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New ideas in health

We all want to be healthy, don't we? Trouble is it means not enjoying yourself doesn't it; eating nutritious but dull food; suffering endless hours of exercise; watching our calories so we always feel guilty about having a treat?

Rubbish! Scientists are sweeping away so much of the old-wives-tales school of diet and health. They are beginning to learn about what makes us truly healthy. Above all they are showing that at any age the human body has an enormous capacity to improve with relatively little pain. We are the end result of four thousand million years of successful development. As Mike Skinner of The Streets wrote in 'On The Edge Of A Cliff':

For billions of years
Since the outset of time
Every single one of your ancestors survived
Every single person on your mum's and dad's side
Successfully looked after and passed onto you life
What are the chances of that, like?

Our bodies developed for a very different environment from that in which we have lived for the last few thousand years. It also was very challenging. We needed to be able to go for days without food, to be able to run and throw to catch our prey and to store energy in our bodies as fat when food was plentiful. The only one of these three that most people now do is the last. Food in the western world is plentiful but we still respond to our ancient instincts and eat. So we get fat. We don't move or starve so our bodies decline. When stated simply like that, it is blindingly obvious.

Genetics has changed dramatically. Genes are now identified with certain good and bad traits of our bodies. Some code for illness or growth. Some code for our ability to repair ourselves. But the exciting discovery is that genes can be switched on and off, and under our control. They are no longer seen as our inescapable fate. We can change the way genes work in every cell of our body, a process called epigenetics.

When gene therapy was first talked about, I could not see how it would work. How could you cure someone of a disease that was coded into the DNA at the heart of every cell? The discovery that individual genes in the DNA could be switched on or off was the breakthrough.

Take one example. There is a gene that determines our growth. Switched on, it produces a chemical called 'insulin-like Growth Factor' IGF1. This determines our size. It also allows cancer cells to grow out of control to kill us. But we can switch it off. How? By fasting. Three days complete fast will switch this gene off for at least a month. Regular one-day fasting will control it just as well. It can slash the chances of getting cancer and explains why cancer has exploded as a result of our lazy, bloated habits. And this isn't starvation-fasting. You can still eat around 500 calories if you want to. On the other days you can eat pretty much all you want. Too good to be true? It sounds it, but it seems that it is true. Sort of. If you watch a repeat of the Horizon programme on fasting on BBC TV, or read Holford's book described in the review, you will learn more. I have found that you can't eat all you want on non-fasting days if you want to lose weight. Just eat normally.

Above all, it seems that our bodies thrive on being stressed. Loading your muscles, bones and joints, working your heart and lungs hard, challenging your immune system with dirt and infections, giving your brain problems to solve, starving your body sometimes, even being exposed to the background radio-activity that we all encounter, all keep us fit and well.

Food is central to modern ill-health. Not only is it plentiful but it has changed. We eat processed and refined foods. Food fresh from the ground or from the trees contains more fibre and complex nutrients. A BBC Horizon programme in January 2014 had some interesting new data. A 50:50 mix of sugar and fat seems to be particularly dangerous. Such a mix isn't found in nature, except in human breast milk. It disables the body's natural feeling of being full so we don't know when to stop. This is almost, but not quite, an addiction. The message is if you are eating cheesecake, ice-cream, milk 'chocolate', doughnuts, biscuits and cakes remember that your body won't tell you when to stop. Otherwise sugar is not the ogre it has been made out to be. In fact it is essential for intensive body or brain workouts.

It is also becoming clear that many diseases are either caused or made worse by the mix of bacteria in the gut. The presence of methanobrevibacteriaceae and a lack of butyricimonas bacteria appears to increase inflammation leading to multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. It is suggested that low vegetable western diets might cause this. (Medscape 1 October 2014)

As a scientist I have watched the emerging research results with fascination. For me the keys to health are to work out a set of recipes and a sound diet, design a programme of vigorous exercise that I enjoy and to fast occasionally, and then to enjoy the vibrant health that results.

Equally as a scientist I am horrified by the way health matters are reported in the press and other media. Most journalists are ignorant of science. Many media, especially social media, do not even have well-disciplined journalists writing the copy. Journalists don't seem to understand that a single study is not enough to negate a result that was shown by many others. Nor that some studies are valueless because they use poor methods or mangle statistics. Rarely do we see them question who paid for the research to be done. In short I never take any notice of health information and advice in newspapers, magazines and on the general internet. Avoided like the plague are articles that contain the word 'detox'. How do we survive with these poisons (toxins) inside us? The only toxic things are the ideas in the article. If something seems interesting I will form a judgement only when I have read about it in a truly scientific medium.

I do not gamble, judging its wisdom by the vast wealth of those who take bets. However life is a gamble. Any one of us, including me, might be unlucky and get an incurable disease however hard we try. However if I knew of a bet as certain as the health benefits of the new ideas, I'd wager nearly every penny I've got. We all must die, but it is better to do it as late as possible and to be infirm only at the very end. There are people running marathons in their nineties.

We live in exciting times for health. In the very near future we will be able to use a range of cheap devices and apps that will watch and measure us and warn us when things are going wrong. We can then do something about it before we become ill. The data might be sent to your doctor or fed to analysis software on your computer. What better motivation is there than to be told that unless you act now you are heading towards heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure or diabetes? In January 2014 an ultrasound scanner the size of a pack of cards was announced. We get closer to Star Trek's Bones' scanner every day.

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(C) Peter Scott 2012

Last edit 13 March 2017