Technological developments in the past few hundred years have brought incredible benefits to our lives. However, the majority of us are now living lives that are very different to those our ancestors led. Our bodies are exposed to manmade chemicals, artificial light and pollution that can have a negative impact on our physical and emotional health.
Trying to live a more natural lifestyle is difficult though. Where do you start? Most of us don’t have the option to leave everything behind and live in the woods! It’s better to start changing a few things gradually.
In this article we’ll look at how you can change four areas of your life to start living a more natural lifestyle.
1. Avoid pollution
There are several types of pollution. We’ll look at the three that probably have the biggest impact on our daily lives: Air, light and noise pollution.
According to the World Health Organization, 9 out of 10 people in the world breathe in air with a high level of pollutants.
While UK cities are no longer covered in smoke and smog as they were in Victorian times, air pollution is still a major problem in the UK. Pollution levels are higher in the UK than in most other Western European countries, and about 8% of deaths in the UK are thought to be linked to pollution. This makes it the second biggest public health hazard after smoking.
Protecting yourself from outdoor air pollution
The most effective way to protect yourself from air pollution would be to move somewhere remote like the Outer Hebrides, but if that isn’t an option here are some other things you can do:
- Check daily air pollution and limit time spent outside when it’s high
You can see an up-to-date air quality forecast with a map on DEFRA’s website here.
- Avoid exercising in highly polluted areas
Running beside a busy road is a bad idea as you will be breathing more deeply than normal. Try to exercise in a park as far from busy roads as possible.
- Consider wearing a pollution mask
A pollution mask might not look very cool, but it could be a good investment, especially if you regularly cycle in a city or work in a polluted environment.
Protecting yourself from indoor pollution
One thing that many people don’t realise is that air quality in the home can be even worse than outside. You can’t simply block out pollution by closing the windows, as there are various sources of pollution within your home itself.
Here are some tips to improve indoor air quality:
- Don’t smoke inside
Of course the best thing is not to smoke at all, but if you’re already hooked, avoid lighting up inside.
- Avoid wood-burning stoves
Wood-burning stoves are very popular at the moment, partly because they are carbon neutral (in theory). However, wood smoke is quite harmful and is a growing source of pollution in urban areas in the UK.
- Avoid artificial fragrances
Conventional air fresheners and scented laundry products contain all kinds of harmful chemicals. Switch to unscented products or naturally scented products where possible.
- Use an indoor air quality monitor
An indoor air quality monitor will let you monitor the levels CO2 and harmful chemicals in your home and will let you know when you need to open the window to air your home.
- Keep floors clean
Dust contains allergens and chemicals, so regularly vacuuming your floors will help improve the air quality in your home.
- Get radon levels checked
Radon is a radioactive gas that is found in all buildings and can increase the risk of getting lung cancer. The level is usually low but is higher in some parts of the UK than others. You can see a map of radon levels here.
- Get some plants
Plants are natural air purifiers. While they’re unlikely to make a massive difference, having a few plants in your home will help filter out volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Improving diet to protect yourself from pollution
In addition to limiting your exposure to pollution itself, changing your diet can also help make your body better at dealing with it. Getting plenty of antioxidants such as vitamin C in your diet can help protect you from free radicals. Other things that could help protect you from the effects of pollution include vitamin E, beta carotene, omega-3 fatty acids and turmeric. If you’re not sure whether you’re getting enough vitamins in your diet, we’ve reviewed the best natural multivitamin tablets here.
It’s important to get enough light, especially if you live somewhere like the UK. However, too much light, and the wrong type of light at the wrong time, can have negative health consequences.
Artificial light can disrupt sleep patterns and have a negative impact on the hormonal system. In the past, people would wake up when it got light and go to bed shortly after it went dark. Artificial lighting allows us to interfere with this natural rhythm, which can have all kinds of unforeseen consequences.
Exposure to artificial light at night has been linked to breast cancer. It also disrupts circadian rhythms and contributes to insomnia.
Here are some tips for reducing exposure to the wrong kind of light and improving your sleep:
- Dim lights in the evening and avoid looking at screens after 9 pm
- Try to wake up minimise the number of hours you use artificial light for by waking up earlier and going to bed earlier if necessary.
You might not realise it, but noise pollution can have a measurable effect on your physical and emotional health. In addition to the obvious risks of hearing loss and reduced sleep quality, noise pollution can affect heart health and contribute to stress.
This study found that people who lived near busy airports had elevated blood pressure when an aeroplane was flying overhead. Another study found that the noise of aeroplanes flying overhead around Heathrow airport put residents at a higher risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Here are some things you can do to limit your exposure to noise pollution:
- Wear ear defenders or ear plugs
Ear defenders and ear plugs can reduce the volume of sounds by up to 39 decibels.
- Soundproof your windows
Soundproofing your windows can reduce the volume of sounds by up to 44 decibels according to ExpertSure.
- Insulate your home
This will also make it cheaper and more environmentally friendly to heat during the winter.
- Use a white noise machine
This won’t reduce the volume of other noises, but it can make sudden and unexpected noises less stressful.
2. Avoid harmful chemicals
Many products we use on a daily basis contain artificial chemicals that can be harmful to our health. These chemicals are often used as preservatives, fragrances or to create the foamy texture we associate with hygiene and beauty products. Some of these chemicals can cause skin irritation, disrupt the endocrine system or even be carcinogenic.
Often it hasn’t been irrefutably demonstrated that these chemicals are harmful, and sometimes scientific studies produce contradictory results. Also, these chemicals are typically used in very small amounts in cosmetic products. Nevertheless, it’s better to be safe than sorry, so it could be a good idea to just avoid these chemicals rather than waiting for the science to become clearer.
Here’s an overview of the main chemicals to avoid and where they are found:
- What they are: Parabens are used as preservatives to make cosmetics last longer. They have antibacterial properties that help prevent cosmetics from going off.
- Health risks: Parabens have been associated with several health risks including skin irritation, breast cancer, increased skin aging when exposed to the sun
- Ingredients to look for: Butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, methylparaben, polyparaben, propylparaben.
- Products that contain them: Parabens are often found in moisturisers, makeup, shampoo, foundations, anti-aging creams.
- Paraben-free products:
- What it is: Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is a foaming agent that works a bit like soap and helps products such as shampoo remove dirt.
- Health risks: SLS can irritate the skin and eyes. It has been associated with cancer in the past, but there is no evidence it is carcinogenic.
- Ingredients to look for: Sodium lauryl sulfate
- Products that contain it: Shampoo, toothpaste, shower gel, body wash, hand wash.
- SLS-free products:
- What they are: Phthalates are mainly used to make plastics softer and more flexible. They leach from the plastic into the air surrounding it, which is why many plastic items become more brittle over time. Phthalates are also added to cosmetics to change their texture.
- Health risks: Several phthalates are thought to be endocrine disruptors, meaning that they interfere with hormones. Babies are at particular risk from chewing plastic toys that contain phthalates.
- Ingredients to look for: Benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), butyl benzyl phthalate (BBzP), di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), di-butyl phthalate (DBP), dibutyl phthalate (DnBP), dicyclohexyl phthalate (DcHP), diethyl phthalate (DEP), diisobutyl phthalate (DiBP), di-isobutyl phthalate (DiBP), di-isoheptyl phthalate, di-isohexyl phthalate, diisononyl phthalate (DiNP), di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP), di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP), di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP), dipentyl phthalate (DPP).
- Products that contain them: Many plastic products including food and drink containers, plastic toys and vinyl flooring. They’re also used in nail polish, shampoo and insect repellent, among other things.
- Phthalate-free products:
- What they are: Artificial fragrances are combinations of chemicals that produce a certain scent. They can include toxic ingredients such as phthalates, benzene derivatives and toluene.
- Health risks: Artificial fragrances can cause allergic reactions and headaches and can contain harmful chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system and contribute to cancer.
- Ingredients to look for: Often just the word “fragrance” is used, as the exact ingredients are a trade secret. If the ingredients are listed, look out for acetaldehyde, benzophenone, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), benzyl salicylate, benzyl benzoate, butoxyethanol, butylphenyl methylpropional, chloromethane, dichloromethane, diethyl phthalate (DEP), formaldehyde, oxybenzone (BP-3), propyl paraben, resorcinol, styrene, titanium dioxide (TIO2) and dioxane.
- Products that contain them: Hair products, soap, cleaning products, shower gel, sunscreen, laundry products, makeup.
- What it is: Tricolosan is an antibacterial and can help protect against gum disease when used in toothpastes.
- Health risks: Tricolosan potentially alters the hormone system and could harm the immune system. It has been linked to antibiotic resistance. Tricolosan has been banned from personal cleaning products in the USA, but not in the UK.
- Ingredients to look for: Tricolosan
- Products that contain it: Soap and hand wash products, toothpaste.
- What it is: Formaldehyde is a naturally-occurring colourless, flammable chemical with preservative and anti-bacterial properties.
- Health risks: Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Breathing in formaldehyde can also cause a sore throat, cough and other related symptoms.
- Ingredients to look for: Formaldehyde
- Products that contain it: Plywood, carpeting, e-cigarettes, glues, paints and lacquers, face creams, nail polish.
- What it is: Oxybenzone is an organic compound that can cause allergic skin reactions. It is used in sunscreens. In addition to posing a risk to human health, it is also thought to damage coral reefs when sunscreen is washed off into the sea.
- Health risks: Can cause allergic skin reactions and lower testosterone levels.
- Ingredients to look for: Oxybenzone.
- Products that contain it: Sunscreen, hair spray, nail polish
- Oxybenzone-free products:
3. Improve your diet
Diet and nutrition is a massive topic, and one that we can’t do justice here. There are lots of differing opinions about what the healthiest kind of diet is. However, there are a few general points that most people can agree on.
Avoid ultra-processed foods
Most of the foods we eat are processed in some way. This can be as simple as drying or freezing foods to preserve their life.
However, some foods are highly processed and contain lots of additives. These “ultra-processed” foods have been linked to cancer. In general, the fewer steps taken to produce a food and the shorter the ingredients list, the better.
Here are some ultra-processed foods to avoid:
- Sweets and chocolate bars
- Mass-produced bread
- Fizzy drinks
- Chicken nuggets and meatballs
- Ready meals
- Instant soups and noodles
Eat seasonal and local food
Eating seasonal and local food helps you reduce the environmental impact of grocery shopping while maximising your nutrient intake.
Fruit and veg has the highest nutrient content when it’s been allowed to ripen naturally and has been freshly picked. The food in supermarkets has often been transported and stored for weeks or even months.
Apart from simply growing your own food, the best way around this is to try to buy food that is grown as locally as possible and is in season. However, even if you buy apples in the supermarket in October, they will probably be old stock the supermarket is selling off before the in-season apples arrive.
A local veg box service could be a good solution, though they are significantly more expensive than buying your veg in the supermarket. If you’re interested in this, you can search for one in your area on Food Box Finder.
Food is medicine
A healthy diet should function as preventative medicine and help reduce the number of artificial pharmaceuticals you need to take over the course of your life.
Several of the most-prescribed drugs in the UK are prescribed for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, both of which are health problems that can be avoided or alleviated through a good diet.
4. Get moving
Ditching the car and walking or cycling not only reduces your impact on the environment, it’s also good for your health and can reduce stress levels.
Our hunter gatherer ancestors would have normally walked for a few hours a day, with some short bursts of intense exercise a few times a week. Mark Sisson gives an overview of what the average hunter gatherer’s exercise routine might have been like here.
Exercise is a form of preventative medicine. By incorporating exercise into your daily life, you can reduce the number of unnatural medications you will need to take over the course of your life.
However, exercise isn’t always as ‘natural’ as it could be. Here are a few tips for making your exercise routine more natural:
- Avoid protein bars, pre-workout drinks etc. that are full of artificial ingredients.
- Run barefoot or in shoes that mimic running barefoot, as this has several health benefits.
- Try to swim in unchlorinated water, or in an outdoor pool, as chlorine can have harmful effects on the body.
- Avoid wearing fitness clothing that contains harmful chemicals.
- Watch out for harmful chemicals in your yoga mat.
Exercise isn’t just good for your physical health; it’s hugely beneficial for your mental health too. It has also been demonstrated that exercise can be as effective or even more effective than antidepressants at reducing symptoms of depression.
One of the most unnatural things about modern life is how sedentary the average person is. The sensationalist phrase “sitting is the new smoking”, which is credited to Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic, has inspired countless articles about the dangers of our sedentary lifestyles in the past few years.
A 2017 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found a correlation between time spent sitting and rates of all-cause mortality. Sitting for the majority of the day certainly isn’t something our bodies evolved for, so it’s not surprising that it has negative health consequences.
If you have a desk job or use a computer a lot, consider using a standing desk or laptop elevator so you don’t need to spend so much time sitting.
Trying to live a more natural life in the modern world is challenging, but there are lots of practical things you can do. Try to make a few small changes at a time and make a commitment to keep learning about how to improve your health and quality of life by living a ‘naturaler’ life.