Everything old is new again. – Peter Allen
Today with big groups of people moving towards hunter-gather, ancestral and paleo nutrition, there has been a shift to look back at our ancient roots to discern what the best ways to eat are. I like to think about nutrition outside the lens of a particular time period, such as the Paleolithic era and prefer to think about it in terms of innate heritage. Our bodies are actually billions of years old, tracing its path back to the first life forms to live on this earth. As a result, I lean towards viewing nutrition from an ancestral or primal perspective. Both these terms put the focus back on what our species (and its predecessors) have consumed for eons, beyond any singular time frame. It takes food back through the passage of deep time.
As a species, we are omnivores and most of us do best with some mix of plant and animal foods, but in this article, the focus will be on the plant side of the equation. In this shift to eat in a way inspired by our past, we have begun to include a wider variety of plant foods into our diets in order to emulate what our ancient forbears would have consumed. Vegetables and fruits have not needed much defending for the most part in order to be included in a healthy diet, but an understanding of how innate they are to our omnivorous species have put plant foods in a new light for many. This is obviously a great thing, as a diversity of plant foods offer a multitude of health benefits.
A diet is ideally meant to be a nourishing, energizing and restorative element in our lives. There is endless debate on what the best diet is, and in the end, most ways of looking at the situation are simply a lens by which we make sense of the chaos. Nutrition is very sensitive to the context it is put within, so a traditional farmer may perceive it completely different from someone who views life on this planet through the lens of evolution. It is not my intention to address the intense controversy but to tap into the least debated of perspectives: that a healthy diet is built around whole unprocessed foods. Though, beyond the direct manipulation of foods in the modern world, there is also a processing that occurs from how we choose to breed plants and animals.
Many of the plants we currently eat, even many of the healthy nutritious varieties, have been altered and changed by current farming practices to be a lot less like there once wild untamed versions. The plants that our tribal ancestors were eating are not like the plants we have today in most cases. This does not seem to remove all the benefits of these foods but we have to assume that something is lost in translation.
This is where tonic herbs come into play providing us with the flavors, phytonutrients and qualities of the past. Many tonic herbs provide a phytonutrient time capsule that gives us access to a biological coded language that is truly “primal”. Many tonic herbs have been changed very little by humans and still contain an essence and chemical alchemy that is more representative of our primal heritage.
Wild Pine Pollen Growing in the New Mexico Mountains
Natural compounds like herbs are incredibly complex with a wide variety of elements, all with a varying degree of ratios balanced by the hand of nature and time. Once we start altering these ratios and hybridizing plants we break a chain to the plants pristine and highly diverse history. Civilization and farming tends to favor predictability and the removal of diversity, not just at the macro level of the number of plants themselves, but also at the micro level in how many medicinal phytonutrients they possess. This phytonutrient removal has become common in our food supply and occurs as a result of the desire to make plants less bitter or pungent. Through hybridization and crop selection, the medicinal components are removed and this reduces the overall beneficial physiological impact of the plant.
The inclusion of tonic herbs offers us a convenient and easily accessible path to restoring this ancient connection to the plant world. There are many tonic herbs that can offer a deep and historically rich nutritional profile. Many of my favorites are the ones that are more food like and represent a nourishing and functional food type of herb.
Herbs such as:
Pine Pollen – Pine pollen is really a whole food that is rich in vitamins, minerals, amino acids and a highly diverse phytonutrient profile.
Shilajit – Shilajit is mineral pitch and is more of a nutritional fossil than an herb. It supplies fulvic acid, an incredibly important compound that is all but lost in the modern diet due to soil depletion.
He Shou Wu – An ancient restorative tuber. Humans have eaten tubers in one form or another for millennia.
Ant – We have been eating insects since before our ancestors even came down from the trees. There is likely some form of beneficial epigenetic signaling that occurs from eating insects.
Schisandra Berry – This magical berry is likely more representative of what a truly primal ancient berry is like then the modern varieties we have today.
Medicinal Mushrooms – Though technically not plants; mushrooms likely predate most types of plants and are nutritional power houses.
There are many more options available and this list just represents some of my personal favorites. Finding ways to include these compounds (and others) in your diet can have many beneficial and life enhancing effects.