Depression rates are rising and young people are more likely to suffer from depression than their parents or grandparents at their age (1). And in this post I want to show you how it may be an evolutionary mismatch of depression that’s to blame.
What do I mean by that?
I mean that we human beings are not living life the way we are designed to. Our modern-day living is vastly different to our historical lifestyle. And it is this mismatch that is driving the mental health crisis.
Many of our other modern chronic lifestyle-related diseases arise because of this mismatch, too. So that’s conditions such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, some forms of cancer etc.
Most of us in the modern western world are simply not living according to our fundamental human needs for health and wellbeing. And this mismatch makes us depressed.
The evolutionary mismatch of depression
We lived in hunter gatherer tribes not that long ago
Homo sapiens, the first modern humans, are believed to have appeared about 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. They developed a capacity for language around 50,000 ago. And it wasn’t until about 12,000 years ago that they started agriculture. Before then, they lived in hunter gatherer tribes for a very long time.
Agriculture changed everything. Society began to change rapidly and paved the way for civilisation. And it’s really the last few hundred years where life for humans transformed completely through industrialisation. Then urbanisation. Then technological advances. Secularisation, meaning religion lost its meaning. Materialism and consumerism. Westernisation. And suddenly we’re spending on our time alone eating pot noodles, watching countless videos on TikTok during our lunch break whilst simultaneously ordering our groceries online.
My point is: Biological evolution is slooooow. Our bodies and brains haven’t changed all that much. But the way our human lifestyles have changed in just the last 200-300 hundred years is mind-boggling and hard to comprehend.
How we live now is so utterly different to how human beings have lived in the past. Our modern lifestyles hardly resemble our historical lifestyles. And that’s where the theory of the evolutionary mismatch of depression comes in.
Our modern-day lifestyles are making us depressed
If you still believe that your depression is entirely your fault then please inhale this next section. Absorb it. Soak it in. Let it change that belief and make you realise that mental health problems often arise as a result of things that are much bigger than you.
We are all heavily influenced by our culture, our upbringing, and the messages we have received from friends, family, other people and the media. The way we live is influenced or even determined by how others around us live.
And here are some of the realities that many of us with a western lifestyle face:
We are overfed yet malnourished.
Our food culture has changed so massively that many of the foods we eat nowadays would not have been recognised by our ancestors.
Fast food. Food made in factories. Processed foods rich in calories but lacking in nutrients. Imbalanced, carbohydrate-rich diets. Lack of healthy fats and an overconsumption of saturated fats and trans fats. Lack of fibre, colour and diversity. Overeating. Plus chronic digestive health issues that hinder your ability to absorb nutrients from your diet. And foods that create microbial imbalances in our guts.
We're sedentary at work and in our spare time
We’re designed to move our bodies on a daily basis. But the way our work culture has evolved means that many of us spend our days (and evenings) sitting down. Lots of people end up feeling stiff, get out of breath easily, and can’t bend their joints/muscles properly. And the lack of exercise will be felt by your brain and within your mental health.
We're indoor creatures and don't get much direct sunlight or fresh air
Workplaces have migrated from fields and farms to factories and offices. Instead of basking in sunlight, we’re not sitting in front of screens. And this move away from direct sunlight and into indoor dwelling has undoubtedly affected our circadian rhythms, contributing to tiredness and trouble sleeping. Childhood has very much moved indoors, too.
Many struggle to really connect with nature
As primarily indoor dwellers, many of us struggle to enjoy nature. Instead, it feels boring. We don’t know what to do with it or in it. And yet, we humans are fundamentally a part of nature ourselves. And this disconnection from the natural world has negative consequences for our cognition, attention and psychological wellbeing (2).
There's a breakdown of tight family units, a huge epidemic of loneliness and a lack of community belonging
We used to live in tribes where we each played an important role and felt like we belonged and mattered. We had support around us when needed and in turn supported the others, too. Many of the day-to-day tasks were done collectively.
These days, we are pressured to earn enough to pay for everything we need. We work 40h a week, then do the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing all ourselves. If you’re particularly privileged, then you can pay someone to do some of those jobs for you. But that means being able to earn even more money.
We’re all so busy with our schedules that meeting up with others can feel like too much. Or, we think that everyone else is so busy that we end up feeling alone and bored. And because we’re so used to seeing everyone’s highlight reels on social media, we worry about inadequacy when people come into our homes.
Interestingly, a study on postpartum depression revealed that it may result from living in an environment where fundamental resources (good diet, sunlight exposure, a tight family network and supportive community) are lacking to cope with the increasing demands of raising a child. What’s particularly interesting is that postpartum depression rates are lower in the US among mothers from relatively poor but supportive families compared to those from more privileged backgrounds (3).
Many feel a lack of meaningful work opportunities
Modern society prioritises high-pressure careers and constant busy-ness. Many of us have jobs where it’s hard to explain what we actually do. Proper craftsmanship has been devalued in favour of cheap labour and mass production. Many of us struggle with a lack of purpose and lack of meaning. We worry about being easily replaceable. And lots of people long for their “tribe” – to be part of a great team working together on something important.
Loss of cultural and social practices including rituals, traditions, activities and festivals
Singing, dancing, creative arts, rituals, celebrations… Things that are valued much less in modern society than in human history. But they provide rich meaning and connection in our lives, and make our hearts sing.
Obsession with materialism, consumerism, status and beauty ideals
Feeling the need to staying up to date with the latest fashion trends creates an insane amount of pressure on women in particular . One day it’s straight hair, small bum, small boobs. The next it’s curly hair, a curvy figure and fake eyebrows. It’s not hard to see how the never-ending pressure contributes to eating disorders.
We spend our hard-earned money on over-priced clothing made far away by workers who aren’t paid enough with terrible working conditions. We get trapped by having to have the perfect homes. We’re bored on the weekends and fill the void with shopping. We never feel that what we have right now is enough. That we are enough as we are.
Lack of intergenerational living and old age not being celebrated
Ageing is a privilege. Personally, this is something I have truly come to believe after a friend and fellow mum died of breast cancer age 40. But old age in our western culture is something we fear and reject. We don’t want it. We pay good money to have toxins injected into our face to get rid of wrinkles. Retirement is something many dream about, and yet in reality it’s often a time of loneliness and lack of purpose. Back in our tribal times, we used to all live together. Old age meant wisdom. You didn’t stop contributing to society just because of your age. Nowadays, many men and women in their 40s and 50s feel that they are past their prime and that society doesn’t value them as much anymore.
Exposure to harmful man-made chemicals and toxins
“An estimated 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment in 2012 – nearly 1 in 4 of total global deaths, according to new estimates from WHO. Environmental risk factors, such as air, water and soil pollution, chemical exposures, climate change, and ultraviolet radiation, contribute to more than 100 diseases and injuries.” (4)
Sadly, we’re surrounded by thousands of man-made chemicals these days and we don’t even have the science to fully say what’s harmful and what isn’t. Our bodies and detoxification pathways simply have to work a lot harder than before through human history.
Constant over-stimulation of all kinds
Tying in with many of the points above, we are bombarded with information everywhere. Not only when we’re out and about, but also through the internet, our phones and advertisements when we’re alone at home. If you have ever spent some time watching a animal in the wild, you may have realised that compared to us human beings they don’t do very much. They hunt for food or graze.They eat. They move. Some may play. They mate. They rest. They sleep.
We human beings cram a lot into our days. Many feel overstimulated, overwhelmed and burnt out by too much stress for too long.
So back to living in caves then?!
The mismatch is the clash between our biology and our culture.
But we won’t have to get rid of everything we own and go back to living in caves.
If this post resonates with you, then I really encourage you to spend some time thinking about your own life setup. What’s in alignment with our basic human design? Where is there a mismatch with negative consequences for your health and wellbeing?
I will leave you with some questions to ponder:
- Are you eating foods that your great grandmother would have recognised?
- Do you know about carbohydrates, proteins and fats and a healthy balance?
- Are you cooking with fresh foods yourself and you know where your ingredients are from?
- How much time do you spend walking or doing any kind of exercise/movement each day?
- Does your body feel stiff and tired?
- Can you do some of your work or leisure activities outdoors in the sun?
- Have you explored all the natural environments in your area?
- Can you name the different trees around you?
- Have you ever spent ten minutes just watching birds?
- Can you name at least three people who you could reach out to in times of need?
- Have you ever worked on your listening skills?
- When is the last time you told someone how you truly feel?
- Do you have hobbies? If not, what did you enjoy doing as a child?
- Do you know what gives you a deep sense of meaning and purpose?
- When did you feel most fulfilled in your life? What did your life look like then?
- Do you like having daily routines?
- Do you celebrate particular times in the year and look forward to those? If not, is there something you’d like to celebrate?
- Do you perhaps need to unfollow social media accounts that make you feel inadequate?
- Can you seek out people or books or other media that make you feel that you are good enough as you are?
- Who are some of the older people that you admire? Could you reach out to them?
- Do you want to stop working when you’re older?
- Can you spend time outside in nature where there’s clean air?
- Can you buy more organic produce? Filter you tap water? Gradually replace plastic containers with glass or stainless steel alternatives?
- Have you practised meditation? Read a book about mindfulness? Learnt about self-compassion?
Nutrition and lifestyle medicine to overcome depression
In essence, a lot of the work that I do with my clients is about addressing this evolutionary mismatch of depression. It’s about finding balance and putting your health and wellbeing front centre. It’s about setting your life up in a way so that you feel nurtured, inspired, motivated, content, nourished, energised and fulfilled.
If you would like to schedule a half hour Zoom call with me to discuss whether my approach is the right fit for you, then simply choose a time here. I know that asking for help can be hard, but trust me it’s so worth it.
1 Hidaka B. H. (2012). Depression as a disease of modernity: explanations for increasing prevalence. Journal of affective disorders, 140(3), 205–214. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2011.12.036
2 Bratman GN, Anderson CB, Berman MG, Cochran B, de Vries S, Flanders J, Folke C, Frumkin H, Gross JJ, Hartig T, Kahn PH Jr, Kuo M, Lawler JJ, Levin PS, Lindahl T, Meyer-Lindenberg A, Mitchell R, Ouyang Z, Roe J, Scarlett L, Smith JR, van den Bosch M, Wheeler BW, White MP, Zheng H, Daily GC. Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Sci Adv. 2019 Jul 24;5(7):eaax0903. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aax0903
3 Campos, B., Schetter, C. D., Abdou, C. M., Hobel, C. J., Glynn, L. M., & Sandman, C. A. (2008). Familialism, social support, and stress: positive implications for pregnant Latinas. Cultural diversity & ethnic minority psychology, 14(2), 155–162. https://doi.org/10.1037/1099-9809.14.2.155
5 Harris, Keith. (2003). Review of “When Culture and Biology Collide: Why we are stressed, depressed, and self-obsessed” by E. O. Smith..
6 Saha, Moitreyee. (2017). Depression: A lifestyle disease. Bionano Frontier. Naas Rating 4.17. 1-3
7 Brenner, Sharon & Jones, John & Rutanen Whaley, Riitta & Parker, William & Flinn, Mark & Muehlenbein, Michael. (2015). Evolutionary Mismatch and Chronic Psychological Stress. Journal of Evolutionary Medicine. 3. 1-11. 10.4303/jem/235885.