For thousands of years, humans have evolved to survive and thrive in environments fraught with a multitude of different challenges, creating an environment of continuous stress. From the hunting and gathering struggle for food on a daily basis, to a constant vigil required to protect ourselves from predators, such stressors have enabled humans to become skilled in survival and prepared to address challenges.
In the developed world today, however, food is no longer scarce and predators no longer require us to be alert and ready for flight or fight. We have broken free of the majority of these natural challenges in what is the blink of an eye on the evolutionary timescale. Consequently, the evolutionary rate of adoption is not able to keep up with the rapid change of human condition.
A New Hypothesis
I predict that if we don’t implement challenges in our life on a daily basis, and purposefully create healthy stress across all of our systems, then the results for most of us will be negative outcomes to our health and wellbeing in our later years.
What Are We Fighting For?
Muscular strength and physical endurance were once necessary for chasing down prey for food and for defense against physical threats. We taxed our bodies physically on a daily basis, though it was not called exercise. Today, lack of physical activity over our adult lives severely impacts our muscle health, flexibility, bone density, balance, and joint/ligament health. In combination with an abundance of high calorie foods, it also can lead to diabetes, obesity, and other chronic problems.
Our ancestors did not have the time or luxury to worry about or contemplate meaning and purpose in life. Every morning they arose to address the multitude of challenges thrown at them, in their efforts to survive. We no longer need to rise each morning and fight for survival, removing what was a key reason for being, our “raison d’etre”.
Can we survive today in a state where nothing drives us, inspires us, or challenges us?
In the long term it’s impossible to emotionally thrive in this spiritual and intellectual vacuum unless we find our own raisons d’etre. At some point one might lose the desire to get up in the morning and face the day.
Not surprisingly, even our microbiomes evolved in support of our survival, in what were more challenging times. We developed a symbiotic balance with many important microbes within our microbiome communities. The balance may be at risk for many of us depending on our nutritional choices. For example, food once came from natural sources and we had daily exposure to a rich environment of diverse microbes. This provided access to a rich set of microbes to colonize different areas of our body. Healthy microbes helped us break down hard to digest foods such as fiber from plants and raw meat. These microbes became valuable partners in maintaining digestive and physical health. Some provided a first defense against disease and pathogens.
Today, we have the choice of eating processed foods that may contain no microbes, and that are simple to digest, such as simple sugar, processed grains, and processed meats. The lack of microbes impacts the diversity of our gut microbiome and possibly, more impactfully, may no longer be providing fuel for the the healthy fiber digesting microbes that also have antibiotic resistant properties.
Depleting these microbes leaves space for other microbes to colonize our gut. Microbes that thrive on processed food and sugar, microbes that may not be healthy or even pathogenic, impacting our microbiome balance. This imbalance may contribute to disorders such as leaky gut, SIBO, Crohn’s and Colitis, and simple food allergies.
The Gut Brain Connection
New research points to the effect of our microbiome on mental health, due to the gut brain connection, and effectiveness of cancer immunotherapy treatments. The science in this area is new. Due in large part to the low cost of acquiring genomic data, it is now possible to fund large scale discovery studies on the link between our health and our microbiome. Over time, the links between our microbiome and our health will become much clearer, as will the actions we can take. For now, it is clear that a link exists.
We are fortunate to live in a world where historic challenges no longer plague us. As change is outpacing evolution, it is incumbent on us to modify our lifestyle in order to thrive in this new world. Don’t shy away from challenges in life… embrace them. Don’t be tempted to always take the easy path whether it be sitting all day, eating fast food, or avoiding difficult intellectual and emotional situations. Lead a balanced life of activity, continuous learning, leisure time, and time with family and friends. Eat a balanced meal of fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed foods. And don’t shy away from life’s challenges, for they’re there to help us live long and prosper.
Bob Kain is the chief executive officer at LunaPBCTM, a public benefit corporation that manages LunaDNATM, the first community-owned health and DNA data platform dedicated to advancing health research and accelerating medical breakthroughs.