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The Heart of the Body

Posted Jan 22 2009 6:31pm

By Barbara Berkeley

After two years of basic science lectures, our third-year medical class had been assigned to an actual hospital. We thought we knew it all standing in our starched white coats with stethoscopes so stiff that they could hardly bend around our shoulders. We so wanted to drape them casually around our necks as we’d seen the “real” docs do. They just refused to go.

For our first assignment, we were told to fall in behind a well-known nephrologist (kidney specialist). Thinking that we were to make rounds on fascinating renal cases, we were horrified when he took us into a bleak room with hard plastic chairs and began blasting us with questions. Red faced and puffing, he lambasted us for our lack of anything resembling knowledge. Clearly, we were lower than worms. He asked us a series of questions about renal physiology and acid-base balance. We were too frightened to answer and couldn’t remember anything. Finally, in an exasperated rage he bellowed: “At LEAST answer THIS!! What is the HEART of the BODY?????” Thoroughly cowed, we snuck sideways glances at each other, crouching low in our seats. The answer seemed obvious, even to us. After an uncomfortable silence, one brave soul spoke up. “The heart, sir. The heart is the heart of the body.” Steam seemed to pour from the ears of our enraged professor. “It is NOT!!” he proclaimed. “The heart of the body is the KIDNEY!”

I have never forgotten this, and not just because it induced a medical student’s version of post traumatic stress disorder. The kidney is indeed a vital organ which controls the balance of many of the most crucial elements in the body. But our professor had simply grown to see life through the kidney. It was the center of his disease universe. Simply put, he had grown to be the biggest booster of the organ system he’d come to know best.

I tell this story because I often recognize this tendency in myself. I unashamedly believe that the heart of human health is the diet. In particular, I see much of modern disease stemming from a departure from our original diet, the one I call Primarian. I see everything through this lens and can’t understand why others are blind to it. Sometimes I must force myself to remember my nutty renal professor in order to avoid sounding just like him.

Having made this confession, I want to share three stories in the news. Imagine seeing them as I do, through the lens of a Primarian. All of these stories ran in the New York Times within the last two days.

Story One: Kidney stones are now on the rise in kids.

Kidney stones in kids? This was previously unheard of. Now it is becoming common. Experts quoted in the article blame our diet. The salt load we currently consume is monumentally unhealthy and salt acts as a binding agent for calcium. It then drags the calcium into the urine where levels rise and stones are formed. Our ancient diet did not contain salt so we are poorly adapted to eating it. Should we be surprised that it causes illness? Add kids’ kidney stones to the high blood pressure that adults suffer when they eat modern amounts of salt. Why aren’t we just correcting the problem by reverting to ancient-style diet?

Story Two: Rheumatoid arthritis is on the rise in women

Since the 1990s, the number of women with this condition has risen significantly. Why?

“The reasons behind the rise aren’t known, but researchers speculate that environmental factors may be playing a role. Smoking has been strongly linked with an increased risk for rheumatoid arthritis. Other studies suggest an association between the disease and diet, coffee intake, alcohol consumption and body mass index, but a causal relationship hasn’t been shown.”

From the Primarian point of view, a rise in inflammatory diseases makes me consider the fact that our modern diet has as much as 20 times more omega 6 fatty acids (the kind that encourage the body to be inflamed) than omega 3 fatty acids (the kind that calm inflammation). Our ancient diet contained these fats in a ratio of 1 to 1. In addition, the obesity caused by our way of eating creates dangerous interabdominal fat deposits. These fatty areas make chemicals that get into the blood stream and create inflammation throughout the body. Why not eat more anciently and solve these problems?

Story Three: A major trial of vitamins for the prevention of prostate cancer has proved a failure.

“A major trial studying whether simple nutritional supplements could lower a man’s risk for prostate cancer has ended amidst worries that the treatments may do more harm than good.

"The SELECT trial, which stands for the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial, was studying whether selenium and vitamin E, either alone or in combination, could lower a man’s risk for prostate cancer. More than 35,000 men were taking part, making it one of the largest and best studies of a vitamin or supplement.

“But the National Cancer Institute announced Monday that the trial, which was scheduled to end in 2011 after seven years, is being halted early. A review of the data shows no benefit in using the supplements to prevent prostate cancer. In addition, slightly more users of vitamin E were getting prostate cancer, and slightly more selenium-only users were developing diabetes.”

This study is one in a long line of trials that have shown very little use for vitamin supplements. Not only did the vitamin treatment not work, it actually might have been harmful. A similar result occurred in an earlier study that looked at beta carotene for prevention of lung cancer in smokers. At the end of the study, those treated with the vitamin actually had a greater risk of developing cancer, so the idea of supplementation was abandoned. Those studying prevention of prostate cancer with vitamins were similarly disappointed:

“We were hoping something simple like this would be helpful, but it wasn’t,” said Dr. Eric Klein, national study coordinator for SELECT and vice chairman of the Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. “Everyone believes things that are natural are good for you. That’s not always the case.”

From the Primarian viewpoint, our focus on vitamin pills is misguided. It seems clear that foods that contain vitamin, mineral and phytonutrient complexes are highly healthful. Multiple studies confirm that. Yet we insist on removing the individual vitamins from their complete package and giving them as pills. Time and again, we see that this doesn’t work. My conclusion, then, is not that natural things are ineffective. Instead, a study like this one confirms my belief that we cannot simply manufacture nature or add a few elements of nature to an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle. Prostate cancer is associated with obesity. In fact, cancers of all types are far more common in those who have excessive fat. Again, the inflammation caused by persistent fat may be to blame. Why not eat more anciently and reduce fat deposits?

I guess I have become as single-minded as my blustering renal professor. But take it from this unrepentant and completely biased Primarian: a mostly ancient diet, coupled with a goodly amount of physical activity, is our best hedge against disease.

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