Diabetes: From Prehistoric Tool to Modern Day Trouble

Plus, concrete steps you can take to prevent or manage Type 2 Diabetes.

September 28, 2018

By Erin Masercola, PhD

Ever wonder why so many people have Type 2 diabetes—so much so that the disease seems like an epidemic in our modern world?

The reason: Over the past couple hundred years, agriculture and industrialization have utterly transformed the ways we eat, work, and live. Because evolutionary change happens so slowly, our bodies haven’t had time to catch up and adapt to such rapid environmental change on their own. To prevent chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes, we must make intentional choices about our food and activity.

When Diabetes Was Helpful

Biological processes that lead to diabetes can be a good thing—adaptations that help mammals survive times when food is scarce. For example, when hibernating mammals wake up after winter has passed, they must take full advantage of the plentiful food that spring, summer, and fall provide. Their bodies have evolved to maximize nutrition during times of plenty—specifically blood sugar. High blood sugar actually lowers the freezing point of blood, which protects hibernating animals over the winter. Ironically, the ability to enter a short-term diabetic state is essential to survival for these animals.

Scientists speculate that sugar cravings and the ability to store sugar also benefited our foraging, scavenging, Paleolithic ancestors. In their environment, sugar was scarce. They couldn’t just drop by the 7-11 for a Big Gulp like we can. They had only the more complex sugars in fruits and vegetables to fuel their bodies as they hunted and gathered. Occasionally, they might find a beehive dripping with honey, and those were the days to gorge themselves because scarce times were inevitably just around the corner for them.

Then and Now

Modern humans in developed countries don’t face the same challenges as animals or Paleolithic humans. But our bodies aren’t so sure. Processes that were beneficial long ago are now detrimental. Biologist Daniel Lieberman has dubbed this conundrum “dysevolution”. When our old genes encounter new environments, gradual changes happen that can lead to functional or chronic disease. Lack of movement and too much refined sugar can cause our systems to get overloaded, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes.

The formula for preventing Type 2 diabetes is simple: move more, eat less. But accomplishing these goals can be difficult in our modern world—a world where many of us make our living sitting at computers for hours at a time. To thrive amidst this toxic system, we must make frequent, conscious decisions to go against the grain. A solution may be to mimic—as much as we can in our modern world—the Paleolithic system of energy expenditure, food intake, and circadian rhythms.

Let’s start with energy expenditure. Even those who are gym-obsessed are not really healthy unless they also have general activity throughout the day. People were made to move throughout the day, not in short segments throughout the week. In terms of real health, what good is an hour of gym time if you’re sitting for eight hours each day?

Here are some small changes you can make to transform your stressful, sedentary life into something that more closely resembles your Paleolithic ancestors.

  • Use a standing desk.
  • Sit on an exercise ball instead of a chair.
  • Park further away from your destination.
  • Take a short 5-10 minute walk several times per day.

Just as you strive to move like your Paleolithic ancestors, so should you strive to eat like them. What people need in their diets varies person to person, but generally, we should eat real, whole food and we should limit processed sugars. We should seek out foods that are in season, farmed responsibly, and contain no preservatives. For many, this can be a challenge. Real health and wellness is not always convenient in today’s system. In future posts, I’ll share some practical ways you can alter your diet to become healthier.