science   ·   15. September 2021

can keeping with tradition bring us better health?

lessons on how our ancestors (and indigenous peoples) got it right

Two years ago, a group of highly esteemed doctors and ethnobotanical researchers set out to examine whether or not individuals who adhered to a more traditional lifestyle, were more likely to live longer and have better health. 

What they found via their investigation of the Pohnpeian population within Micronesia was a confirmation of their hypothesis. In other words, the study found that the higher an individual scored on the tradition scale (more on this later), the higher they also scored on the health scale (1). 

The researchers’ findings provide excellent food for thought as to whether or not the same can be extrapolated and applied to our day-to-day lifestyles in the West:


Indeed, can keeping tradition alive be helpful for keeping us alive too?

We were interested in this concept at sofi, so we decided to explore. 

In the study mentioned above, it was no accident that the researchers chose to focus on individuals living in the State of Pohnpei. In fact, in this case, Pohnpei offered a prime opportunity for the collection of data relating to tradition as a large majority of the State’s inhabitants were somewhat caught in a unique phase of lifestyle transition.

As the dependence on imported products, practices, and technologies increased due to the expansion of international trade within these regions, indigenous peoples once living traditional lifestyles were now being confronted by a wave of cultural change.

By examining populations now living on the main island (low in tradition) and those who continued to reside in remote atolls just off the island (high in tradition), significant differences in their health and longevity could be found. 

The study even describes the interview of a 45-year old man who did not want the westernisation of Pohnpei to continue, stating, “because nowadays we have different kinds of sicknesses,” with another person declaring, “imported food is giving us disease.” 

What’s more, is that due to the dramatic change in lifestyle as a result of the shift to more modern practices, many of the health issues facing older populations of developing countries all over the world, are now chronic, non-communicable diseases like heart disease, hypertension related to stress and diabetes (2, 3).

Consequently, this is a phenomenon that is very new, and where the focus of medicine within these places tends to remain on communicable diseases (e.g. malaria or tuberculosis), there are important lessons to be gained from realising the importance of preserving tradition for health. 

defining tradition and health

In order to assess how tradition and health interact with one another, it’s necessary to first understand how they are both defined within the context of the research study. 

Both a Traditional-Modern scale, and a Healthy-Unhealthy scale were used, with some of the items of each scale defined as the following (4):

Traditional:

  • Grows crops on the land
  • Prepares the traditional drink sakau in the traditional way
  • Uses traditional medicines
  • Family owns a canoe

Modern:

  • Has a desk job/works on a computer
  • Works to buy a car
  • Go to a medical clinic
  • Drinks sakau with alcohol
  • Does not traditionally prepare meals

Healthy: 

  • Does not eat white rice, pizza, candy, canned vegetables, Spam, or white bread
  • Exercises frequently
  • Does not watch television
  • Considers themselves healthy

Unhealthy: 

  • Eats canned fish more than 5 times a week
  • Does not grow food on their land
  • Watches TV more than 2 hours a week
  • Does not have friends
  • Does not exercise
  • Considers themselves unhealthy

As you can see from the scales above, not all aspects of Pohmpeian tradition are applicable to our day-to-day lives in the West, but they do emphasize the degree to which we have strayed from traditional ways of living. 

Most, if not all, items on the Modern scale are actions we consider to be part of our “normal life,” with very little consideration for the negative consequences. 

Chronic, preventable, and closely stress-related diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes account for 7 out of every 10 deaths in the United States each year, and are increasingly common across a globalized world (5).

Simple yet often overlooked actions such as getting regular exercise, eating a variety of whole plant foods, using plant-based medicine as a first line of defence, and having an active role within local communities are behaviours that we could all benefit from a greater return to.

the psychological benefits of ritual and tradition

Further to the physical health and wellness benefits linked to some of the activities mentioned above, there is a psychological value in the preservation of traditional practices, too. 

Researchers propose that engagement in ritual (whether that’s doing stretches in the morning, preparing food mindfully and by hand, or performing simple breathing exercise before bed) has the ability to reduce both anxiety and stress (6, 7). 

Multiple psychological experiments also highlight the positive effects of framing basic actions as “rituals” by assigning deeper meaning to them, even if that meaning surpasses the purposes of the action itself (8).

We see this in practices such as enjoying our morning coffee, where something as simple as a caffeine boost quickly becomes the most treasured part of our routine. 

Where the meaning of ritual is then rooted in historical tradition, the positive effects we may experience become even greater.

Engaging in actions that mimic those of our ancestors, like turning to plants for wellness healing (as is our core mission with sofi), provides us the critical chance to self-regulate our emotional well being - in addition to the physical. 

The key here lies not only in the plants, but also in the meaning. 

Psychologists have found that by contemplating and incorporating tradition in our routine, we broaden our way of thinking about time. The more we think about how our actions of the present relate to the wisdom of our ancestral past, the more meaning we attribute to our lives, in general (9, 10). 

In this way, daily rituals and routines grounded in tradition can - and should - play a core role in supporting our overall health, reducing our life stressors, and improving our relationships (with both ourselves and others) all at the same time. 

Learn more about how sofi can help to mitigate anxiety, insomnia, stress, and fatigue by clicking here, and join our brand new community of Pioneers to help us foster the reconnection between people and plants.


References:

  1. Balick MJ, Lee RA, De Gezelle JM, Wolkow R, Cohen G, Sohl F, et al. (2019) Traditional lifestyles, transition, and implications for healthy aging: An Example from the remote island of Pohnpei, Micronesia.
  2. Hodge AM, Dowse GK, Toelupe P,Collins VR, Zimmet PZ. The Association of Modernization with Dyslipidaemia and Changes in Lipid Levels in the Polynesian Population of Western Samoa. Int J Epidemiol. 1997; 26(2):297–306.
  3. World Health Organization Regional Office for the Western Pacific. Ageing and Health: A Health Promotion Approach for Developing Countries. Manila, Philippines; 2003a.
  4. Balick MJ, Lee RA, De Gezelle JM, Wolkow R, Cohen G, Sohl F, et al. (2019) Traditional lifestyles, transition, and implications for healthy aging: An Example from the remote island of Pohnpei, Micronesia.
  5. Kung HC, Hoyert DL, Xu J, Murphy SL. Deaths: final data for 2005. Natl Vital Stat Rep. 2008 Apr 24;56(10):1-120.
  6. Boyer P, Liénard P. Why ritualized behavior? Precaution Systems and action parsing in developmental, pathological and cultural rituals. Behav Brain Sci. 2006 Dec;29(6):595-613; discussion 613-50
  7. Brooks, Alison & Schroeder, Juliana & Risen, Jane & Gino, Francesca & Galinsky, Adam & Norton, Michael & Schweitzer, Maurice. (2016). Don’t stop believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
  8. Watson-Jones RE, Legare CH. The Social Functions of Group Rituals. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2016;25(1):42-46. 
  9. Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer L. Aaker & Emily N. Garbinsky (2013) Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8:6, 505-516
  10. Eidelman, S., Crandall, C. S., & Pattershall, J. (2009). The existence bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(5), 765–775.