We are all different. Some familes have histories of heart disease others like mine of depression. Why is this? Why do some of us easily get type 2 diabetes and others not? Why is our health so different?
This post is part 2 of a short series on what we need to know to take charge of our health. Part 1 - The Metaphor is here
I have been working on these questions as I have been searching for ways to know enough to take charge of my health. I can see now that our past, going way back to when we were hunter gatherers and then to our ethnic or tribal past and then to our parents sets us up for health or not.
If we know more about where we come from, then we can make changes to help us be more healthy. For instance, if you are a Scot, like I am, we are very much at risk from the modern diet. If your mum used a lot of antibiotics, your gut flora may be compromised. Did you know it was better for your health to be born vaginally than by C Section? Do you know why? And many more factors that are old but maybe new to you and to me.
Have a look at this and see how your ancestors may affect you today.
Human Hardware - The Body
At a deep level all humans share a common evolutionary heritage that sets a trajectory that points to our optimal development. Barring accidents, if we can design our lives to abide by these principles, we will have a very high probability of being healthy. So let’s take a high level look at these principles or rules. We will follow the metaphor and start with the body.
Part 1 - What Shapes our Body? - Our Ancient Evolutionary Past
The closer we live to these daily rules, the better our health will be. Diet is the most important factor but all of these daily factors interact as well and make a difference.
- Eat food that supports the health of our gut flora - Eating a diet that promotes healthy gut flora is the single most productive thing that we can do to get healthy and to stay healthy.
- Be active all day - Our body needs a load. We need gravity and we need to use our body all the time. We are designed to do best when we are active. This does not mean go to the gym for an hour a day. Active means that we move all day when we are awake. The more we move, the better.
- Be outside in the sun a lot - We are designed to be outside for most of the day. This is how humans get most of a key hormone for health, Vitamin D. High levels of Vitamin D are good. Low levels are not.
- Sleep a lot - Sleep in more than a rest. It appears to be a reset. We are designed to sleep for long periods. 8 hours plus a night is good. Less is less good
- Do not be exposed to toxic chemicals - We are not designed to be bathed in toxic chemicals all the time. We are designed to do best with no chemicals.
- Live in small communities - All epidemics are related to population concentration. This is why factory farming of animals depends on medication. This is why there were cholera epidemics when cities expanded in the 19th century.
- Travel is dangerous - Isolation protects us from novel diseases, connection and concentration increases our risk. Think of how SARS or AIDS, both novel, spread.
- The first 3 years of life west the trajectory for the rest of life - For humans most of the trajectory for life will be set in the first 3 years of life. Here is where the worldview of the person is set. Here is where their ability to cope is set. Here is where their ability to learn is set. Here their long term health or resiliency is set.
Part 2 - What Shapes Our Body? - Our Tribal Ancestry
Our ethnic ancestry was shaped by long periods of time in a unique culture. One of the key factors that differentiates one ethnic culture from another is diet.
The closer your ethnic ancestry is to a Hunter Gatherer, or a pre agricultural way of life, the more vulnerable you are to the effects of the modern diet. Native Americans, who may have been exposed to the modern diet for at best 150 years, are the most at risk for chronic illness and do the worst on the industrial diet. Celts from Eastern Scotland, Ireland and Brittany would be the most vulnerable Europeans.
The most adapted are people whose ancestry has the longest exposure to agriculture. But even they are vulnerable after the age of 40.
There are other ancestral issues too. Most Asians and Africans are lactose intolerant. Most people who originate from West Africa have sickle cell anemia. This was a response to malaria. But it is clear that our tolerance for wheat and sugar is the most important.
Even the most adapted mainly lose this tolerance in middle age.
The useful point here is to know your ancestry and so know your dietary and so gut flora risk. There is nothing that you can do to change this but knowing your ancestry can help you avoid certain foods and so improve your chances of being healthy.
Part 3 - What Shapes Our Body? - Our Parents
Our epigenome controls the expression of our genes. Unlike our genes that are very stable and common across all humans, our epigenome can be changed very quickly. It is changed by interactions with our environment. We also inherit much of our epigenome from our parents, especially from our mothers. Every aspect of the environment that we experience from even before conception to age 3 has a powerful impact on our epigenome and so on our risks or strengths for the rest of our lives.
- Your mother’s stress. If your mother was highly stressed throughout her pregnancy, you will have been stressed in the womb.Her cortisol levels will affect your development in the womb. Ideally a mother has a warm and supporting relationship.
- The health of the mother. The mother’s nutrition prior to conception is very influential. Her health is closely connected to your health in the womb. Strength or weakness in the mother’s health can last for generations. Research has shown that Dutch women who were starving in 1945 affected not only their own children’s development but the effects still manifest 3 generations later. Ideally a mother has good nutrition. Before and during pregnancy.
- Chronic Illness. If either parent has chronic illness, the child is more at risk. If the mother has a chronic illness this risk is even greater. With chronic illness, the risks increase over the generations unless remedial action is taken. If there is a history of chronic illness, then the time it takes to manifest in the next generation shortens with each successive generation. This is part of the reason why chronic illness is so dangerous. It makes each generation more vulnerable than the one before.
- Your microbiome is affected by your mother before, during and after birth. We have known for some time about the risks from maternal smoking and alcohol. But now we see a broader set of factors.These all revolve around the gut flora and the immune system. If your mother used a lot of antibiotics before she gave birth to you, her micro biome, or gut flora, may have been compromised. If so, it is highly likely that yours will be compromised too. If you were born via a Caesarian, you risk having missed being inoculated by her microbiome. If she did not breast feed you, you may have missed being inoculated by her immune system and also your micro biome may not have been fed properly. The health of the maternal gut flora is a very important factor in the future health of the child.
- What a baby eats is central to their long term health. The longer a baby can be fed breast milk the better. Breast milk not only feeds the baby a food that has evolved over millions if years but it also feeds the gut bacteria and adds to the nascent immune system. In addition it drives touch and attachment and so builds more capacity to deal with stress. Breast feeding is much more than food.
- Touch is very important. Infant apes will choose touch over food. Infant humans have a very strong need for touch as well. The reason is stress. High stress and so high levels of cortisol inhibit all forms of development. At this critical time, lots of warm loving touch is vital to setting up good stress reduction pathways. Babies need physical love to thrive.
Taking all of this into account the most important factor seesm to be what we eat.
Our Human Energy System
- Our Gut is more than just another organ. It is a vast ecology of bacteria that has co-evolved with us to help us digest our food and be healthy. It links the mind to the body and the body to the mind. It is possibly the clearing house for all the interaction that affects our health.
- Looking after our gut flora’s health is at the core of a healthy life. It appears that our gut flora is most healthy when we eat a very diverse diet that contains no processed or artificial foods.
- It appears that grains, a novel food in the context of our history as hominids and early humans, also contain elements that disrupt our gut flora.
Tomorrow we will see how our social design - also going way back and ending up with our early childhood - affects our health.