By Eirik Garnas
As every gym goer can attest to, there are both “good” and “bad” days in the gym. Some days, everything feels like a chore and the weight you lifted for 2 reps the last workout will barely move an inch, while other days, everything just seems to flow effortlessly and you set new PRs across the board. These differences can largely be traced back to what you did the 23 hours you spent outside of the weight room. Although it’s clearly impossible to have awesome, PR-setting workouts every day, it is possible to bring all of your training sessions up to a higher level – and largely eliminate the really crappy workout days – by properly addressing lifestyle factors such as sleep, microbial exposure, diet, and sun exposure.
A healthy, anti-inflammatory lifestyle lays the basis for optimal performance in the gym
To understand how to optimize our diet and lifestyle, we have to look back at the long evolutionary journey that shaped the human body. Perhaps needless to say, modern environments are very different from those our primal ancestors evolved in for millions of years. There has been inadequate time and selection pressure for natural selection to sculpt the human body into one that is well-adapted for the modern, industrialized milieu. This mismatch between our ancient genetic blueprint and modern way of life is a key to understanding why so many chronic diseases and health problems are on the rise (1, 2).
Several elements of modern, Western lifestyles (e.g., chronic sleep loss, high omega-6/omega-3 ratio, inadequate microbial exposure) are novel and proinflammatory, and it’s safe to say that most people in the western world suffer from some degree of chronic low-grade inflammation, a condition characterized by elevated levels of several proinflammatory mediators in systemic circulation (3, 4). This is concerning because low-level systemic inflammation is a common denominator of most, if not all, chronic diseases of civilization (3). Also, of particular interest to those involved in strength & conditioning, chronic low-grade inflammation can wreak havoc on your hormone levels, adrenals glands, energy levels, and workout results (I’ve been there). Chances are, even if you feel “pretty good”, your health condition is still poor when compared to one of your preagricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors, and you probably have some degree of low-level inflammation going on.
Besides physical activity, I strongly believe that the quality of your diet and sleep and the health of your microbiome are the most important determinants of your health. Also, since all of these things impact your energy levels, immune function, hormone levels, and ability to recuperate after workouts, you’ll not only become a healthier you by focusing on these three aspects of your lifestyle and health, but you’ll also achieve better results with your training.
Below are 3 diet & lifestyle changes that get your health condition closer to the evolutionary norm and help improve your physical performance and workout results. Some of the strategies mentioned are probably already known to you, but hopefully you can extract something new and useful as well.
1. Set yourself up for better sleep
Everyone involved in health and fitness knows that sleep is important. But what exactly is a good night’s sleep? Is it enough to get in bed at roughly the same time every day and focusing on the number of hours you spend sleeping? Not really. To manufacture a truly good night’s sleep, a more holistic approach is needed.
The use of blue-light emitting devices at night, consumption of various stimulants, chronic stress, lack of sun exposure, artificial lighting, and poor diet choices are just some of the many elements in the modern 21st century lifestyle that wreak havoc on our internal biological clock and sleep.
63% of Americans report that their sleep needs are not being met during the week, which is not surprising as recent research shows that a typical American sleeps for only 6.1 hours each night, 1 hour less than the national average in 1970, and between 2 and 3 hours less than ~100 years ago (1). Similar trends are seen in other parts of the world where artificial lighting and electronic devices have become a natural part of daily life, and it’s no doubt that insufficient and disordered sleep are among the biggest health problems in contemporary societies.
This is in stark contract to the how things were like in the preindustrial days – and even more so the Paleolithic period (2.6 million years ago – 10.000 years ago), where sleep happened in concordance with the natural fluctuations in light and dark, a campfire was the only source of light after sundown, and buzzing mobile phones and tablets were nowhere to be found.
Getting a good night’s sleep is particularly important for those who are training hard, because when we sleep, several systems in our body are in a heightened anabolic state, a state that facilitates the repair and growth of the nervous, immune, and skeletal systems. Insufficient sleep leads to increased production of cortisol and has been linked with a myriad of adverse physiologic effects, such as impairment of glucose control, increased inflammation, and fat gain (partly by causing leptin levels to fall) (5, 6). In other words, as every strength trainee can attest to, training goes so much better when you’ve slept well.
While completely disconnecting from the interwebs when the sun goes down and avoiding all of the previously mentioned modern sleep-disruptors is not a viable option for most people, making some small adjustments can really go a long way towards optimizing sleep. Personally, I’ve never had an actual sleep disorder, and for most of my life I was under the belief that the quality of my sleep was very good. However, when I started to dig into the research on the topic and make some adjustments to my sleeping environment and schedule, I realised that what I had considered to be a good night’s sleep was actually a pretty mediocre night’s sleep.
Some tips that can help you manufacture a good nights sleep:
- Keep to a routine.
- Sleep in a completely dark room.
- Reduce or eliminate the use of light-emitting electronics and artificial lighting after sundown, and especially the last couple of hours before bed.
- Install f.lux or another similar program on your computer. This program makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day.
- Expose yourself to a lot of bright light in the morning and during the day.
- Avoid checking your phone, e-mail, etc. right before bed.
- Take a very cold shower about 1-3 hours before going to sleep. (This is something I’ve found to be very effective).
2. Take better care of your microbiome
Microbiome is the current buzzword in the health & medical community – and for good reason. If you’ve been paying attention to the research in this area or read any of the hundreds of news stories about the critters living in and on us, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that the number of microbial cells in our body vastly outnumber our human cells (the number cited is often 90% microbe vs. 10% human), and that these microbes influence everything from our metabolism and digestion to brain function, mood, and behaviour. But why should the typical gym junkie looking to gain muscle and strength care? Well, because most of the human immune system is located in and around the gastrointestinal tract, and the gut microbiota – the collection of microorganisms found in the gut – plays a crucial role in maintaining and regulating this system (7). Gut dysbiosis and increased intestinal permeability (AKA leaky gut) set the stage for translocation of bacterial endotoxins from the gut and chronic low-grade inflammation and have been linked to a plethora of chronic health problems (7, 8).
If that’s not enough to get you excited about taking better care of the trillions of microbial travellers that inhabit your body, consider the fact that gut bacteria play a role in controlling the production of anabolic hormones that are essential for muscle growth and recovery between workouts. In a recent animal study, researchers found that “male mice routinely consuming purified lactic acid bacteria originally isolated from human milk had larger testicles and increased serum testosterone levels compared to their age-matched controls.” (9). And it wasn’t just a small difference, mice eating the probiotic bacterium Lactobacillus reuteri had significantly higher levels of circulating testosterone regardless of the type of diet they consumed. Going forward it will be very interesting to keep an eye on the human research in this area.
So, what kind of diet and lifestyle modifications should you make to improve the health of your microbiota? Will going down to the health food store to buy an expensive probiotic supplement do the trick? No, not really. Most probiotic supplements on the market today have several drawbacks that limit their usefulness. That doesn’t mean all probiotics are a waste of money, and in the future, advanced probiotic supplements and microbiome modulators will probably play an essential role in the treatment of a wide range of health conditions. However, it’s safe to say that for most people, diet and lifestyle are the key things to consider.
In my opinion, looking back at the long co-evolution of man and microbe is the key to understanding how we can improve the state of our microbiome. For most of human evolution, antibiotics, highly processed foods, infant formulas, and hand sanitizers were nowhere to be found, all births were performed the way evolution intended, high levels of fermentable fiber were consumed every day, and all activities occurred in a microbe-rich, natural environment. It was primarily under these conditions human-microbe relations were shaped, and hence, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the scientific research on the human microbiome consistently show that we can learn a lot about how to achieve a healthy microbiota by looking to our evolutionary past. While we clearly can’t go back to the preagricultural days, we can adjust our modern lifestyle so it more closely resembles that of our ancient forebears.
Pretty much everything you do has an impact on your microbiome in some way. To keep this article from getting too long, I’ll just mention four action items that are particularly important:
- Eat more fermentable fibers. Fiber intake in the modern, industrialized world is miniscule when compared to the levels that are/were consumed among hunter-gatherers and non-westernized, traditional people, something that has profound implications for human health.
- Eat traditionally fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha, and kefir. These types of foods contain a wide range of beneficial microorganisms, some of which may colonize the gut and/or contribute genetic material to bacteria living in gut biofilms through horizontal gene transfer.
- Enjoy contact with healthy people and pets. Microbes are continually shared between individuals through kissing, touching, etc.
- Eat fresh, raw, and minimally washed/cleaned vegetables and fruits from a trusted source (e.g., from the farmer’s market or backyard garden). We often hear about the dangers of food poisoning from eating raw produce, but less attention is given to the fact that ingesting food-borne microorganisms can help add biodiversity to the gut microbiota.
3. Adjust your diet so it is better matched with your ancient genetic make-up
When it comes to nutrition, a lot of lifters, bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts tend to put most of the focus on macronutrient distribution, micronutrient intake, pre- and post-workout meals, and calories consumed. For some, the whole diet thing is simply boiled down to eating according to the IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) strategy, which is fairly popular within the fitness and bodybuilding community. However, as anyone who’s read more than a couple of blog articles and abstracts on nutrition will tell you, while eating primarily “whole foods”, putting some emphasis on meal timing, and making sure you’re getting an adequate supply of protein, fat, and carbs is certainly a good starting point, only focusing on these things is way too simplistic when the goal is to eat a truly healthy diet.
To really be able to design a healthy diet we have to take into account where our food comes from, how it’s produced, how it’s digested, absorbed, and metabolised, and ultimately, how it affects our hormone levels, gut microbiota, and gene expression.
When researching the connection between nutrition and health, many would say that the first step is to go for the randomized controlled-trials, meta-analyses, and systematic reviews on the subject you’re interested in. After all, these types of studies are considered the gold standard of nutritional science. However, although RCTs and comprehensive reviews are absolutely invaluable when digging into nutrition and health topics, the problem with initiating the search for answers this way is it can often lead us astray.
One of the primary reasons there’s so much confusion and debate about nutrition is that there are a thousand different ways to look at the science/literature. Someone who’s drawn to the vegetarian movement will quickly focus on the studies that seem to support his cause, while those who favor a very low carb diet will point out the dozens of trials that seemingly support their ideas.
Even someone with no apparent preconceived notions can quickly be led astray and come to the wrong conclusions by looking at the research. Let’s take a subject like saturated fat for example. On the one side, there are plenty of seemingly good studies showing that a diet high in saturated fat can trigger translocation of bacterial endotoxins from the gut and low-grade chronic inflammation, while on the flip side there are also several reports indicating that saturated fat consumption is not linked with higher risk of atherosclerosis, heart disease, and all the other conditions butter and lard have been blamed for (10). The reason for these conflicting results often boil down to differences in study design and methods, and it can often be difficult to separate what is good and bad research. Without a guiding framework to help us make sense of things, we’re grasping in the dark.
So, what is this guide we need to make sense of nutritional science? Evolution, of course!
By looking at how we’ve eaten for millions of years, how our brains and guts have evolved, and how nutrition transitions have impacted human health, we establish the foundation we need to design a healthy diet in the 21st century. It’s not always easy to decipher our evolutionary history in such a way that we can draw concrete conclusions, but even by just getting a fraction of the answers we are looking for, we can begin to make sense of why things are like they are. With this evolutionary perspective in mind, we suddenly have a base to build our ideas upon.
Darwin didn’t focus much on nutrition and exercise, but he unknowingly gave us many of the tools we need to be healthy and fit in his book “On the Origins of Species”. By combining his ideas on evolution and natural selection with the science on epigenetics and microbiomes, it’s usually possible to predict what nutrition studies will show even before they have been done. That doesn’t mean doing and reading research is a waste of time – of course not, it just means that it’s important to remember that the evolutionary template is the foundation that supports everything else.
Over the last 10.000 years, human diets have become progressively more divergent from that of our ancient ancestors. These rapid changes started with the incorporation of grains and dairy as staple foods with the Agricultural Revolution and gained speed and power with the introduction of refined vegetable oils, fatty domesticated meats, large quantities of refined sugars, “fast food”, and certain other evolutionarily novel food items over the last couple of centuries. In comparison, the human genome has remained relatively unchanged during this time period, something that is concerning as our nutritional needs are determined by our genetic make-up (11, 12). Over millions of years of life as foragers, natural selection shaped the genome that we to a large extent still carry with us today (1, 11). Certain genetic adaptations (e.g., lactase persistence) and alterations of the gut microbiome have allowed us to tolerate various novel foods, but we’re clearly not well-adapted to the typical Western diet a lot of people consume today.
The Paleo Diet has received its fair share of criticism lately, as is to be expected for anything that goes against mainstream thinking and becomes so popular in a very short time. However, the facts remain; the typical diet of our preagricultural ancestors has all of the qualities that science tells us make you fit and healthy. It’s very nutrient-dense, low in antinutrients, high in protein and fiber, and devoid of trans fatty acids and refined sugars (11, 13). Also, all of the foods allowed on a hunter-gatherer type diet have a low-moderate reward value, maximum carbohydrate concentration of approximately 23%, low-moderate energy density (honey and very fatty cuts of meat being the exception), and high satiety index (they fill you up) (14, 15).
So, what does this mean? Should you eat a strict Paleo diet? That’s certainly an option – and no doubt a great one if you get it work for you. However, many see the Paleo Diet as unrealistic and unnecessarily restrictive and find that the dietary pattern of our preagricultural ancestors serves best as a starting point for designing a healthy diet in the 21st century, not a strict set of rules.
If you’re someone who’s skeptical about ancestral diets and/or like your morning cereal too much to even consider changing it for scrambled eggs and vegetables, you’ve probably already stopped reading or started peppering the comment section with your opposing views. However, if you do see the value – which is to me obvious – of looking to traditional societies and our hunter-gatherer past (which comprises 99,5% of the evolutionary history of our genus, Homo) for tips on how to eat, here are a couple of action items for you:
- Reduce or eliminate your consumption of the most obvious offenders (e.g., foods high in refined sugar, refined grains, most breakfast cereals).
- Eat more fiber. Estimates suggest that fiber intake among most hunter-gatherers was >70 grams/day (16), and some have been known to consume vastly more than that.
- Eat more high-quality foods rich in protein. Protein has a potent effect on thermogenesis and satiety and “high” protein diets are particularly great for those looking to lose weight.
- Emphasise food quality. Buy organic, grass-fed, and/or wild foods when possible.
- Reduce or eliminate your intake of cereal grains. Contrary to what the conventional food pyramid suggests, whole grains aren’t the ultimate health food.
- Don’t be afraid of coconuts, grass-fed red meats, eggs, and other whole foods that are relatively high in saturated fat and/or cholesterol.
- Don’t put too much emphasis on meal timing and meal frequency. Focus on food choices, and eat when you’re hungry.
I hope this gave you some tips on how you can adjust your diet and lifestyle to achieve better results with your training. Visit my website if you want to learn more about how you can take better care of your health.
About the author
Name: Eirik Garnas
Besides studying for a degree in Public Nutrition, I’ve spent the last couple of years coaching people on their way to a healthier body and better physique. I’m a personal trainer from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, with additional courses in sales/coaching, kettlebells, body analysis, and functional rehabilitation. Subscribe to my website if you want to read more of my articles on fitness, nutrition, and health.