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Evolution to your rescue -- Q&A with Dr. William Meller

July 1, 2009 |  9:41 am

Evolution Rx by William Meller When you think of evolution, you probably imagine a fish that becomes a bird that becomes a primate. You might also think back to cavemen, or early ancestors who held answers to our genetic makeup today.

However, when it comes to your health, you might think that medicine has…well, evolved to a point where we, as a species, no longer need to listen to cues from days of old. Modern medicine will fix us.

Dr. William Meller, a board-certified internist who runs a medical practice in Santa Barbara, argues to the contrary. He writes in his new book, "Evolution Rx: A Practical Guide to Harnessing Our Innate Capacity for Health and Healing," that health concerns today are best remedied by listening to our bodies more, and paying attention to evolutionary clues that explain exactly what we should do and how we should take care of ourselves.

“Sunlight is life,” he writes, for example. We know we need the sun to survive, and yet many of us shun it -- it has become a common practice to stay out of the sun as much as possible and lather on sunscreen everywhere we go.

Meller explains that sunlight actually helps us more than it harms, by creating vitamin D and lightening our mood.

“This book is really giving people a touchstone of our own history," he says of his book. "I was trying to get across to the general public to really look at this and be skeptical of their doctor and the alternative stuff.”

Meller also looks at human behavior and explains how evolution causes us to gossip, take risks -- even desire physical symmetry in our partners.

The author took time out to talk about his book.

LAT: In your chapter “Sunrise, Sunset,” you write about people needing sunlight, possibly more than we are getting. What about skin cancer? We are told to stay out of the sun as much as possible. 

Meller: This is the dominant, conventional thought pattern: that the sun would kill us if we didn’t block it out, or at least age us faster.

The fear of skin cancer is vastly overblown. Basal cells and squamous cells are directly related to your genetic makeup. Very easy to recognize. They almost never metastasize.

Melanoma -- the one that scares us. That one is keeping us out of the sun. It is directly related to genetics and not how much sun exposure we get. It is extremely hard to treat. 

But because of this fear of the sun, we absolutely have an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency and osteoporosis. And maybe even depression and other cancers.

Osteoporosis is a huge problem among older, white women because they are staying out of the sun because they don’t want to age faster. Vitamin D packs calcium into your bones. Fifteen minutes, three times a week -- it doesn’t take a lot of sun exposure, and it's really extremely beneficial.

LAT: Gossip -- is it in our genes?

Meller: Humans lived in very, very small groups. Talking about others -- who they slept with, who found the berries, who made the tools -- that was valuable information. That’s what we’re talking about -- secrets about other people: Can they be counted on? Can they be trusted?

We all do it, whether we participate or not, we all listen to it.

But now gossip has been taken and turned into an industry -- People magazine, TMZ, Perez Hilton. It’s an industry that’s based on some extrapolation of the same interest we get from gossip. Now it’s gone beyond the family unit into the tribe of celebrity. I’m not saying it should stop; it will never stop. But let’s understand that it’s natural to human beings.

LAT: Diet -- you advocate low carb instead of low fat. Why? What does this have to do with evolution?

Meller: We found places like caves that people lived in for 30 or 40,000 years. The caves sometimes got sealed off by a landslide, so they were preserved well. We’d go in and sift through the sand and get a good sense of what they ate. We’d look at the bones of these people and determine what they ate. Looking at that evidence and our own physiological makeup, we learned that carbohydrates were extremely rare in human diets. If you look back, they didn’t have grains. At most, they ate grains two out of the 52 weeks of the year. It was mostly hunting and gathering.

We ended up without any shut-off mechanism in the body. So when you eat carbohydrates, you often have a desire for more. Not true with fats and meats.

LAT: Does evolution favor risk-takers?

Meller: Humans have always been adventurous. If we weren’t, we’d still be sitting under one tree in Africa, eating one type of thing. We needed to spread out and conquer different areas. Only the people who were willing to take the risks to go to new places and leave the home went on to the new areas. We were able to populate the world by moving about a mile a year.

The adventurers have always asked: What’s over the next hill? You need a balance, though, because taking risks can get you killed.

LAT: On the topic of living longer, you have a chapter called “Don’t Eat. Do Drink. Be Merry.” Talk about that a bit.

Meller: Longevity is something humans have been interested in since day one. We’ve always decided we want to live longer. Lifespan varies from family to family, however. Most of the things that shorten our lives are risks that we take or things that we do to ourselves.

In the largest studies that have been done, one to two alcoholic drinks per day seem to be beneficial. There are definitely arguments against this. Alcohol is a toxin. It’s a poison. But in small amounts, the toxins in the alcohol stimulate our bodies to fight off other toxins.

LAT: And what about eating less?

Meller: It’s a very interesting line of research that showed if you starved worms, they would live longer. They tried it in crickets, and it worked in crickets. Now it is being tested on primates. There are people out there who are doing this to themselves. They are thin and cold all the time.

In cases where people are well-fed, they reproduce at large rates. When you are starved, you can’t reproduce as much. Our bodies have a mode -- if you can’t get enough nutrition, it goes into a self-preservation mode.

LAT: You write about shoes. Are all shoes bad for our feet? You also mention Crocs. Talk about those in particular.

Meller: Shoes have been used to bind people’s feet up for years. Without high heels, there would be no bunions. Feet are very, very conformable at a very young age. Whatever you wear on your feet, your foot becomes comfortable and used to it.

People who don’t wear shoes -- their feet look different than all people who wear shoes.

There are many people walking around in foot pain. The answer seems to be in looser-fitting, softer shoes that are not going to cause your foot to change to be like the shoe.

Crocs are very soft and loose and easy on the feet.

LAT: What about coughing. Does coughing get the germs out?

Meller: Back in the day, 50 years ago, no one coughed in public. It was considered an embarrassment. “Cover your mouth” is what people would say.

That idea has now been perverted into: Cough it up. The idea being, if you have phlegm, you should get it out.

Phlegm is actually our defense. Without coughing, viruses die out because they are not spread. When we cough, we are spreading germs to those nearest and dearest to us, and we are getting rid of the part of our protective mechanism.

Cough while you are well and your throat will get sore. The act of coughing does more harm than good.

LAT: The old adage “work through the pain” -- yes or no?

Meller: Stretching is vastly overrated. We’ve made a cult out of stretching. And it's not just yoga.

Ligaments only get damaged from being stretched too far. When you feel pain, it is a muscle that got stretched too far and tore. The idea that stretching it again is going to heal it is nonsense.

Every coach and trainer has said at one point: “Run through the pain and walk through the pain.”

What the body really wants is to rest. The body knows how to heal itself. If you stretch, you are simply repeating the injury. It goes against modern conventional wisdom, but if you really look at it, it makes sense. Pain is a message from your body. It is your brain saying: Don’t do that.

Your body is a sophisticated system for telling you what not to do and how to heal.

-- Lori Kozlowski

Photo courtesy of Perigee

Update: An earlier version of this interview said that melanoma was caused by sun exposure. To clarify, melanoma is not caused by sun exposure. Dr. Meller explains: "It is directly related to genetics and not to the amount of sun exposure we get. This is clearly shown by the fact that melanomas occur as commonly in young people as in older ones and because it often appears on parts of our bodies that are never exposed to the sun."