Getting In Touch With Our Innate Inner WisdomNov 28, 2021
WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT HEALTH FROM NATIVE AMAZON TRIBES
When I was organizing a trip through a Amazon rainforest on a boat to deliver medical care to the people there, I became acutely aware of a stark difference between our cultures: our healthcare is incredibly different. In preparing for my trip, I modeled my behavior around a physician that I looked up to as a child who used to organize trips to remote places like Africa. She would often ask our community to donate their expired mediations so that she would have something to give to the indigent when she arrived. I have always greatly admired physicians who would jet off to foreign lands and give their time and energy to those with so little. It seemed like such a romantic idea to me. I too wanted to embark on one of these adventures. I started a non-profit organization, spent a month learning from another physician who had a clinic that served the indigenous amazon indians, and set about getting a steady stream of medications from those around me in the United States to use for the sick in this area.
To my surprise, I had an outpouring of support. I gave a talk at my hometown church to ask for help. Everyone was very accommodating. I also went to the hospital that I worked with and asked the pharmacy for their expired or about to expire medications. I received some of the most expensive drugs that we have in America, in IV forms and in jars of pills. I received incredibly expensive medical supplies and kits. I was soon the proud bearer of 3 suitcases full of pill jars filled with expensive medications, IV antibiotics that would kill any superbug, and bucketloads of pills from generous people who no longer needed them. Every American that I spoke with went home and had cleared out their entire medicine cabinet in order to help those in need.
However, I soon found out that everything that I had gathered was completely useless. Americans operate in a pill-oriented society. We are prescribed a pill for everything. We live in an environment of processed food and processed drugs. I soon discovered that our medications and even our bodies are completely different than the untouched and undisturbed human culture that lies deep in the Amazon rainforest.
In some ways, the tribes that live a subsistence existence are an example of humanity the way it was meant to be. We were never designed to eat designer food, processed sugar, or have technology eliminate our every need to move. I had trained in the United States, and I knew how to fix the body of modern American. I quickly became aware that our medicines did nothing for human bodies that operated the way that we were designed to operate.
The people of the Peruvian Amazon live in small villages dotted close the Amazon River itself or its main tributaries. They do not have roads or automobiles. Their only transportation is by boat. Because of their extreme isolation, they don’t have jobs, or bosses to deal with, or even a bank to put their paychecks into. They operate mostly by subsistence. You may see someone collecting bananas up the river and riding a raft back to the village to trade for some commodity that he needs for his family. Food is obtained from the river, or from the jungle surrounding it by hunting and gathering. Some lucky few have access to rice or bread from the nearest town if they happen to have some cash, but most don’t. People live in shacks with thatched roofs that protect them from the rain, but they do not have running water, a working toilet, or a kitchen. There is no place to store food, so everything must be fresh. The women spend their days washing clothes and dishes in the river and collectively caring for all of the children. The men spend their days socializing with each other, working for the rest of the tribe, or traveling to obtain food. The children spend their day going to the schools that were set up for them by missionaries, and playing in the village, surrounded by and entire town that cares for them. The boundaries of discreet family units are blurred much more than in our culture.
I took a boat and a small crew and my load of American medications down the river to see what I could do to help people. We saw hundreds of people. I took their vital signs, listened to their complaints, and examined them closely. What I heard mostly was that people were suffering from infectious diseases like malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia. Some of the elderly had problems with arthritis. Many had suffered injuries that were years ago and had some pain as a result. They were asking me for ibuprofen or Tylenol that they could keep at home. The infectious diseases could be treated with simple antibiotics, of which I had little supply because the antibiotics the hospitals had given me would have been the equivalent of using a nuclear weapon instead of a bullet.
I took the blood pressure of probably 500 people and did not find ONE single person who had a high number. Try that out in the typical American population! I measured their blood sugar with finger stick machines but couldn’t not find anyone with a hint of diabetes. No one was overweight. No one had signs of heart disease, even the most elderly of the tribe. No one had any signs or complaints of an auto-immune condition. No one complained of depression or anxiety. Not one elderly person had symptoms of dementia. No one wanted a pill to help them sleep. No one wanted advice on how to improve their diet. I don’t think I saw anyone with symptoms of cancer. The only complaint that seemed similar to a typical American urgent care was the percentage of people with a cold virus.
I had piles of free medications for diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, sleep problems, strong pain relievers, potent antibiotics, and heart medications. Our life-saving and life-extending medications were useless and even harmful in a population of people who lived happily the way that human beings are designed to live. They don’t go to yoga classes, or know how to meditate, or shop for only organic foods, or follow the latest health craze. If you ask them about a diet they don’t even know what you are talking about. They are hungry, and they eat. They don’t know about the different types of exercise, or even what that concept refers to. If you explained to them that people in America are slaves to machines that make us walk, run, and climb stairs, they would think it was absurd (well, they probably haven’t seen stairs, or an electrical outlet for that matter). If you show the women a bra, they would look at you with confusion (I agree….its too hot to wear a bra there)
Here in America we are spending more and more money on our healthcare, yet we are getting sicker and sicker. We have new drugs coming out all of the time targeting all sorts of conditions, yet our life expectancy keeps going down. We have access to world-class medical care, yet we are more miserable and have a worse quality of life than those that cannot access a healthcare system at all. I have spent several years thinking and comparing the two cultures and I have come up with a few things that I think might be the difference between our levels of health and happiness:
- Social interaction: They say “it takes a village to raise a child.” We often take that to mean that we need help from others, but they take that to the extreme. A young mother can spend the afternoon napping in her hammock while her child is kept safe from caimans and anacondas by the other young women in the tribe. We are so incredibly isolated in our culture as parents. Having been a single mother myself, this creates enormous stress on us as well as our children. This can lead to several health conditions including depression and anxiety. We also put our elderly into nursing homes at record numbers. I can’t tell you how many elderly people that I have admitted to the hospital suffering with health problems from neglect. Depression and dementia are rampant in our elderly but barely exist in the Amazon. They also don’t expect everything from their partners like we do. You simply cannot get all of your emotional needs met by one person but our culture seems to assure us that if we just have the most elaborate wedding possible than we will live happily ever after. The indigenous culture of the Amazon teaches us that we need to value our communities, or friends, and our social groups just as much if not more than our immediate families.
- Real Food: Americans are addicted to food, literally. Food companies employ scientists and psychologists and other experts to craft artificial foods that are literally as addictive as crack. The result is that our bodies have to deal with all kinds of chemicals and sugars that we weren’t meant to process, resulting in an epidemic of diabetes and obesity. We blame our own willpower and attempt to go on strict diets and elaborate food plans to counteract the effects. We still cannot lose weight, and we end up feeling defeated and thinking that we just need to count more calories or put more steps on our pedometers. However, some humans don’t even know what a calorie is, don’t read food labels, do not read books about diets, have never seen a scale and yet manage to effortlessly control their weight. They never get diabetes either. These people don’t even have a grocery store. They eat what nature intended them to eat and don’t suffer any consequences of corporate food.
- A Connection to Nature: We live in climate-controlled houses and climate-controlled cars and garages. Some spend all day in windowless offices. We are lucky to have any exposure to nature at all. The Japanese have a practice called “forest bathing” because it has been shown to improve mental health in actual studies. The indigenous amazonians are forest bathing every minute of their lives resulting in an improved mental outlook and mood. Early morning sunlight has been shown to improve symptoms of depression, and seasonal affective disorder is a thing here but not there. Making a conscious effort to visit our national parks, beaches, and mountains, as well as increase our exposure to natural sunlight would do wonders for our health.
- A Functioning Microbiome: Most guts in the amazon have never seen an antibiotic. Our guts have probably had several courses during our lifetimes. The antibiotics given to me by the hospital were meant for our superbugs, generated by a population who is resistant to multiple antibiotics due to generations of antibiotic overuse. When we were kids, antibiotics were seen as lifesaving and necessary to anyone who had the slightest ear infection or sniffle. Now we are finding out that killing all of the bacteria in our guts can have serious consequences down the road. We have about 10 times as many bacteria in our intestine than we have cells in our body. These little creatures are part of us. They may actually BE us. They can be involved in shaping our mental health by chemicals that they produce that reach our brains. They can also affect our weight by absorbing more or less calories from our food. They may be the difference between those that are naturally thin and those that are obese despite eating next to nothing. They can also have effects on our metabolism and contribute to high blood pressure. A steady supply of sugar in the standard American diet is what feeds the bad bacteria and starves out the good. The people of the amazon have a functioning microbiome due to the right food and a scarcity of exposure to antibiotics. I believe this is why they have a lower incidence of many of the diseases that plague us.
- A Normal Circadian Rhythm and Adequate Sleep: Our society is constantly on the move. We stay up late watching television and we work strange shifts. We sleep in after a night out of drinking. When we have the afternoon slump we turn to caffeine and sugar. In the Amazon, humans stay up for awhile interacting when the sun goes down, and then quickly go to sleep. They have no idea what time it is because they don’t have a clock or a cell phone. When the sun comes up they rise with it. They don’t have computer screens that inhibit the secretion of melatonin so they fall asleep easily. In the afternoon they can all be seen in the hammocks, having a siesta. Not getting adequate sleep in our culture contributes to greater hunger, lower metabolisms, and more inflammation in our bodies. However, losing out on sleep is often worn like a badge of honor. We could all benefit from putting our priorities towards our sleep because it doesn’t make us stronger people to miss out. It makes us more unhealthy.
- Low exposure to technology: Technology has done many wonderful things for us, but being tethered to our computers for much of the day has limited our physical activity, made us more socially isolated, and gives us a constant stream of information that our brains are not equipped to handle. Deep in the amazon they do not have electricity, and they do not need to feel stress over the constant interruptions of texts and notifications. They are present in the moment and in their lives. They are free to enjoy the moment. Unplugging for specified periods of time would likely increase our sense of wellbeing, connectedness, and improve our health.
- Spirituality and purpose: Many of us feel like our greatest sense of purpose on any given day is disciplining our children, pleasing our bosses, and making a paycheck. This creates a kind of existential suffering because we aren’t living up to our true potentials. Our lives are also filled with meaningless tasks and busywork. We seem to be stuck in a never-ending stream of to-do lists and obligations that make us feel as if we are never quite catching up. As human beings, we were never meant to live this way. In the Amazon, the people all feel as if they are meaningful to the world. Each person has a role. If they did not contribute and help out, someone else would die of starvation or be eaten by a monster from the river. Their every-day life is filled with true meaning and no one has “busy-work.” Although their original religious beliefs have been largely stamped out by Christian missionaries, they still continue to hang on to many of their traditional beliefs. Shamans still exist. Most of them will see their traditional healer before they seek medical care from the doctors like me who try to press Western medicine upon them. They understand that our health is tightly connected to the wellbeing of our soul. This is something that we have lost touch with in our culture. We see pills as the cure to something that is wrong in our bodies, much like a mechanic has the cure to an ailing automobile. We have lost site of the fact that we are spiritual, living beings, connected to our ancestors as well as our universe in elaborate ways. Our health care must address our culture, our spirituality, and our interconnectedness to be effective. We must feel like we have an important place in the universe.
- Natural physical activity: We spent huge amounts on machines (aka torture devices in my opinion) that force us to exercise as well as expensive gym memberships. Exercise is something that we check off on our to-do list. It is chore. We also have developed an entire science around studying what type of exercise is best. I don’t know how many injuries I have seen from the new HIIT workouts that encourage very high-intensity moves and joint-destroying impact. However, science has shown that naturally thin people have a different way of burning calories, referred to as Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. This means your daily fidgeting, chores, cleaning, singing, ect. This type of activity is thought to be the difference between those who work so hard and still can’t get the weight off, and those that don’t do anything and naturally keep it off. NEAT actually burns more calories than a session of high-intensity, focused, sweating (up to 500 during the day). The people of the Amazon have zero idea what you are talking about when you try to speak to them about exercise. They are active all day (except for their afternoon naps). They gather food, wash clothes, care for each other, build their shelters, and even play sports or games with each other. They do not have a prescribed exercise plan and they don’t need one. We should build more ways to play and be naturally active. Our body and minds (and especially our knees) will thank us.
- A simplified existence: Our modern lives have many conveniences, but they are more complicated than ever. Utilizing technology means that our brains have to process more and more information in a shorter amount of time. You could spend all day on the computer and be as exhausted at the end of the day as if you went on a 10 mile hike. We also accumulate all of these shiny new toys and homes and cars that all need care, attention, and maintenance. We try to keep up with the latest gadgets and newest apps. All of this leaves us feeling depleted. In the Amazon, no one tries to obtain or learn anything other than how to survive on a daily basis. In a way, this takes off a lot of the pressure of living life. Simply enjoying the moment that we are in would allow us to feel more happiness.
- No chemical exposures: Lastly, they don’t have plastic bottles that exude BPA into their system, or homes and offices that are full of chemicals. Their bodies have never seen a GMO or a pesticide. They aren’t exposed to air pollution, and are surrounded by plenty of trees to replenish the air with oxygen. Their children are all breast-fed (not that you should feel bad if you need to give your baby formula-I did), and their food does not contain huge lists of ingredients that no one understands. We could all benefit from being a little more diligent with the environment and what we put into our bodies.
While it is not possible for most people to move to an untouched land and live like our ancestors, we can learn many things from them and apply them to our own health. We are always looking for the newest diet, the newest wellness craze, and the best self-help book. Despite all of the money we spend and all the money that we have, we keep getting more and more depressed, overweight, and unhealthy. Perhaps the solution is not to look for the newest craze, but to tap into the knowledge that we already have as human beings. We know already that we need healthy food, good communities, a spiritual connection, and a link to other humans. Finding that in our modern world is a challenge. By looking to our basic humans needs, rather to the latest health gurus, we can find ancient wisdom and healing.
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