Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Human's Guide to being Human: Introduction

Why do lifestyle choices have such a big impact on our health?  Why do we live for 60 years in relatively good health just to come down with Cancer, Type 2 Diabetes, and/or Heart Disease towards the end?  Is there a way to help us make better lifestyle choices that can help prevent the chronic diseases of aging?  These are all good questions that, if answered, can greatly improve our quality of life and put a significant dent in our annual healthcare spending.  Unfortunately, the path to answering these questions and unlocking the keys to human health is paved with special interests and misinformation.  The purpose of this blog series is to help you better understand human health and the things you can do to optimize it.

Our understanding of human biology has greatly improved over the last few decades as science has shed some light on what makes us tick.  Early on in our understanding of human biology, we believed that our genes were our destiny.  If you were born with a gene that made you susceptible to a certain disease, you would eventually develop that disease and die.  Now that we have advanced our knowledge beyond that rudimentary understanding of how genes work, we realize that this is not the case.  Disease and poor health are not the product of bad genes and poor luck, they are a product of poor gene/environment interactions, particularly if you make it in to adulthood in relatively good shape.  Certainly there are examples of diseases that are simply due to being dealt a poor hand in life, but these diseases make up less than 2% of the diseases we see and do not include Type 2 Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease, and most types of Cancer.

In addition, diseases that are strictly genetic in nature will present themselves throughout life, mostly from the start.  The coding genes you were born with aren't written in pencil, they are written in permanent marker.  That is not to say that they can't be changed, but if they are changed they are changed via radiation or some other environmental factor which is still a product of gene/environment interaction

While lifestyle has a tremendous impact on your health because it dictates how your genes and environment interact, we cannot fall in to the trap that there is a single, optimal environment for all of us.  One of the biggest trends that is having a dramatic impact on the health of thousands is the trend towards a Paleo lifestyle.  Proponents of this lifestyle believe that "regressing" their lifestyle back to simulate the lifestyle of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers will allow them to experience optimal lifelong health and wellness.  However, this is not necessarily the case.  While I believe that looking at our current health issues from an evolutionary perspective will certainly help improve many of the chronic diseases of aging we currently see today, many people are coming to the illogical conclusion that living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle will guarantee them optimal health well in to their 90s.  Not so much.  Evolutionary success isn't dependent on whether or not we can sprint fast when we are 60, or whether or not we have perfect eyesight, it is dependent on successfully passing your genes on to the next generation so that they can do the same.  When you look at humans, however, one can infer from the last part of that statement that longevity is something that is necessary for success of the species.

While proponents of the Paleo diet are making an illogical assumption that lifelong health is attainable by regressing back to the Paleolithic era, opponents also make illogical assumptions.  Many assume that we are merely meant to pass our genes on and then from that point on it's borrowed time.  The problem with this line of thinking is that one of the things that makes us uniquely human is that we develop at a much slower rate than other animals.  While most other animals are capable of providing themselves with enough resources for success within a year or 2 after being born, human children are unable to do so until they are 17 or 18 years old.  If we were meant to only have children and die, is evolutionary success attainable if our children die before they can attain enough resources on their own to reproduce and pass on their genes?  I think not. 

While science has brought us to a greater understanding of human biology and evolution, it is also holding us back.  Nutrition is one of the major environmental factors that helps influence our health by manipulating how our genes are expressed.  Of all of the environmental factors that we can manipulate to alter the way our genes work, nutrition is certainly up there.  People often like to look at health from a percentage of importance perspective and give diet upwards of 80-90% of the weight, but you can't fall in to this trap.  There are countless environmental conditions that impact health and are REQUIRED for good health.  In other words, I wouldn't look at it like, "Health is 80% diet", I would look at it like, "Proper nutrition, regular physical activity, good sleep, and stress management are all requirements for good health".

However, our understanding of nutrition is poor because most of the scientific data we have is of poor quality.  In addition, special interests run, and ruin, nutritional research.  All forms of research are expensive, and companies in the food industry have a financial interest in showing that the food-like substances that they produce are perfectly healthy for you to consume, even if they're not.  There is, however, no immediate financial interest to an organization to run a study to determine what foods are best for us to eat or which lifestyle habits will keep us healthy.  In the first part of this blog series, we will go over the ways that science is manipulated and reported that can direct us to make poor nutritional choices.

In the second section, we will go over the way your cells work.  A healthy person is made up of healthy cells, and a better understanding of how our cells work can help us make better decisions with what we eat and the lifestyle activities we choose to partake in.  You don't need to understand cellular biology at a college level to grasp these concepts, but you should understand the basic, general concepts of how our cells work and interact with one another.  Of chief importance is the way our genes interact with the environment to help our cells make us become who we become.  Armed with the knowledge of how this works, you can begin to see how lifestyle impacts your overall health.

In the third section we will go over the hottest topic in nutritional research, and possibly even all biological research right now, the gut and the more than 100 trillion inhabitants found within it.  The zoo of bacteria found in your gut, also called the microbiome, perform many tasks that are critical to human health that we cannot do without them.  Once you understand how evolution and competition via natural selection work, you can see how your lifestyle choices not only directly affect you but also how they affect your microbiome and how that, in turn, indirectly affects your health.  Many people take prebiotics and probiotics or eat fermented foods without knowing why they are doing it, this section will shed some light on why they may improve health.

In the fourth section, we will go over evolution and how it pertains to human health.  Evolution is a concept that most people have heard about, but few people have a thorough grasp of.  Again, you don't need a college level course on evolution to understand why it's important and how it impacts your health.  Just understanding the basic process and how it got you where you are can teach you more than enough about how to be healthy and why people get sick.  Evolution also shows us how intimately linked all life on Earth is, and why we use animal research to help guide us in the right direction for human research.  Another bonus with using an evolutionary approach to health is that it can help drive research when there is conflict between different scientific studies.  Evolution is the guiding tenet of biology, ignoring evolution when looking at human health is like trying to fly a plane without the principles of flight, it just doesn't work.

In the final section we will look at the research and how applying some of the concepts in the earlier sections can greatly improve human health.  Looking deep within our past can shed some light on where we may have went wrong from a health perspective.  Using what has happened in the past and comparing that to what we are now seeing in health research is a potent 1-2 punch that could greatly improve our knowledge of what is healthy.  In addition, looking at modern hunter gatherer societies and how their diet and daily activities lead to different health outcomes than the ones we see in Western society can provide confirmation that our health would be vastly different if we provided an environment better matched to our genes.  While most people point out that we experience the chronic diseases of aging because we live longer, that doesn't explain why these diseases are relatively rare in modern day hunter gatherer tribes.

At the conclusion of this blog series I hope that all of you have a firmer grasp on the way we operate.  The purpose of this blog series is to help you better understand the complexities of human biology in a way that is easy to understand.  Depending on how many people read this series, I would like to add on to it.  In the future I would like to expand this series to include sections on stress, metabolism, and proper movement.  I feel these topics can be covered in a way that is easy to understand and that will provide tons of applicable knowledge that can help people with issues such as joint and back pain and that could improve weight loss and overall quality of life.  So please "Like" or "Share" this series through Google+ or Facebook.  Let's get to it!  Next Thursday we cover science.

Human's guide: Science