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Health Lessons From the Hadza

Following my fascinating show with Burn author Dr. Herman Pontzer all about energy expenditure and his work studying the Hadza, who are modern hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, I read an interesting study called “Seasonal cycling in the gut microbiome of the Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania” from a group of scientists from Stanford University.


Justin Sonnenburg, a microbiologist from this group, analyzed 350 stool samples from Hadza people, which were taken over the course of around a year. He and his team compared the bacteria found in Hadza samples to samples found in 17 other cultures across the globe, which specifically included other hunter-gatherer communities — from Venezuela and Peru to Malawi and Cameroon. Sonnenburg and his colleagues discovered, “Whether it’s people in Africa, Papua New Guinea or South America, communities that live a traditional lifestyle have common gut microbes — ones that we all lack in the industrialized world.”


But that wasn’t all they discovered. During the year they spent with the Hadza, Sonnenburg and his team also observed notable (and fluctuating) differences in the Hadza’s microbiome, and also that these changes coincided with the seasons. During the dry season, the Hadza ate much more meat, which the scientists saw reflected in the microbiota they were studying. When the wet season arrived, the Hadza began eating more berries and honey, and their microbiota changed again — and the microbes that had been previously “missing,” returned.


Lawrence David, who studies the microbiome at Duke University, called these findings “really exciting,” and commented that, “It suggests the shifts in the microbiome seen in industrialized nations might not be permanent — that they might be reversible by changes in people’s diets.”


Dr. Herman also made a great point when he appeared on the B.Rad podcast that the Hadza are not training for the next triathlon; they’re just simply living their lives as hunter-gatherers, which means activity is woven into their entire day. They spend a lot of time walking and are also constantly burning fat at “a nice rate” and therefore do not experience what he refers to as “those crash and burns that someone might have sitting at a desk, especially after that hour long spinning class where they just torched themselves in the morning.”


From diet to lifestyle, it is clear that there is much valuable information to learn from the Hadza and the research people have done to better understand how their lifestyle affects their health. If you haven’t yet heard my show with Dr. Herman, click here to listen, and here to check out his incredible and eye-opening book, Burn!

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