There are a lot of smart people who are interested in ancestral and evolutionary health. Personally, I find it very encouraging to see people from various backgrounds thinking deeply about how looking back into human history can help us improve our present-day wellbeing. These people come from all walks of life and each person has come to this way of thinking by a unique path, but many have similar stories. Sharing a story breeds camaraderie, and I think part of the reason the “paleo” movement has developed such a strong online community is because of the solidarity that comes from sharing a similar personal journey (that’s not to say there isn’t division and strife in the community- there is plenty!). Sharing core principles also promotes professional camaraderie. Alas, few of us in the medical profession share an interest in ancestral and evolutionary thinking.
I have been very fortunate in my brief clinical experience to have worked alongside and under (medical academics is definitely a hierarchy) people who have indulged me in conversations about how evolutionary and ancestral theories apply to modern medicine. But while some are happy to talk about select topics in ancestral health, few think about it deeply or use ancestral thinking in their medical practice. There are physicians who think about ancestral health and evolutionary medicine, and I am always enthusiastic (perhaps a little bit too enthusiastic?) to meet and interact with physicians who share my academic interests.
As I said above, sharing a journey breeds camaraderie (that definitely seems to be the “word-of-the-post”), and it frequently seems that the tougher the journey, the greater the camaraderie. Medical training is a gauntlet. After an undergraduate degree, medical degree, internship, and residency (to say nothing of longer residencies, an added fellowship, or additional degree(s)), a physician in the US has spent a minimum of 11 years in “higher education” to become a practicing clinician. As I wrote in my last post, “nocturning“, clinical training is physically and mentally exhausting (and decidedly unhealthy). Other allied-health and research professionals also travel long academic roads, and surely the trials and tribulations of the academic journey of each profession fosters camaraderie within each group. Similarly, for those of us who have achieved a PhD- we may have done research in different labs, under different mentors, and in very different fields, but there is a mutual understanding of what one endures to finally earn those three letters after one’s name.
I have been fortunate that I have built some strong personal relationships in the ancestral health community. One of the first “ancestrally minded” people I met in real life was Dr. Emily Deans– a psychiatrist with a deep interest in the interaction between nutrition and mental health. While we are separated by some distance, it is good to have a friend who not only shares my passion for ancestral and evolutionary health but who also understands the arduous journey of becoming a physician. In the past couple years I have also met a number of other physicians; first online, and then last August at the Ancestral Health Symposium (AHS) I had the pleasure of meeting many in person. Less than a year ago, a few likeminded physicians thought it would be beneficial to form an organization for physicians (MDs, DOs, and international equivalents) interested in ancestral health. This idea blossomed at AHS, and in the last few months a meeting was organized to bring such an organization into fruition.
This past weekend I travelled to Salt Lake City for the Physicians and Ancestral Health (PAH) Winter Meeting. Leaving the northeast as a blizzard approached to head to snowy Salt Lake City seemed a bit like jumping “out of the frying-pan and into the crockpot” meteorologically speaking, but personally and professionally the trip was fantastic (and people in Utah seem to handle the snow in stride, quite unlike home in the northeast!). This was the first official meeting of PAH, and twelve physicians from around the county (and Canada) got together to discuss what we know, what we’d like to know, how to share our information, and what we need to do to grow. We discussed different types of research, the need for more research investigating and supporting an ancestral approach to medicine, and the importance of producing and publishing results.
A word on research… Physicians are not scientists (save for physician scientists, a truly minuscule blip in the Venn diagram of the ancestral health community) and while anecdotes can be powerful, they are not the kind of evidence that will sway physicians, scientists, and practice. I recognize that as an MD/PhD student I am well positioned to make some waves in this area- I’ll try not to get too overwhelmed by the thought! Fortunately, there are already some physician scientists producing data and publishing papers, one of whom I got to meet this weekend.
I had a bit of fun making a Venn diagram… nothing is to scale, but you get the idea…
A slightly more amusing diagram might looks something like this…
In addition to setting up the framework for our nascent organization and discussing how we might foster ancestral-thinking in modern medicine, this meeting was an opportunity to form new friendships and strengthen old ones. As the lone medical student at the meeting, I felt very fortunate to interact with enthusiastic and supportive physicians from several different fields who all share an interest in ancestral health. I enjoyed talking about research with Dr. Lynda Frassetto, who’s papers I frequently reference when talking about the benefits of an “ancestral” diet. It was great to get a chance to talk about functional movement with Dr. Jacob Egbert and then go to Ute CrossFit where he led a practical session. I’m straight out of my Ob/Gyn clerkship, so I loved sharing stories with Dr. Don Wilson, an Ob/Gyn from Canada with first hand knowledge of the health of indigenous First Nation people. I had the chance to talk about the opportunities I’ll have if I decide to pursue a residency in family medicine with Dr. Rick Henriksen and other family docs. It wasn’t all a rosy picture (though Rick is nothing if not enthusiastic), but I got a lot of honest and useful information from these physicians. There was also a preponderance of psychiatrists (or is that a contemplation of psychiatrists?), including my good friend Emily Deans, as well as a cardio-thoracic surgeon. I’m glad to have met Dr. Ede, and to have been introduced to her impressive website Diet Diagnosis. It was also a pleasure to catch up with Dallas Hartwig, from Whole9 Life, who spoke with the group about functional medicine.
A lot of knowledge and information was shared this weekend, and I think we all walked away from the weekend with new friendships, a renewed sense of camaraderie with fellow physicians, and thoughts on how we can each do our part to help promote ancestral health. Personally, I have a number of goals, not all of which I need to share. I will say, however, that I feel there is a strong need to champion non-nutritional aspect of ancestral and evolutionary health. As the Hartwig’s book beautifully argues- It Starts with Food– but there are many other ways to incorporate ancestral and evolutionary thinking into modern medicine. That is one of my goals on this blog, though of late I have been writing more random ramblings than thoughts on distinct elements of evolutionary medicine.
As I officially make the transition from MSIII to MSIV (as of today I have completed all the 3rd year requirements of my medical degree), I hope that I’ll have more time to write about a number of topics in evolutionary medicine. Until then, I appreciate that readers follow along with my random ramblings, and am very glad that there are physicians who share a passion for understanding human health in the context of our evolutionary past.
PAH doesn’t have a website up yet, but for more information you can go here.