As a non-fiction read, ‘Survival of the Sickest’ by Dr. Sharon Moalem (with Jonathon Prince) grabs your attention. As someone who has studied anthropology and medical ethics (my graduate credits are all over the place) I knew some of the material, while parts of it I suspected in ‘woman’s way of knowing’ sort of way, but there were chapters of this book that were completely wowing.
One of the first things that grabs the reader is how many folk remedies have a basis in human physiology, although westernized medicine (I should write, patriarchal medicine) is very slow in catching up. Further, many disorders once considered rare, are actually quite common. Take hemochromatosis for instance, it is the condition where the body cannot edit itself with iron consumption and thinks that it is in constant need of the nutrient, thus overwhelms the joints and organs, and if it goes unchecked, results in death.
Originally diagnosed in 1865, hemochromatosis was thought to be a rare condition. Then in 1996 the primary gene that causes it was isolated and that was when it was discovered to be one of the “most common genetic variant in people of Western European descent.” For all of us who have Mayflower connections, chances are one in three, or one in four, that we have at least one copy of the hemochromatosis gene. Luckily, only one in two hundred people have the condition with all of its symptoms. For those who do have it, I hear your minds clicking, yes, to treat it old school required bloodletting.
What is further fascinating is the reason why such a condition might have some biological advantage. We all know that iron is an important component for a healthy body, but all life on the planet (some bacteria uses other metals in place of iron) needs iron too to survive. Ladies and germs, I give you Europe in the middle ages and the bubonic plague. An estimated 25 million people perished (and we are talking about a time when the earth’s population was a fraction of what it is now) thus anywhere from a fourth to a third of Europeans died during the repeated cycles of this plague.
Besides the swollen lymph nodes that burst through the skin, interestingly the bubonic plague seemed to infect the strongest and healthiest more than the malnourished. Men were more at risk than women of child bearing years. Although records from this time-period are scant, records from St. Botolph’s Parish in 1625 indicated that men between 15 to 44 who died did so two to one compared to women of the same age range.
Getting back to hemochromatosis, although this condition overloads most of the body with too much iron, one type of cell is given less than its normal allotment of iron…white blood cells. These are the police cells of our body, if they spot an infection they attack it. The problem for nonhemochromatic people is that infections like tuberculosis, use the iron in the white blood cells and multiple – something the body doesn’t want the infection to do. Thus, those people with hemochromatosis generally lived to see another day and they were and are general resistant to infection period. Further, the effects of the hemochromatosis builds up during a lifetime, if the lifespan of the era in which you live isn’t that long…you win!
BTW, hemochromatosis is believed to be a genetic mutation, which originated with the Vikings and was spread when the Vikings were kicking butt, pillaging, and taking names in Western Europe. One theory why this mutation was advantageous, prior to the bubonic plague, was that the condition helped women have more children because their iron supplies were not so terribly depleted during menstruation. Another hypothesis involves the Vikings as a warrior culture, when you fight a lot of battles, you shed a lot of blood.
‘Survival’ also examines diabetes and guess what? It is tied to massive global weather change. Cholesterol is tied to skin pigmentation. 400 million people have an enzyme deficiency where fava bean consumption may cause “rapid severe anemia that can often lead to death.” Our behavior may be more controlled by parasites than we could possibly imagine. Our genes, those that have been mapped, may be pre-programmed by inherited viruses to jump around to address certain triggers in the environment. Oh, and I hate to be the one to report this, most likely no matter how many diseases humans learn to eradicate or how well we take care of ourselves – death is inevitable because it clears out the old to make way for the new.
‘Survival of the Sickest’ has a wide appeal. If you have any interest in health and fitness, in history, in science, in nutrition, in mystery, and in reading a well-written non-fiction book, which at times was downright funny, then ‘Survival’ is for you. I absolutely think it is a must read for anyone with children…or who are thinking about having children. The information about mothers who smoke while pregnant will make any woman of child bearing years quit. Further, the connection between the health of a child and the health of their grandmother while pregnant with their mother is astounding.
I’m adding the following information because it is too important for me to Bogart. If you are thinking about becoming pregnant or are pregnant – diet, diet, diet (and I’m not talking about dieting to get your figure back to pre-pregnancy shape). Apparently, a lot of research is indicating that eating junk food while pregnant slows the metabolism of the unborn child. Junk food provides little nutritional value to the fetus. Although the food is fattening, the fetus’s genes are fooled into thinking that the child is going to be born into an environment where food is scarce, thus a slow metabolism is deemed beneficial. Like higher risks of cancer that are passed between grandmother, mother, and baby – slow metabolism can be passed through the generations, but also avoided. I’ll note, that when I write ‘slow metabolism,’ I’m referring to the increase in obesity in American children and adults that is currently in the news. Twenty-five million children in the U.S. are obese and we are now looking at a generation that may be the first to have a decrease of years in their lifespan because of it.
Do not think men are off the hook either – good health means good sperm. Men who start smoking before or around adolescence have children who have breathing problems, along with weight issues.
Oddly, after reading ‘Survival of the Sickest’ I felt more of a connection to humanity. No countries, no borders, nor other bullshit we use to disillusion ourselves – the legacy of our ancestors is written within ourselves. Despite differences between populations, ‘Survival’ points out that Xenophobia may be an instinct based on fear of contagions, we live on one earth. What happens in one region of the world affects the rest of us. If one book can remind us of that important lesson, then it is always worth a read.
© 2007 Westerfield