Why do we get chronic disease despite adopting a healthy lifestyle?

“While the science is complex, our application of it is both straightforward and practical: eat well, stress less, move more, and love more.” -Dr. Dean Ornish

Few months ago, in a casual conversation among friends, one of my friends asked, “why do I get sick even though I have been adopting a healthy lifestyle for so many years?”
There were some biochemical and biophysical scientists at the moment.
For me, this was a simple question but very difficult to answer.
I said, “there are lots of pieces we have to put together regarding our body, its construction, its functional mechanism, and obviously our ancestral evolution.”

This question really intrigued me because I’ve also experienced the same thing in my own personal life.
I plan to write about this in my future posts.
Not only myself, I’ve also experienced the same thing in my family as well as in my extended family, so the question was worth digging a little deeper.
Some of my family members never get sick even though their lifestyle is not healthy, especially in practice of diet and exercise, but some other members whom I’ve seen for many years always get sick despite their adoption of a healthy lifestyle for a very long time.

I read pretty regularly in areas like health, technology, biology, biochemistry, medicine because this is my area of interest, so I did a little more digging in reading and I found some devoted scientist’s work in the area.
The group of Dr. Valter Longo from University of Southern California, Dr. Dean Ornish from University of California, San Francisco, the work from Nobel laureate Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn from University of California San Francisco, and Dr. David Sinclair from Harvard University are some of them.
These are the people I would recommend to go after to find the answer to my friend’s question.

Of course, one fundamental aspect of our health is our everyday fuel.
The fuel that we take everyday as food to run our human engine is our key component for health and well being.
The common food for most of us has loads of carbohydrates and fats.
The other part we have to keep in mind is how our body utilizes carbohydrates and fats genetically, which is very difficult to know.
Before the mass migration in human history which is not that old, people used to have marriage within the same cultural population, the genetic pool was the same.
But now there is tremendous mass migration internationally and cross marriages are common across cultures.
This is the key reason in gene variations.
This also answers my friend’s question partially, but at the moment we are not able to understand the genetic implication regarding individual human biochemistry yet scientifically.
We are making progress but it will surely take some time to make genetic technologies available in our local hospitals and clinics.

It appears that humans from different ancestral backgrounds utilize foods especially carbohydrates and fats differently, the main energy source in our body.
This is one of the reasons that people who are on a ketogenic diet gain weight immediately when they start a normal diet.
The role of genes in our body is key to knowing what makes our body happy and healthy.
We are opening the door of genetic diet but still we have to go a long way.
As an example, genetically preferred food is the key whether our body prefers carbohydrates, fats, or a combination of both.

Let’s put it this way to make it a little bit more clear.
Some people burn carbohydrates very quickly so they eat without gaining a lot of weight.
If they don’t eat they can go into hypoglycemic state, that lowers blood sugar and that is very dangerous.
Biochemically, carbohydrates burn very quickly in our body.
Whereas some people burn fat as a primary source of energy which burns slowly so they go many hours without seeing much drop in energy.
This happens due to different genetics set up in the body.

On the negative side, in general, when we eat too many refined carbohydrates like pizza, pasta, sodas, white bread, pastries, fruit juice with high fructose corn syrup, we are adding too much sugar and it goes straight into our bloodstream and blood sugar spikes.
Our pancreas makes insulin to bring our blood sugar down, which is good but insulin also accelerates the conversion of those extra calories into fat.
It causes chronic inflammation and many of these mechanisms lead to chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.

To answer my friend, many biotechnology companies are leading a data-driven future to make individualized interventions for our health.
In the future, we can optimize our eating, fasting, exercise, rest, and sleep based on our genetic and microbiome map.
That would only answer my friend’s question completely.

Let me tell you this, some biotechnology companies are already doing tremendous work in this area.
Biotechnology is about using biology as technology on many fronts.
The fundamental components of life like genes, proteins, and cells are behaving like tools to shape and improve our life.
Our body is a collection of billion cells and the function of these cells determines our health.
Each cell contains 3.2 billion letters from our mother and 3.2 billion letters from our father, these came with us as gifts at birth.
This is our DNA, our genome, the software that codes for us for everything: our hair color, our face appearance, eye color, our lip size, our height, our voice, our personality, exposure to many diseases, our lifespan, and many others.

Not only that, there is one more factor that plays a key role is called epigenetics.
The epigenetic that controls how the genome functions is more powerful than the genetic code itself.
Epigenetic is affected by many factors, some major factors are diet, obesity, physical activity, tobacco, alcohol, environmental pollutants, stress, and working at night as well as many others.

Our basic day to day lifestyle has a profound impact on our quality of life, our healthspan, and our lifespan.
These lifestyle choices are entirely in our hands.
For example, moderate exercise can halve our risk of dying from heart disease.
Recent research has suggested that careful dietary decisions can reduce our risk of death from any cause by 36% while poor diets can increase our risk of death by 67%.

The importance of moderate exercise is even higher when we enter old age.
When we get older, our common occurrence is that our hormone levels get changed.
We develop fatigue, insomnia, depression, no interest in sex, loss of our youthful appearance, loss of our muscle mass, accumulated body fat, and many others.

Healthy lifestyle also includes good night sleep.
It’s not only a sufficient number of hours of sleep but a sufficient number of hours of sleep at the right time especially at night.
It’s possible to get a sufficient number of hours of sleep each day, but there is a caveat – our body is designed to follow the sun from evolution.
Our hormones, cardiovascular system, microbiome, and immunity all are coordinated to follow a circadian rhythm.
Staying up all night forces these systems to be out of sync with their coordination and our health defense becomes weaker and we become vulnerable for chronic diseases.
Dr. Matthew Walker, author and professor of University of California Berkeley says routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes our immune system and we become vulnerable to chronic diseases. The shorter we sleep, the shorter our lifespan.
From his book “Why We Sleep”, Dr. Walker says, “sleep is probably the foundation on which the other two pillars of diet and exercise sit.”

One more example is Parkinson’s disease.
It is caused by the loss of neurons that manufacture dopamine, a natural chemical messenger that controls our muscle movement.
Dopamine also helps to regulate our sleep patterns, our recall, our appetite, and our mood and self control.
If we don’t make enough of it, we will have a serious problem.

One more cause of chronic disease now-a-days- is severe stress.
Severe stress increases cortisol secretion from our adrenal glands, places undue demands on our heart, alters our microbiome for the worse, disrupts angiogenesis, impairs the function of our stem cells, and lowers our immunity.

One of the secrets for a happy and healthy life I found in the work of scientists that I mentioned above is eating plant based food, plenty of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and brussels sprouts during lunch and dinner.
There are many factors but one key bioactive in cruciferous vegetables is they contain sulforaphane, a compound that reduces inflammation in our body and can even slow the growth of tumors.
Inflammation is the main cause of many chronic diseases including cardiovascular diseases.
As Michael Pollan, author and professor of Harvard University says, “if it’s a plant, eat it, if it was made in a plant, don’t.”

The second secret for a healthy and happy life I found from Dr. Valter Longo from University of Southern California is intermittent fasting.
The beauty of intermittent fasting is it involves harnessing the healing and protective powers of letting the body rest from constant consumption, breakdown, and digestion of food.
This is the strategy for preventing disease and staying young for a longer time.

Dr. Longo’s research suggests that a combination of prolonged fasting and chemotherapy can be highly effective in fighting various cancers.
Cancer cells rely on glucose as a source of energy so cancer cells become weaker by starvation.

Remember, during fasting, our energy reserves are depleted and our body undergoes a metabolic shift from a sugar burning mode to a ketogenic mode in which we use fatty acids and ketones for fuel.
Due to fasting our cells shrink and enter into a protected state.
When we start to eat normally, cells rebuild.
This cycle of starvation and refeeding triggers regenerative and self-healing processes.
This process reduces our biological age, which means the age of our cells and organs decreases.
For a happy and healthy life, I would like to repeat Dr. Matthew Walker, “sleep is probably the foundation on which the other two pillars of diet and exercise sit.”

Thank you for your time.
-Yam Timsina