20 December 2017

How to use science to improve health


It should not come as a big surprise to you that I use scientific principles to improve my own health.
I am the first scientist in my family, so I grow up with parents who flip-flopped with life and diet changes depending on what random people would tell them. And every time new stuff was a miracle cure for everything.
Of course, as the time passed by, none of the miracle cures were working so the new one was produced.
I hated it. Especially because some of the miracle cures were gross or even dangerous for the health.
Anyway, as an adult, I’m applying scientific principles to learn what is good for me.
So how?
Well, every biological characteristic follows the normal (Gaussian) distribution. For those ones who do not know what that is, that is that lovely bell-shaped curve. So every scientific result describes the whole population in such terms. The trick is to figure out where you are located on the curve.

Normal distribution. Two red lines basically mark the area that includes what we consider average for whatever quality the curve is describing. I.e. if you're between those two lines, advice behind the curve is for you. If you are out of those lines, then you should be careful.

All the advice that is thrown at you is valid only if you are similar to the people they tested. Meaning you are somewhere around the top of the curve. If you’re not or you’re more similar to the tails of the distribution, forget it. The advice will not work for you.
In short, The general advice work only if you are an average example of a human for that particular characteristic.
Seems simple, but how to figure out where you are for the particular advice. Well, that’s why is important to read about the population sample used in a study. If that population sample is like you, then you’re spot on.
I’ll tell you how I’m doing it. Let us say, advice to exercise. I know when physical fitness is in question I’m average in my abilities. A few years ago I took a free assessment of the Fitness offered by my employer at the time NMSU. And yep, I'm average. So I can freely apply any advice for exercise. Recently I read the scientific paper where interval training is seen as very beneficial even if you do it just a few times per week. I check the population sample they used, and they did a good job. Their population sample reflected the overall population. For me, that means yeah, I should start with interval training. So I did. I’m still in wheezing stage, but there is a bit of progress.
Another example, recently I was reading a few scientific papers talking about the diet and supplements. These types of research are more tricky. Often they do not have proper population sample. Simply because most of us evolved separately, our ancestors living in a particular climate, and adapting to it. Most obvious is skin color, going paler or darker depending on where on the globe you live and how much vitamin D you can produce. A second good one is the benefits of omega 3. See, the research on Inuits showed omega 3 is very beneficial. And everyone started eating fish oil. But later, it was established that benefits for cardiovascular health come only if you have a certain gene. And guess what Inuits have that gene. Tip, that particular gene is connected with height, so if you are a tall person, you do not have it. I am tall for my particular gene pool, so I do not bother with fish oil anymore.
Of course, I am not average of the whole human population—diet-wise—, but I’m average for Mediterranean populations. So when I read the paper from Finland describing how vitamin D daily needs are higher than previously estimated, first I checked from where did they take their population sample. And you guessed it, from Finland. Granted, diversity in Finland increased significantly in the last century but still, the conditions of climate there would skew results towards a need for more vitamin D than my body and current climate require. Especially if they made a really diverse sample.
Let me illustrate this last comment with another example. I lived in Ireland for 3 years. Close to the end of my stay there, my brother came to visit. His first words when he saw me at the local airport were “Are you sick?”
Apparently, I was unnaturally pale. But I was not sick, I was just living in a climate that has an extremely low number of sunny days. And my skin got unnaturally pale to cope with lack of sunshine needed for the vitamin D production. For me was impossible to get sunburns in Ireland. I would watch my best friend putting layers and layers of sunblock on her face and complaining about sunburns, and keeping my mouth shut about the fact that I did not bother to put any. And we would go for a walk along a coast, she would burn, and I would not even tan. Often I was thinking that she might end up in a hospital with severe burns if she would try to do similar coastal walk along the Adriatic coast. There I get sunburns, sometimes even with sunblock.
The point is, the study is correct, people do need more vitamin D, but that does not mean you have to rush out and buy extra supplements. I know I do not have to. Instead, I’m taking extra vitamin D only if I plan to stay indoors. I know that outside in the climate where I live and with my genes, I can produce enough vitamin D naturally.
This all means that you have to get to know yourself and your family history. you have to collect the data about yourself until you figure out where and for which populations you are average. And then you can apply advice that is discovered for that particular population where you are the average.


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