12 big ideas that are shifting the way we think about health.
For more than a decade, Experience Life has covered the cutting edge of health and nutrition. We’ve tracked emerging trends and reported on promising research. Our central focus has been on lifestyle medicine, and recent advances in this field have been nothing short of astonishing. We’ve never had such a clear understanding of how powerfully factors like food, activity, sleep, stress, and environment affect our health. Here are what we see as some of the most important concepts we’ve covered over the past few years — and why we think they’ll continue to matter. Want to know more? Check out the links to our original articles, which offer deeper analysis, references, and sources for further reading. — The Editors
1. Friendly Fat
Most of us were raised to fear fat. We were steered toward lean cuts of meat, egg-white omelets, and dry toast. For a while there, many of us even avoided nuts, seeds, and avocados — afraid their relatively high fat and calorie content would contribute to weight gain.
Yet, a growing body of research shows that virtually all fats in their natural form — including the saturated fat found in butter, eggs, and red meat — can help build healthy metabolism and support key biochemical processes, including optimal cell, nerve, and brain function.
Our collective fear of fat started in the 1940s with physiologist Ancel Keys. Based on some flawed research, he hypothesized that dietary fat lay at the root of cardio-vascular disease. The U.S. government quickly codified Keys’s recommendations into nutritional guidelines.
The prepared-food industry, which saw a huge opportunity, rushed into the marketplace with an array of processed, low-fat products. Most were high in refined carbs, which have now been proven to fuel both inflammation and obesity. For this reason, many experts today see the war on fat as the primary driver of our current obesity and chronic-disease epidemic.
For the last half-century, we’ve been encouraged to think about weight gain as a simple math equation: More calories in minus fewer calories out equals calories stored as fat.
But this weight-loss advice has failed, primarily because it doesn’t take into consideration the hormonal and metabolic impact of different foods, explains researcher David Ludwig, MD, a Harvard Medical School professor and head of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“That approach will work for short periods of time, but people almost always gain the weight back because other mechanisms kick in,” says Ludwig, who is currently heading up a $13.6 million study on overweight and obese college students.
Ludwig and other researchers are now experimenting with higher-fat, low-glycemic, whole-food eating programs they think might offer new promise for many, including those who have struggled with their weight for a lifetime. (For more on the importance of healthy fats, see “Overcoming Grain Brain”.)
For more on the big fat myth, see “A Big Fat Mistake.”
2. Microbiome Matters
We are each a veritable ship of microbes, and without their help, we’d be sunk. This thriving ecosystem that each of our bodies hosts — referred to collectively as our microbiome — is made up of 100 trillion bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa. They outnumber our human cells 10 to one.
Not so long ago, we thought most of these microbes were hostile invaders we needed to destroy. Now, researchers tell us we need plenty of these bugs, and in the right balance, for optimal health.
A thriving microbiome supplies us with critical nutrients, helps us fight dangerous pathogens, keeps our immune system in balance, and modulates our weight and metabolism by extracting energy and calories from the food we eat.
Both helpful and potentially harmful microbes are found throughout our bodies, including on our skin and in our noses, mouths, tonsils, lungs, guts, and genital tracts.
The diversity and density of species that compose the human microbiome vary from person to person, depending on factors like diet, geographic location, and medical history. Even the experience of our ancestors plays a role: Microbiome patterns are passed down from parents to children over centuries.
“This understanding of the microbiome has changed my whole way of thinking,” says Robert Rountree, MD, a functional-medicine specialist in Boulder, Colo. “Our gut is like a garden. If you have an overgrowth of fungus in your garden and things aren’t growing right, you can’t just blast it with things that will sterilize the soil, as we used to routinely do to the body with antibiotics and other medicines. There are all kinds of things you need to do to get the soil healthy again.”
Imbalances in our gut microbiome can result in a wide range of health concerns, like obesity, colitis, asthma, and mental illness. Rountree says that most of these problems take years or decades to develop. They then require protracted treatment, including changes in diet and lifestyle; the use of probiotics (beneficial bacteria); and, in some cases, pharmaceutical and nutriceutical medications.
Another novel intervention: fecal transplants. Yes, doctors are now transplanting poop from healthy individuals to people with conditions like Clostridium difficile, an infectious bacterial disease that causes serious conditions such as chronic diarrhea and potentially fatal gut inflammation. C. diff., as it’s known for short, has traditionally been highly resistant to treatment, but fecal transplants that repopulate the gut with healthy flora are amazingly effective.
“The cure rate with these fecal transplants is around 90 percent,” Rountree says. “There is not another intervention in medicine with that kind of success ratio.”
For more on the microbiome, see “Your Microbiome: The Ecosystem Inside.”
3. Gluten Avoidance
Gluten-free eating has become so common and so trendy that it’s prompted a popular backlash, inviting jokes from late-night TV hosts, skepticism from family and friends, and even a “pro-gluten” movement of sorts. While it may be tempting to think of “GF” as a passing fad, a growing number of progressive health experts predict it is here to stay. And with good reason.
Gluten is a protein found in many grains, including wheat, rye, barley, spelt, Kamut, and triticale. One in 100 people has an autoimmune disorder called celiac disease, in which gluten prompts the body to attack the small intestine.
But researchers think that another 30 to 40 percent of Americans may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For these folks, eating gluten sets off a chain of inflammation that can lead to an array of disorders.
A 2009 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found an increased risk of death, mostly from heart disease and cancer, among both groups — 39 percent higher for those with celiac and 35 percent higher for people with latent celiac disease.
The best way to determine whether your health problems — reflux, arthritis, chronic fatigue, and others — are connected to gluten is to remove it completely from your diet for two to four weeks and see if your symptoms improve.
For more on gluten, see “Gluten: The Whole Story.”
4. 21st-Century Medicine
One of the greatest flaws of conventional medicine is that it often focuses on resolving symptoms rather than addressing the root causes of disease. Enter functional medicine, a systems-biology approach born within the ranks of conventional medicine more than 20 years ago.
“Functional medicine is focused on addressing the cause of chronic illness rather than its effects,” says Jeffrey Bland, PhD, founder of the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) and author of The Disease Delusion. “Conventional medicine evaluates each organ in isolation, but we look at how they communicate and interact with each other.”
Conventional medicine typically uses drugs to combat the symptoms of chronic illness and slow its progression. But because these drugs are developed without a systems perspective, they typically cause side effects. Doctors may then prescribe new drugs to deal with the side effects, and soon patients are dealing with the spiraling health consequences of multiple drugs and their interactions.
In contrast, functional practitioners take careful patient histories and examine the patient’s biochemistry, genetics, and environmental exposures to look for the cause of a medical issue or cluster of symptoms. While they sometimes use pharmaceuticals and other conventional interventions, they typically rely more heavily on diet modification and supplementation, detoxification, stress management, exercise, and other lifestyle adjustments.
Since 1991, the IFM has trained more than 100,000 doctors, nurses, chiropractors, nutritionists, and specialists in many areas, including oncology and gastroenterology, and its membership is expanding by 30 percent annually.
This past September, the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic opened a center for functional-medicine in collaboration with IFM.
“There’s so much more visibility now for this approach that works and provides real value to patients,” Bland says. “We’re really going to see some extraordinary changes in the way we reduce the burden of chronic illness.”
For more on functional medicine, see “Functional Medicine: A Science Whose Time Has Come.”
5. Ancestral Eats
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have a hard time recognizing much of what we modern humans call food. And that’s not just true of highly processed “junk” fare.
Even before the dawn of industrial food, 10,000 years of agriculture introduced foods such as grains, dairy, legumes, sugar, and alcohol — substances to which earlier humans had not previously been widely exposed.
This disconnect between our ancient genes and modern diet and lifestyle, say advocates of Paleolithic eating, goes a long way toward explaining the health plagues of contemporary civilization, including obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune disease, and more.
Accordingly, fast-growing trends toward “caveman cuisine” emphasize foods available in our pre-agricultural past (grassfed or wild meats, edible greens and other vegetables, roots, mushrooms, nuts, and some seasonal fruit), while minimizing reliance on more modern dietary additions, especially processed sugars and gluten-containing grains.
For more on the paleo diet, see “Paleo Vs. Vegan“.
6. Soil-Quality Concerns
The food we eat is only as healthy as the soil in which it grows. Or as microbiologist Elaine Ingham, PhD, puts it: “Human health and soil health are one and the same.”
Healthy, well-managed dirt is naturally fertile, free of dangerous toxins, and full of microorganisms and nutrients that carry on a synergetic partnership with plants — and with us.
Over the past two decades, there has been growing interest in evaluating the impacts of conventional industrial agricultural practices on soil health and erosion, and a growing awareness of the role nutrient-depleted soils may play in the declining nutrient density of some types of produce.
Today, more farmers are employing organic and biodynamic techniques to rebuild and protect soil health. Still, the vast majority of American farming relies on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, monocropping, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), all of which tend to degrade soil quality and may pose threats to human health.
Need another reason to start caring about dirt? Vital soil also helps sequester excess carbon in our atmosphere — potentially playing a significant supporting role in resolving climate change.
7. Autism Redefined
Autism was once a rarely reported disorder. Today, some form of autism-spectrum disorder afflicts nearly one in 68 children. Once believed to be a psychosocial phenomenon related to parenting factors, autism is now thought to be the result of inflammatory, gastrointestinal, mitochondrial, nutritional, and immune problems that manifest in dysfunctions of the body and brain.
While researchers are still puzzling out the disease pathways, many health professionals are now exploring a variety of chronic and environmentally triggered health conditions to which children with autism may be especially vulnerable, due in part to specific genetic variations. Treatments focused on resolving these underlying health challenges are offering new promise.
For more on autism, see “Autism’s Puzzle“.
8. Meditation Matters
For centuries, meditation was associated with monks on mountaintops. Now it’s being recognized as a practical intervention that can help us all improve our health and happiness.
Research suggests that meditation helps moderate and retrain the body’s fight-or-flight stress response. When unmanaged, that response triggers the release of a cascade of pro-inflammatory chemicals, including cortisol and adrenaline. It also disrupts important bodily digestive and immune processes, and it has a variety of negative downstream effects, including irritating and damaging tissue, depressing mood, and driving food cravings.
A daily meditation practice, recent studies show, can trigger positive cellular and neurological transformations, thereby improving your overall health and happiness quotient. Researchers are even working with the U.S. Marine Corps to evaluate meditation’s effects on combat stress and its possibilities for helping posttraumatic stress disorder.
Meditation expert and physician Jamie Lauren Zimmerman, MD, notes that the Latin root for “meditation” and “medicine” is the same — mederi, which means “to heal.” Zimmerman, a member of the ABC News medical unit, is currently involved with a variety of mindfulness-in-school programs. She’d like to see such programs spread, in part because she asserts they could contribute to our collective well-being. “I believe these children would be prepared to not only lead happier, healthier lives,” she explains, “but they would also be poised to treat others more kindly and make a greater contribution to society.”
For more on meditation, see “Learning To Sit Still“.
9. The Autoimmune Epidemic
The incidence of autoimmune disorders (including such conditions as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, celiac disease, psoriasis, and asthma) has increased dramatically over the last 50 years. They are now sickening nearly as many people as cancer and heart disease. And they often prove challenging for conventional medicine to resolve.
One of the top experts on autoimmunity is Alessio Fasano, MD, the director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children in Boston. He explains that these diseases generally have three components: genetic predisposition, an environmental trigger, and a leaky gut.
A growing number of practitioners now recognize that gastrointestinal systems weakened by poor nutrition, food sensitivities, stress, and toxins can spring leaks that allow various nasties (undigested food particles, bacteria, viruses, pollutants, and more) to cross the intestinal barrier into the bloodstream. The immune system then goes into overdrive and, over time, winds up destroying healthy tissue.
Quieting an overactive immune system generally requires a multipronged approach, but since 70 percent of the cells of the human immune system reside in the gut, many progres-sive health pros are increasingly focusing their attention there first.
For more on autoimmune disorders, see “Autoimmune Disorders: When Your Body Turns on You“.
10. Ibuprofen Awareness
When we start popping over-the-counter painkillers for chronic issues, we’re setting ourselves up for a world of hurt.
Every year, some 100,000 people are hospitalized in the United States with gastrointestinal bleeding from taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (including the brands Advil and Motrin), naproxen (often branded as Aleve), or aspirin. Some 16,500 of those hospitalized die.
Excessive NSAID use may also cause a range of health problems, such as leaky gut, renal and cardiac damage, joint deterioration, and improper healing of broken bones.
Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is not an NSAID, but overdoses of the medication are the leading cause of acute liver failure in the United States.
The takeaway: It’s OK to use these powerful medications in moderation for the occasional headache or short-term injury, but it’s best to deal with chronic pain and inflammation by getting to the root of the matter.
For more on NSAIDs, see “This Is Your Body On Ibuprofen“.
11. The Healing Power of Sleep
Because sleep is the time our bodies repair and rebalance themselves, any deficit can wreak havoc, compromising our immune systems, causing inflammation, hormonal imbalance and weight gain, and even messing with our genes.
University of Chicago sleep researcher David Gozal, MD, explains that sleep problems can cause a surge of pro-inflammatory molecules throughout the body, contributing to problems like memory loss, sexual dysfunction, cardiovascular disease, even Alzheimer’s. For this reason, the field of sleep medicine is fast expanding, and good sleep habits are increasingly seen as essential to a healthy lifestyle.
For more on sleep, see “The Healing Power of Sleep“.
12. Electrosmog Exposure
Some researchers and public-health advocates are expressing increasing concern about the potential health impacts of electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs). While electromagnetic radiation exists in nature, we’re currently exposed to as much as 100 million times more than our grandparents were, says Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, author of Zapped. We get it via cell phones, computers, appliances, cell towers, smart meters, and even solar panels.
Recent studies have linked electromagnetic frequencies — especially those from cell phones carried close to our bodies — to brain tumors, damaged DNA, fertility problems, and autism. In 2011, the World Health Organization declared cell phones a possible carcinogen. A group of independent scientists and health experts from around the world cataloged the risks and recommended safety steps in Bioinitiative 2012.
“Powerful industrial entities have a vested interest in leading the public to believe that EMF and RFR, which we cannot see, taste, or touch, are harmless,” notes Harvard Medical School pediatric neurologist Martha Herbert, PhD, MD. But, “cell towers can exert a disorganizing effect on the ability to learn and remember, and can also be destabilizing to immune and metabolic function.”
While more research on this topic is required, we predict that it’s one area many health-seekers will be watching with interest.
For more on electromagnetic fields, see “Wake-Up Call“.