The Way of The Hunter
A story of feast and famine
Seasonal pressure and epigenetics
Prolonged fasting and longevity
His heart began to race as he crested the pass... partially from the exertion of the final push but mostly because looking across the valley to the opposing rise he can see a herd of elk 200 strong. The breathless exhilaration turns to focused resolve. His flowing hair helps him intuitively assess the wind direction assuring him that he is downwind from the unsuspecting elk. He hasn't eaten for three days, save a handful of wild strawberries but his mind is sharp and energy high. He doesn't have to speak a word to his fellow tribesmen. The young and old are there together. The younger participate but from the rear where they can observe, learn and stay out of harm’s way. Though the hunters have no specific role in the hunt they intuit the others actions and fan out into formation, something they've done hundreds of times before. They race into position with quiet steps at hurried pace. Though this is unfamiliar ground, their hightened sense of proprioception brings the undulating uneven ground to foot without requiring conscious thought and allowing them to keep sight of the objective. Though they have traveled far they are still fleet of foot and their pace is comfortable and nimble. They circle around and cordon off a small section of the herd and with coordinated effort swift as wind and soft as flowing water aim their bows, pull their arrows and fire.....and it's done. Exhaustion turns to exhilaration and relief rushes over our warrior as he knows that this kill will provide the tribe with what they need to survive, thrive and live on. His breathing returns to normal as he walks over calmly and reverently to the downed animal and with respect offers up words of thanksgiving to the gods and words of thanks to his brother the elk as he cuts into the animal, removing the liver and sharing it with his fellow hunters. He feels the nourishment enter his body and knows he will live to hunt another day. The kill is a victory and he immediately thinks of the celebration that will ensue when the hunters return with what will provide the tribe with nourishment, clothing, tools and more. No part of the elk will be wasted, it’s far too precious a resource and far to disrespectful to the grand creature that has sacrificed it’s life for theirs on this day.
Our ancient ancestors, like our warrior and his tribe, were not just visiting the natural world for a day or a week or month as a retreat. They were integrated into the environment as a natural outcropping, just like the flora and fauna all around.
They were adapted to their circumstances, resources and food supply, changing effortlessly with the seasons. They were connected to each other and connected to the land and they not only survived but they thrived! Despite the fact that food sources were seasonal, variable, sometimes scarce and required great effort and skill to acquire, they were still able to access the nutritional requirements for a healthy existence. And with that, the promise of the perpetuation of the tribe.
Millions of years of environmental pressures and natural selection honed our DNA into the form most in harmony with the environment. Though our world is far different than that one, our biology has been left relatively unchanged. It’s in that world that the governing forces of our genetic expression are allowed to reach the pinnacle of their potential.
“He hasn't eaten for three days, save a handful of wild strawberries but his mind is sharp and energy high.”
Though to modern eyes the struggles of our hunter gatherer ancestors might seem overly challenging. It would have been difficult without doubt. To most of us not having regular access to the vast array of food we “hunt and gather” at the local market would seem more of a trial to endure rather than a health promoting way of living. Yet the fact that you are here today reading this article is proof positive that our ancestors thrived, perpetuating the species and populating the world.
For more than three decades the mantra of meals has been three squares a day and never ever skip breakfast. Or maybe you have been given over to the bodybuilding community and its gospel of eating every two hours to ensure even levels of blood sugar and the calorie density to maintain muscle mass and strength. How in the world did our hunter have the strength and energy to hunt without his bag of carefully prepared meals in tupperware and energy drink in tow? Wouldn’t a repeated cycle of going without food have turned him into a 98 pound weakling, prone to illness and lacking the energy to think or walk much less chase after his next meal for days?
Our ancestors ate what was available, fruits, nuts and vegetables in the spring and summer, roots and tubers in the fall, animals throughout the year, when successfully hunted. It was a seasonal, variable cycle of scarcity and plenty and yes, periods of time with little or no food whatsoever. And they thrived...without medicine or all the other elements of modern existence that we cling to as necessity.
What we now know, through continued emerging research into fasting and other feeding principles, is why that was the case. Intermittent fasting, eating in a compressed window and prolonged fasting are becoming hot topics, not only in ancestral communities but has begun spilling over into some mainstream outlets and for good reason. Fasting, including prolonged fasting, promotes health, wellness and longevity.
Hardwired to Thrive
Perhaps the most revolutionary concept in the study of human physiology since the discovery of DNA itself is the concept of epigenetics. There may be as many as 37 trillion cells in the human body and each posses the intelligence to recreate the whole being, knows intuitively the role it plays and have the ability to express that role in different ways based on the “if then” questions presented by the environment. That in a nutshell is epigenetics.
Like the changing of seasons and cycle of the sun, your body was made for variability and perfectly structured to deal with and even thrive under duress. Prolonged fasting, defined here as going without food for up to five days, mimics an ancestral stressor. Food sources were not always readily available and therefore there would have been times of plenty and times of scarcity. The absolutely remarkable thing is that we can now show through research that these circumstances actually made the individual stronger, more robust, and better able to focus on the task of finding, foraging and hunting for his or her next meal. It is as though each cell has the intelligence to know that it is potentially in jeopardy and is capable of changing course to insure the survival of the whole and then leaves the individual better for the experience.
The first and most important issue for survivability is access to fuel for energy. It is essential to life. Your body can only burn, carbohydrates, amino acids and fat in its metabolic fires. With no fuel coming into the system the body has to work off of reserves. Glucose, derived from carbohydrate is your body’s “go to” for energy in most situations and your brain actually requires a certain amount of glucose for normal function.
Strangely enough you have very little storage capacity for glucose, stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. In the absence of dietary carbohydrates, such as in a low or no carb diet, the body will first deplete its glycogen stores. When the blood glucose bottoms out the liver will begin to convert dietary lipids and amino acids into glucose through an elegant process called gluconeogenesis. The remaining fuel requirements can be fulfilled by converting dietary fat into ketones through a process call ketogenesis.
So what happens when there’s dietary nothing, zip, zilch, nada? Well instead of reaching for your bag of tupperware your body can and does access the sacks of stored fat in, throughout and surrounding your body. You carry your own reserve fuel. The laws of variability allowed for a time of plenty in which your calorie intake exceeded your calorie expenditure and the excess was stored for use at a later date as fat. Your body can access those stores and begin converting the lipids into ketones to be burned as fuel at a much higher rate.
Your brain for instance is said to require about 120 grams of glucose per day to function. However, with adequate ketones available for utilization that number may drop to around 30. The process of gluconeogenesis is more than adequate to provide that amount of glucose per day.
The liver is not the only site for ketone production. The astrocyte cells of the brain are capable of producing ketones for utilization by neural tissues. Under certain conditions the brain can also utilize lactate as fuel. Lactate, seldom talked about in a positive lite is that nasty byproduct of anaerobic respiration and the cause of sore muscles after exercise. In the interest of maximum utilization of the available resources it can also be produced and used by the brain as fuel for function. Your brain actually “likes” both lactate and ketones and runs faster and more efficiently on them. It’s not a far stretch of the imagination to understand that an individual put into a situation where food sources were not available for a prolonged period of time and did not have these mechanisms at their disposal would not survive. A fairly quick decline into death would ensue.
The brain adapted to improve cognition in its time of greatest need, when survival was dependent on decision making, memory, strategy, innovation and movement. Ketones burn clean and hot like the brain running on jet fuel. The beneficial effects are both short and long term. Prolonged fasting and the resulting Ketosis have been shown to improve brain function in a number of intriguing ways. In a ketogenic state the body begins building additional machinery necessary to process the ketones in the most efficient and productive manner possible. The body begins increasing the number of mitochondria and improving the efficiency of the existing ones. This is not exclusive to the brain but certainly has profound effects on the speed and efficiency of neural activity. Fasting and ketosis have also been shown to increase the secretion of the hormone BDNF, Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor which preserves neurons and encourages the proliferation of new ones. (Incidentally BDNF is also increased during times of increased, undulating and random motion, such as one might experience in our hunter’s quest.)
The burning of ketones, a cleaner burning fuel, lends itself to the dramatic reduction in oxidative stress, reducing inflammation. These forces combine to encourage survivability in the moment but has the long term effect of increasing and maintaining cognitive ability, a trait that will come in handy in the future.
Actually every individual cell in you body joins in the fight for survival working independently to press forward in last ditch efforts to live on. Though the cells are a part of the whole and work together communicating through environmentally mediated chemical messengers, they have the intelligence to act on their own behalf.
There is a remarkable intracellular process borrowed from single celled eukaryotes in what was likely a rudimentary immune system. Inside your cells are tubules called autophagocytes that engulf foreign invaders or dysfunctional material within the cell itself. Then sealing itself off it transports the material to the enzymatic garbage disposal called the lysosome where it can be degraded into its constituents. Cellular components damaged by the oxidative stress of cellular metabolism are recycled and then utilized for energy by the cell in a process called autophagy. Yes, your cells eat themselves.
There is a baseline of this activity that occurs around the clock but in times of starvation the production and activity of autophagocytes dramatically increases. When fuel is in short supply the cell in a “clean out the fridge and eat all the leftovers” strategy preserves itself. The cell lives on and in a remarkable twist of fate ends up healthier, leaner, cleaner and more efficient than it was before. The temporary stress of impending starvation actually serves to increase the potential for longevity. Famine was needed to clean up after the feast.
Despite time, intelligence and innovation we struggle, as a whole, to achieve health, wellbeing and happiness. The challenge for us, then is to rediscover what is born in us natural and wild. We no longer have to hunt or gather and we are no longer bound to the whims of the seasons. We seldom, if ever, are forced to go without food for any length of time. We can, however still reap the benefits of our DNA by inducing the epigenetic benefits of prolonged fasting.
How and for how long is an individual decision based on your experience, the status of your general health and desire. If you suffer from a specific metabolic disorder or any other type of chronic issue I’d first suggest consulting your doctor to discuss any potential concerns. If you have access to a functional medicine practitioner that is a great place to begin. It is always helpful to surround yourself with a like minded tribe of individuals with varying degrees of experience to draw on for instruction and perhaps most of all, encouragement. If you have never fasted before, start slow, perhaps with even just a half day or a day and then progress from there.
Most of all make it ancestral! Try to connect yourself with a straight line to your distant ancestors in a sense of spiritual and familial camaraderie. The founder of Ancestral Supplements, Brian, recently completed a five day fast consisting of nothing but water and what he described as a “few licks of salt”. The goal is to mimic the ancestral behavior as closely as possible and not to perform a disjointed set of cold pale instructions. He began with an intense workout to deplete all glycogen stores, thus hastening the onset of ketosis. But I imagine the hunter making last preparations in camp, completing last bits of work to provide for the tribe remaining there. The following days activity consisted of walking only, taking a break from heavy lifting which might embody the long journey to the hunting grounds. On the last day of the fast he ended with an intense workout attempting the best way to mimic the adrenalin rush of the hunt. The fast was then broken with feasting on grass fed bovine liver.
“He feels the nourishment enter his body and knows he will live to hunt another day. “
Success, survival, thriving, victory!
My journey to the hunting grounds begins on Monday…when will yours?
Dr. Corey Thompson