Our genes are at a mismatch with our current environment and it is making us sick
From an evolutionary perspective, humans developed a particular genetic make-up that ensured our survival. While our genes have certainly changed quite a lot since the time of our hunter gatherer ancestors, genetic codes for basic survival mechanisms have stayed relatively unchanged. These survival mechanisms are rarely needed in our safe, modern world, where we exist outside of the food chain. Basically, our genes are at a mismatch with our environment, which is a large driving factor behind our increased chronic disease rates in society.
The 4 pillars of health are our diet, sleep, daily movement/exercise and mental/emotional wellbeing. From a genetic perspective, all of these are essential to a human being’s good health, however our current environment threatens our ability to adhere to these 4 pillars consistently. This demonstrates how our genes are at a mismatch with our environment. Blue Zones are areas in the world where people have low rates of disease and live longer than anywhere else. The commonalities between people living in blue zones is that they live a life that adheres to the 4 pillars of health and their environment is not at a mismatch with their genetic makeup.
Here are some key examples of how our modern environment is at a mismatch with our basic genetic code for good health.
Before technology, we used to rise and sleep with the sun and sunset. It is how we were genetically designed. In terms of light exposure at night, at most, we were exposed to candle light or a fire, which is a very gentle light compared to the harsh blue light we get exposed to from our technological devices and artificial light. This is why when you go camping, you get tired really early and wake up early as well, as our body becomes in sync with the natural flow of light and darkness that is determined by the sun and moon.
Our modern life, due to the use of electricity/technology, allows us to stay up past sunset and sleep in past sunrise (due to curtains/shutters and eye masks). Because of this, we need to decrease light exposure at night and mitigate the effects of it on our circadian rhythm.
Blue/artificial light exposure at night is the one factor that is having the largest and most profound effect on our sleeping habits and sleep quality.
Technology (i.e. blue light) and artificial light disrupts the hormones that govern our sleep/wake cycle called our circadian rhythm. These hormones are called cortisol and melatonin. They are released in response to the amount of light entering our eyes. Cortisol is our get up and go hormone and it is highest during the day when the sun is out, because it is released in response to light entering the eye.
Theoretically, as the sun sets, less light enters the eye leading to cortisol dropping off and causing a release of our sleepy hormone called melatonin. Melatonin is released in response to darkness and works in an antagonistic pair with cortisol. Melatonin prepares the body for sleep and it is the main hormone that is responsible for all of the repair and regenerative processes of sleep, which is vital for our health.
I said theoretically because this doesn’t quite happen in our modern world. As the sun begins to set, we usually go home to artificially lit houses and technological devices, which increases light exposure on our eyes. This causes the release of cortisol and therefore the suppression of melatonin.
We often look at devices right up until before bedtime and they emit the same blue light as the sun, therefore the body thinks it is daytime right up until going to bed. This leads to a spike in cortisol and a suppression of melatonin throughout the night and it takes a while for melatonin levels to rise again. This ultimately leads to an overall decreased net exposure to melatonin throughout the night, which can affect our ability to fall asleep (sleep onset) and stay asleep (sleep maintenance).
It also affects our quality of sleep and the restfulness of sleep. This is because melatonin is the main hormone for repair and regeneration of the body. Therefore, technology exposure before bed can still cause you to wake up unrefreshed and less rested, even if you fell asleep quickly and got enough sleep. This is due to melatonin exposure being reduced. Less melatonin throughout the night can also contribute to and exacerbate chronic disease, due to the fact that if it is not released in the correct amounts, the body does not repair itself properly, leading to inflammation.
To make matters worse, the addictive use of technology often pushes out peoples bed time and because it suppresses melatonin, it decreases sleepiness. Therefore, we go to bed later and get less sleep. This is exacerbated if we have trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep due to technology exposure.
As soon as we wake up, sleep pressure builds throughout the day and the longer we are awake, the more this pressure builds. If we don’t get enough sleep and enough good quality sleep, this sleep pressure is not relieved properly and carries onto the next day making us feel tired and groggy.
Furthermore, cortisol is also a stress hormone. Therefore, if you have a day filled with stress and then technology exposure at night, this will shoot up cortisol and further suppress melatonin. Stimulants like alcohol and coffee also increase cortisol and many people consume coffee in the afternoons and use alcohol as a sleep aid, which is not ideal!
Lastly, the seasons, mixed with our modern environment, further affect our sleeping patterns. In the winter, we can sometimes wake up in the dark, commute in a vehicle protecting us from direct light onto our eyes and then spend much of the day indoors with limited daylight exposure. Then, we may go home in the dark (or close to it). Once we get home, we are exposed to intense amounts of light, this confuses the body’s circadian rhythm. Also, in summer, especially with daylight savings, we tend to go to bed later and wake up when light has already been entering our room for a few hours. This decreases our total exposure to darkness, hence decreasing melatonin levels throughout the night.
Stress and mental/emotional wellbeing
The body has amazing systems to help it deal with stress. The stressors we used to face were things like lack of food, stay safe out of the elements, fighting other tribes and having to run away from man eating animals. These threats were acute and short lived. They required an acute stress response from the body in order to survive, but once the stressor was gone, the body went back to homeostasis.
Nowadays, these threats have been eliminated, well at least in the developed world. Rather than acute stressors, these days we face chronic, long term stressors. These are things like financial stress, work stress, internal emotional/mental health issues, stress caused from relationships, family, friends and even physical stressors like a chronic lack of sleep, lack of exercise, smoking, excess alcohol intake, increased sedentary lifestyles, poor diet choices and chronic health issues.
These chronic stressors raise the stress hormones in our bodies over long periods of time, which can have serious long-term health effects that can contribute to the development of chronic diseases.
Furthermore, due to the current structure of our modern society and societal norms, people are engaging with their hobbies less, spending more time in front of screens/technology that are overloading our brains with information and marketing ultimately, having increased feelings of unworthiness, shame and “not feeling good enough,” have less exposure to nature, have decreased amounts of genuine social connection, lack vulnerability, as well as lack a sense of community, life purpose and spirituality. This has a profound impact on people’s mental and emotional wellbeing, as well as the way that they engage in the world around them. It can lead to increased stress, anxiety, unhealthy and toxic behaviour patterns towards other people and ourselves, as well as decrease a person’s ability to handle stressors, leading to feelings of isolation.
From a material perspective, we are better off than we have ever been as a society, yet mental health issues continue to rise steadily. The issue is no longer material, it is existential. With the rise in mental health issues, addictions to substances such as food, smoking, drugs and alcohol are becoming more prevalent, because they act as a means to numb and distract us from our internal battles, therefore exacerbating people’s existing mental and physical health issues.
When we were hunter gatherers, we didn’t have time to worry about some of the trivial things that stress us out today and cause mental health issues. Just surviving was stressful on a day to day basis. Nowadays, we are out of the food chain, out of the elements and as a result, we live longer than we ever have. However, are we happy? That is a whole other can of worms.
Because life is so easy these days, and surviving is easy, we have to assign meaning/purpose to our lives. A reason to get up in the morning. Where as we used to have meaning through survival and procreation, which was hard! I believe this causes lots of problems for our mental health. I believe humans have the genetic need to solve problems in our lives, it is what stimulates us and gives us purpose. We used to have to solve problems to survive. Now that is no longer the case. These days, we still solve problems in our day to day lives, however some people end up solving problems they don’t enjoy putting energy into and it makes them sad (e.g. working a job they hate).
As hunter gatherers there was no such thing as exercise. Food was scarce, therefore we had to conserve our energy. While we had to conserve our energy, movement was an essential part of our survival. We had to hunt and gather in order to eat, we had to build shelters and we had to protect ourselves from the elements, other people and animals.
Nowadays in the developed world, food is readily available, with the increased production of high calorie food as well. We no longer have to hunt for our food. We are protected from the elements. We are out of the food chain. We can use various modes of transportation that don’t involve walking. Our day to day lives, including our jobs can be quite sedentary as everything is becoming automated with the help of machines and technology.
Due to our decreased amount of movement on a day to day basis, combined with the increased food availability, weight gain is bound to ensue, which is why we had to develop the concept of exercise. Never before have we as a human race had to actively decide to expend energy. While movement was necessary to survive, our genetic code was based around trying to conserve energy and find energy dense food to fill our fat stores until food became available again. The idea of wanting to be sedentary can almost seem somewhat natural based on our evolutionary past. However, in saying that, exercise and movement, both high intensity and low intensity feels so good both physically and mentally (i.e. endorphin release) because we were designed to move. We were designed to lift things, carry things, and move both fast and slow.
Because daily movement was a part of our evolutionary lifestyles, it is vital to keep ourselves active with daily non-exercise movement regimes and formal exercise regimes. It provides health benefits far beyond weight management, both for our physical and mental health.
As mentioned above, food is readily available these days and we no longer have to hunt for it or gather it. We can get in our cars and pick it off shelves. We can even have it delivered to our door. High calorie food that is not very satiating is also easily accessible.
From an evolutionary perspective, our bodies were designed to seek out, enjoy and even crave high calorie food because as hunter gatherers, food was scarce. When we came across sweet, calorie dense foods like berries and honey, we stuffed ourselves until we couldn’t eat anymore. This was due to the fact that we didn’t know when our next meal was. These foods caused the release of chemicals in our brains that would override our normal satiety signals because our bodies wanted to replenish its fat stores to make sure it had enough energy storage until the next time we had a meal.
Nowadays, our bodies still have these basic survival mechanisms in place due to our genetic makeup. Our bodies prioritise fat gain because fat is a source of energy storage and fat stores helped give our body’s energy when food was not available.
Our brains release reward chemicals when we eat and taste calorie dense, palatable food. Our brains even release these chemicals when we smell these foods or are placed in certain contexts where we usually eat these particular foods.
Due to the low cost, convenience, increased palatability and increased availability of these calorie dense foods, these genetic mechanisms can lead to the over consumption of calorie dense, processed food, leading to not only weight gain but various health issues including nutrient deficiencies. These foods displace nutrient dense, healthy foods in the diet and they can have negative health impacts through their consumption. Also, these processed foods are very different compared to the food we used to eat off the land.
Interestingly, some people have tried to mimic the way our ancestors used to eat by doing various types of intermittent fasting, however this proves to be quite challenging when food is so readily accessible and constantly in front of us. Because we can just go and buy food, temptation becomes high and it is hard for people to fight genetic impulses, which is why fasting often leads to binging on unhealthy foods, rather than using the eating window for eating whole-foods. Throughout human history, food has always been used for not only survival but also for social connection. It still plays these roles in our modern world, however with increased food availability, food is also being used for other more complex functions that are unique to our modern world. One example is people using food for comfort and as a numbing agent for their stress and uncomfortable emotions.
As you can see, it is quite clear that our genetic makeup is somewhat at a mismatch with our environment and as a result of this, we are becoming less robust and resilient, both physically and mentally. Our bad habits and our lack of robustness gets past down to our kids as well. So, what can we do about this?
Well, firstly, the answer is not to go live like a caveman. However, diet and lifestyle strategies can be employed to help optimise the 4 pillars of health and bring them more into line with our genetic makeup.
We can employ sleep hygiene strategies to decrease light exposure at night and help us wind down from a stressful day. We can help use strategies to improve our mental and emotional wellbeing. We can have good exercise habits and incorporate daily movement into our lives. We can eat minimally processed, wholefoods that are high in nutrients to support our health and protect us from disease, while also being low in calories and very filling. These foods can allow us to interact with our food in a natural way (i.e. eat until full), without having to worry about weight gain.
Changing your diet and lifestyle habits to be more health promoting can be hard when your environment is pushing you in the opposite direction. It is also highly overwhelming with all of the fads, misinformation and conflicting information in the media. Therefore, seeking the help of a qualified health professional who can help guide you to make fad free, practical and sustainable changes to your diet and lifestyle in a gradual and achievable way will allow you to reach the health goals that you are after.
Call Oak Health today or book an appointment online to find out how evidence based, practical and sustainable diet and lifestyle changes, as well as herbal and nutritional supplementation can be used to treat the underlying causes of your most concerning health issues and therefore improve your overall health and wellbeing.