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Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Reflections on the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium

I just returned from the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium in Atlanta.  Despite a few challenges with the audio/visual setup, I think it went well.

I arrived on Thursday evening, and so I missed a few talks that would have been interesting to attend, by Mel Konner, Nassim Taleb, Gad Saad, and Hamilton Stapell.  Dr. Konner is one of the progenitors of the modern Paleo movement.  Dr. Saad does interesting work on consummatory behavior, reward, and its possible evolutionary basis.  Dr. Stapell is a historian with an interest in the modern Paleo movement.  He got some heat for suggesting that the movement is unlikely to go truly mainstream, which I agree with.  I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with him and found him to be an interesting person.

On Friday, Chris Kresser gave a nice talk about the potential hidden costs of eradicating our intestinal parasites and inadvertently altering our gut flora.  Unfortunately it was concurrent with Chris Masterjohn so I'll have to watch his talk on fat-soluble vitamins when it's posted.  I spent most of the rest of the day practicing my talk.

On Saturday morning, I gave my talk "Insulin and Obesity: Reconciling Conflicting Evidence".  I think it went well, and the feedback overall was very positive, both on the content and the delivery.  The conference is fairly low-carb-centric and I know some people disagree with my perspective on insulin, and that's OK.   The-question-and-answer session after the talk was also productive, with some comments/questions from Andreas Eenfeldt and others.  With the completion of this talk, I've addressed the topic to my satisfaction and I don't expect to spend much more time on it unless important new data emerge.  The talk will be freely available online at some point, and I expect it to become a valuable resource for people who want to learn more about the relationship between insulin and obesity.  It should be accessible to anyone with a little bit of background in the subject, but it will also be informative to most researchers.

After my talk, I attended several other good presentations.  Dan Pardi gave a nice talk on the importance of sleep and the circadian rhythm, how it works, how the modern world disrupts it, and how to fix it.  The relationship between sleep and health is a very hot area of research right now, it fits seamlessly with the evolutionary perspective, and Pardi showed off his high level of expertise in the subject.  He included the results of an interesting sleep study he conducted as part of his doctoral work at Stanford, showing that sleep restriction makes us more likely to choose foods we perceive as unhealthy.

Sleep and the circadian rhythm was a recurrent theme at AHS13.  A lot of interesting research is emerging on sleep, body weight, and health, and the ancestral community has been quick to embrace this research and integrate it into the ancestral health template.  I think it's a big piece of the puzzle.

Jeff Rothschild gave a nice summary of the research on time-restricted feeding, body weight and health in animal models and humans.  Research in this area is expanding and the results are pretty interesting, suggesting that when you restrict a rodent's feeding window to the time of day when it would naturally consume food (rather than giving constant access during both day and night), it becomes more resistant to obesity even when exposed to a fattening diet.  Rothschild tied this concept together with circadian regulation in a compelling way.  Since food is one of the stimuli that sets the circadian clock, Rothschild proposes to eat when the sun is up, and not when it's down, synchronizing eating behavior with the natural seasonal light rhythm.  I think it's a great idea, although it wouldn't be practical for me to implement it currently.  Maybe someday if I have a more flexible schedule.  Rothschild is about to publish a review paper on this topic as part of his master's degree training, so keep your eyes peeled.

Kevin Boyd gave a very compelling talk about malocclusion (underdeveloped jaws and crowded teeth) and breathing problems, particularly those occurring during sleep.  Malocclusion is a modern epidemic with major health implications, as Dr. Boyd showed by his analysis of ancient vs. modern skulls.  The differences in palate development between our recent ancestors (less than 200 years ago) and modern humans are consistent and striking, as Weston Price also noted a century ago.  Dr. Boyd believes that changing infant feeding practices (primarily the replacement of breast feeding with bottle feeding) is the main responsible factor, due to the different mechanical stimulation it provides, and he's proposing to test that hypothesis using the tools of modern research.  He's presented his research at prestigious organizations and in high-impact scientific journals, so I think this idea may really be gaining traction.  Very exciting.

I was honored when Dr. Boyd told me that my 9-part series on malocclusion is what got him interested in this problem (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9).  His research has of course taken it further than I did, and as a dentist his understanding of malocclusion is deeper than mine.  He's a middle-aged man who is going back to school to do this research, and his enthusiasm is palpable.  Robert Corruccini, a quality anthropology researcher and notable proponent of the idea that malocclusion is a "disease of civilization" and not purely inherited, is one of his advisers.

There were a number of excellent talks, and others that didn't meet my standards for information quality.  Overall, an interesting conference with seemingly less drama than in previous years.

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