sham, a ploy to shift around neurotransmitters. But when you help someone else, you’re truly helping them. They feel good, you feel good, and everyone wins.
Chase meaning, not happiness. “Being happy” is hard work. You can’t get there by trying. Figure out what you care about at the deepest level of your being. What stirs you. What, most importantly, you can actually affect with your skillset. If you can manage to imbue every fiber of your being with that purpose, you’ll get going after it. You’ll have something to do, and maybe you’ll have less time for rumination and other things that make your depression worse.
Easier said than done, you might say. Definitely. I haven’t been there myself, but I’ve helped people close to me who have. Clinical depression isn’t just sadness. It’s profoundly demotivating, where taking even the smallest act like getting dressed can be a struggle. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in movement and achievement and motivation, tends to plummet in major depression.
Still, what else is there? You are an individual, not an atom. An atom is separate but unconscious. It has no agency. It simply is. An individual is separate from other individuals but conscious. It has agency. It can form communities, strong bonds. Revel in your personal sovereignty but don’t forget that you’re a social animal who will probably be much happier with a few good friends (who aren’t all wielding smartphones 24-7).
There are other specific things to try. Trawl the scientific literature and you’ll find hundreds of studies showing efficacy for any number of medication-free depression therapies and interventions. None of them are the final answer, though, as much as they can help. Ballroom dancing isn’t going to fix things. Gardening isn’t enough. Heavy squats won’t do it. Plunging into cold water isn’t everything.
It has to be a comprehensive shift.
The common theme running through most of these “alternative” interventions is that it places you square in the midst of cold hard reality. You’re on your knees, handling soil and planting vegetables. You’re dancing, immersed in the music and managing the dynamic interplay between you and your partner. You’re lifting something very heavy. You’re completely submerged in freezing water. These are real. They cannot be escaped or negotiated with. They aren’t running on perpetual loops inside your head. They’re actually happening.
Get as much of that in your life.
In the future, I’ll discuss this topic further. I’ll talk about dietary, exercise, lifestyle, supplement, and psychological modifications we can make.
For now, I’d love to hear from you. Those who’ve dealt with or who currently deal with depression, what’s helped? What hasn’t? What’s your take on the list of social factors that may explain the rise in depression—or the severity of symptoms as you experience them? What do you think we can do—as individuals and as a society—to make things better?
Thanks for reading. Take care.
The post The Roots of Depression: How Much Does Modern Culture Have to Do With It? appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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