Modern Health: What Went Wrong?

August 21st, 2016   •   Comments Off on Modern Health: What Went Wrong?   
Modern Health: What Went Wrong?


The modern age brought with it many great advances in medicine and technology. Humanity is on the verge of curing cancer, has wiped out many of the most harmful diseases, and has made distance a trivial concern in communication. However, when it comes to broad human health, being modern carries several negative effects as well. Illnesses associated with living in the Western World are often called illness of affluence or simply Western Diseases.


These Western Diseases are oddly absent from populations that live in developing nations despite the assumed superiority of Western medicine. A look at the prehistoric record also shows that progress has had negative effects on health that go back much further than the development of the Western World. A look into what has changed since the Paleolithic, or Stone Age, may provide some insight into what has gone wrong.




If you have never heard of caries, it is likely because it is a term mainly used by archaeologists to describe the early breakdown of bone or other hard tissues in the body like teeth. Generally, they are associated with problems with diet like malnutrition but can also be caused by disease. They are referred to in modern times as cavities, and they only show up in the prehistoric record for one of two reasons. The first reason for caries to show up in a population is that there is great environmental stress such as drought or famine. The other factor that correlates with rotten teeth is the heavy use of grains. This occurred during the Neolithic Revolution, in which agriculture and animal husbandry largely replaced hunter-gathering and horticulture. Cavities only became a common feature when humans traded diet diversity for easy to store grain, chock full of carbohydrates. This is actually one of the facts that lead to the Paleolithic Diet, which just tries to imitate the human diet during the Paleolithic period directly before the Neolithic.




When human food habits changed in the Neolithic, the change centered on a shift into using many foods that were not ideally suited to human consumption as a primary nutrition source. Milk from sheep and cows actually required an evolutionary shift just to allow it into the diet. Mammals naturally stop being able to process lactose around weaning, and the modern ability to digest it is due to a mutation in the genomes of some populations. Those grains that caused the caries also brought other pathologies including problems with gluten. Gluten, the substance that gives bread its elasticity, actually serves no nutritional purpose, can reduce digestive efficiency, and can cause intolerance reactions such as with Celiac Disease. Some evidence even points to a connection between some types of asthma and exposure to gluten. The most obvious example of this is Baker’s Asthma, an illness that comes from inhalation of the sticky substance.




While most people would generally consider parasites a negative thing, the majority of human history and prehistory is rife with human parasitic infections. In fact, infection rates in developing countries are high enough that the World Health Organization figures a quarter of all humans still live with worm infestations (1). Worm infection carries problems associated with malnutrition, since most worms get their energy from the digestive systems of their hosts. Another major problem with worm infestation is that they sometimes migrate outside of the digestive tract and can cause death when they get into other organs. However, infestation also seems to help balance the immune system, specifically in relation to inflammation responses to allergens. Illnesses associated with inflammation including allergies, Crohn’s Disease, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and even asthma have been treated in recent times by infecting individuals with worms. It is unclear exactly why there is a positive effect from infestation, but there seems to be a connection between worm infestation and immune system response.




Within the world of anthropology, there exists a hypothetical supposition called the Hygiene Hypothesis (2). This hypothesis states that not only are you not doing yourself or your neighbors any good with your attempts at cleanliness, but you also may actually be harming everyone. The use of antibacterial soaps means that all bacteria is killed, even those that may do your body some good. In fact, studies have shown that early introduction of children to farm animals and zoonotic bacteria can have a substantially positive effect on health, and they tend not to develop allergies. This effect is sometimes referred to as the Farm Effect and has been scientifically documented in both the Amish and Swiss farming communities where children play an active role in farm upkeep (3). There is also worry that the habit of using disinfectants so much promotes the growth and reproduction of hardier and more dangerous bacteria such as Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA).


In Conclusion


In retrospect, human cultural evolution may not be all good. It is easy to assume that all the progress that has been made since humans were wandering the savanna millennia ago has been positive, but evidence shows that there has been a substantial price to pay along the way. Many of those things that are associated with uncleanliness or rural backwardness may actually have more benefits than they are given credit for. No matter how much progress has been made when it comes to improving the health and lives of humanity, there is clearly still much to be learned.


References & Further Reading

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