Dr. Sharad Paul looks to the past to help us have healthier futures. In his new book, “The Genetics of Health: Understand Your Genes for Better Health,” Paul uses evolutionary biology to explain how to improve wellness by following a diet and exercise plan based on gene type. Paul will discuss his book at 4 p.m. April 10 at the University of Minnesota Bookstore at Coffman Union. We talked to the adjunct professor at Auckland University of Technology via e-mail about genetic profiles, the positive side of procrastination and the importance of dancing.
Q: You write “by changing our lifestyles, we can turn on good genes and turn off undesirable ones.” How so?
A: Essentially as humanity evolved, the two Ds — diet and diaspora — shaped our genes. New diets (for example, adoption of dairy products) shaped new genes, which helped us digest dairy. Previously, humans didn’t have the genes to digest milk. And new environments (those with less sunlight) shaped new genes that helped our bodies adapt to that change in sunlight. Skin in less sunny places is lighter to better absorb vitamin D.
Q: Why do you suggest that people on certain drugs — blood thinners, antidepressants — ask their doctors for an individual genetic profile?
A: At present, we don’t individualize medications. For example, blood thinners are prescribed at the same dose, even when we know that different people metabolize those drugs differently and may need dose adjustments. In the future, personalized health care will be the norm. And it’ll reduce drug complications.
Q: What can a genetic profile tell us?
A: We can analyze your genetic code to determine how your genes can influence you. We also can make recommendations related to drug metabolism, nutrient and mineral requirements, sports preferences and, most important, how you can eat for your gene type.
Q: Why is being a couch potato so bad for us?
A: The brain evolved for movement, so the more sluggish we are, the less our brain works.
Q: How can procrastination be a positive trait?
A: In evolutionary terms, pessimists and procrastinators lived longer lives because they were less likely to take on predators and remained holed up in caves. (“My tools are not sharp enough!” “The tiger is going to eat me!”) We now know the genetic basis for impulsivity and procrastination are linked. In general, procrastination is life’s way of telling you your plan is not ready — and sometimes it’s right!
Q: You describe stress as “a double-edged sword.” Why?
A: Stress is an evolutionary response. When man left Africa 100,000 years ago, life was dangerous and death rates were high. (Yes, life is much safer now. Even with the threat of terrorism, we have far less predators and diseases.) Therefore, stress chemicals are a warning system, like a smoke alarm — lifesaving, but unpleasant if it lasts for too long.
In short bursts, the chemicals secreted during stress like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol were useful. Chronic stress, however, not only makes you feel lousy, it lowers your immunity.
Q: You don’t advise any specific diet. Why?
A: Because the same diet does not work for everyone. Some people have specific intolerances. And a “diet” implies guilt. I feel life should be enjoyed and real, so I’m not rigid about a specific diet. In general, here are some simple tips to follow that work for all:
• Eat less red meat.
• Eat more vegetables and fruits.
• Eat less sugar, especially fructose in corn syrup.
• Keep processed and packaged foods to a minimum.
Q: Any more simple tips for a healthy lifestyle?
A: Yes. Limit alcohol. Walk more. And learn to dance.