There is an emerging body of evidence that supports the hypothesis that pandemic chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and site-specific cancers are manifestations of lifestyles that are incongruent with modern genetic composition. Studies have shown that the human genome has remained relatively static over the last 10,000 years, and as such may not be as responsible for the recent onset of chronic illness as a major cause of death as it has been previously postulated. In fact, it is becoming clear that modern hunter-gatherer populations, whose lifestyles reflect those of our pre-industrialized ancestors exhibit nearly zero prevalence of such diseases and generally boast healthy life-expectancies of 65 years or more, cut short only by trauma or trauma-related infections. Indeed, modern medical practices have developed palliative treatments for emergent conditions but have yet to develop an intervention which creates or promotes true health.
The “health” concept is generally difficult for most Americans to comprehend because we are led to believe that health is inversely proportional to symptoms. Modern neuroscience research has shown repeatedly that pain, for example, is a distinctly cortical or conscious process that manifests after repeated failures of the cerebellum or unconscious brain to reconcile noxious stimulus adaptively. In other words, pain represents the final breakdown of the body’s ability to cope with trauma. For overtly noxious stimuli such as that caused by a broken bone, this process accelerates considerably. However, for conditions such as low-back pain, the leading cause of disability and lost productivity among Americans, chronic low-dosed or repetitive microtraumas build up over time due to faulty biomechanics causing the body to build adaptive defense mechanisms until, years in the future, the adaptive mechanisms break down and disability occurs. In essence, this model can be used to describe most homeostasis-driven mechanisms in the body including cardiovascular function, immune function, digestive function and most importantly, endocrine or hormone function.
A common misconception is that we are inherently and innately predisposed to degenerate with age when in fact all evidence points to environment, not genetics, as playing the most compelling causal role in such degeneration (interestingly, this degeneration cannot be relegated solely to pain. An incredible body of evidence in some of the world’s top physiology and neurology journals suggests that autoimmunity and malignancy are closely correlated to environmental toxicity and insufficiency). Aberrant genetic transcription is indeed correlated with the prevalence of modern disease yet most likely manifests as an effect rather than a cause of adaptive physiology to a noxious environment. Clearly, stimuli such as pollution, preservatives and toxic chemicals are culpable, however what many fail to realize is that a deficient diet, lack of physical fitness and poor mental hygiene are equally, if not more toxic. Because our genome seems to be designed to promote homeostasis, it follows that the more we move away from homeostasis the more our genome is forced to adapt to prevent degeneration.
Physiology researchers have postulated that a chronic sympathetic nervous stress response may be the smoking gun to the lifestyle-related chronic illness mystery. Genetically we should be able to turn our sympathetic response (aka “fight or flight” response) on and off quickly and efficiently to withdraw ourselves from potentially life-threatening situations and then return to metabolizing our food, reproducing, etc without permanently damaging our cells. This is why our stress response circumvents most of the central nervous system and instead is relayed directly via what is referred to in scientific literature as the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. In a state of chronic sympathetic activity brought on by chronic inflammation in turn due to external physical, chemical and emotional stressors, stress hormones such as catecholamines (i.e. epinephrine/adrenaline) and cortisol flood the blood stream, taxing the adrenal glands, creating positive feedback loops which in turn prepare the body for additional sympathetic stimuli and possible injury by increasing inflammatory mediation. The process is both circular and open-ended and is only reparable by removing the offending stressor, in this case, any noxious or genetically incongruent environmental stimulus. Chronic stress hormone release stimulates other pathologically adaptive pathways including insulin receptor adaptation/resistance, increased sex hormone binding globulin production and decreased immune response which in turn causes superficial changes in blood sugar, testosterone, estrogen and progesterone and leukocyte concentrations. These maladaptations are implicated in atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease, stroke, malignancy, diabetes and obesity, ADD and ADHD, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, chronic fatigue and metabolic syndromes and even chronic pain syndromes like myofascial pain syndrome and fibromyalgia.
Most people have a difficult time wrapping their minds around the idea that none of us are genetically immune to poor lifestyle choices. Contrary to popular belief, people do not have intrinsically “slow” or “fast” metabolisms or thyroid problems or even high blood pressures. Physiology is adaptive. We strive for homeostasis at all times and only fail to maintain homeostasis if our adaptive faculties dissolve due to chronic environmental stress. Congruent diet, exercise and mental hygiene are therefore not therapeutic as many are indoctrinated to believe, but vital nutrients for the expression of true health; keep this in mind the next time you shoot a Zantac so you can make it all the way through your Whopper without vomiting.