At the Ancestral Health Symposium 2013 (AHS13) I was lucky enough to attend a workshop given by Dallas Hartwig and Jamie Scott where they presented the Whole 9 Seasonal Model of Health (for the sake of my fingers I’ll abbreviate it as the SMOH from now on).
The SMOH (s-moe) was created by the Whole9 crew (Melissa & Dallas Hartwig, Jamie Scott and the rest of the team) and is a simple seasonal model that is applied on top of the basic Paleo template.
The Premise of Paleo / Ancestral Health (the Basic Template)
The human species evolved under a general set of conditions, which our bodies were shaped to handle. Following / mimicking those conditions gives our genes the correct signals which allows us to be healthy and functional, deviating from these conditions causes a mismatch which leads to disease and dysfunction
The Basic Template
1. Eating – “real”, minimally processed food. Minimize/avoid processed food, sugars, omega-6 vegetable oils (corn, cottonseed, canola, soy, safflower), grains, and dairy. Adjust based on your individual desire and tolerance.
2. Sleeping – basically go to bed when it gets dark and get up when the sun comes up. Sleep more than the average modern Westerner (generally 8+ hours).
3. Exercise – engage in lots of low intensity movement for much of the day and occasional bursts of intense activity.
One of the Hartwig’s mantras is “context matters” and this is the reason for the existence of the SMOH. When we examine ancestral behavior we see that it is not static, it is highly influenced by seasonal rhythms (which we have largely divorced ourselves from in the modern world). This means that even evolutionarily appropriate choices (such as a “Paleo diet”) can be imperfect choices when incorrectly aligned with the season, creating a “mismatch”.
Before we go on, a couple of qualifications are in order – The SMOH is aimed at creating long-term, sustainable health, not elite athletic performance. It is a flexible model, not a dogmatic prescription. It is also not about reenactment – it is not meant to exactly mimic what different ancestral peoples went through, as the size of seasonal variation is related to the latitude at which the people lived: higher latitudes have larger seasonal variations in day length and food availability (think the Arctic versus the Equator).
Where We Are – Eternal Summer
Most of us live in a general approximation of eternal spring/summer:
1. Supermarkets and global distribution networks allow us to eat fruits and whatever else we want at any time of the year.
2. Electric lights allow us to have long days regardless of the weather or length of day outside. Heating allows us to live in warmth regardless of the temperature outside.
Getting Back in Rhythm
The SMOH has 3 components:
1. Seasonal eating – the majority of one’s diet (ideally) should be locally or regionally produced, thus effortlessly creating seasonal variation. If this isn’t possible we can at least mimic the general guidelines discussed below.
2. Seasonal sleeping – the light-dark cycle should drive our sleep patterns
3. Seasonal exercise – physical activity should vary in type, intensity and duration
All 3 factors should be in sync (food, sleep, exercise) and should oscillate (change with the season)
The Seasons of the SMOH
-Eating – emphasizes vegetables & fruits with a relative increase in carb intake and a relative decrease in fat intake
-Sleeping – long days, short night mean shorter sleep cycles (6-7 hours in most temperate climates)
-Exercise – physical activity emphasizes long-duration, low intensity activity (“foraging”): walking, swimming, hiking, etc (higher volume). Some strength work, but with more focus on maintenance of strength
-Eating – emphasizes meat, seafood, and eggs with less vegetables and no/little fruit, causing a relative increase in fat and a relative decrease in carb intake
-Sleeping – short days, long nights mean lots of sleep (8-9 hours or more in most temperate climates)
-Exercise – physical activity emphasizes high-intensity, short-duration activity (“hunting”): weightlifting, sprinting, HIIT (interval training)
Spring & Fall are transitional seasons so recommendations are in between summer and winter:
-Spring – eating more plants as they become available, sleeping less as the days lengthen, getting outside more for more low intensity activity as the days warm and brighten.
-Fall – eating less plants as they disappear locally and seasonally, getting more sleep as the days lengthen, shifting to more strength and interval work
Hammering Home the Importance of Sleep
A lot of the workshop was (rightly) focused on sleep as under sleeping is a chronic problem. Most people in the Paleo community are aware of and do pretty well with food. Many do well with exercise. But most of us struggle with sleep. In their excellent book It Starts with Food the Hartwig’s call modern processed foods “food without brakes” as it easily (purposefully) leads to overeating. I would add that electric lights, cell phones, computers and TVs are “stimulation without brakes” and lead us to stay up way too late and too long.
Under ancestral conditions, during summer the additional light causes hormonal changes suppressing the need for sleep and leading to a “seasonal sleep debt”. In winter the lack of light causes hormonal changes increasing our need for sleep which repays that sleep debt. In our modern life, our electronics draw us into eternal summer mode and we never repay our sleep debt.
Most people who are aware of the importance of sleep, think about sleep about 5 minutes before they go to bed (for their “required” 8 hours). This is not the most effective way to prioritize sleep. Instead you must make take a whole day approach to sleep. Ask yourself: did you get enough protein for breakfast, enough sunlight during the day, monitor your caffeine intake and how it’s affecting you, what your screen time is like, and what your night light exposure is like? Are you actually winding down in the period before bed?
Ideally turn off electronics and night-time light at sundown, wind down and dim the lights from 6-9pm and head to bed around 9pm. Okay, stop laughing! While that would be ideal, it’s not realistic for most of us. So, realistically, turn things off 1-2 hours before your bedtime and create a buffer zone to wind down for proper sleep.
Using the SMOH to Correct Your Health
If you have a lack of oscillation in your system, the corrective strategy is to jump to the other side of the pattern to begin correcting it. So, if you have spent years in summer mode and you have the typical disease of civilization like obesity and diabetes, then you want to switch over to winter mode: mostly protein & fat, low carb, lots of sleep, more strength & power work until your system is in better shape, then begin cycling with the seasons as appropriate.
A Few Miscellaneous Great Points From the Talk
-Unless you are coming from a background of severe hormonal dysregulation, such as obesity or illness, eating whole, unprocessed foods does not require looking at calories or macronutrients. Similarly unless you are coming from a background of severe hormonal dysregulation you do not need to worry about eating fruit while it’s in season (typically that’s only a few months at most)
-Intense exercise should be matched with longer sleep (for improved recovery). A common pattern in the Paleo community is a high fat, low carb diet (winter), high intensity exercise (winter), and low sleep quantity (summer), leading people to be under slept & overtrained. The result is intense carb cravings (summer). The answer is, go to bed!
–If you get less than 6 hours sleep, no training for that day – you need to rest more than you need to train
-Is intermittent fasting awesome? Dallas doesn’t thing so. His concern with intermittent fasting is that it adds stress to a person’s system (hormetic stress). Most people are chronically overstressed, so he does not see it as a valuable addition to most people’s regimens to add more stress. Most people need to focus on increasing recovery.
-The major driver of sleep disruption is chronic stress.. Chronic stress kills!
Wrap Up – SMOH in a Nutshell
In summer, do lots of activity and less exercise – focus on getting outside. Eat lots of plants and when fruit is in season, eat it (unless you have severe hormonal dysregulations such as diabetes or other conditions). In winter eat more meat & fat, get lots of sleep, and focus on high-intensity training. This is what your body wants to anyway, if you listen to it.
The SMOH is a simple, but elegant model that can be layered on top of the basic Paleo template for long-term good health. I highly recommend it. But don’t let it overwhelm you. If you’re already struggling with the basic Paleo template, you do NOT need to pick this up, just stick this to one side to think about at a later date and focus on the basics. Most people in our society have been stuck in ‘summer mode’ for decades and could use a good chunk of time in ‘winter mode’ before worrying about cycling things. Once you’ve got your version of the Paleo diet in place and are consistently hitting your health habits 80-90% of the time then consider using the SMOH to take things to the next level.
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