Albert Einstein once said: “To learn about health, one must study health, but we must begin now, because soon there won’t be any recollection of what good health really is”. This was more than 60 years ago, and it’s easy to argue that we now have reached a time where perfect human health is virtually nonexistent. We often assume that disease is a normal part of life, and few are able to stay clear of metabolic, cardiovascular, and autoimmune disorders. Books and scientific articles highlighting the health of non-westernized, traditional populations are often forgotten, and rather than looking at the human body as a complex organism working as a whole, the focus is on the specific organ affected and how to find a treatment or cure.
My writing usually revolves around the pathogenesis of various health disorders, but in this post I’ll give a broader overview of health and disease as I see it and explain the disconnect between what I believe human health is all about and the way we view it today.
Disease is not a natural part of human life
Animals living in their natural settings and eating the food they are supposed to eat, stay healthy and lean, while domesticated and caged animals, which are given grain feed and rounds of antibiotics, become sick. The same principles apply to humans. As long as we consume a healthy diet, get adequate sun exposure, exercise, and take care of the microbiome, we usually stay clear of chronic disease and increase our protection against infections.
Hunter-gatherer tribes and non-westernized populations eating traditional diets are free from chronic non-communicable diseases that are so common in modern societies (1,2,3,4,5,6). While the average lifespan of humans today is higher than in any other part of human evolution, it’s clear that several factors such as decline in infant mortality, lower rates of infectious disease, and pharmaceutical use must be considered when comparing life expectancy (7).
Going back to the Albert Einstein quote, he said that “…we must begin now, because soon there won’t be any recollection of what good health really is”. Dr. Weston A. Price was one bright pioneer in his field who travelled the world during the 1930’s seeking healthy, isolated tribes. He visited primitive and nonindustrialized people with widely different diets and lifestyles, but they all ate nutrient-rich whole foods, spent plenty of time outdoors, and had little access to modern medicine and hygiene.
All of the non-westernized populations he visited ate some type of animal source food and used traditional processing techniques to remove antinutrients in grains and legumes. Dr. Price found that primitive people were physically well developed and virtually free from disease, but their health quickly deteriorated if they moved and began eating flour, sugar, and modern processed vegetable fats. He documented his work in the excellent book, “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration”, which is a must-read for everyone interested in health and nutrition.
Other researchers have also documented the excellent health of primitive and nonindustrialized people still eating “ancestral diets”, such as The Kitavans who inhabit the island of Kitava and The Inuit living in the arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland (2,4).
While it could be argued that diet is the most important modifiable factor that influence our health, it’s important to note that sun exposure, time outdoors, exercise, pharmaceutical use, exposure to microorganisms etc. also are important.
We study disease, not health
Today, medical students learn shockingly little about how nutrition affects health and how healthy traditional societies remain free of diseases of civilization. While I do believe that studying the disease itself is important, we have to start with the right framework – humans are healthy and happy given the right diet, lifestyle, and environment – and then explore how changes in these factors impact us. The approach is all to often to start with the disease itself, look at the specific organ affected, and create drugs and vaccines to treat or cure the disorder.
Medical students aren’t the only ones who’s grasping in the dark. Evolutionary biology and the health of non-industrialized societies are missing topics in the syllabus of many nutrition studies, so even if students understand the chemistry and physiology, they actually learn little about the basic principles of health and nutrition.
90% or our cells and 99% of our genome have not been included in medicine
One of the most important findings in modern medicine, is the recent discovery that 90% of cells in the human body are microbial and that we are actually 99% microbe in terms of our genetic repertoire (8,9). An avalanche of studies link the human microbiome (microbes and their genes) to all sorts of diseases, and although it’s too early to establish the exact role microorganisms play in many health disorders, it’s clear that the microbiome has a significant impact on human health.
The fact that humans are actually superorganisms is changing our view on nutrition and health. A lot of the things we thought we knew about human health is wrong or at best incomplete, and we’re learning that the physiology of the superorganism is different than the physiology of the single human host.
The fact that 99% of our genome is microbial opens up entirely new possibilities. Since the composition of bacteria that live in and on our body can be manipulated, we actually have the ability to alter our genome fairly rapidly.
It’s also apparent that a lot of the progress in modern medicine has been to the detriment of the trillions of old friends inhabiting our bodies. One example is antibiotics which have proven very useful in combatting infectious disease and many life-threatening disorders, but the price we pay in return is antibiotic resistant super-germs and changes to the human microbiome. Antibiotics, western diets, modern hygiene, c-section, and bottle feeding are just some of the factors that have a long unforeseen impact on the human superorganism.
The fact is that we’re probably missing some microbes we have co-evolved with for millions of years and that “everyone” living in the industrialized world has some sort of “damage”/alteration to the microbiome.
There will never be a drug or vaccine that prevents the effects of a poor diet and chronic inflammation
Billions of dollars are spent each year to develop new drugs and treatments for chronic health problems such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and heart disease. All of these non-communicable diseases (CNCDs) develop over a long time, and although the mechanisms are complex, chronic low-grade inflammation is a key player in the pathogenesis of most CNCDs (10,11,12,13).
Chronic low-grade inflammation involves elevated levels of proinflammatory compounds in the blood, such as Lipopolysaccharide (LPS) and C reactive protein. While the causes of low-grade inflammation aren’t completely understood, alterations in the human microbiome (dysbiosis) and increased translocation of bacterial endotoxins (endotoxemia) seem to be very important.
Although we can’t replicate the “ancestral” environment, we do have the knowledge to start taking resposibility for our own health, “avoid” low-grade inflammation and chronic disease, and achieve a lean and healthy body.