Monday, 28 May 2012

Homo cerebrum portans, can you trust your body?


"How little do we know that which we are! How less what we may be!"
Lord Byron, Don Juan 



I've been thinking about the way we advise when it comes to health. I wanted to write some of it down and also write something about the carrying of brains, but I realize this all turned out a bit incoherent. Still, I'll put this out there as some loose thoughts as I do not feel that the title of this blog in any way promises coherency.

Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution has made us smarter than any other animal ever to exist. But might we have become too smart for our own good? As modern science has advanced and we've gradually become more urban, we have removed ourselves from what's natural and embraced the unnatural. Not because the unnatural has given us better health, but because leading theories say is gives us better health. We have embraced the theoretical knowledge of nutrition and health, yet we seem to have forgotten simple facts such as what type of foods humans actually eat. We no longer trust our bodies to tell us if what we do is right, instead we are willing to eat foods our body tells us make us sick, but that our head is telling us are healthy. And most often, we trust our head. Truth and reality has long since parted ways and the human body has been reduced to an instrument for carrying our brain from A to B. When the body resists, we force it to submission with medication. 


iStockphoto

When we start our search for health we soon realize the importance of listening to our body, and as soon as we feel we've learnt how to do this we are quick to pass the insight on to others. "You need to listen to your body!" It is easy to say, but I fear the advice is oft based as much on self-illusion as on self-insight. Telling an average modern human to listen to his body is much like telling an average modern human to listen for the mating calls of the common black bird – we have no idea what to listen for.

We might feel healthy, and arguably feeling healthy is in many ways the same as being healthy, but how healthy we feel is a matter of perspective. Compared to the other animals, the human animal is unarguably in a terrible state. Our ancestors are accused of hunting down huge and dangerous mammals, such as mammoths, with simple handheld weapons and so contributing to their extinction. The Inuit hunt whales in kayaks and hunters living in the central Kalahari still do persistence hunting.  A few thousand years ago we must have been a fierce and impressive animal, but if modern humans were to return to nature, pale, fat, unfit and allergic to trees, I fear the other animals would laugh their heads of if they could.

We might feel healthy, but how well we feel depends on how well we've been. If the norm is a condition characterized by illness and un-health, we will not know what it feels like to be really healthy. In fact, we might feel super healthy and still be far from how healthy we could be. Generally speaking, it seems that we no longer know what good health feels like. I am not even sure I do. I know it should be possible to feel strong and fit every day. I know we should all be able to climb a tree if we wanted to, or run a few miles if we feel like it. I know that it is possible to view physical challenges in everyday life as welcome challenges rather than as frustrating obstacles. But in order to achieve good health we do in fact need to listen to our body. 





Trusting in one's body must have been far easier for earlier humans. When there was little theoretical and written knowledge, our bodies was basically the thing we relied on. But a hunter gatherer will learn to listen to his body and to interpret its answers from birth. We however, have learned to trust theory and have little or no body-listening skills. So if you start listening to your body at 30, you cannot actually trust it. You just do not have the listening skills. That is why we still need to rely on skepticism and theoretical knowledge. For example, if you start working out at 30 and feel that the way you are working out is amazingly effective and so effective that you feel the need to share it with everybody, you should probably calm down and reflect a little. Most likely you would have gotten amazing results with other exercise forms and maybe even better results. It is important to remember that no matter how good we feel, we often do not know how good we could have felt. The same can be said about foods which by some are added to the diet and seemingly changes life and health for the better. Your body might feel better, but there is a good chance that it isn’t better and your seemingly improved health might very well be an illusion. (God I'm tired of wheat grass drinking health evangelists convinced that their green goo is the reason for their newfound vigour.)

No, it's not telling you to drink this!
 
A mother recently said to me "I am overweight and know I should eat fewer carbohydrates, but what about my son who is lean? Should he too reduce his intake of carbs to prevent becoming overweight or sick?"

It is a very good question, but the premise is sort of wrong. Overweight does not equal poor health. In fact, a person who easily gains weight might be protected against the ill effects of high blood sugar that cause harm in a lean person who does not convert glucose to fat so easily. Anyway, her son definitely cannot leave these decisions his body, although the body should be listened to. His body might tell him he should lay off grains, because it makes his stomach upset and painful, it's an easy enough signal to understand. But when it comes to preventing illness, out body tells us very little. Often enough we feel great and then we die. So we need theory and science.

Our best bet for optimal nutrition is, as far as I can tell, a paleo(-ish) diet with fewer carbohydrates than what is recommended by the government, but exactly how many carbohydrates, I don't know.

In the paleosphere the Kitavans are often used to show that humans can live on a diet based on carbohydrates without ill health. From this observation many conclude that we too can live on just as much carbohydrate with just as little ill health as the Kitavans. But this conclusion excludes all other lifestyle factors that differ between us and the Kitavans. Some of these factors really matters a lot. Perhaps the most important of these is stress.

Stress makes us insulin resistant and ill in so many ways. For example, a single night of poor sleep is enough to make us a good deal more insulin resistant. This makes us poorer at burning fat and may lead to blood sugar fluctuations and sugar cravings and this is unhealthy for all of us, regardless of weight. The question we should ask is not if humans can live on a diet with 50-60% carbohydrates and be healthy, but if we, here and now, with our current lifestyle and currents stress levels, can live on such a diet. Even if those 50-60% are from healthy paleo foods, I am not so sure.

In the end, knowing our body is an important step towards good health, and getting to know our body is a constant process of trial and error. It takes time to get good at it. But listening to physiologic feedback is not enough to prevent illness. We need theory as well and together they will take us most of the way.

4 comments:

  1. "...if modern humans were to return to nature, pale, fat, unfit and allergic to trees, I fear the other animals would laugh their heads of if they could."

    That is priceless Pål and more than likely true! ;-)

    I'm an huge proponent of respecting the innate abilities that we share with every other animal: to know how much and even what type of nourishment our bodies require BUT as you point out, it can be hard to hear through all the white noise such as habits taught as children "if you don't finish all your dinner and clean your plate you won't get any dessert!"

    Still I do find it easier to listen since adopting a diet that I believe to be closer to that which I am naturally adapted.

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  2. Terrific Pål, you have a way with words;-).
    I note that you don't discuss well-informed self-experimentation at all, which is one way someone can overcome the limitations of experience and slowly learn about their body, but you highlight the dangers of plain old experience so amusingly well !
    I posted a link to your post in a comment over at FTA because I think it's very topical in the science and self-experimentation discussion that's going on over there and I can't say it any better -I hope that's alright.

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    1. Thanks Marie. Link away all you want.

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  3. We don't really know about the stress levels of the semi-mythical Kitavans, but we can perhaps look at how often they eat, because there is evidence that even an "unhealthy" diet becomes healthy if it's eaten in a time-restricted fashion.
    http://www.salk.edu/news/pressrelease_details.php?press_id=560

    It's eating all the time that harms us now, as well as what we eat and how much?

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