Man is the unnatural animal, the rebel child of nature, and more and more does he turn himself against the harsh and fitful hand that reared him. – H. G. Wells
Welcome back to the Human Zoo. Please take your seats and we will get right to it. May I direct your attention off to the left of the bus to witness a human timidly emerging from his shelter. Ahhhh Crap!!! Sorry folks, this is Mr. Smith and admittedly he is not our best specimen. If I remember correctly, we are looking at a middle aged male suffering from obesity, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis and type II diabetes. Although we take full responsibility for this mishap, and will gladly return your money as well as offer you a complementary lunch buffet, in our defense it is getting harder and harder to find a good specimen in this zoo. In fact, the frequency of humans suffering from chronic ailments is so severe and widespread there are whispers of an epidemic. I fear that if we do not intervene soon the ZOO SICKNESS will be the death of us all!!!
As I discussed previously, the artificial and controlled environment of the human zoo is highly protective, acting as a buffer designed to reduce the damage that the natural environment can dole out. It plays the role of the great eliminator or protector – drastically reducing our exposure to inputs known to adversely affect our health. This is a monumental achievement for man kind, resulting in a substantial increase in our life expectancy. However, the Human Zoo is a prototypical double-edged sword, for our modern environment is also responsible for causing a grocery list of chronic diseases – the so called ills of modern society (heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity and arthritis). We are living longer lives but at the cost of leading lives that are tormented by disability and morbidity. I would like to explore the tarnished and soiled side of the coin known as the Human Zoo and why we are all suffering from Zoo Sickness.
All the problems with the Human Zoo stem from the fact that it is a completely artificial environment. There are consequences to being removed from the natural environment that we should be inhabiting as members of the web of life on planet earth. The inputs that we are exposed to in the Human Zoo are abnormal. And it is these abnormal inputs that wreak havoc on our physiology and are the root cause of Zoo Sickness.
For simplicity, the abnormal inputs of the Human Zoo can be placed into the following categories.
High Levels of Natural Inputs
In addition, to being the great eliminator and protector, the Human Zoo is also the great provider. In an effort to create comfort and reduce worry and stress, the zoo has been designed to allow its inhabitants access to countless inputs at artificially high levels. For example, our modern society is awash in food. For the majority of its inhabitants, nutritional inputs are available whenever the desire to eat strikes them. This is far removed from our natural lifestyle involving hunting and gathering, where there were seasonal variations in both food sources and quantities. Periods of starvation were the norm and not the exception. The constant high volume of nutritional inputs through our mouth port is a major contributing factor in a variety of chronic diseases, including obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
Low Levels of Natural Inputs
An additional problem with the artificial environment of the Human Zoo is that it provides abnormally low levels of certain natural inputs that are known to provide health promoting benefits. This occurs as a by product of being overzealous in our attempt to protect ourselves from nature. In effect we push our natural environment so far away that we loose some of the key inputs that are ingrained within it that bestow critical health promoting benefits. For example, we no longer have to engage in physical activity in our modern society to eke out a living. Survival no longer depends on our ability to hunt and gather food, build a shelter and avoid predators. By acting as the great provider the Human Zoo has artificially created a situation where one of the greatest health promoting inputs has been removed – physical activity. Instead of it being part and parcel of our survival, it is now is a volunteer activity that is engaged in at a miserably low level by the majority of society. This is too our detriment, with physical inactivity being linked to a wide variety of chronic ailments, including osteoporosis, obesity, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
The artificial environment of the Human Zoo creates an additional problem. As a society we are innovators and have an unquenchable need to design and make new things. We do this in an attempt to make our life easier, more productive and more enjoyable. However, the vast majority of our innovations have created inputs that when exposed to the human body have negative health consequences and thus have been given the label a toxin. They are the chemicals found in cigarette smoke, herbicides, solvents, artificial sweeteners, exhaust fumes, pesticides, food preservatives, medications and cleaning products. The Human Zoo is teeming with toxins and unfortunately they are in the air we breath, the water we drink and the food we eat. They are completely foreign to our physiology and these abnormal inputs gain access to our system and contribute to the progression of a number of chronic conditions, such as cancer.
As inhabitants of the Human Zoo we are extremely fortunate to be living longer lives. But there is always a cost to altering a natural environment, and that cost in this case is that we are leading lives that are plagued by significant sickness and disability. I believe that as a society we can do better. I will explore my plan for attempting to improve our collective situation in an upcoming blog entitled The Human Zoo Part Three – Be Your Own Zoo Keeper.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Henry de Bracto
A powerful way to envision the human body is as a living processor that must effectively deal with a wide range of inputs in order to stay alive long enough to create the next generation. Although this description of human life is extremely simplistic, and like most models it creates as many problems as it solves, I have found it to be effective for understanding the importance of consciously controlling our exposure to inputs for the purpose of increasing overall health and well being. In a nut shell – if you want to be healthy control your inputs.
My definition of an input is something that the human body is exposed to that causes a specific output or result. I know this is a very general definition, but bare with me, the utility of this definition and the model ultimately lies in its simplicity. The inputs that the human body potentially has to deal with are numerous and diverse, including gravity, toxins, micronutrients, water, ultra violet (UV) radiation, microorganisms, sounds, odors and tastes. The anatomical location where an input interacts with the human body is known as a port. Ports are located where the external environment intimately encounters the human body, incluing the mouth, nose, ears, eyes and skin.
The outputs that are generated by the living processor (human body) are not consciously chosen. They are well beyond our conscious control since they are hard-wired into the living processor. The outputs are the consequence of our human physiology and are ultimately determined by our genetic code, which has been evolving over billions of years. As a result of this hard-wired programing, when the living processor is exposed to a specific input the rules of the living process are followed without question, resulting in a predicable and repeatable physiological outcome. No amount of worrying about or thinking can change the hard-wired outcome once a specific input has reached its port.
To better understand this model consider the following – when UV radiation (input) from sunlight strikes exposed human skin (port), a series of cellular events are triggered culminating in specific and predictable results. These results include the production of Vit D, production of melanin (sun tan) and if the dosage of UV radiation is high enough cellular damage and death and consequently inflammation (sun burn). Once human skin has received a certain dosage of UV radiation, a sunburn is inevitable and nothing the mind can do can alter this fact. Meaning that it is impossible to alter the severity of the sunburn through hopeful thinking, worrying or rationalizing.
However, where the mind has a chance to play an instrumental role is in the act of consciously deciding which inputs to allow into our bodies. This is the heart of preventative medicine. Making a conscious decision to increase exposure to health promoting inputs and decreasing exposure to health deteriorating inputs takes time and effort, but the results are worth it. Knowing how to control your inputs is the key to leading a long and healthy life.
Let us return to the example we started above concerning UV exposure from the sun to illustrate how this concept of prevention can be put into practice. It has been clearly established that a sunburn is the result of cellular damage induced by exposure to a dose of UV radiation. In this situation, the UV radiation is the input, the port is the skin and the process is the physiological events leading to cellular damage and inflammation. The key to preventing a sunburn is to limit the amount of UV radiation that reaches your skin. Another way to state this is to limit the interaction of the input with its port. The question then becomes how do we prevent the input from reaching the port. This can be accomplished in several ways: stay indoors and avoid the sun all together, cover your skin with clothes to prevent UV radiation from reaching your skin and cover your skin with a protective layer of sunscreen which has been designed to prevent the UV radiation from reaching the skin.
The time to act in a preventative manner is before an input has had a chance to interact with the living system. Once an input has reached its port the opportunity for prevention has been lost. The best we can do at this point is to introduce additional inputs into the system via their ports in an attempt to alleviate the problems that were initiated by the original offending input. Symptoms of a sunburn include red and irritated skin that can be quite painful. Other symptoms may include, fever, chills, nausea and blistering. These symptoms can be treated with cool compresses, nonsteriodal anti-inflammatory drugs and various creams. Although, these treatments help to alleviate the uncomfortable symptoms of a sunburn they do not remove the cellular damage that can lead to skin cancer and premature aging. In addition, like all inputs, medical interventions cause predictable and repeatable physiological effects which unfortunately include various detrimental side effects. Clearly it is prudent to take preventable measures to control the dosage of UV radiation that exposed skin is subjected too, as opposed to attempting to deal with the short and long term effects of exposure of a high dosage.
Our mind is ultimately our greatest health promoting resource for it allows us to act in a preventative manner. We can utilize our mind in a creative fashion to develop ways to control the inputs that interact with our bodies. In addition, our mind is responsible for developing the discipline necessary to continually execute a plan to control our inputs. I believe the simplicity of this model is helpful in allowing the mind to grasp the importance of taking preventative measures. This simplicity creates less complications, results in fever rules and hopefully leads to enhanced compliance with recommendations that have been proposed for improving our health and well being. So please remember this simple message – if you control your inputs you can control your health.
I was recently at a Tim Hortons enjoying a black coffee when I overheard (polite term for eavesdropping) an animated conversation, between two elderly gentlemen (1). The tone of their conversation was angry. However, they were not angry at one other, instead their anger was aimed at the government for permitting wind turbines to be placed on properties surrounding their farms. I gathered that they both have been against this wind turbine monkey business right from the beginning and like many other residents in south western Ontario they are questioning if wind turbines have detrimental effects on human health.
Although unsure about the mechanism by which wind turbines can negatively impact human health they both agreed that if it’s bad for bats and birds it can’t be good for humans (2). They were concerned about the long term effects that wind turbines will have on themselves as well as their spouses, children and grandchildren. They were especially concerned about the potential of wind turbines causing cancer, since it was prominent in both of their families. They wanted more scientific studies to be completed before a decision was made to erect additional wind turbines. They wanted the keen and trusted eye of science to shed light on this critical health related subject. They did not want to leave it up to their government, or the capitalist bastards that were already in the process of putting up the wind turbines all over their beautiful countryside. They vowed that no more wool shall be pulled over their eyes!!!!
When these two health savvy farmers finished up their conversation they parted ways. One waddled over to the counter and proceeded to order four large hot chocolates and two dozen doughnuts. He was beaming with delight as he informed the prepubescent cashier that these goodies would be eagerly devoured by his still sleeping grandkids. Farmer number two was in too much of a rush to grab more delicious treats. For he was in the midst of a nic fit and barely made it outside before he inhaled his first drag from a cigarette.
Perhaps these two are so out of touch with reality that they are unaware of the irony of their situation. Maybe they don’t yet grasp the fact that the best and the brightest minds in science and medicine have spent decades doing research, costing billions of dollars, which definitively indicates that there are strong correlations between various life style choices (diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption) and long term health and well being (3). Instead of worrying about the wool being pulled over their eyes by the government and big business regarding the safety of wind turbines, I would implore them to muster up the courage to pull their heads out of the sand (4) and consciously adopt the health promoting life style choices recommended by the scientific and medical communities.
Of course further research needs to be done on novel technologies, such as wind turbines, WiFi, cell phones and genetically modified foods. These technologies are just too recent to determine the long term impact they will have on our health. It is obvious that as additional information regarding the safety of these technologies is gathered we as a society will be in a better position to make more informed decisions about their overall usefulness. However, it will take time to gather this information. In the mean time, I suggest the following:
a) Stop focussing your attention on worrying about if new technologies, such as wind turbines are detrimental to your health. The cost-benefit ratio for this behavior is incredibly low.
b) Start focussing your attention on learning ways to modify your behavior so that you can successfully stop smoking, stop eating processed foods, start exercising and start getting adequate sleep. The cost-benefit ratio for these behaviors is high. Adopting these behaviors will have a huge effect on promoting not only your health but the health of your family.
1. Tim Hortons during the hours of 5AM and 7:30 AM is the official home of the disgruntled retired white male.
2. Unless humans can fly I am unsure how this argument holds.
3. While writing this blog there were exactly 405964098560495864095864 peer reviewed scientific articles indicating that activities such as smoking, alcohol consumption, physical inactivity and consumption of processed foods are detrimental to human health. (Slight exaggeration on the number of articles but there are so many articles published in the literature that one can believe the trends that have been discovered and use the information to improve their lives and the lives of their families).
4. Pull their heads out of the sand was not the phrase I used in my first draft.