Paleo Living and the Spirit

by D. Saul Weiner by D. Saul Weiner Previously by D. Saul Weiner: Liberty and the Thinking of AlbertEinstein

Toban Wiebe recently wrote an article for LRC covering the Paleo-Libertarian Connection. I have long sensed common ground here too and would like to describe some important learnings for both groups from a new Paleo book, The Depression Cure: The 6 Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs, by Stephen S. Ilardi, PhD. Of course, the book would also be of great benefit to anyone who is prone to struggling with emotional issues, Paleo-Libertarian or not.

Dr. Ilardi, a clinical psychologist and researcher, has developed an eclectic treatment program for treating clinical depression, yet throughout he makes the connection between its components and the benefits provided by the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The program is designed for living in a modern society and taking advantage of its many blessings as well. This program should serve as a catalyst for reassessing how we conceive of and promote the Paleo lifestyle and it also has practical implications for the libertarian. For now, I will start by providing a brief overview of the book. I will then come back to and explore more specifically the book’s implications for the Paleo-libertarian movement(s).

In the introduction, Ilardi documents the efficacy of what he calls Therapeutic Lifestyle Change (TLC), the name for his program, with results more than 3 times as good as standard interventions for clinical depression. Every single patient who put the full program into practice got better, as defined by experiencing at least a 50% reduction in depressive symptoms and no longer meeting diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder by the end of treatment. Significantly, the program is also highly effective for those who are not clinically depressed, yet prone to feeling blue at times. Moreover, it can be used to reduce one’s risk of developing clinical depression (and related problems), or ideally, as a means to living a happier and more productive life. Thus, the approach here is more based on promoting healthy living than fighting pathology, per se.

Ilardi goes on to document how drastically the incidence of depression has increased in recent decades in the industrialized world. He also points out that only one known group of Americans has not been hit by the depression epidemic, the Amish, who have clung tenaciously to their 18th-century way of life. Likewise, assessments by Western researchers of modern-day hunter-gatherer bands have shown an almost complete absence of clinical depression among such groups.

The 6 components of the TLC program bring back the critical elements we have lost as we have moved further and further away from more primitive conditions and are as follows:

  • Dietary omega-3 fatty acids
  • Engaging activity (while reducing excessive mental rumination)
  • Physical exercise
  • Sunlight exposure (including a discussion of Vitamin D supplementation)
  • Social support (and avoiding isolation)
  • Proper Sleep

Ilardi provides an overview of clinical depression, both from a symptom perspective and from the standpoint of brain/body functions that get out of whack, and risk factors. He covers treatment approaches and is mostly critical of the use of pharmaceuticals (though he does acknowledge their value in cases of severe depression and to a minority of patients in general). He is critical of the Freudian treatment approach, yet much more supportive of cognitive and behavioral approaches. His assessments are consistently well grounded in research. Nevertheless, with all of the research showing the benefits of proper nutrition, sunlight exposure, sound sleep, and so forth, he and his research team have found it best to create a more holistic program, which I have outlined above.

There is a separate chapter on each of the 6 components listed earlier. While the writing is accurate and precise, it is conversational in tone, not technical. A few technical matters are shown in footnotes in the body of the book. In the back of the book are (250) chapter by chapter notes. There is also an extensive bibliography. So while the main text of the book will serve the layman well, there is also the opportunity for the reader who wants to dig deeper to learn more.

The last section provides step by step instructions for the reader to implement the program over a 12-week period. Naturally, it would be daunting to try to implement it all at once, so there is a phase-in of the different recommendations. There is also a 20-question depression scale to be filled out weekly, so that one can monitor his progress. The book concludes with a chapter on troubleshooting. Clearly, the TLC program has been “road-tested” and Ilardi does an excellent job of anticipating many of the potential questions that readers are likely to have. He indicates that in some cases patients may find it beneficial to get the help of a therapist or coach in implementing the program.

I cannot really do justice to the book here in a short review, though hopefully I have given a reasonable overview here and many of you will be motivated to read it yourselves. At this point, I will return to the book’s implications for the Paleos and libertarians and then address a couple potential reader concerns.

For the Paleo, the clinical success of the TLC program in combating depression and its explicit tie-in with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle provides powerful reinforcement that we are on the right track. It seems to me that most of the Paleo literature has (understandably) emphasized nutrition and exercise and its advantages to physical health (e.g. weight management, avoidance of diabetes, heart disease, cancer). While those benefits are, of course, tremendously important, the notion that the benefits extend to the psychological realm, can really widen the appeal of Paleo living to many people. Ilardi’s research should also serve as a reminder that when we promote the Paleo lifestyle, that we should not give short shrift to areas such as exposure to sunlight, sound sleeping practices, and the importance of social interaction.1

For those who are familiar with the work of Weston Price, he too noted that among the “primitive” groups that he studied who had discovered optimal nutrition, there were no “insane asylums." Likewise, he frequently observed the great degree of happiness he found among members of these populations, in his classic book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, though he did not make clinical measurements in this regard. Price’s observations and conclusions continue to be confirmed here, as they have been for years in his many areas of research.

There is a great deal to be said for holistic approaches and assessments, vis–vis the reductionist approaches favored by many academic researchers. Researchers can argue endlessly about how one compound can impact a clinical measurement (e.g. blood cholesterol levels) over some period of time, and how this may (or may not) produce health benefits or detriments down the road. However, if you can demonstrate, as Price did, that eating in a certain way can reliably produce wide dental arches in the young (and thus the avoidance of crowded and crooked teeth) and prevent one’s teeth from rotting, this is prima facie evidence (both literally and figuratively) that these cultures are doing something right. Likewise, a lifestyle that promotes good spirits and resilience must be presumed to be a sound one, in the absence of powerful countervailing evidence.

The significance of this book for the libertarian enterprise may be less obvious, but I can think of at least 2 important implications. As Toban noted, we cannot afford to lose our great warriors too young due to “diseases of civilization." But perhaps the greater danger here is the loss of libertarian intellectuals and activists due to pessimism and burnout that can come about when fighting against such great odds for long periods of time. Surely, to the extent that adopting the TLC program can keep our energy high, our minds clear, and our optimism intact, we will have a much greater impact. Finally, while individualism is a foundational part of libertarian philosophy (though we certainly favor cooperation and voluntary association), it is abundantly clear that there is a strong (Paleo) need for people to feel that they are part of a (moderately sized) group, with shared purposes and activities [this is discussed in the section of the book covering social support]. We will need to find creative ways to fulfill this need in order for the movement to thrive. Some may find this in political campaigns (such as Ron Paul’s), while others may find engagement in that arena to be counterproductive. Certainly, the ability to communicate and interact through the Internet has helped a great deal in overcoming the isolation we are prone to. Yet more work is likely needed here.