Nutrition Notes

Evolution from Infected to Inflamed: A Catch 22

The latest DNA sequencing technology is revealing to scientists in real-time how our immune systems are evolving as a result of modern lifestyle changes. Researchers are finding that a Western lifestyle “affects the symbiotic relationships between humans, viruses, and other organisms, and might contribute to the rise of certain autoimmune and inflammatory diseases,” and that human evolution is greatly influenced by the pathogens encountered. In other words, the immune response to infectious diseases is controlled by our genes and is an evolutionary process.

A review published in Trends in Immunology shows that as humans adopt a diet high in processed foods and stricter hygiene standards, our bodies are adapting and develop more and more “diseases of civilization” such as type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and autoimmune diseases, instead of infectious diseases that plagued societies for centuries. The evidence demonstrates that our immune system continues to evolve and is highly dependent on geographical location, diet, and lifestyle.

Tribes in Africa that are still hunting and gathering have a much higher intestinal microflora diversity (and lower inflammatory-related conditions) compared with urbanized African-Americans eating processed, store-bought foods. It is clear in the scientific literature that without adequate intake of prebiotic fiber and probiotic-rich foods, like those commonly eaten in traditional diets, diversity of the gut microbiome is significantly altered, allowing opportunistic bacterial species to proliferate which results in various disease states.

Although modern societies have evolved to resist most infectious diseases as a result of the immune gene response against infection, there has been an emergence of chronic inflammatory conditions at alarming rates as a result of evolution, according to researchers. DNA that favors resistance to infections has been shown to cause more inflammation in the body, making individuals more prone to developing inflammatory conditions like cardiovascular disease later in life. The study showed that those of Neanderthal DNA are more resistant to staphylococcus infections and HIV-1, but more predisposed to asthma and allergic rhinitis.

What can you do about it?

Recommending patients have their genes sequenced may be a great place to begin, especially for those who may already be experiencing pathologies that are inflammatory in nature and etiology. Our genes can be utilized to determine disease susceptibility, helping guide health and nutrition choices. The interplay between genetics and epigenetics, the study of how the environment (including the diet) bridges the gap between susceptibility and actually triggering the illness, is responsible for various autoimmune and inflammatory conditions. Health care practitioners can use the patient’s genetic profile, shown to be quite informative and accessible information, to determine specific diet, lifestyle, and environmental practices in order to help reduce the risk of disease susceptibility and possibly even disease reversal.

Although health care practitioners may need individual gene profiles for specific recommendations, it cannot be denied that reducing processed foods and increasing intake of whole, plant-based foods rich in antioxidants, and prebiotic fiber, along with other lifestyle shifts, will have favorable effects on one’s overall health and wellbeing. Daily multivitamin mineral supplements and full-spectrum probiotics may also aid in lowering patients’ risk of developing modern diseases.