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Depression is A Disease of Civilization: Hunter-Gatherers Hold the Key to the Cure

This is an excellent article by Sara Burrows. It describes exactly what our Break Away, Live Small website is all about and why, if left unchecked, depression can destroy your life. It also provides ideas for a cure through exercise, social connections and self-sustaining communal living. 

“We were never designed for the sedentary, indoor, socially isolated, fast-food-laden, sleep-deprived frenzied pace of modern life.”

I hope you read the entire article and follow the links to similar articles. Then read it again.


By: Sara Burrows

Depression is a global epidemic. It is the main driver behind suicide, which now claims more than a million lives per year worldwide. One in four Americans will suffer from clinical depression within their lifetimes, and the rate is increasing with every generation.





It robs people of sleep, energy, focus, memory, sex drive and their basic ability to experience the pleasures of life, says author of The Depression Cure Stephen Ildari. It can destroy people’s desire to love, work, play and even their will to live. If left unchecked it can cause permanent brain damage.

Depression lights up the pain circuitry of the brain to such an extent that many of Ildari’s psychiatric patients have called it torment, agony and torture. “Many begin to look to death as a welcome means of escape,” he said in a Ted Talks presentation.

But depression is not a natural disease. It is not an inevitable part of being human. Ildari argues, like many diseases, depression is a disease of civilization. It’s a disease caused by a high-stress, industrialized, modern lifestyle that is incompatible with our genetic evolution.

Depression is the result of a prolonged stress-response, Ildari said. The brain’s “runaway stress response” – as he calls it – is similar to the fight or flight response, which evolved to help our ancestors when they faced predators or other physical dangers. The runaway stress response required intense physical activity for a few seconds, a few minutes, or – in extreme cases – a few hours.

“The problem is for many people throughout the Western world, the stress response goes on for weeks, months and even years at a time, and when it does that, it’s incredibly toxic,” Ildari said.

Living under continually stressful conditions – as many modern humans do – is disruptive to neuro-chemicals like dopamine and seratonin, which can lead to sleep disturbance, brain damage, immune dysregulation and inflammation, Ildari says.

Civilization is the disease

Epidemiologists have now identified a long list of other stress-related diseases as “diseases of civilization” – diabetes, atherosclerosis, asthma, allergies, obesity and cancer. These diseases are rampant throughout the developed world, but virtually non-existent among modern-day aboriginal peoples.

In a study of 2000 Kaluli aborigines from Papua New Guinea, only one marginal case of clinical depression was found. Why? Because the Kaluli lifestyle is very similar to our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ lifestyle that lasted for nearly 2 million years before agriculture, Ildari said.

“99.9 percent of the human experience was lived in a hunter-gatherer context,” he added. “Most of the selection pressures that have sculpted and shaped our genomes are really well adapted for that environment and that lifestyle.”

In view of nearly 3 million years of hominid existence, since homo habilis first began use of stone tools, our genus has undergone rapid environmental change since the advent of agriculture about 12,000 years ago. And in the last 200 years, since the industrial revolution, our species has had to cope with what Ildari calls “radical environmental mutation.”

While our environment has radically mutated, our human genome is essentially the same as it was 200 years ago, Ildari says. “That’s only eight generations. It’s not enough time [for significant genetic adaptations].”

“There’s a profound mismatch between the genes we carry, the bodies and brains that they are building, and the world that we find ourselves in,” he said. “We were never designed for the sedentary, indoor, socially isolated, fast-food-laden, sleep-deprived frenzied pace of modern life.”

The Cure

Though he’s not entirely opposed to medication, Ildari says we can throw all the drugs in the world at the depression epidemic, and it won’t make a dent.

Anti depressant use has gone up 300 percent in the last 20 years, but the rate of depression has continued to increase. One in nine Americans over age 12 is currently taking an antidepressant, and one in five have been on them at some point.

The answer, Ildari says, is a change in lifestyle. He says the results of his six step program have exceeded his wildest dreams:

1. Exercise


2. Omega 3 Fatty Acids

3. Sunlight

4. Healthy Sleep

5. Anti-ruminative activity

6. Social connection

In his presentation, he emphasized the importance of exercise and social connection, as they are two of the hardest parts of the program for modern Americans.

Exercise is ‘not natural’

Ildari says the results of exercise on depression are so powerful that if they could be reduced into a pill, it would be the most expensive pill on earth. The problem is 60 percent of American adults get no regular physical activity. Ildari says it’s not their fault. Between long days at work and household and family responsibilities to attend to, who has the time or energy to hit the gym?

The dirty little secret about exercise, Ildari says, is “it is not natural.” We are designed to be physically active “in the service of adapted goals,” not to exercise on a hamster wheel.

Hunter gatherers get four or more hours of vigorous physical activity every day, but if you ask them they will tell you they don’t exercise, Ildari says. “They don’t work out. Working out would be crazy to them. They live.”

“When you put a lab rat on a treadmill … it will squat down on it’s haunches, and the treadmill starts to rub the fur and the skin right off it’s back side,” he said. “When you stare at a piece of exercise equipment, there is a part of your brain that’s screaming out ‘Don’t do it! You’re not going anywhere!'”

If you can’t go out gathering your own nuts and berries or hunting your own meat, Ildari recommends brisk walking with a friend. Walking for 30 minutes, three times a week, has better effects on depression than Zoloft, he said.

Social Connection

Another huge factor in modern depression is the lack of social connection in our modern nuclear-family bubbles. “Face-time with our loved ones puts the breaks on our stress response,” Ildari says.

The problem is we’ve replaced face-time with screen-time. “Our hunter gatherer ancestors spent all day every day in the company of their loved ones.”

Unfortunately illness, including mental illness, triggers people to isolate themselves, which only makes depression worse.

“Resist the urge to withdraw,” Ildari says, “because when you’re ill, your body tells you to shut down and pull away. When you have the flu, that’s adaptive. When you have depression, it’s the worst thing in the world you could do.”

Rewilding and Tribal Living

What Ildari didn’t mention in his Ted Talk is how difficult his cure is for most modern humans to attain. Sure, we’d all like more fresh air, sunlight, exercise, a better diet, better sleep, less monotonous work, and more interaction with loved ones, but who has time for all that?

I’m stuck here staring at my screen typing about it in an effort to make a living for myself, and many of you don’t even have time to read this article because you have 50+ hours-a-week jobs of your own. Meanwhile, immediate-return hunter-gatherers work an average of 17 hours a week. In this world, we certainly can’t just quit our jobs to be less stressed, when the financial stress would create more stress.

In my opinion, the answer lies in baby steps. Baby steps away from dependence on civilization, and toward nature, earth skills, and self-sustaining communal living. These are things I plan to learn more about while building this website. I’m excited to share what I learn with you, and hope you’ll share your knowledge with me. 


Sara Burrows

Regrets. We All Have Them

— things said or done; things left unsaid or undone. Paths that weren’t followed; opportunities missed due to fear or insecurity. The list is long, but one of the biggest regrets in life reported by a large number of people is not being there for someone at the end of life.  In other words, being too busy with “life” to tend to those near death. 



Interestingly, while a regret can be phrased either as an action or as an inaction (“I wish I had not quit high school,” versus “I wish I had stayed in high school”), regrets framed as actions tend to be more emotionally intense than regrets about inactions, but inactions tend to be longer lasting

Emma Freud, a columnist for The Guardian, recently explored themes of regret on social media, covering everything from relationships, work-life balance and personal passions, to addiction, illness and death. 


Top Five Regrets of the Dying

According to Bronnie Ware, a former palliative care nurse who ended up writing a book, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” based on her conversations with the dying, the biggest, most commonly cited regrets at the end of life are — 

beginning with the most common regret of all:



  • Not having the courage to live a life true to oneself but rather doing what was expected 
  • Working too much, thereby missing children’s youth and their partner’s companionship 
  • Not having the courage to express one’s feelings 
  • Not staying in touch with friends 
  • Taking life too seriously and allowing worries to diminish happiness 

Ware goes a step further, however, in that she also delves into solutions for these regrets — ways for you to avoid falling into the same traps. 

The No. 1 regret is a valuable reminder to not give up too many of your dreams to please others (or conform to conventional standards).  “It is very important to try and honor at least some of your dreams along the way,” Ware says. 

“From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”

Living Life on Your Own Terms Is Key to Dying Without (Too Many) Regrets

Virtually every man in Ware’s care listed No. 2: 
Missing out on family time because of excessive work. “All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence,” she writes, adding:

“By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.”

No. 4 is a closely related topic. Oftentimes we get so busy we forget to keep in touch with old friends, and over time the relationship fizzles out.

Then, in old age, loneliness creeps in. It can be difficult to build a friendship at any age, but it certainly does not get easier with advancing age, when poor health starts limiting your ability to get out and about to socialize.

As noted by Ware, love and relationships are usually the only things of true, remaining importance when the end of life draws near.

As for No. 3, Ware notes that many “developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried” as a result of holding their feelings in and opting to keep quiet just to keep the peace. If you’re in this category, consider Ware’s commonsense advice:

“We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.”

Last but not least, at the end of life, many finally realize that happiness is an inside job. It’s a choice, not a side effect of living any particular kind of life. “[D]eep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again,” 


Ware writes, wisely noting that once you’re on your deathbed, you will not be worrying about what others think of you, so why not choose happiness now, while you still have a lot of life left?

The Importance of Relationships and Self-Care

Longevity research strongly supports Ware’s overall findings. The same things that people report regretting are also the things centenarians “get right.” In interviews and surveys with centenarians, including the ones interviewed in  “How to Live to 100,” 


Two of the most important factors contributing to longevity are having a strong social network of family and friends, and keeping a sense of humor.

The importance of social support has also been scientifically verified. An American meta-analysis of published studies found 
A strong social support is actually the No. 1 factor that determines longevity and survival. 

The influence of social support on mortality is so great, it surpasses the influence of weight and even eclipses the influence of smoking.

Another regret that is bound to be pertinent for a vast majority of people these days is allowing the smartphone to take up too much of our time and attention.

Related to that one is the regret of “not teaching my kids to do more stuff,” be it raking leaves, learning to throw a ball, cleaning their room, camping or any number of other activities. 


On this list of regrets you also have “not taking care of my health when I had the chance.” 

Many pay no attention to their health at all unless or until there’s a problem. Unfortunately, by that time, you have a struggle ahead of you, as most health problems are far easier to prevent than they are to treat.

Not to mention the emotional and financial strain and stress a chronic health problem can cause. At the end of life, many wish they’d made self-care a priority.

Hopefully, if you’re reading this, you’ve not let self-care slide off your radar. Remember, some of the simplest lifestyle strategies can have tremendous impact, such as:

At the End of Life, Most Wish They’d Lived More in the Moment

Another common regret is regretting not living more in the moment. As constant connectivity via smartphones and other technologies increases, more and more people are bound to experience this regret at the end of their life as the years wear on.

“Living in the now” is a major component of happiness, and a significant way to grow in gratitude, both of which also have an impact on health and longevity.

Your Life Is Your Own, Live It the Way You Want To

The take-home message here is this: 

If you’re currently doing, or avoiding doing, something you know you’d regret if you only had weeks left to live, change course now. Don’t wait years or decades.

Eventually, you’ll run out of time and be left holding a bag of regrets.

Your life is your own — you’re the only one who can live it successfully, so follow your dreams and passions, and let go of unnecessary baggage and false limitations. 

At the end of your life, you’ll realize you don’t care about what other people think of you nearly as much as you believe today, and — if you’re like most — you’ll come to the realization that happiness is in fact an ever-present choice.

Excerpts from the book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dyingwritten by Bronnie Ware, a former palliative care nurse