I have been fascinated by cellular biology ever since I first saw it in school. The superiority of the biological machinery is something that evokes deep humbleness in me. Nothing is ever simple in human biology but every single aspect of it shares the same quality of alluring beauty. However wonderful cell biology is though, one thing is for sure: it is not well adapted to modern life and this simple fact is at the core of the epidemic of chronic degenerative diseases that currently take over our healthcare systems imposing ever-increasing challenges.
Our bodies are used to working with the sun, the light that triggers the hormonal signals that will turn our biological switches on and off but we have now entered an era of much further stimulation. Our brains are stimulated to continue in sympathetic mode for much longer now. We watch TV at night, we use our smart phones day and night and we sit in front of computers until late . What happens with our parasympathetic agenda? What about all of those activities that await for the switch to turn sympathetic stimulation off and let parasympathetic mode take over in order to prepare and repair for the next day? Well, the healing, resting and growing get less and less time to happen. The result? A slow but constant health decline, which will go on silent for long until one day you are given a label with a ‘diagnosable disease’. Much before then, the signs and symptoms will show up but they will pile up slowly until there’s enough of them to fit into a ‘pathology pattern’.
In the same way that there are only 24h in a day and the extra time you spend on sympathetic mode will inevitably be taken off the time you should have spent in parasympathetic mode, you’ll be also borrowing energy from some functions to power others. But what’s worse is: your ability to produce energy will suffer in the process. The power-houses of cells, tiny structures present inside cells and known as mitochondria, are very sensitive to stimulation. Depending on how and how much we feed our bodies, the mitochondria will either multiply and renew producing more energy from the fuel we provide them with or they will get into a process of stagnation and stop renewing themselves. Without the right stimulation for mitochondrial renewal, mitochondria age and decrease energy output. Aged mitochondria also lets free radicals escape from their insides promoting damage to all structures inside cells, including DNA. So you can see that mitochondrial function is key to optimal health and the results of suboptimal mitochondrial work can be far reaching.
Although my mention of sleep illustrates the situation above, sleep is by no means all that you can do to look after your mitochondria. With modern laboratory technology, it is becoming clear, from a molecular point of view, why we should live life making a constant effort to keep our lifestyles as close as possible to ‘natural’ conditions. Our bodies are old biological machines with genes that developed over hundreds of thousands of years. The notion that we ‘adapt’ through evolution can be very misleading if you don’t place it within a quantifiable amount of time. For example, in the past 500,000 years, our human genes have changed less than 5% (some claim they have changed less than 1%). Now although evolution does happen, you realise it happens at a much slower pace than we tend to assume when expecting our bodies to suddenly understand and deal with a number of processes strange to nature. Amongst these ‘strange to nature’ challenges that we surround our old biology with are: the thousands of new chemicals thrown into the environment every day, the altered and artificial food we started eating in the past 100 years, the weird lifestyles disconnected from the outside world, the lack of physical effort and natural rhythms that we were once accustomed to for literally thousands of years.
The pace of progress has been accelerating and it has picked up unprecedented speed with the advent of modern technology. It is exciting to see how much our lives have changed in less than 50 years. However, a very clear message from molecular biology is that our bodies remain the same and one of the new challenges presented by contemporary life to future generations is the vital need to maintain a healthy body in a ‘virtual’ world.
I realise we cannot escape Modern life but we can become aware of how our bodies work. By learning how to maintain the right stimuli to keep the body functioning well, we can avoid so many mistakes that might needless shorten our experiences in life. Knowledge is power and amongst the wonderful privileges of Modern life is access to knowledge and expertise. By understanding how you need to look after your biological machinery, it is possible to make the most of ‘both worlds’ and find the best balance between your old body and the present world.