Neuroscientist Paul Taylor is concerned about how comfortable our lives are. With almost everything at our fingertips, he says life has never been easier. And yet the author of Death by Comfort says adults nowadays are “the most overweight, depressed, medicated and addicted” group that ever lived. “Clearly, something is wrong with modern life,” the host of the MindBodyBrain Project podcast concludes.
The problem, Taylor says, is that the human genome hasn’t changed in 45,000 years. “And it’s a genome that requires us to move lots, eat real food, experience occasional discomfort followed by recovery, and to be highly socially connected.”
Instead, he says, we’re far more likely to be sedentary, eat processed food, forgo sleep and avoid psychological discomfort, creating a mismatch between our hunter-gatherer genome and our lifestyle.
If we want to thrive, Taylor says we need to shake things up and embrace discomfort, starting with our approach to movement. Not only does exercise release endorphins (feel-good hormones), it also boosts serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine, which are important for mood, sleep, attention, goal-directed behaviour and motivation. “When you’re not physically active, you deprive your brain of these neurotransmitters, which it needs to function normally,” Taylor says.
So how much should we move? Taylor cites Harvard researchers who studied the Hadza in Tanzania, one of the last true hunter-gatherer tribes on earth. They found that Hadza people do about 14 times as much moderate to vigorous physical activity each day as the average American (and Taylor says the figure for the average Australian would be about the same as in the US).
While being more active is key to a healthier life, so too is paying attention to your diet. Taylor advises mainly eating food that has been minimally interfered with by humans, such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, fish and meat.
“If you think of your greatest achievement, or things you’re proud of, most of them involve stress and being out of your comfort zone.”
Staying socially connected is also important. “The human brain is fundamentally a social organ,” Taylor says. He adds that the link between a host of different psychiatric and neurological disorders is loneliness, something digital interactions don’t counter. Instead, we need to emerge from behind our screens and interact with people in real life. Face-to-face interactions lead to the release of oxytocin and vasopressin, hormones that Taylor says relate to “love, trust and social bonding” and which are also “potent anti-stress chemicals”.
Sleep deprivation is also harmful, Taylor says, because it “destroys your metabolism and mental health”. Practising good-sleep hygiene can improve your shut-eye, allowing for the “proper recovery” that sleep provides.
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