RSS

Tag Archives: solomon islands

“Go to bed now!” (actually, I mean that!)

“Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”
William Shakespeare

Human biological clock

One of the many curiosities about my time in Solomon Islands over the past years has been the way locals relate to sleep. I have been raised to think of sleep as a necessity obviously, and something done at night when not much else is happening. I have thought of weekends as a chance to alter routines by staying up later, sleeping longer (or “catching up” whatever that means), then by the time monday rolls around, look to more of a routine-esque sleep pattern if I want to keep the work/study/training/social/domestic gig alive. I knew that a lack of sleep made me perform poorly at school, work, the gym etc, but I never really pondered upon how sleep patterns work, and whether or not they are socially, biologically, environmentally or hormonally conditioned.

Solomon Islanders don´t seem to have set routines when it comes to sleep. For that matter, when they eat and are physically active either. It took me some time before I realized that the linear routine of the common Western way of living does not apply to this Melanesian archipelago. Food and sleep and exertion occurs when it occurs. It seemed to me that if I was to survive in rural areas, my body would have to assimilate its natural rhythms to local time as best it could. This meant being hungry, over satiated, so well rested to become stiff, exhausted from random bouts of paddling, trekking, football, bored and over stimulated. In other words, my comfort zones were put to the test every day, by not being able to precisely judge what was about to happen. It was never drastic however. Mostly, locals rested, stayed out of the heat, chatted, chewed betel nut, and left the running about for the kids. I was an anomaly for many reasons, not the least, because I found it hard to rest so much, always on the move for more ethnographic knowledge.

I wondered how Western society has become so agitated, so excuse-orientated, so dissatisfied with its lot?. I know this is a multi-facited dilemma, but the way we look at sleep, and the way Solomon Islanders do, made me search for a deeper understanding of this massive part of our lives.

1. How does lack of sleep affect our physiological/mental/metabolic performance?

2. Is sleep a universal requirement for mankind, or are we quick to adapt to different ´lifestyles´?

3. How does light affect sleep? What about the huge changes in daylight from Northern/Southern hemisphere to equatorial regions?

4. Why am I tired in the winter months, but awake in the summer months? Are we like bears or bats?

Robb Wolf is a guy whose advice seems to resonate on many levels with sensibility and logic. Often talking about the importance of sleep, Wolf advocates getting as much as possible short of getting divorced or fired, and in terms of training, weight control, hormonal balance, cortisol levels and insulin intolerance to name but a few factors, sleep is an obvious component of a healthy lifestyle. But still, I needed to know more about circadian rhythms and environmental factors that have selected us to become tired and awake in different ways at different times of the year. After all, modern man only recently ventured away from equatorial regions out to the extremities, and surely our genetic makeup has allowed for adaptability, but not adaption?. I suspected that sleep was another factor that was being manipulated by modern life, trying to con the physiology of our natural life cycles to fight the need to rest.

I read “Lights Out: Sleep, sugar and survival” by Wiley and Formby (2001) on Robb Wolf’s recommendation. Good read indeed, despite the mediocre reviews. I found their argument about seasonal changes effecting not only our dietary requirements, but our need for more or less sleep relating to light and energy zones very much standard evolutionary theory, but sleep specific, in that we cannot speak of optimal health by preferencing one factor (diet, lifestyle, rest, movement) over the other. In this sense, it strikes accord with a paleo-like way of thinking, if not in a more extreme context. To suggest that summertime (obviously this is a Northern hemisphere bias book) is party-time, stay up late, eat, drink and be merry type gig, viz-a-viz wintertime, where we should hybernate like a bear, and live in darkness is more to highlight our misguided lifestyles, than a doctrine to be strictly abided by. Despite the somewhat sloppy writing style (having just finished Gary Taubes’ excellent Why we get fat: And what to do about it) the message appears clear:

  • Sleep more, in order to recover
  • Avoid sugar, grains and excessive carbohydrates
  • Listen to your body as it is trying to be in tune with the seasons
  • Excessive artificial light in winter and sleep deprivation screws your hormonal balance, and exacerbates carb addiction

Lack of sleep blunts human growth hormone response, raises cortisol levels and causes insulin resistance. Not good, unless you want to soften out.

Anthropology, as the great bastion of holistic social sciences, has strangely remained quiet on the issue of sleep. Professor Carol M. Worthman, a leading researcher on the social ecology of sleep and hormone related developmental issues at Emory University, Atlanta, has crucially shown that the majority of clinical research and trials on sleep related disorders and habits are based on Western societies where sleep patterns are drastically different from societies where artificial light sources are infrequently available, and seasonal changes are minimal. The comparative field of evolutionary medicine is one branch of anthropological research that can be useful cross-comparatively in determining the extent of sleep variation in cultures with a focus on certain variables that point to deterioration of physical and mental health. As yet, no long-term cross-cultural epidemiological studies have been carried out that allow us to ascertain the effects of sleep deprivation, and lead us to a better understanding of the ideal way our biological sleep temporality effects our wellbeing, regardless of locality.

A better understanding of the history of sleep practices is needed so the social and physiological constraints that allow sleep to become inextricable linked to circadian patterns of consciousness, which are both phylogenetically and ontogenetically determined, become slightly more demystified. After all, to confuse this matter further, or at least my curiosity as to why Solomon Islanders slept so randomly, is the fact that circadian rhythms, and the hormonal action that takes place regulating our biological makeup, occur whilst awake AND asleep. It has the makings of something sci-fi this sleep thing. We are sleeping less and less, have more and more clutter and stress and fake-food surrounding us, and even try to alter our physical and genetic makeup by synthetic interventions – that perhaps humanity is trying to out-wit biology and attempt not just to stay up late, but stay up forever?.

I recently stumbled upon the work of A. Roger Ekirch, historian, and author of the fascinating “At Day´s close: Night in Times Past” (2005). Taking us back to the medieval days of the 16th-18th centuries, before the advent of electric lighting, Ekirch reveals the common segmented sleep patterns broken up into “first sleep” (dead sleep) and “second sleep” (morning sleep) and all the interesting nocturnal events that went on in between. Lights, he reveals, eliminated this pattern of semi-consciousness, where people would often have sex, pray and reflect. For me this is a startling find, and made me think of the way Solomon Islanders seemed half-awake, but never fully able to function in full consciousness. Often I would hear conversations, when all appeared quiet. Biphasic sleepers?.

Sleep cycle comparisons

Maybe, by looking back at our polyphasic sleep patterns from an historical perspective, comparing that with our monophasic tendencies nowadays, we are denying our evolutionary part in the animal spectrum once again?. An interesting article on biphasic sleep written by psychiatrist Thomas A. Wehr on a study about photoperiodicity (circadian rhythms) seems to confirm our tendencies to sleep in 2 periods (biphasic) of roughly 8 hours, but that artificial lighting and social norms have made us monophasic sleepers, which is not in accordance to our natural biology. To really start to geek-out on this, try this PubMed article on the evidence for a biological dawn. I also found paleohacks a goldmine of information on this issue, and as a bonus, stumbled upon this great thread for sleep hacking. Must give Tim Ferris a big High5 for getting me inspired.

I feel the need to do some more research though, and self-experimentation. Maybe my biological clock will tell me when it is time for that. I trust that clock, for it has made us a perfect species for adaptability to so much modern life presents to us, but we need sleep, and a good deal more than we are getting. That we cannot deny.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Physical health and holism: Solomon Islands perspective

Sport in nature, Solomon style. Easy.

As anthropologists, we are continually searching for new or revised understandings of the present human complex by comparing and contrasting people, groups, cultures and patterns of interaction and adaptation. To do this we need to appreciate and account for the historical record in terms of evolutionary change as well as searching for clues that can help us locate and analyze the particular complex taking place today. We do this to enable a broader sense of understanding and respect for changes that are contextual and multifaceted. Let me give an example from my field in Solomon Islands and show how this relates to the need for more nuanced understandings of health and fitness today.

The Solomon Islands has a population of about 550 000 made up of some 900 sparsely populated islands in the south west Pacific. It’s an isolated place, gets few visitors and is utterly fascinating and beautiful in terms of its inhabitants and natural environment. Ideal then for an anthropologist to get involved in sports ethnography in a region traditionally looked at from more mainstream thematic perspectives of kinship, ecology, gender, nationalism, religion etc. The locals are sports mad, especially for soccer, and have flown the national flag at successive FIFA beach soccer and futsal world cups. (More on these amazing players and Solomon Islands in later posts)

I’ve spent months living in Solomon Islands on and off for the past few years in conjunction with my doctoral work at the University of Bergen, and have been able to gain access to, and participate in most aspects of the local society in order to understand and appreciate the pervasive nature of sporting practice there. I have lived, played, coached, travelled abroad with and shared day to day routines with young soccer players, interviewed prominent officials and government representatives as well as spending extensive time searching through archival records from the colonial past. In other words, my methodologies have been primed through academic training in more classical British anthropology, but also with my own form of experiential ethnographic approach that has seen me literally do what I study.

Natural, naked play...as we should

Where does this get us, and how does it relate to modern practical and theoretical comprehension of the human body in relation to physiological health and its adjustments to the social issues facing us today?. Well, a number of things stand out from my work that I’ll endeavour to incorporate more generally into the framework of Primal Movers.

  • Confirmation of the fact that a lot of what we know today regarding sporting performance and the factors compounding its expression, have long been with us, yet not adequately extrapolated in terms of the logic of newer ‘scientific reasoning’ that assumes an essentialized cut with the past.
  • Knowledge, as we know it in terms of Western-based empirical systems of understanding performance, is often inadequately imparted on non-Western nation states, stemming from an ethnocentric view of development and/or ‘progress’.
  • ‘More’ is certainly not victorious over ‘less’ in terms of the vast majority of training methodologies I have both used myself and with others. This logic only makes sense on the scoreboard of a match. Training more can produce some short term results, but inevitably has longer term negative consequences if pushed upon a body that is not hormonally or holistically in balance with its optimized engineered condition. (I’ll talk about this concept in another post)
  • Cordain, Linderberg, Eaton, Harris, Wolf et al may have certain disagreements over the implementation of the Paleo/primal framework as a workable modus operandi for the general public, but they all DO agree upon the fact that Western foodstuffs have had a devastating effect on populations who have until recently subsisted on local produce as the mainstay of their diet. This is shockingly apparent in Solomon Islands, and other Pacific Island nations. (for more see the excellent Kitava study)
  • Periodization, as the less than ideal umbrella term for change in routine, is essential not only for goal orientated results, but for health optimization over the long term. From observing Solomon Islanders working and eating from the land and sea, subsisting on the natural resources, observing the cyclic rhythms of time, and getting plenty of rest, I am convinced that our ideal balance IS true to our optimized engineered condition.
  • Incorporating natural movement as part of your way of being develops both a strong musculoskeletal system as well as enhanced cardiovascular and respiratory capacities. This, combined with proper rest and periodic changes in movement intensity certainly forestalls injury occurrence and burnout, as it is naturally less severe on your glycolic pathway. (I’ll write about my ideas behind overtraining and its effects on insulin release, cortisol and adrenal production and suppression issues in a later post)

    National Bilikiki team...4 world cup appearances

Ok, so participation combined with observation and analysis of historical records is the sine qua non of an anthropological study, and produces qualitative data that can be further interrogated and is hopefully beneficial to both researcher and local population. Compared to (what many have said before me) the less rigorous social, and indeed natural sciences, anthropology lays no claim to a bound up notion of universal truths. What I refer to is the fact that cultural relativism, the raison d’être of what it is that we attempt to do in the field, is questioning the practical and conceptual logics of systems of being, based on a holistic understanding of the diverse human condition.

And for the primal mover?. Solomon Island athleticism, their logic for training, playing, winning, sharing and a whole host of other factors bound up in sporting practice contributes to our ongoing attempt to formulate more accurate, boundary-busting and simplistic understanding of who we are and how we are evolved to function.

My work is not a philosophical pontification of what might have been and may be, in a far off land where the majority of the population still lives a subsistence lifestyle. It is not even an attempt to romanticize what existence is like in a world less tarnished by Western intrusion, in a sort of “us verses them” dichotomy. My aim here is to give a brief introduction to the way the discipline seeks answers from the past, to situate the present, and to unmask what needs to be focused upon in the future.

I used myself as a methodological tool to help investigate how sport is played, perceived and affects the people of a small island state. I learnt how they trained, ate, relaxed, theorized and lived out their passion for the game. I taught them some things I knew, like training principles for different physical purposes, the effects of the Tabata protocol, CrossFit style training, some of the science behind the natural nutritional opportunities of the islands vis-à-vis the Chinese imported carbohydrate and artificial sweetener calamity. They taught me how to properly climb coconut trees and dive deep down for barracuda. They broadened my understanding of physical health and wellbeing, more specifically, how Western notions are so incomplete and fraught with hidden agendas that continually derail logical fitness and nutritional programs.

If I was not sure before that we have much to learn when it comes to a holistic integration of social, physical, nutritional and evolutionary forms of bodily function, then the Solomon Islands has ingrained this in me. Stop wasting time waiting for someone else to debunk someone else’s idea on optimal performance, and for heavens sake, don’t take as gospel what you read in the traditional media. Eat fresh, natural foods, rest lots, exercise and move naturally and energetically daily, smile and enjoy your world around you. Solomon style.

 

Tags: , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: