In 1975, a few years before I was born, my parents bought a very small, century-old log cabin in the rural township of Merrickville in eastern Ontario, Canada. It actually wasn’t much of a log cabin. The roof had caved in, and a porcupine was living inside. Still, the land was scenic, mostly wooded, with a few fields that had been cleared by hand about one hundred years earlier. My parents politely asked the porcupine to leave, and for that first summer they lived in the old barn until they could make the cabin habitable again. Then they moved in and made it their home.
As pragmatic, countercultural young adults in the early 1970s, their idea was to live simply, away from the rat race of hectic, urban civilization, and that’s exactly what they proceeded to do, continuing this lifestyle even after my sister and I came along. When I say that we lived away from civilization, I’m not exaggerating. The cabin was located on one hundred acres at the very end of a dead-end dirt road, many miles from the nearest store or town. Even after it was renovated, it had no electricity or running water. Today, people grumble if they’re without the internet for an hour, but we had to pump our water by hand. Showers? Forget about it—we took baths every so often in a tin washtub.
We heated the house with firewood cut from the property, and our single modern luxury was a propane-powered lantern. Oh, and we had an outhouse—not terribly appealing during those frigid Ontario winters. We grew much of our food in a vegetable garden, eating a vegetarian diet and preserving a lot of the food we grew for later months. We had chickens for eggs and goats for milk. A couple of days a week, my mom drove to a town nearby to work at a part-time job. My dad stayed home full time to tend to the house, take care of us kids, keep the garden going, cut wood, and perform other essential tasks. My sister and I spent most of our days outside, exploring the woods, playing with our dog and cat, reading, and daydreaming.
Throughout each day, we lived in sync with the natural rhythms all around us. Because our only light came from oil lamps, the woodstove, and our single, luxurious propane lantern, we organized our schedule according to the sun’s movement. When the sun rose, we got up. When it set, we wound down and headed to bed. During the winter, this meant that we slept a great deal, since there wasn’t much we could do in the dim light of an oil lamp. In general, our life became much quieter and more intimate during the winter months. In the cold, dark winter we appreciated the warmth of the fire, and the close connections with each other. The summer was totally different: it was light outside until nine or ten o’clock, so we were much more energetic and physically active, and we slept less.
I had no inkling of it as a child, but in living according to nature’s rhythms, we were living the way human beings have been doing for most of our history. For most of human history, our ancestors existed as hunters and gatherers, roaming in small bands and living in close contact with their natural surroundings.1 They were not “living off the land,” but rather were partof the land. Only about ten thousand to twelve thousand years ago did our Homo sapiens ancestors gradually transition to agricultural societies, with permanent settlements, commerce, and “civilization” arising shortly afterward.2 The developments in manufacturing and mechanization following the Industrial Revolution (ca. 1740–1840) only took us farther from the earth’s natural rhythms. For the last several hundred years, human beings have gravitated to urban centers, as our eating and lifestyle habits have largely been determined by factory timetables and economic efficiency considerations instead of what is optimal for human wellness.3 Like my own family, a band of ancient hunter-gatherers woke with the rising sun, were active and apart during the day, and reconnected in the evening before going to sleep after it got dark. Over the course of the year, they stayed in tune with seasonal variations. Rather, they lived in tune with those variations. There was no other option.
But it wasn’t just food and sleep behaviors that followed natural patterns. It was everything. In their diet, their physical movements, and their social interactions, too, our ancestors (and modern-day primitive tribes) stayed in tune with the rhythms of nature—eating different foods in different seasons (and in different places), moving their bodies in different ways at different times based on the demands of their environment, and exploring their world freely at times and staying closer to the safety and familiarity of the tribe at other times. The whole arc of their lives followed a pattern that mirrored the seasons of a year: they were born; they budded into adolescence and bloomed into adulthood; they contributed to the tribe through physical labor and sharing wisdom; they shared their lifetime of accumulated wisdom with the rest of the tribe, planting seeds for a better next generation; and eventually they died, often at a very advanced age. Of course, many of our ancestors died prematurely due to infant mortality, accidents, infection, or acts of violence—I’m not trying to paint a romanticized picture. But in general, their lives were rhythmic and circular, even leisurely, not because they wished them so, but because that’s the way it was for people so immediately dependent on and immersed in nature. Research shows us that contemporary hunter-gatherers actually have considerably more leisure time than we do in our modern, convenience-laden, productivity-oriented society.4
My family, of course, didn’t have to live so close to nature. And in 1983, when I turned five, we pretty much stopped doing it. We closed up our cabin, sold our land, and moved closer to a small town called Brockville. Although we still lived in a rural setting (on an apple orchard outside of town), we adopted a more conventional way of life. Our new house had electricity and running water, and I attended a small school with other kids from town. By and large, I left behind my intimate connection with nature and those seasonal rhythms. I finished elementary and high school, attended university in the United States, earned a degree in anatomy and physiology and a graduate degree in physical therapy, and lived in a number of places in the country. I was always attentive to healthy living—I ate well (conventionally speaking), played competitive volleyball, climbed mountains, and rode mountain bikes. But I didn’t think much about natural living per se, and my own personal habits were as artificial and disconnected from natural rhythms as most people’s.
That began to change in 2007, when my father passed away prematurely of pancreatic cancer. Deeply impacted by his death, I began to look at my life in new ways, and to question many of my lifestyle choices. I was a healthy twentysomething, working in a profession that I enjoyed. I was lean and fit, eating in ways that most people would consider healthy, and blessed with a strong network of friends. Anybody who met me would have considered me the very picture of health. But the reality was more complicated. Deep down, I sensed that not all was right. I was working too hard and obviously not getting enough sleep. I had some adult acne, and chronic inflammation in my left shoulder. I felt stressed and overstimulated, and while I thought I was more or less “happy,” I also felt adrift, lacking a deeper sense of peace and rootedness. I had lots of friends, but still felt pretty isolated. What was I really doing with my life?
Always intellectually curious, I read a number of books and research papers that cued me in to our evolutionary past and its enormous relevance for our present-day health. I became especially fascinated with the idea of physiological rhythms and began chasing down anything I could find in the scientific literature on that topic. There was quite a lot of research out there—hundreds of published papers that I eventually read and analyzed. What I discovered fascinated me.
Biologically, we’re walking around in bodies that are well adapted to gathering seasonal plants and hunting ancient animals, sleeping deeply during the hours of darkness, and living and working together as a tight-knit tribe—bodies, in other words, that operate on nature’s clock and expect cyclical variations in our key lifestyle behaviors. All of our physiological systems and even individual cells have internal mechanisms that align us with nature’s oscillations between on and off, active and resting, open and closed, expansion and contraction. More tangibly, rhythmic patterns are encoded on the molecular level in the DNA of (almost) all living things, even single-cell organisms that lack a nervous system and the ability to communicate in complex ways.5 Rhythms are perceptible everywhere. We are not on/off creatures. We fluctuate and flow. We expand and contract.
As I came to realize, our bodies are at odds with everyday conditions and schedules in the modern world, which tend to be linear and binary rather than cyclical and gradual. Today, alarm clocks and artificial lights give us control over how we structure our days, so we can stay up far into the night and wake up long before (or long after) sunrise. Modern agriculture and global commerce allow us to eat whatever we want, no matter the time of year. Whereas our ancestors had to walk, run, climb, and carry things during the daylight hours in order to survive, we can live sedentary lives and still put food on the table and a roof over our heads. Nor are we dependent, as our ancestors were, on a close-knit tribe in order to thrive. Many of us live atomized lives, separated from our families and friends by large distances. Our days rarely echo the ancient patterns of so- cial interaction—broad contact with others during the daytime, retreating into a smaller, more intimate circle at night. Instead, some of us feel socially isolated for much of the day and night. We keep ourselves so busy during our waking hours and distracted just before and after sleep that we don’t allow ourselves the kinds of opportunities our ancestors did to reconnect with the person who matters most—ourselves. The nonstop external stimulation displaces the quietude and openness necessary for us to know and deeply care for our own inner worlds.
The science I was reading during those early years suggested that modernity’s deviation from natural rhythms had exacted a huge, and largely unremarked upon, toll on human health. Since we don’t eat seasonally and locally, and we rely on shelf-stable processed foods, we don’t get the nutrition we need—a variable mix of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and micronutrients. We often wind up eating too little complete protein and too much refined carbohydrate and sugar. Over time, this unbalanced, nutrient-poor diet causes our stress-induced cravings for sugar and carbohydrates to intensify. We never feel that we have eaten enough, and no matter how much we eat, we still want more. We wind up sick with chronic illnesses like cancer, heart disease, and obesity.
The shift from traditional, whole-food diets to modern, processed foods is a central cause of these “diseases of civilization.” But it’s not the only cause. We also don’t get the sleep we need throughout the year, leaving ourselves vulnerable to addiction to caffeine or alcohol, which we consume in order to compensate—to wake us up or calm us down. Inadequate sleep also leaves us more vulnerable to insomnia, mental illness like anxiety and depression, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. And it’s not just the sleep itself. As I explain in the following pages, it’s also the amount of time we spend in darkness or near-darkness that directly impacts our health.
We also don’t move our bodies in tune with the rhythms of nature as they’re evolved to do, so we either stay sedentary and develop related chronic diseases, or we cajole ourselves into exercising in highly contrived ways, leaving us vulnerable to injuries or other stress-related problems. While the modern features of low-nutrient processed food, sedentary and overstimulating lifestyles, and chronically disrupted circadian rhythms are most certainly problematic, there is yet another direct influence on our overall health and quality of life that is emerging as massively impactful: loneliness and social isolation. We feel disconnected from others, so we turn to social media as a panacea for loneliness and as a facsimile for deep companionship—which makes us feel even more disconnected. We fall prey to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and worse. We lose touch with our four primary lifestyle variables—sleep, eat, move, and connect—that are essential to living well. In contrast to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who slept, ate, moved, and connected according to annual seasonal changes, today we sleep poorly and erratically, move infrequently or excessively, eat processed, nutrient-poor, and inflammatory foods, and connect artificially while remaining essentially isolated. This creates a closed loop, a self- perpetuating cycle, because the less we exercise or the more stress we experience or the more poorly we sleep, the more we turn to “comforting” processed foods and stimulating media that in turn further disrupt our sleep or contribute to inflammatory health issues, priming us to scroll through social media late at night (instead of connecting vulnerably with an actual person), leaving us feeling less-than, left out, and often very, very alone. The brilliant Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl is often credited with saying, “When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.” 6 Is this not the everyday experience for many of us? Individually and collectively, we have not made seeking our life’s meaning a priority (in part because we’ve been conditioned by cultural norms), thus opening ourselves up to pleasure seeking and addictions of all flavors as ways of coping with feeling adrift and without direction. Additionally, our civilization is built on pervasive themes of expansion, consumption, stimulation, self-gratification, and the “pursuit of happiness,” which only serves to alienate us from that deeper sense of meaning and contribution that could act as our North Star, our guiding light.
While we may be living longer than our prehistoric ancestors, we are not living better; research suggests that we are getting sicker and living less satisfying lives. In fact, the more I read about our modern disconnection from natural rhythms, the more I found myself increasingly questioning, as Thomas Paine did back in 1795, “whether . . . civilization has most promoted or most injured the general happiness of man . . .”7
Despite our growing recognition of the problems with modernity, the solution isn’t to turn back the clock of human history, giving up our houses, electricity, cars, and smartphones, and instead choosing a primitive hunter-gatherer way of life.Why would we want to do that? Even if it were possible, which it isn’t, we would be foolish to part with some of the powerful and enriching technology humanity has developed through the agricultural, industrial, and digital revolutions. But then again, back in 2006, it also would have been foolish of me to carry on with my “modern” approach to “healthy” living. As it turns out, I didn’t. An Experiment in Living Better Many years ago, I wondered if perhaps my sense of malaise and disconnection would improve if I started to pay more attention to my body’s intrinsic rhythms. In falling into my early adult lifestyle, I had largely accepted at face value what modern society told me to do to stay healthy and happy, but it wasn’t working. Maybe I could live better by breaking with convention and taking some small steps, guided by research and my own intuition, to become more in tune with my body’s oscillating needs.
My first move was to experiment with changing how I ate. Influenced in particular by writers like Michael Pollan, I broke from our industrialized food system and began trying to eat locally, which by definition meant eating seasonally.8 I gave up eating grapes (imported from Chile) in the wintertime, and instead ate lots of leafy greens in the spring, and more hearty stews and root vegetables in the fall. More generally, eating seasonally meant that like our ancestors in temperate climates, I began eating fresher, nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich plant foods in the spring and summer, when they were readily available, more starchy vegetables and roots in the fall, and heartier protein- and fat-rich foods during the cooler fall and long winter.
I noticed something: the more I chose to eat whole, seasonal foods, the better I felt—not just physically, but emotionally and even spiritually. That in turn sparked me to wonder what more I might accomplish if I adjusted other behaviors so that they were in tune with nature’s fluctuations. Beginning around 2008, I went beyond food and came to think about an entire system of rhythmic living. I drew on the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs. Under his schema, our most basic needs were physiological in nature—the needs for food, water, sleep, and so on. Having met those requirements, people could then go on to satisfy their needs for a sense of security and for strong, intimate, nourishing relationships. Maslow conceived of higher-level needs as well, such as the need for feeling a sense of accomplishment or for feeling spiritually “actualized” as a person—but as he argued, you needed to satisfy lower-order needs before you began ascending the hierarchy.9
In conceiving a model for rhythmic living, I focused on those lower-order needs and eventually thought about and researched rhythmic patterns in four distinct areas of life: how we eat, sleep, move (exercise), and connect. I construed the last of these quite broadly, focusing not merely on how we related with others, but also how we related with ourselves and how we felt a sense of connection to a place. Going beyond the more tangible connections to self, place, and others, I also addressed the importance of a deeper sense of purpose—a sense of living well while contributing to something larger than oneself. My working theory was that if I could tune in better to my body’s natural rhythms in these areas, then I could improve my overall level of health, eventually freeing myself to satisfy higher-level intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs.
By about 2010, I had embarked on a broad and flexible experiment to rediscover and reconnect with my own body’s natural rhythms. This wasn’t a formal, rigidly structured thirty-day kind of plan, but a more fluid, ongoing set of experiments I undertook in concert with my evolving awareness of my body. In addition to continuing to eat locally, I followed my intuition and began to adjust my bedtimes and waking times so that they corresponded to seasonal patterns in the length of the day. This change alone tended to make my physical movements more rhythmic as well as more intuitively satisfying—I now moved most during the late morning and early afternoon, and significantly reduced my intense activity in the evening as the sun was beginning to set. I made my choices of activity more seasonal—weight lifting and interval training in the winter, mountain biking and hiking in the summer. When it came to structured exercise, I went for endurance training (and a lot more general activity, not just formal “exercise”) in the summer and shorter, more intense interval training and strength training in the winter to mirror the patterns that, according to my research, our ancestors (at least those in temperate climates) had likely followed. Not surprisingly, the pattern of “building” in the off-season (winter) and “conditioning” in the preseason (spring and summer) is common in competitive summer sports. In those early years of personalizing what I’d learned through my research, I also modified how I engaged with other people at different times of the year, getting out and “expanding my horizons” during the summer months, and “hunkering down” during the winter months and focusing on fewer but far more intimate relationships.
In every way I could think of, I started to honor the natural rhythms, both on the daily and seasonal levels. The deeper I got into it, the more I realized that I had embarked on a journey with some profoundly countercultural implications. Many of us today have a hard time slowing down. We stay in a frenetic, stimulating, always-on, multitasking kind of mode in terms of how we sleep, eat, move, and connect (or . . . don’t). Because we’re stuck in this pattern of perpetual “summer” behavior, our deepest needs aren’t being met, and we feel unsettled and unmoored, adrift in the world of working, trying to have fun, and seeking “happiness.” We often become addicted to artificial substitutes for those needs—refined sugar instead of complete protein, caffeine instead of restful sleep, daily spin classes instead of picking up heavy things, social media instead of real, face-to-face contact. In the broad- est sense, we’re even addicted to this kind of fast-paced existence itself, maintaining it even though we notice that it exhausts us, leaves us out of balance, and ultimately threatens our health. It feels good and bad at the same time, but we simply don’t know what to do differently. This is just what we’re supposed to do, right?
In my experiments, I sped my life up at certain times but slowed down at others, as our ancestors did. I made my life more intense and challenging at certain points, and much more restorative and restful at others. I aimed for excitement and adventure and growth at certain times, calmness and placidity and quiet withdrawal at others. I was still living what most people would consider a “normal” life, but beneath the surface I was doing many things very differently than others around me. The more I experimented, the more I saw the ancient wisdom of a more natural, oscillatory way of life. And the more I learned about natural rhythms, the more I experimented. A positive dynamic took hold that left me feeling more energetic and creative, but also more peaceful, rested, grounded, and connected with others. My mood improved, as did my focus. Everything felt better. And I wasn’t trying nearly as hard to maintain healthy habits as I had been before. Because I was making incremental changes that felt intuitively right to me and that helped me feel better, I owned those changes in a whole new way. How could I not behave in these ways, now that I knew that it made me feel deeply better? Living well became far easier and more fun than it had ever been before.
I knew I was onto something, and I was excited to tell others about it. So, I began to present my ideas at academic conferences. My friend and colleague Jamie Scott, a health researcher based in New Zealand, and I presented a talk on the seasonal model for health at the Ancestral Health Symposium to a packed house. The simple-but- profound approach resonated deeply with people, and they told me that I was presenting a new paradigm for thinking about living in a more integrated fashion. They were excited and urged me to write a book on the subject. The momentum was building. And then . . . I did nothing.
Well, not exactly. For a number of years, I put my new, integrative model aside and focused on one particular piece of it, the part dealing with food. Many readers will know me for having coauthored the bestselling books It Starts with Food and TheWhole30. These books, which empowered people to bring their diets in tune with their bodies’ innate needs, were key components of my four-part rhythmic model. In 2011, when I was working on It Starts with Food, I didn’t merely think of the word “it” as meaning “good health.” To me, “it” also meant dedication to rhythmically attuned living. If you want to bring your body in harmony with its natural rhythms, you can’t do it with the wave of a magic wand, or simply by adhering to a new shopping list. It has to happen incrementally as you learn, unlearn, relearn, and eventually integrate lessons along the way. If you could only pick one place to start, my training, research, and personal experience all told me that this should be diet. It starts—but certainly doesn’t end—with food.
The thirty-day Whole30 experiment clearly emphasizes diet. Over a monthlong period, we ask participants to radically change their dietary habits, avoiding all alcohol, legumes, grains, sugars and refined sweeteners, dairy products, and artificial additives (like carrageenan and MSG). In their place, we tell people to stock up on healthy fats, meat, seafood, poultry, veggies of all types, fruit, and nuts and seeds. I always considered this diet part of a larger, fully integrated program of behavior change and self-awareness, aimed at empowering people by helping them rediscover what their own bodies were telling them. That’s why we discouraged any “fake treats,” like Paleo waffles made from mashed bananas, or pizza crust fashioned from a crushed cauliflower. Consuming such foods followed the letter of the law but definitely not the spirit of the program, which wasn’t to imitate conventional or junk food products, but to entirely reimagine your attitude toward food and your own health. It’s also why we eliminated all the most commonly problematic foods that cause digestive issues, like gluten and dairy, allowing people to create a clean digestive slate, and then progressively, little by little, to reintroduce certain foods after the thirty days and see how they felt, both physically and emotionally. To be sure, some people who embraced the Whole30 did so because they wanted to attain specific health objectives such as losing weight or relieving disease symptoms, but that was never my deepest intention. With the Whole30 program, I sought to give people some initial tools for becoming more aware of their own bodies’ inherent needs, so that they could feel empowered to take steps on their own to satisfy those needs, become healthier, and even more important, live a life of purpose and deep joy. The Whole30 was just the beginning of the beginning.
The4 Season Solution is the book I imagined writing almost a decade ago—the prequel to ItStarts with Food, really. The book presents my four-part theory and introduces a groundbreaking health approach that you can deploy immediately to achieve steady, sustainable gains over time. Within my framework, you attend to your health and well-being in a personalized way, on your own terms, and without requiring doctors, coaches, or other outside experts. Whether you’ve struggled to stay well or you simply want to be living better than you currently are, The4 Season Solution will cast new light on your current health behaviors and how they might be undermining your goals and values. The book will also show you how to start changing those behaviors so that you can progress toward many important goals at once—better sleep, a healthier weight, more energy, brighter skin, deeper meaning and purpose, lower stress, and a greater sense of connectedness, contentment, and peace.