Ep61 – What Can We Learn From Our Ancestors About Fertility


Hello, you are listening to Katy Bradbury, nutritional therapist and registered nurse. Today’s podcast episode is called What can we learn from our ancestors about fertility?



Hello, and welcome. It feels really strange actually coming to you today. I am recording the episode, would you believe, on a Saturday, not a Sunday, which is very bizarre. It doesn’t make a difference to you because I will still be releasing on Sunday night, as usual, but I just found myself with a spare moment. And I was feeling really pensive. I’ve just been into my Facebook group and done a live video there. And I thought now’s a good time to come and talk to you on the podcast. So here I am.



Welcome. As usual, I’d love to hear from you. I absolutely love hearing from my listeners. So if you’re a regular listener and you haven’t given me a rating or a review yet, please do take just a minute and do that. That would be absolutely amazing, not just to give me a massive confidence boost but to help the people who really need to hear this to actually help it reach more people. So if you’re a new listener, then welcome to you too.



I wanted to talk to you today about a topic that is very close to my heart, actually, because it was something that first sparked my interest many years ago. Back, back, back when I was a teenager, and I’d finished my A levels, I’m going to give you a bit of backstory here. I was a teenager, and I was finishing my A-Levels sorry, I hadn’t finished them. I was finishing them. And we were at the point where we were applying for university. And I knew I definitely wanted to go to uni. That wasn’t the issue. The issue was, oops, of course, turn my phone on silent, okay. The issue was that I didn’t know what I wanted to study. Now, I knew I was definitely interested in things. And I knew that I was interested in particular things, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what. I already knew that I was ultimately interested in people. I love people. I love connecting with people. I just find people; I find humanity just incredible, actually. And I find it fascinating. And I find all of the multifaceted layers of what it is to be a human being just so interesting.



I always have done, and I was doing my A levels that I chose at my A levels which I thought would really quench my thirst for everything I just said about my kind of quest to know and understand more about humanity. And I chose for my A-levels, two have my A -levels anyway, I chose psychology and sociology thinking yeah, brilliant, like, understand the human mind. Understanding humans at a social level like that is going to be great. I’m going to love it. I didn’t! I actually hated studying psychology and sociology. And I think that part of it was maybe that I didn’t connect with my teachers that well, I did with a few of them, and part of it was just the time in my life. You know, I was a teenager, I was looking for more. I was questioning things. I just wasn’t satisfied with it. But one of the big things that bugged me about psychology and sociology was this whole piece around everyone theorising everything and people being on one side of the fence or the other. So you’ve got different types of psychologists, and they will argue with each other, right? It’s the same with philosophers. They all argue with each other. And they will say, No, no, no, no, no, no is this way, my way is the right way.

Of course, you know, a bunch of old men. By old men, I mean, like, olden times, men. And they all just were waving their flags and trying to get everyone on their side. And to the point where it just blinkered their views, they started to try and explain the whole world through their narrow lens of the theory they’d come up with. That’s just not right. It’s just not right. And I got so annoyed with that. And I was like, can’t people see that this is just wrong, like, the world is more complex than that. And people are more complex than that. And there’s a bit more nuance here, guys, like, come on.



So, and I realise I’m being a bit long-winded in my introduction here, but it’s important to give the backstory. So I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I was like, ‘there must be something, there must be something that is to fire up my interest. And that is going to be about what I want it to be about’. We went to a sample lecture. We went to our local university, which I’m from East London, so it was the University of East London. And we have a little open day thing there as part of a college trip to the University of East London. And they very kindly put on a load of sample lectures for us to help us decide on our subjects. And so we were looking, we could do four or five different seminars, I think, in the day. And I was looking on this piece of paper at the list. And we had to tick the boxes for the ones we wanted to attend. And I was looking down this list, and I saw a word that I’d never seen before, and it was anthropology. And I was like, Oh, right. Okay, I’ve never heard of that before. I have no idea what anthropology is. I tick that box because I don’t know what I want to do. Let’s tick the box and go and see what anthropology is about.



I went to this seminar on anthropology. And honestly, my jaw was on the floor for most of it, and I came away thinking bloody hell, like this, this is what I want to do. This is the missing link for me. This is what I’ve been looking for. This is incredible. And that’s what I did. Now, I remember the lecture I went to; they were ultimately trying to sell the University of East London. They were trying to get us on board with UEL because that was their uni. And, of course, universities are all money-making establishments now. But they were talking about their particular course. And the fact that their course was special because their anthropology programme was biological and social anthropology combined. And this was special because there are only a handful of universities in the country that did those two together.



And I realised that I had to do a combination of biological and social anthropology because doing social anthropology alone, which I guess is more the traditional type of anthropology that a lot of people think of when they think of anthropology, was just not going to be enough for me, I needed it to be more comprehensive. It was going to be just a little bit too sociological, but with different cultures, if I did just social anthropology, so I went on a quest. I didn’t particularly want to go to UEL because I wanted to go away for uni and live away from home etc. And the University of East London was on the doorstep for me. I did apply there, but I didn’t choose in the end, so where I went was to Durham. That was the polar opposite of on the doorstep because that was 300 miles away on the other side of the country, right up in the northeast. So off I toddled to Durham University. I spent three years studying biological and social anthropology, and I loved it. I absolutely loved it. And that was my first foray really into understanding the world through the lens that I now understand the world.



And a significant part of that lens, a significant part of how I view the world, is through an evolutionary lens. Because we are animals, just like any other animal on the planet, we’re not just like any other animal on the planet, we’re very, very different. We’re very unique from any other animal, but we are mammals, and we are primates Aad our bodies, our current human body, what we look and how we present now, in our current form, hasn’t changed a huge amount, right? It hasn’t changed a huge amount in the last 20,000 years. And that’s not very long in evolutionary terms, 20,000 years. But one of the main reasons for that is because we, instead of having to, so the thing about evolution is that animals or any organism, any living thing, has to adapt to its environment physically, right. And so animals are incredible, like mind-blowingly, adapted to their environment. If we look at the finches in the Galapagos Islands and we look at all the different characteristics they have, each one of them is just beautifully suited to the environment in which they live. And, and that’s beautiful, that is symbiotic with nature. And that’s the way it’s meant to be for them. But humans are very interesting because our brains are so big for our body size, right? So we got a lot of brainpower, and we developed this prefrontal cortex in our brain, which is the real thinking brain. So we’re able to have abstract thought, we have complex communication skills, arguably, most of us anyway. And, you know, we’re really quite incredible beings. And what we started to do as humans was, instead of our bodies having to adapt to the environment, we started changing our environment to suit us. So that’s how eventually, we came from being cavemen to living in small societies and building huts and then starting to work the land a bit and starting to use tools and working together. And then the agricultural revolution, farming, and then the world just changed, you know, we took over. Because we didn’t need to be in a set environment anymore, we could change our environment. And that is so powerful.



However, there is a mismatch, and although we have been very, very clever in being have changed our environment, in a lot of ways, our environment has changed so rapidly, in the last, well, certainly in the last 20,000 years. But even in the last 100 years, even in the last ten years, five years, our environment has changed dramatically. And that looks very, very different from the world in which we developed biologically. And so there is a mismatch between that kind of natural world, living in small bands of people living in a natural environment, compared to the way we live now. And so the pressures and strains on us are very, very different now.



Now, the reason I’m talking to you about this today, the reason I wanted to come and talk to you about this, is because, as I say, this forms the backdrop for a lot of the way I think about the world because of my background in anthropology. I wanted to just have a quick think today about some things that we can learn from our ancestors about fertility. Because one of the most striking facts about fertility or infertility, people who struggle with fertility, is that people didn’t use to struggle. Fertility is decreasing. We know this, sperm health is decreasing, egg health, we know that people, statistics of people struggling with fertility in different forms, whether that’s reproductive conditions, or just unexplained infertility, whatever it looks like. All of those cases are on the rise rapidly. But it didn’t use to be like that. And I’m not saying that nobody ever, in the caveman days, I’m not saying that nobody ever struggled with fertility. I’m sure they did. We have to be very careful about over romanticising those times because there was a lot that was really harsh about those times, right? We didn’t have the comfortable lives that we do now. We didn’t have the kind of social setup that we do now, either. So I think that life could be pretty brutal at times, and people died a lot younger and died mostly from infectious diseases. You know, we didn’t have antibiotics, we didn’t have modern medicine. So life looked very, very different. But one thing that people weren’t doing was struggling on mass with fertility.



So I got a list of 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 things here that are examples of things that we can learn from our ancestors about fertility. And I’ve spent a really, really long time given the backstory there. So I’m going to whiz through some of these because it’s not rocket science. But it’s a really, really helpful reminder that these are the things that in the modern world, for all of its wonders, for all of its conveniences for all of the amazing things about it. There’s a lot that we’re not doing that well. And there’s a lot that we’re not doing that well, that we did do that well, once upon a time. And that that is the way our bodies were created. And that was the way our bodies are biologically suited to, and that there is a mismatch now, between the way our biology is set up, what it’s geared up for, and what we’re actually presented within our day-to-day reality.



So you can probably guess the first thing is nutrition. Nutritionally, things look very different now from what they did once upon a time. We talk about the Mediterranean diet and whole foods diet, and back then, people literally lived off the land. And so it was what was available to them. It was seasonal eating. It was freshly slaughtered meat or preserved in some way. Freshly caught fish and then whatever was hunted or gathered in the immediate environment. So lots and lots of plant foods, maybe as treats, access to honey and those kinds of foods. But ultimately, diets and nutrition look very, very different back then. And that is the environment to which we are adapted. We did not have convenience stores. We didn’t have supermarkets. We didn’t even have some of the products that are available as a result of mass farming, in particular grains. Now, I’m not saying that those foods shouldn’t have a place in our diets today. I’m just saying it’s worth thinking about the fact that lots of people will, for example, have bread, pasta, or some kind of modern grain for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And that is the staple part of what is on their plate. And that just isn’t suited to what things used to look like for us. And even the amount of fibre I think I mentioned in one of my podcast episodes on digestive health, there is a huge difference between modern hunter-gatherers and Westerners in terms of the weight of their poos. So, modern hunter-gatherers, their poos are so heavy because they’re super dense because their diets are full of fibre. And for the most part, in the modern Western world, we just don’t get anywhere near enough fibre. We do not Eat anywhere enough plant foods, whole plant foods, I should say. So nutrition is one.



Movement, those ancient societies, those ancient ways of life, they moved their bodies, all day long chairs were not a thing, chairs were not a thing. And now, especially in the post COVID era, so many of us just sit at a desk all day at home, you know, we don’t even have to go out to go to work anymore half the time. And if we look at the chair, you know, our optimal position for sitting is to squat. And if you look at a baby or a young child, what do they do? Naturally, they squat, and their squat form is on point. I go to the gym, and I try to squat like a baby; it’s just nowhere near as good. But that is, that is how we should sit, squatting. That’s what we’re designed for in terms of our legs, pelvis, etc. But we don’t. We’re lazy. We take the path of least resistance. And over time, over generations, and over decades, we get too comfortable sitting on a flat chair and being immobile. And then the squatting becomes really uncomfortable and feels unnatural, but actually, it’s the natural thing. Moving our body walking around, being naturally active as part of day-to-day life—number two.



Communities, the third one. In tight-knit communities, so many people now undergoing difficulties with their fertility feel alone. And so you could feel like you’re connected with the world around you in that, you know, you might have a job, go to work, have a partner, and have a family. But it’s not the same. It’s not that kind of everyone is up in everyone else’s business. Now, of course, there are benefits to privacy.



And I think that personally, I am quite a private person. But there is something to be said for that sense of community. Because it means that as much as everyone’s up in your business, it also means that people are holding each other. And to be told is to be nurtured, and to be nurtured is for a problem to not feel as bad as what it might do otherwise.



Sleep as well. So again, we didn’t have; okay, we might have mastered fire, but we didn’t have electricity back then. And so, once the sun went down, we were exposed to darkness. And darkness meant that our melatonin could produce properly our sleep hormone. And sleep was of a lot better quality. So even though we didn’t have beds and all of those nice, cosy Modcons that we have now, we were living in tune with nature. And that’s the next one connecting with nature. That was a huge difference. Like now, we live in the comfort of our house. We live in four brick walls, and it always feels strange to be out and about. If you’ve ever been, for example, here in the UK, we’ve got, I’m going to use the example of the Lake District, and we love going; it’s one of those beautiful places in the world. But wherever that is for you, we’ve got loads of amazing places of natural beauty here in the UK. We’re very fortunate. And you could go to any one of those on a trip, right? And you might go out walking and have you ever been on an experience where you’ve been out walking, and maybe the sun has started to come down? And in your head, you’re starting to freak out like, what happens if we get lost out here? And the idea of having to spend the night out in the wilderness is quite scary, isn’t it if you’ve ever been in that situation.



And isn’t that incredible, the idea of spending that, I’m not talking about camping and camping is different because again, camping is quite comfortable. All of those things, but the idea of having to just be out in the wild, can fill us with quite a bit of fear. That is very different because we used to live out in the wild. It was no big thing like that was how we lived. So it’s this disconnect from nature. It’s the fact that we live our lives and then go out in nature, we go for a walk, you know, rather than being completely immersed in nature.



Spirituality as well. So we know from research, and this isn’t an exact match from what I’m saying, but we know from research that there are some zones in the world that have been studied, and they’re called the Blue Zones. And the people who live in the blue zones have the highest numbers of people who live over 100 years old. And so there’s been research done on those parts of the world. I can’t remember how many; I think there’s maybe like eight or nine of them, these blue zones across the world; there’s a place in Greece, I think there’s somewhere in Japan, I can’t remember the rest of them. And the research looked at the commonalities, and it came up with this list of things. And it’s not that different to some of the things I’ve spoken about here. But which is why I’m connecting it because I think that those people are living more in tune with perhaps how we might have once lived. But one of the things that came out in the Blue Zones research is spirituality of some description. It doesn’t matter what but having some connection to something bigger, whatever that might be, whether it’s a God, whether it’s a religion, whether it is even nature, but something bigger, whether it’s some kind of universal force that you connect in with, at a deeper level, outside of your kind of immediate physical, external environment, has been found to have a huge positive impact on health and well being. So I thought that was really interesting as well.



So what have I said so far? I’ve said nutrition, I’ve said movement, I’ve said community, I’ve said sleep, I’ve said connected with nature, I’ve said spirituality, and the other one is stress.



You might argue that our ancestors might have been even more stressed because they were faced with life or death situations, probably, fairly regularly, whether that was the threat of wild animals or whether it was the threat of starvation, or, you know, survival. However, yes, those stresses were real, and they were big. But the way our bodies are adapted physically and physiologically is that our bodies are adapted to those stresses. So those threats to life stresses and how that is mismatched with the modern world is that you know, 999 times out of 1000 distress that you face is not a life or death stress. It’s not. It’s work stress, financial stress, relationship stress, traffic stress, road rage stress, or hanger. It’s like back pain or inflammation. It’s anything; infertility and those stresses are very different. But because of the evolutionary mismatch, our bodies treat it in the exact same way that they would have done once upon a time, which was a threat to life. And when we are pummelling and hammered with the same stresses day in and day out, over and over again, and we’re not doing anything to buffer them, we’re just trying to muddle through and get through it somehow. And we’re not taking measures to activate that parasympathetic nervous system, the calming nervous system, and we’re in this heightened state all of the time. Our bodies think that we are under constant threat to life. And that has huge repercussions for fertility. Because for a lot of people, it can simply mean that the reproductive system is switched off because the body doesn’t deem it safe to reproduce. So there’s a huge mismatch there with the stress as well.



So there’s a lot there, right? What can we learn from our ancestors about fertility? It’s what we put into our bodies. It’s what we eat; it’s how we move. It’s the way we connect with other humans community. It’s sleep; it’s night and day and connecting with nature. It’s having some kind of spirituality, whatever that looks like. And it’s how we manage our stress. It’s not rocket science, but those are the things that it has to come back to. And those things are significant.



So those are some of the examples of what we can learn from our ancestors about fertility and a bit of backstory about my love of anthropology. But that’s it. That’s what I’m going to talk to you about today. Those are really all of those things are the reason that in my group I work, so in my membership that I’m just about to open the doors for, there are still a few paces places left at the cheap early bird price of 50 pounds a month. These are the cornerstones that we cover. And it is practical. It’s not a load of teaching. There is a little bit of teaching there, but it is practical tools. And it’s meeting with me every week in a group to share your experiences, get group coaching, work through this stuff at your own pace, be accountable, and share the highs and lows and everything else. So if you feel like you want my support, then this will be the best value way to get it. There are a few spots left at the 50 pounds a month early bird price. So if you do want to get in, please let me know now because I’ve been a bit held up opening the doors to this membership. But we are starting imminently. And when I say imminently, it’s going to be in the next week or two. So by the end of May 2022, we’ll be getting going. I will put a link in the show notes to sign up for anyone who wants to sign up, and if you’re lucky, you might catch one of the early bird 50 pounds a month slots. If not, it’s still only 67 pounds a month, so it’s still incredible value. If you want to know more, if you want to know more about what it would be like to work with me, whether that’s in the group setting or with one to one support or with my group, my 12-week programme, which is just a DIY pre-recorded programme. Drop me a line; let’s talk. I am happy to talk anything over with you to think about how I can best be of service.



So that’s it for me. I hope you had a lovely weekend and I’ll speak to you again next weekend.




Take care bye

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