What New Zealand taught me - Lessons from the Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand (AHSNZ) 2017 - Aspire Natural Health

What New Zealand taught me – Lessons from the Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand (AHSNZ) 2017

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I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at and attend the 2017 Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand’s (AHSNZ) biannual conference in Queenstown, New Zealand.

Comparing AHS and AHSNZ

It was extra special that the US Ancestral Health Society’s (AHS) annual conference had happened a couple of months before, allowing me to compare and contrast the two events.

AHSNZ was a smaller event (about 175 people vs around 400 people) located in a picturesque location. Only a single speaking track was run, meaning there was only one talk at a time versus the typical two simultaneous talks at AHS.

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The smaller group plus the fact that we were together for the entire conference instead of flowing back and forth between conference rooms meant the whole audience had a tighter and more connected feel.

More time was given for breaks and lunches giving the whole event a more relaxed feel, and placing the focus on connecting with other attendees versus just going to learn stuff.

There were no sponsors and none of the speakers were promoting books or other products, which gave the conference a very non-commercial feel.

The biggest difference between AHS and AHSNZ

Perhaps the starkest contrast between the two events, was a focus on the collective versus the individual. While I’ve seen this change occurring in the past few years at AHS, principally through the efforts of Diana Rodgers and others, it was much more pronounced at AHSNZ.

The tone of the conference was one of the health of the society & environment, and towards “socialism” and against “capitalism”.

In multiple talks the idea that we are sick because we live in a sick environment (both our physical environment like our air, water, and social, but also our society – the way we live, work, and relate).

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Instead of just focusing on how we as individuals can make better health choices like how we eat, sleep, or exercise, the focus was on how can we change society so those habits become the “easy” default.

My experience

While it took me about 25 hours each way from the States to New Zealand (plus time zone changes) what I saw of New Zealand was stunning – the mountains, the forests, the lakes were incredible. The people were friendly and welcoming. And the cost of living is crazy high!

This Lord of The Rings fan was super excited to see some of the places where different scenes in the movies were shot (sadly I did not get to see Hobbiton on this trip).

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A week was by no means enough time to spend in New Zealand, and I plan to return again for a longer trip with my family in tow, hopefully not too far in the future!


Here are some of the lessons I learned from some of the presenters at this years AHSNZ:


Pilar Gerasimo

In the US approxinately 50% of the population is diagnosed as chronically ill. 66% are overweight or obese. 70% take daily medications. 80% are not thriving or flourishing mentally-emotionally (anxiety, depression, mood disorders). 97.5% are not practicing the Mayo Clinic 4 basic health practices (eating a healthy diet, getting adequate exercise, not smoking, maintaining a healthy body composition) – they did not consider sleep, stress, or social connection we can guess that less than 1% are currently healthy and will stay that way

What kind of society do we live in where 97.5% of people are unable to maintain habits that keep them healthy?

A lot of what society tells us about health is about abs, our appearance, and hot sex. Most of the ideals and images are unachievable, and this leads people to feel like failures

Is the problem with us or with the society that we live in? Even as we learn the skills of how to live healthily, we are still stuck in a a society promoting sickness

Nature works in waves and oscillations – rivers, heart waves, brain waves, and plant rhythms are all examples. But we live in a linear “machine” model that is incongruent with how we actually work

Ultradian rhythms – rhythms within the day. Activity generates ‘toxic’ byproducts and requires recovery. Typically 90 minutes of productivity requires about 20 minutes of rest & recovery

This means we all have periods of high capacity and low capacity throughout our days. Military research showed that 90-120 minutes was about the extent that people could perform on task at high levels and then their performance begins to decline

Signals you need a break/downtime:
1. Fatigue
2. Tired eyes – often the first sign
3. Brain fog – the words aren’t coming
4. Hunger or thirst
5. Bathroom urges (the gut is also governed by ultradian rhythms)
6. Fidgeting
7. Annoyance

What happens during downtime?
1. Neurological sorting and connection (which can only happen in certain states) – when your brain is full, it is a sign you need to take a break and let your brain sort & connect. The ‘A-Ha’s’ happen when you are ‘idling’
2. Cell, Organ, and Tissue Repair
3. Energy regeneration – instead of resting we have learned to go and get coffee and sugar to force more energy. Also ‘harder’ drugs like cocaine, meth, Ritalin & Adderall
4. Hormone & Blood sugar balancing
5. Immune-system modulation
6. Mood adjustment

When you skip breaks, you have decreasing capacity and dysregulation – productivity drops, creativity diminishes, focus & attention erode, inflammation rises, immunity suffers, mood destabilizes & reactivity increases, error rates increases, accidents & injuries increase. The net effect of “working less” by taking breaks is positive. The net effect of “working more” by working constantly is negative

How to take a break?
1. Rest or sleep – lie down and pretend, or try to go to sleep
2. Meditation and relaxation
3. The most important thing is relief from intensive demands – taking a mental and/or physical demands. Shifting gears
4. Nourishment and hydration – protein + fats + phytonutrients + water. Start with some water
5. Moving from your current environment
6. Nature time
7. Mild to moderate activity
8. Brainless work
9. Pleasurable interaction
10. Quietude / Solitude

Ben Logan

Human needs:
1. Be part of a tribe
2. Love and connection
3. Life purpose & meaning
4. Short-term acute stress
5. Phytochemicals & Zoonutrients

The body loves short-term adaptable stress. This is not to be confused with long-term chronic stress. Short-term stress provides an impetus for growth and change

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Ihirangi Heke, PhD

Most Western frameworks start with the individual and build outwards. The Maori concept starts with the environment and comes down to the individual.

It’s critical to ground people in their historical and cultural contexts. How do food and exercise and other health factors fit within that person’s worldview?

What’s the intent of knowledge? What’s it supposed to do? There is no point taking knowledge to the grave


Nigel Harris, PhD

Skeletal muscle is a secretory organ rather than just a mechanical tissue. Myokines (muscle hormones) are produced when muscles are contracted. IL6 is a ‘myokine prototype’. It is pleiotropic (affects many things). While inflammatory it ends up increasing glucose uptake, lipid oxidation, and DECREASES inflammation

Resistance training alters muscle gene expression

The “-penias” (osteopenia – loss of bone, sarcopenia – loss of muscle, and dynapenia – loss of strength) are not particularly obvious in youth, but later in life tend to become much more obvious. Ideally they should never occur because people remain active from youth. Instead we see a hug drop off in physical activity in adolescents

Muscular strength in inversely and independently associated with death from all causes and cancer. In men, even after adjusting for cardiorespiratory fitness and other potential confounders. Question: Is it strength? or is it the physiological processes that lead to increased strength?

The good news, studies have sown that even very elderly people can see huge improvements with simple strength training

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Katy Bowman

Food has been de-coupled from movement. In the past to get food we had to have movement, now we don’t

We need a variety of movements just like we need a variety of nutrients. If we try to take all of them individually it is overwhelming. Luckily we mostly take food which is a multi-nutrient package, we want to engage in movements which encapsulate a variety of nutrients

We can think of a “movement diet” that needs to be varied and broadly “nutritious”


Darryl Edwards

Myths of cancer:
1. Cancer is a purely modern disease. FALSE. We have evidence of cancer from reptiles 225 million years ago.
2. Natural treatments are always best. FALSE. Modern medicine is useful and can be quite effective when used properly
3. Sugar feeds cancer. ONLY PARTLY TRUE. Sugar is an issue, but cancer can use multiple fuel sources.

Darryl shares the story of his sister who went on a ketogenic diet to treat her metastatic cancer. She saw initial tremendous improvement with major regression of her tumors. However the cancer that did not die quickly began growing again, and they found had figured out how to use ketones for fuel. By continuing the ketogenic diet, they inadvertently accelerated the growth of her cancer

There is lots of data for physical activity and cancer – showing reduced risk of cancer, slower progression once someone has cancer, and reduces mortality risk

Optimal activity levels are about 2 hrs per day of moderate activity

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Ann-Thea McGill, PhD

Morning sickness is a combination of aversive food behaviors and cravings that is an evolutionary adaptation to protect the developing embryo from ‘toxic’ plant food chemicals and ingested or resident microbial ’toxins’

It is normal and we should be concerned with women who do not have morning sickness.

Coach women to listen to their bodies. If they’ve prepped themselves for pregnancy they will have the micronutrients they need to make it through. The issue is that many women do not have the nutrients they need

Could picca (cravings to eat non-nutritious substances like dirt, chalk, etc.) be an evolutionary drive to consume microbial toxin adsorbants – charcoal, soils, clay


Lara Briden, ND

Until the 90s women were excluded from medical research. Research was done on men and simply extrapolated to women. There were somewhat legitimate reasons, such as the fact that women’s menstrual cycles make them more difficult to study due to all the changes that occur with the changing cycles where men are fairly constant, as well as serious sexist assumptions.

“Ovulatory cycles are both an indicator and a creator of good health.” —Jerilynn Prior, PHD

For women, their menstrual cycle is a vital sign of their health. “Messed up” menstrual cycles – painful cycles, irregular cycles, major PMS, and more are all signs that a woman’s health has some issues

3 main obstacles to ovulation / healthy menstrual cycles
1. Hormonal birth control. It is “castration”
2. Under-eating – Undereating can stop periods even if a woman is normal weight or even overweight. It’s not JUST body fat it’s the number of calories coming in. Most women need a reasonable amount of carbohydrates or they will lose their cycle. Suggested that women need 90-130 grams of carbohydrates daily (but only one paper on this; more research needed)
3. PCOS – Lara believes that the biggest culprit is sugar and excess fructose

Zinc is essential for ovulation and is deficient in both vegetarian and processed food diets

Anything to promote ovulation will take at least 3 months. It takes 100 days for an ovarian follicle to develop

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Pedro Carrera-Bastos in a tribute to Dr. Staffan Lindeberg

Staffan was a Swedish physician, researcher, speaker, and musician . He went to the Papua New Guinea to try and study “traditional peoples”. He went to Kitava a small island which in 1990 had minimal Western influence

About 6% of the population were 60-96 years old, which conflicts with the popular narrative that all traditional peoples died in their 30s

They were physically active to the level of a modern construction worker

They ate fish (3-4x weekly) but were primarily horticulturalists eating fruit, coconut, yams, and taro and a few other items. They were eating a low protein, high carb, high saturated fat diets. Drank fresh rain water. Had some seasonality in their food intake. They did not fast and ate regularly through the day

76-80% of men and women smoked, which they were healthy in spite of

In 40-60 year olds he was unable to find a single case of obesity or overweight

He did not find signs of malnutrition

He did EKG tests and found no signs of heart disease. In interviews chronic exertion-related chest pain (angina) was unknown. Paralysis of arms or legs, and sudden inability to speak was unknown (strokes)

Dominant causes of death were infections (primarily malaria in children), accidents, pregnancy, and complications of old age

They ate a very low amount of Omega 6 fatty acids and a modest amount of Omega 3 showing a very high 3/6 ratio

Compared to Swedes they had much lower insulin and blood sugar

Absence of acne in teenagers. Due to lack of insulin resistance and other lifestyle factors

1. Traditional diet of minimally processed plant and animal foods
-What they COULDN’T HAVE EATEN – processed sugar, processed alcohol, processed vegetable oils, processed meats, refined grains, milk was very uncommon
-Breastfeeding patterns were very different, and typically until 30 months of age
2. Regular physical activity – on average expending about 900 calories per day or about 2 hours of moderate-vigorous activity daily
3. Natural circadian rhythms – due to light and temperature
4. Regular sun exposure – average vitamin is 42 ng/ml
5. Acute stress
6. Microbial exposure – microbes in their environment, worms, parasites
7. Low toxic exposure

In comparison to our modern life way:
1. Western diet
2. Physical inactivity
3. Inadequate sun exposure
4. Chronic stress
5. Lack of social networks
6. Disrupted circadian rhythms
7. Increased toxic exposure
8. Decreased exposure to the elements
9. Altered microbiota

It’s not just diet!

What we need to do:
1. Adopt a traditional or traditional-mimicking diet
2. Engage in stress management & have a sense of purpose
3. Have daily fun & nurturing social interactions
4. Have regular physical activity
5. Get adequate sun exposure
6. Get adequate sleep
7. Minimize our exposure to toxins

A few myths of the Kitavans:
1. They ate a lot of meat, it was just ignored for this study. NO, they didn’t. It’s possible to be healthy and slender on a high carb, low protein, almost vegetarian diet for generations, but only in the full context of a transitional life. Pedro believes hat our modern lifestyle requires higher protein intakes and other changes that aren’t necessary for traditional peoples
2. They ate a lot of carbs, but most of it was resistant starch and so it was really a low carb diet. NO. Analysis of their blood lipids showed they were absorbing large amount of carbohydrates


Andrew Dickson, PhD

In the philosophy of Individualism, individuals become responsible for choosing a healthy lifestyle. And we will hold them accountable for their actions – “You’e fat and sick because you made bad choices. It’s your fault and you get what you deserve.”

Encouraging mindfulness is individualism because it puts the responsibility for health back on the individual. You need to be mindful of your choices and select the “right” ones.

Andrew argues instead that the environment should be mindful for us. In the way that it traditionally was. We should not have to choose healthy food vs unhealthy food, or being sedentary vs physically active. Our environments should “force” us to make the “correct” choices.

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Steph Gaudreau

The philosophy of “the hustle” is toxic. Being busy is like going a millimeter in a million directions, instead of a long way in a single direction

Our environments set up up to fail

Asking yourself: What’s important to you? What’s not important to you? For many people it’s easier to talk about what you don’t want rather than what you want

Slow down and create a conscious life for yourself


Karen Faisandier, PhD

Our early life relationships (in the first couple years of our life) give us a template for all our future relationships

There are three basic styles of having relationships:
1. Secure attachments (where we trust others, bond with them, and can manage our stress effectively. Physically we see normal stress responses, better insulin levels and reduced inflammation)
2. Insecure attachments (where we have trouble bonding with others effectively, more poorly manage our stress and emotions. Physically we see abnormal stress/cortisol responses, and increased inflammation). Insecure attachments come in two forms:
1. Hyper-activation – these people are constantly seeking attention and affirmation, will often create drama to get it. “Tell me that you love me (constantly)”
2. De-activation – these people do not seek attention or affirmation. They put others needs before their own and often ignore their own needs. ”I’m fine”

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Allyson Chrystal

Why are kids in crisis these days? We are hyper focusing on the child and not the environmental factors. How kids are wired to act and learn and how our environment supports or mismatches with that

We don’t have kids who are capable of taking healthy risks in our environment and who can connect socially

Child development in the past:
1. Lots of positive touch
2. Multiple adult caregivers
3. Free play with multi-age playmates
4. Exploration and play in nature
5. Learning was through interaction with group and exploration
6. Interdependence

Child development today:
1. Touch is reserved for family
2. Usually just 1-2 parents in home
3. Structured play in contrived environments
4. Learning by standard curriculum indoors
5. Independence

When kids don’t take risks and explore they don’t develop sensory integration and self-regulation properly

Kids have lost more than 12 hours of free play per week in the last 20 years. Opportunities for free exploration, creative play in Nature and risk taking are not present in many kids lives


Dallas Hartwig

What do humans need?

  1. Transcendence: Purpose, meaning, legacy. Shut down by scarcity mentality
  2. Connection needs: Love, belonging, acceptance
  3. Safety needs – physical & psychological safety
  4. Basic needs: food, shelter, sleep, sex

Health is a product of the choices me make around our needs (plus the impact of our environment)

A sole focus on health makes us live small lives. Health allows us to ascend up the hierarchy of needs, moving from a focus on ourselves and our needs (pleasure) to on that is focused outward on others (purpose)

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While it’s a heck of a trip. I recommend anyone interested plan a trip to New Zealand, and time it to attend the next AHSNZ conference in 2019!


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Photo attribution for lead photo http://bit.ly/2hnCwUM
All other photos courtesy of Tim Gerstmar, ND

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Aaron Blaisdell says:

    Thanks for the writeup, Tim! I wish I could attend AHSNZ but unfortunately it wasn’t in the cards financially or timing wise.

    You write: “Perhaps the starkest contrast between the two events, was a focus on the collective versus the individual. While I’ve seen this change occurring in the past few years at AHS, principally through the efforts of Diana Rodgers and others, it was much more pronounced at AHSNZ… The tone of the conference was one of the health of the society & environment, and towards “socialism” and against “capitalism”…. In multiple talks the idea that we are sick because we live in a sick environment (both our physical environment like our air, water, and social, but also our society – the way we live, work, and relate)… Instead of just focusing on how we as individuals can make better health choices like how we eat, sleep, or exercise, the focus was on how can we change society so those habits become the “easy” default.”

    I wonder where this contrast comes from? I think it is likely to do the fact that the organizers of AHS (I’m one of them) issue an oen solicitation for applications to present, which thus nets topics that are on the minds of “the crowd” so to speak, whereas the organizers of AHSNZ craft their speaker list using a top-down process instead. We organizers at AHS are also very open to and heavily support the themes you identified above as being a core focus of AHSNZ, but we’ve failed to net many talks by speakers to address these issues. I think ecosystem degredation on a mass scale, from the toxins in our food supply, in our lifestyles, in our social worlds (hat tip Tony Federico), in our environment (macro to micro, such as microfibers and microplastics, and antibiotics, glyphosate, and pharmaceuticals), to the economic disparities that are a shame of any ‘civilization’ are all part of the evolutionary mismatch equation. We do get a few talks on these topics each year, with Frank Forencich being one of the leaders in viewing the human and world ecology through the lens of human evolution and the human spirit that comes readily to mind. But, you are right, when we sample the crowd, we get a proportional representation of topics that match what’s on the crowd’s mind, so to speak. We do try to keep a broad spectrum of topics in our program each year, but it is a challenge for sure. I hope that, given the shared history of the members of both societies (I count Jamie and Anastasia both as good friends and comrades in arms for championing the AHS mission), both societies can continue to work together to address the critical issues facing the modern world. We both have children, and I’m sure it’s continually on your mind as it is on mine what kind of future are we leaving them.

    I look forward to your continued presence at AHS (and hopefully AHSNZ, too!).


    • Tim Gerstmar says:

      Hey Aaron,
      Thanks for the comments. I hope you don’t take my remarks as being overly critical of AHS, which is one of my favorite conferences each year. I think it reflects more of the American mythology which places the individual at the center, and the tension we see in this country of the needs and desires of the individual vs the needs and desires of the society as a whole. I think other countries, such as NZ, and other cultures such as the Maori, have very different worldviews, and it was starkly apparent to this American.
      I also think big societal issues like pollution or social assistance or farming/food production reform tend to be overwhelming and ” boring” to many people. These necessary changes aren’t going to happen overnight. They’re going to be a slow, plodding process that will likely take years or decades, with sustained action grinding away on things. And that just doesn’t get a lot of people fired up, the same way as “make this diet change” and you’ll see results in weeks or months.
      I know all the wonderful people working at AHS are volunteers and so available time is at a minimum, but I do think it would be beneficial for next years AHS if we could reach out to Indigenous peoples to get their input in ancestral patterns, and also reach out to minority communities and talk about the ancestral template in their situations and contexts as well. If it’s possible to include urban farmers, or people making the change to organic farming, or… It’d be great, IMO, to maybe see one track at AHS be devoted to individual health issues and actions, and one track devoted to societal/group/environmental issues.

      Just my $.02. Thanks for the comment Aaron, and look forward to hanging out next year!

      Dr. Tim Gerstmar

  2. Jamie Scott says:

    Hi Tim (and Aaron)

    Thanks for an amazing review of our 2017 international symposium. Given the population we have to draw on (only slightly more than 1% of the USA), and our distance from anywhere, we are extremely proud of our ability to pull together the small but mighty international audience we did.

    We are always humbled by how generous everyone is with their time and energy, including yourself. Knowing that our profile and reach is small, we aim to hold an event which has a real impact on those who do attend, knowing such impact ultimately trumps volume. Since October, the feedback has been amazing. We had a significant number of primary care health professionals in attendance, and all have said they will be changing something in the way they practice after attending AHSNZ. Win!

    Aaron – you are quite correct that we do curate our programme, via a combination of speaker and topic. We lock some cornerstones of themes into place and build a solid programme around those. We have toyed with just opening things up and inviting submissions, or asking what people want to hear, but Henry Ford’s “faster horses” springs to mind!

    We feel that many of the topics we have covered (e.g. the impact of climate change on human health), which have been well-received, are simply not what “the crowd” wants. Indeed, had we gone with the crowd in 2017, I suspect we would have had a conference debating carnivory versus veganism!

    Curating our programme gives us the opportunity to invite people who would never seek out or submit to such a conference, gaining new insights, having information and positions challenged, and, importantly, exposing people outside of the AH community to ancestral health perspectives.

    I hope we can entice both of you to NZ in circa 2019/20 for our next symposium!


    • Tim Gerstmar says:

      Hey Jamie,
      Thanks for the comments and perspective. There’s always a dynamic tension between giving people what they want vs what they need.

      It was a great conference, and I hope to be able to join you in 2019-20, and this time get a chance to see more of New Zealand (and Hobbiton!)

      Dr. Tim Gerstmar

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