Evolutionary Psychiatry

The hunt for evolutionary solutions to contemporary mental health problems.

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Will a paleolithic-style life make us healthier and happier?

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The next phase of medicine is coming, I hope. Today's modern medicine seems to me more about using prescription drugs and expensive medical procedures in order to lengthen our lives while the quality of our overall health declines due to diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, autimmune disease, and mental illness. All of these can be disabling illnesses that we must live with for many years. I'm interested in a kind of medicine where doctors will help people find solutions rather than simply medicate the symptoms.

In Evolutionary Medicine, there is a simple underlying principle I use to examine the scientific literature. As human beings, we spent hundreds of thousands of years, and many thousands of generations, living as hunter-gatherers prior to the onset of civiliation and agriculture. It seems likely that our bodies and brains would work best if we do what we can (in a sensible way) to emulate that evolutionary life. In practical terms, that means getting functional exercise, plenty of sleep and play, and, for many, a radical shift in diet, to reflect that hunter-gatherer past.

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A "paleolithic" style diet is one that includes meat, organ meats, shellfish, fish, tubers, green leafy vegetables, eggs, seasonal fruits, and nuts. Notably absent are the vegetable oils (such as corn, canola, safflower, sunflower, or peanut oil) and highly processed foods created in the last 50 or so years. Grains (corn, wheat, barley, rye, oats, buckwheat, quinoa, millet, etc.), legumes (red and black and pinto beans, legumes, garbanzo beans, peanuts), nightshades (white potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant) and milk products (excepting breast milk, of course) are also relatively new foods to the human palate. Obviously, avoiding all these foods completely would be nearly impossible and not practical at all. Fortunately, it seems that by examining anthropology and the health of many people around the globe, that the main foods to avoid are vegetable oils, refined sugar, gluten grain products (which would include wheat, barley, rye, and spelt), and of course any industrial foods such as trans fats and highly processed foods.

Anthropological evidence and epidemiological studies of modern and past hunter gatherers, as well as agrarian societies of the last 10,000 years, show us that the physical health of hunter gatherers far surpasses the health of grain-based societies (1). They lived longer (until the last 100 years and the invention of antibiotics and vaccines), and were more or less free of diseases such as osteoporosis, metastatic cancer, and tooth decay, and modern hunter gatherers who eat traditional diets do not have diabetes, hypertension, obesity, atherosclerosis, acne, osteoporosis, dementia, or any of the most common cancers that we suffer from in the West.


Traditional agrarian societies were also relatively healthy (2), but they did not consume white flour, vegetable oils, or refined sugar. In addition, they used a number of soaking and fermenting techniques to make grains and legumes healthier.

I contend that our modern epidemic of mental illness may also be the result of our industrial diet in combination with our stressful lives. Over the past year, I have gathered a great deal of evidence to support this hypothesis, and have yet to see anything that would absolutely refute it.

I work in one of the least understood fields of medicine - Psychiatry. My job is to help people feel better, and to accomplish this task I look at medical, genetic, psychological, and social influences on a person's life, and hopefully come up with a plan to correct glaring problems. Often I prescribe medication to help the process along. I'm hopeful that an increased understanding of the brain and nutrition will greatly reduce my need to rely on prescriptions in order to help people.

The brain is the most complicated and therefore vulnerable organ in the body. Almost any illness, medication, and nutritional deficit can show up first as vague (or not so vague) psychological or neurological symptoms. We are not supposed to be fatigued, scattered, depressed, or have wild aggression and mood swings on a regular basis. We are meant to be sharp, serene, and generally happy. If we look hard enough, I'm sure that science and common sense will give us some answers.

Our current state of health, by the numbers:

Mental Health

Cancer

Heart Disease

Diabetes

I want to do better.

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Copyright Emily Deans, M.D.

Emily Deans, M.D., is a psychiatrist with a practice in Massachusetts.

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