- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2009

Our ancestors had to outrun wild animals, travel by unshod foot, weather the elements and often lived very short lives.

In a way, we’ve never had it so good.

(Corrected paragraph:) That’s the premise of a new book, “Evolution Rx: A Practical Guide to Harnessing Our Innate Capacity for Health and Healing,” by William Meller, a Santa Barbara-based internist.

Dr. Meller is not suggesting we throw out thousands of years of creature comforts. He also says this is casual advice, not meant to be studied as scientific fact or to offend those still filling in the timeline of humankind.

What he is saying is that we should look to the Stone Age to figure out why we are the way we are, to avoid disease and know what will work in the future.

He also says some of the best parenting advice can be found in the Stone Age.

“Our Stone Age ancestors are the best parenting teachers,” Dr. Meller says. For starters, a little dirt - the ancestors has no antibacterial soap - never hurt anyone.

“Imagine how dirty you would get on a camping trip that lasts a million years,” he writes. “No soap, no showers, no concept of cleanliness. Every bite of food was garnished with grit. Despite all this dirt, early humans prospered nicely. Because they lived in filth, you’d think these cave dwellers and nomads were sick all the time. Actually, no.”

Dr. Meller points out that allergies, asthma, eczema and some autoimmune diseases are a modern phenomenon.

“In 1989, Dr. David Strachan proposed a new evolutionary theory - the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ - that connects the rise [of certain conditions] with our modern, squeaky-clean lifestyle,” Dr. Meller said from his California office. “It’s been shown if you live in a less clean environment, you have a much lower risk of having allergies.”

Dr. Strachan says early exposure to plants, foods and animals teaches our immune system to tolerate them, preventing allergic symptoms later.

“Scientists now understand that our immune system needs to be educated,” Dr. Meller says. “School starts the day we are born. Let your kids get dirty; try to expose them to more foods. Some parents won’t let their kids even touch the ground. We are built to live in a dirty world.”

Also misunderstood: the modern diagnosis of attention deficit disorder, which afflicts between 5 percent and 15 percent of the population these days. Got ADD? Embrace it, and know that what might give you trouble in algebra has helped move man forward, Dr. Meller says.

“Without it, the human race would have been someone else’s lunch long ago,” he says.

To understand ADD, look at life in the Stone Age. It was dangerous, with predators and competitors lurking in the bushes and poised to attack. In every tribe, however, there was a person or two who was easily distracted. Those people would hear every rustle in the darkness, and were ready to alert the tribe to danger. They were also good hunters and trackers who thrived with a variety of visual stimulation.

Fast forward several hundred thousand years, and those same traits make sitting in a classroom difficult. Dr. Meller suggests doing what the Stone Age folks did - go outdoors. Some people in this day and age still learn best when they are in a natural environment where things (clouds, leaves, animals) are moving.

“Find out what your child is good at,” Dr. Meller says. “If it is outdoor pursuits, then let them study outdoors. You can counsel them toward careers that are more likely to have outdoor stimuli. There are practical and real uses for this rather than saying ‘You don’t fit in.’ ”

Similarly, when teenagers take risks, they are not just being knuckleheads, Dr. Meller says. They are doing what comes naturally.

In every society, there are those who take risks and those who are risk-adverse, he says. In the Stone Age - as well as today - we needed both. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were risk takers. So were Thomas Jefferson, the Wright brothers, Bill Gates and pretty much any innovator of the modern era.

“If we were all risk-adverse, we would have never left the jungle,” he says. “It takes a lot of guts to do that with nothing but stone axes. Those who set out in each generation to move a little farther down the coast or see what was over the next hill were the risk takers. The cautious and contented always stayed put, as they still do. The risk takers’ children were genetically more likely to be risk takers and move on again. Many of us are descendants of the risk takers.

“Evolution favors the risk takers. The genes that encourage us to take risk spread slowly through a million years of exploration and discovery. Necessity has been mother to us for so long that taking risks has been bred into us. There have always been pioneers. Now that the frontiers are more often financial and intellectual than territorial, we call them entrepreneurs and innovators.”

In addition to getting a little dirty and embracing learning and risk-taking differences, people can improve their highly technological and comfort-filled lives by following a few more simple rules, says Dr. Meller. For starters, get out in the sun. Our ancestors spent so much time in the sun that our bodies have adapted it as the primary source of vitamin D. These days, with warnings about the hole in the ozone and skin cancer and premature aging, many Americans are deficient in vitamin D.

“We’ve bought it hook, line and sinker to stay out of the sun,” Dr. Meller says. “That comes from dermatologists, who say it is a way of preventing skin cancer. But wearing SPF 50 and avoiding the sun like crazy has resulted in a huge epidemic of diseases like osteoporosis, which is caused in part by vitamin D deficiency. The risk of skin cancer isn’t nearly as great as the damage done by bones weakened from lack of sun exposure.”

Eating like a caveman could improve one’s health, too, Dr. Meller says. Eight glasses of water a day is modern man’s recommendation for staying hydrated. Stone Age folks didn’t have much clean water, so they got most of their water from their food and still were quite healthy.

Speaking of food, carbohydrates were not part of the human diet until about 10,000 years ago. The Stone Age ended with the innovation of farming, which of course led, eons later, to bread, pasta and overweight people.

“Our ancestors ate meat, plants and some fruit,” says Dr. Meller. “Nowadays we live in a carbo-wonderland of rice, pasta, potatoes and bread. Twinkies, ice cream and french fries are a poor match for bodies that lack a natural brake on their intake. Little wonder that obesity and diabetes are now the greatest causes of illness and death in the Western world.”

Dr. Meller says we all should eat like cavemen: Aim to get 50 percent of calories from meat and fish, 40 percent from vegetables and less than 10 percent from fruits and grains.

That shouldn’t be too hard. Stone Age man had to kill a wild boar for dinner. His descendents just have to hit the salad bar.

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