Ancient practices as a treatment for depression: fasting, sweat lodges & long-distance running

By Adem Lewis / in , , , , , , , , , , , , , , /

– [Rhonda]: But we were talking a little bit
like off camera, about some of the, you know, you were talking about these, some societies,
that were doing these running long term, running as a sort of possible treatment for depression,
or? – [Charles]: Well, not treatment for depression,
these are spiritual practices. – [Rhonda]: Okay. – [Charles]: So one of my interests, and this
is what we were talking about off camera, was… It’s complex how I came to this, but, you
know. So I was a clinician, saw thousands and thousands
of patients a year, and then I became a kind of a researcher and focused on exactly what
we’re talking about. This immune brain interface. One thing led to another, and it’s interesting
to trace the steps, but I began to realize, you know, we begin to look at interventions
based on these things. I begin to realize that the scientific data
were pointing to the fact that a number of things that people seem to have repeatedly
discovered across human history, in widely different cultures, mostly for healing and
spiritual purposes, seem to have biological effects and behavioral effects that might
be relevant for depression. And so I, like I said, I’m not the ultimate
retread guy. That really, a lot of what I end up doing
is looking at what I sometimes call ancient practices and seeing how can we kind of repurpose
them for the modern world? So a lot of my work over the last five years
is based on this idea, that human beings, although we’re really remarkably flexible
animals, we have a lot of species typical behaviors, and we have I think a lot of species
typical needs from the environment. There were certain signals across, you know,
probably a couple of million years of hominid evolution that reliably signaled either wellbeing
and sort of evolutionary success, or danger and failure. We sort of need those signals to orient ourselves
rightly in time, space and behavior. A lot of them have been just profoundly disrupted
by the modern world, and so what you get in the modern world this is wonderful opportunity
to do things you never could have done in any sort of hunter and gatherers society. This is a wonderful time to be alive, but
it’s an astoundingly disorienting time to be alive. And so what I’m interested in is trying
to, in a sort of intelligent way, bring back some of, ways to bring back these ancient
wellbeing inputs, and integrate them more into our lives so that we get the foundation
of a felt mind, body sense of stability and wellbeing, right? So it turns out that some of the really interesting
ways to do that were co-opted way back. A lot of the easy, low hanging fruit, easy
tricks, were discovered, you know, probably in Paleolithic times, but certainly in the
last 10,000 years. You can make a list of them. It turns out that there are a lot of things
we were talking about. So immune system stuff, not so much, except
that humans co-evolved to, you know, we co-evolve with so many different types of microorganisms
that really, we should look at ourselves as a sort of, not as individuals but as communities. Now, those connections have been profoundly
disrupted in the modern world, and that accounts for a lot of the, sort of allergic, asthmatic,
auto immune problems we have, but I also think a lot of depressive problems. – [Rhonda]: You’re talking about the gut
microbiome? – [Charles]: Microbiome, but also not just
in the gut, but there’s a lot of pseudo-commensal. So we existed in a world where trillions of
environmental organisms pass through us all the time, right? They didn’t live in us, but they’re constantly
passing through us. So over time, we become reliant on them to
calibrate our immune systems correctly. Of course, things that pass through us also
then marginally, they want to live within us, that they form kind of a home in. So in that way, there’s an immunological
story around ancient associations, around the fact that really we would do well to sort
of recalibrate ourselves. We don’t wanna be hanging out with, you
know, we don’t wanna go back to the times when 50% of everybody born was dead by 15
from infection, but we don’t wanna throw the baby out with the bathwater. We want to reintegrate the sort of beneficial
bacteria, and not just bacteria, but viruses and fungus, and the whole…We wanna get that. But then if you look at things that humans
have done repeatedly to induce well-being, to induce healing, to induce sort of transcendent
states, you can make a list, heat, right? It’s astounding, the number of cultures
in the world that use phasic exposure to high heat for healing purposes, or for transcendent
purposes. I mean, we’re sitting in the new world,
and certainly, the use of things like sweat lodges, and Temazcals were just were rampant
in new world indigenous cultures, but across the old world too, you know. If you look at the healing rites in the ancient
world, you know, hot baths were just a huge part. So it’s a widespread human thing. All around the globe, so many groups recognized,
you know, it’s not just living in a chronically hot environment, it’s this outrageous heat
for a time limited basis, right? I mean, why would you repeatedly stuff yourself
in a smoky, hideous, dark, miserable, sweat lodge, right? Answer, because that’s what sort of face
heated exposure induces profound states of positive wellbeing that have antidepressants
effects, right? There is one. Fasting. You know, almost every religion worth its
salt, both indigenous and the sort of world religions, have fasting is a key element. Well, what does fasting do? Fasting has powerful anti-inflammatory effects. It has powerful beneficial metabolic effects. And although to my knowledge, nobody has rigorously
studied fasting as a treatment for depression, there’s a lot of that looking at fasting
for related things like pain. And the many studies have given mood questionnaires,
fasting has powerful mood elevating effects, and it almost certainly has antidepressant
effects. Running. So the reason I’m giving this whole preamble
is, it is amazing to me the number of cultures in the world that have used intense, maybe
excessive running, as a way of inducing, you know, sort of powerful spiritual states. You see it all around the Native American
world, right? I mean, oh, it’s just crazy how many cultures
use this. It’s become a movement nowadays in Native
American communities to use running as a way to sort of overcome a lot of the challenges:
alcoholism and drug use, and those things that exist in those communities. And it’s been very successful, it’s interesting. There’s community for instance, in Navajo
land, they’ve got some great things going on where they’re re-exposing kids to long
distance running. I have a long connection with Tibetan Buddhism,
and that was very much a practice there. In Buddhism, and we were talking about this
off camera, but there’s Japanese Zen, they’re the world record holders. They have this seven-year crazy, crazy, crazy
running protocol training where at the end of it, people run more than 50 miles a day
for 100 days straight. And many people die doing this, because they
have to run carrying all their books, and they run in these crazy wooden shoes. Only 48 people have successfully done it since
the 1850s. But why would you do this? Well, you do this because it’s believed
to be a massive inducer of transcendent states. It’s a way to achieve Buddhahood in one
lifetime. And buried deep within very esoteric Tibetan
Buddhist Tantra medical texts, are descriptions of natural states that are closest to the
mind of the Buddha. So if you ask, you know, what are the states
that, these are not states of enlightenment, but if you wanna know as you wander around
in your life, what are the states where you come closest to the mind of the Buddha, one
of them is running to the point of exhaustion. Now, others are sneezing, urinating, defecating. There’s a whole list of them. It turns out that from a tantric Buddhist
perspective, rapid shifts in autonomic nervous system functioning seem to be the sort of
simulacrum for, you know, the mind of enlightenment, but running to the point of exhaustion being
one of them. So running especially, because you think about
across evolutionary time, they didn’t have bicycles, they didn’t have the things we
have now so it’s not so surprising. Now, of course, you know, this ties in, because
I’m kind of a reductionist. I’m always interested in how these sort
of spiritual practices were exacted out of behaviors that were necessary for survival
and reproduction. You know, there’s this really interesting,
Dan Lieberman is kind of the famous guy at Harvard, but there’s this idea that human
brains may have evolved largely in response to long distance running, do you know that? Like persistence hunting. – [Rhonda]: Yeah, I know. I didn’t know about this theory. – [Charles]: Oh, yeah, yeah. So this is really, really interesting stuff. You ever wanna go do it, I can hook you up
with the guys who do this. Humans are the greatest thermal regulators
in the animal world, right? It turns out that humans, if you ask, you
know, what is the animal that can run 100 miles the fastest? It’s humans, probably. And the hotter it is, the truer that gets,
right? There’s not an animal on the face of the
earth that can outrun a human being for 100 miles in a hot environment. We know that the human foot evolved long before
the human brain. People had modern feet before they had modern
brains. The human foot is remarkably evolved for running,
the arch, there is a whole huge story on this. So there’s this idea that humans, that one
of the reasons humans were able to develop these huge brains which take up 30% of all
the energy utilization of our body was that we were first able to stand upright and thermal
regulate, that we were able to sweat, that we were able to cool off. And remember we were talking about thermal
regulation being abnormal depression. Thermal regulation is one of the royal roads
into human consciousness in ways that are really profound, including this. So humans are able to thermoregulate, and
are able essentially, to outrun animals, because it turns out that all other animals, especially
four-legged animals, can only cool off by panting, and they can’t gallop and pant
at the same time. So as long as you can keep an animal just
at the pace where they have to gallop every once in a while, they can’t cool off, essentially,
humans can outrun them. And outrun them meaning that the animal develops
heat stroke and dies, right? – [Rhonda]: Wow. – [Charles]: There’s some great footage,
you can just on Google. If you just type in “Persistent Hunting,”
David Attenborough, back now I think 30-40 years ago, went out with a group of song bushman
and showed that they could run an eland to death. Astounding, they ran this huge animal. The animal runs but it just, keep it moving
enough that it can’t cool off, and then finally just stands there and it goes… – [Rhonda]: Because it can’t sweat? – [Charles]: It can’t sweat. It’s dying of heat. It’s heat shock. The guy just goes up, kills it, hauls it back
and eats it, right? So humans, you know, I think many of these
ancient practices that induce heightened states of awareness, evolved out of strategies, unique
human strategies for survival and reproduction. But then they become fascinating on their
own. Exercise is one of them.

5 thoughts on “Ancient practices as a treatment for depression: fasting, sweat lodges & long-distance running

  1. Watch the full episode:

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  2. If you are talking about marathon running, African tribes do not run, they jog. They do not chase the animal, they follow the animal until it is exhausted. They alternate walking & jogging, not running. Jogging is less stressful than running. When running, I mean 4min/mile & below, elite runner speed.

  3. Brilliant stuff. Of all the supplements, hot baths, cold therapy, and meditation – running is the one intervention that has the largest benefits on my life. I'm certain many of the world's mental health issues and diseases could be improved through running

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