What Would Otzi Do? (June 9, 2015)
Health and wellness advisers are a motley group these days. Sorting out those who should be listened to respectfully from those who should be mercilessly mocked is not so easy. The authorities we used to trust implicitly (in other words, medical doctors) have turned out to be wrong so many times that many health-conscious people barely give them a listen anymore. But when you don’t trust authority, or more precisely, don’t know which authority to trust, the seas of health advice become a lot harder to navigate -- and they are pretty choppy these days.
Good health advice is really not all that hard to come by, once you know how to recognize it. We already know the ground rules, and they are easy to understand. Sadly, there are a few difficulties with these rules.
1) They are obvious. Everyone knows by now that they need to exercise and eat more fruits and vegetables. You can’t base a best-selling book on them unless you can present the information in some weird and interesting way.
2) They are boring. If there is something around that is less interesting than a carrot, I’m unaware of it.
3) They are things that most people don’t want to do. There’s a certain amount of discomfort, however slight, in getting up from sitting when you are tired and eating a salad instead of pasta when you are hungry. And as life gets more stressful, anything that adds to that stress even a bit can get pushed to one side.
And so there is always a market for a cheerful spray-tanned health guru who has found a hidden truth that doctors don’t want you to know, and who gives you permission to do what you really wanted to do all along anyway. When you combine that appeal with the willingness of the media to jump on Newness and Controversy (or anything that can be sold using that description) you get an arena where the christians of rational advice are constantly being eaten by the lions of self indulgence. Or, whatever.
Between education and experience, I’m fairly well equipped to sort out the junk. But aside from that, there is an odd little tool that I use which I think can be used as well by almost anyone. And that is this -- I try to figure out whatever this new thing I’m considering might mean in the context of what our bodies have evolved to deal with.
The basic rules of health and wellness are based only partly on what raw materials our bodies need. They are also grounded on what our bodies EXPECT to have to deal with in its constant battle to stay alive. And the huge shift in lifestyle that people made around the time of the ending of the last ice age – from hunting and gathering to farming -- is one that our DNA still hasn’t quite come to terms with.
So when some odd new piece of information comes my way, this is one of the first standards I measure it against -- would it make sense to Otzi? (Not Ozzy the rock musician. Otzi the Bronze Age man whose mummy was found in the Italian Alps a decade or so ago. I don’t know what Ozzy the musician would say about all this. But I’d love to hear it.)
Right now we figure that it was about 10,000 years ago when we started farming and mostly stopped following herds of animals around. That was a lifestyle that most likely went back some umpteen hundreds of thousands of years, and its resources and demands are still what our bodies expect to deal with on a daily basis. When the environment has changed so much that our bodies are solving problems that don’t exist, and don't recognize the ones that do, we can get into big health trouble.
If you think about it for a few minutes, you’ll realize that the biggest problem in human nutrition has always been food scarcity. Just getting enough calories was the problem. You never had too much to eat. If you did, it was surely a temporary situation and anyone whose body could store those calories with the most efficiency had a survival advantage. Decades of life with far more than enough to eat – particularly of foods with questionable nutritional value – is something we were not designed to deal with and is one of the big causes of what have been termed the “diseases of civilization”.
In many ways the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was a healthy one. Most people do not realize that those wandering bands of people had better overall health than we do now. Your average Ice Age adult skeleton was about 5’9”. After the dawn of agriculture, it drops to 5’3”. Their teeth were healthier, and there are fewer marks of disease on their bones.
Is this just because if they weren’t real healthy, they got tossed into the river so as not to slow the rest of the tribe down? Maybe partly. But you see the same situation with modern hunter-gatherers. They don’t work as hard as the farmers they live near, and their diet is more varied and generally healthier.
Mind you, I’m not trying to promote a return to hunting and gathering. What I’m trying to say is that because as a species we spent so much longer living that way than as sedentary farmers that our genetics, anatomy and physiology are designed for survival in an environment very dissimilar to the one we are in now, and that the degree to which we ignore the genetic demands of our bodies is the degree to which we suffer illness.
What Otzi ate, however, was not what we're calling a Paleolithic diet. And it's not just what he ate that is of interest -- what he did, how he slept, etc. all might give us some guidance in improving how we currently live. More of that next time.
--dr. diane holmes
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