This guide aims to cover all questions pertaining to Evolutionary Health – if it doesn’t, let us know in and we’ll be happy to answer any of your questions.
Please note - this summary has not been referenced, because it was created as an internal document to share among team members. However, people have found this valuable - so we have decided to release it as a free guide for the public. All the information was created by specialised nutritional practitioners who are trained in evolutionary science and functional medicine.
Everyone has heard of evolution or spoken about it figuratively within a conversation. But what really does it mean?
It’s a broad term that refers to the genetic change overtime in an organism according to the pressures exacted by its environment. Still confused? Not surprisingly this is a complex and multifaceted theory that can’t be explained within a sentence.
Instead, imagine a complex organism existing a few million years ago. Maybe an ape that spends most of its time living in trees of an equatorial rainforest jungle. It’s perfectly adapted to its environment; it can climb well to reach its food which mostly is found in the form of fruits in the trees. It’s adapted to spending most of its life in trees including sleeping, it has simple social structures that allow mothers to bring up children whilst the men look out for or attempt to defend themselves from predators. They have some limited learned ability like the folding of branches into simple structures to be used as beds or use a twig to extract ants from within a tree to provide some extra protein. They rarely spend time on the ground and as such their abilities on the ground are limited, they have shorter legs and are more comfortable on all fours there. For this reason, they rarely visit the forest floor save for some rare scavenging opportunities, there has to be a big calorie pay off though as on the forest floor they are more vulnerable to predators.
Unbeknownst to our troop of apes their environment is changing. Forces out of their control which include the orbital distance of their planet from the sun, oceanic currents, and the polar axis of their planet or any other innumerate variables that could be involved are causing the climate to cool. In fact, the climate is cooling so much that year after year the polar ice caps are growing and accruing more ice. This doesn’t happen immediately but slowly over thousands if not millions of years the ice is spreading.
What has this got to do with our ape species living in and equatorial jungle? Well as more of the planets water gets locked up in ice there is less in the atmosphere creating a dryer climate. Rainforests start to reduce over time; patches of grasslands start to appear between clumps of forest as there isn’t sufficient precipitation to support as many large trees.
How has this affected our apes? Let’s visit the direct ancestors of the original troop we were talking about but about 10,000 years from when we first described them – what’s changed? Outwardly, they look broadly similar, but their environment seems quite different. They are still primarily arboreal but the forest is now pock marked with patches of grassland that they have to travel between when they have exhausted their current area of food. You notice that they aren’t as clumsy walking on the ground and possibly, just maybe you notice their legs appear slightly longer. They also tend to spend less time on all fours; this makes them more adept at crossing grass land and getting a better vantage point to see predators coming from afar. You notice that when in the open some of them grab sticks as a tool or weapon in case they were attacked by a predator, this is facilitated by the fact they spend less time on all fours allowing them to use their hands.
What has happened here? What allowed this ape to make small and subtle changes over the ten thousand to better suit its environment? The process is known as natural selection and it is an ever present subtle but constant pressure that affects all organisms fighting to survive in their environment. As the climate changed over time the pressures on these apes changed. Members of the troop who were better at travelling over open ground or standing up right to see predators were less likely to be eaten, their genetics were more likely to be passed on. Genetic mutations giving slightly longer legs facilitated the ability to stand upright making genes more likely to be passed on. If different types of foods were available on the grasslands such as fresh animal kills, the apes most able to take advantage in this new source of calories were more likely to survive and more likely to pass their genes on.
And so it is possible to see that over the period of many thousands of years the genetics expression of the same animal’s changes to best fit the environment as favourable genetics for that environment are passed on more frequently and unfavourable genetics less frequently.
Let’s skip forward another million years now but still following the ancestors of the original troop of apes we considered. The continual cooling of the earth has caused it to enter an ice age making the climate very dry. The equatorial rain forests have mostly disappeared to be replaced by grasslands. Our apes are now mostly upright and look quite different; their hands are free allowing them to interact with their environments in ways not possible for quadrupeds. They frequently carry sticks with which to defend themselves against far bigger predators. They don’t spend any time in trees, but their shoulders that used to be articulated for swinging have now been adapted so they can use them to throw. This has opened up a world of possibilities in both defending from predators and access to prey. It also has facilitated more complex social structures as the ability to work together to achieve goals proves far more fruitful for the troop as a whole than individual endeavours.
In case you haven’t guessed by now this story is analogous to human evolution. Hopefully it illustrates the point that evolutionary pressures are subtle and constant and shape over millennia an organism that is designed to thrive in its environment.
You’ll note that there isn’t an instance where it would be advantageous to get diabetes, or heart disease, autoimmune disease or cancer. In fact these conditions would have inhibited an organism to survive to the extent that it’s very unlikely that these genetics would continue to get passed on. Evolution doesn’t make mistakes, it makes genetics that are designed to thrive in its correct environmentally niche.
I can hear you thinking at this point; “but we know that there are genetic pre-dispositions to loads of these diseases”. Yes that’s correct, there are genetic predispositions to chronic diseases, but again, evolution doesn’t make mistakes – so how do these genes exist?
Between 250,000-10,000 years ago your ancestor’s ability to get fat determined your ancestors ability to survive freezing cold ice age winters in northern Europe. Insulin resistance in an environment of scarcity spares energy in your body for brain and reproductive capacity. The desire to over consume or crave hyper caloric hyper palatable food comes from a drive to find food, this is an evolved drive that made you a great person to know when it came to finding food. Hormonal irregularities that contribute to breast cancer make you more fertile and give you an ability to bare more children in the right environment. The genes associated with autoimmunity protect against parasites and water bourn hepatitis. So with a few very recently evolved (post-agricultural revolution) genetic conditions (including sickle cell anaemia, haemocrhomatosis, and cystic fibrosis), most predisposition to disease comes from genetics that were advantageous in the environment they evolved in but are not a good biological fit in the modern environment.
What can anyone do about this? I’m not saying that it would be desirable to live like our ancestors with high rates of child mortality or struggling through harsh winters. However, if we accept that our genetics were designed to thrive in a specific environment, we can start to decipher what that environment may have been and in cooperate practices to mimic that environment so as to give our biology the best possible chance for good health outcomes.
The scientific literature is already awash with evidence that this is the case. For instance, people who eat whole foods tend to have better health outcomes – could it be that is because these are more like the types of foods we evolved alongside? People who exercise have better health outcomes – as our ancestors were extremely active on a daily basis. Our immune systems work better when we are healthy because our immune systems were designed in the context of our metabolically healthy ancestors. All of these practices that promote health mimic your evolved environment even though you live in a modern one.
What this means is you can literally have your cake and eat it too. You can have all the benefits of modern life whilst also instilling practices that signal to your biology in the same way the environment your ancestors evolved in did.
Now there is nuance here. For example – what exercise and how much should you do or which whole foods and in what proportion. Whilst some people are able to work this out for themselves, to many others, it is not so intuitive. Some people can feel they’ve done the right thing their whole lives only to end up with sub-par or undesirable health outcomes. This is where Biospan can come in. We take your presentation, history, likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, and everything else to try and match that with interventions that would be most evolutionary consistent with your biology for the expression of health.
That in a nutshell is, evolutionary health.
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