Our hunter-gatherer ancestors worked in harmony with nature to survive. As 'modern' humans we've strayed far from that path, with chronic disease a hallmark of excessive living. But there are ways to restore the body and mind back to health without the need for surgery or prescription drugs.
What is psycho-neuro-immunology and where does Ancestral living fit in?
Psycho-neuro-immunology (PNI) is the advanced scientific discipline that explains how the mind (psycho), the nervous system (neuro) and the immune system (immunology) communicate and interact through a complex series of pathways and molecules. Clinical Psycho-neuro-immunology (cPNI) is the application of this knowledge in a clinical setting and focuses on restoring the body and mind back to balance (health) by focusing on the interplay, or ‘cross-talk’, between the mind, nervous, immune and hormonal systems. It's also a discipline informed and directed by human evolutionary biology.
In a clinical setting a practitioner uses education ('deep learning') and natural medicine to rebalance an individual and expedite their recovery. Adele’s interest in evolutionary biology and the ancestral living habits of the last remaining hunter-gatherer communities of South America and Southeast Asia, led to her study of clinical PNI. As a trained PNI clinician, Adele helps to educate her clients about the lifestyle habits of the ‘original’ way of living, and how far removed we are now from our 'ancient' selves, physiologically speaking. This change has occurred over a relatively short period of time in evolutionary terms, and the effects on modern health are clear, as evidenced in the numerous physical and mental disorders that are lifestyle linked. Genetic testing can provide many clues into just how far individuals have adapted - or not – to the modern environment. For some, fast and excessive living just isn't in their genes.
In 2015 Adele travelled to South America to pursue her interest in evolutionary biology further, to study one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes on the planet. Adele experienced living among people within the ancient Hoarani tribal community in the Ecuadorian Amazon Rain Forest and witnessed a way of life that barely exists on this planet today. Through observing the eating habits and natural movement techniques among the older Hoarani population especially, it came as no surprise why the chronic disease burden that weighs heavy in our so-called ‘civilised’ society barely exists in theirs. With such insights we really begin to understand how our modern environment is at odds with our physical body. As the Haoranis demonstrate, we really are physically made for much simpler lives than we lead now.
Insights into ancestral living patterns help us to understand the nature of chronic inflammatory conditions by recognising how body mechanisms designed to protect us from danger and harm actually developed through the course of evolution. With these insights we can begin to understand the impact the modern environment has on physiology and health – and where ‘stress’ and ‘stressors’ fit in.
Stress and ‘stressors’*
We think of stress as psychological overload. But there are many different forms of stress that act as ‘stressors’, all of which can overload the body’s ability to stay in healthy balance. Stressors include everything from a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle, through to the chemical soup our bodies have to detoxify daily, including things we all commonly use, such as body care and household cleaning products, as well as polluted air and water supply and pesticides in non-organic food. Consequently, that ancient inbuilt defence (immune) mechanism is readily switched on to deal with the perceived ‘threat’. This is more commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Your immune system
Immune defence mechanisms evolved to be able to discriminate between what is ‘self’ and ‘non-self’ to prevent autoimmune-related issues. Even single-celled creatures demonstrated this capability. The immune system of modern man gradually developed into a highly complex system that could adapt rapidly to new dangers, new invaders (pathogens) and new situations. Alongside it, our stress response system was designed to detect and respond to acute danger signals that were a direct threat to our survival. Together, these physiological mechanisms gave us the adaptability that allowed our ancestors to explore the world and inhabit a multitude of different environments.
Danger, immunity and our ‘sixth sense’
We detect danger through our five senses. These senses provide information about the world around us. When our senses perceive a threat, a cascade of physiological events are activated, commonly referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response. In the past, many environmental danger signals would have carried an implied danger of injury and infection, so an immune response was needed too.
It has been discovered that the immune system and nervous system communicate with one another using a common chemical language. This allows the immune system to act as our ‘sixth sense’ and alert the nervous system to the presence of possible invaders or ‘pathogens’. Such pathogens cannot be detected via the usual ﬁve senses. Through its communication with the brain, the immune system can regulate behaviour in a way that is consistent with our survival.
An acute stress response in the face of danger activates the nervous, hormonal and immune systems. Just as in mankind’s early days, acute stressors still activate the sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic-adrenal axis (the ‘adrenaline rush’) in order to increase energy to organs needed for direct survival – the brain for decision making, the heart to pump more blood, the immune system for protection and the muscles for physical action. Organs not immediately required for survival are temporarily ‘closed down’ to reduce their energy demand; for instance, our digestive system works less efficiently when we are in a stressful situation.
Sickness behaviour and modern day stressors
When activated, the immune system produces a state of ‘inﬂammation’. This triggers signalling across the blood-brain barrier to inform the brain there is an infection or impending threat of infection. Inﬂammation is the body’s way of defending itself, isolating and eliminating infection, removing damaged tissue and promoting healing. Inﬂammation also releases substances that act directly on the brain to produce ‘sickness behaviour’ – sleepiness, loss of appetite and becoming sedentary.
Sickness behaviour allows energy to be withheld from organs not involved in the survival response, and diverted instead to the innate immune system – the body’s ﬁrst line of defence against an infectious challenge. The innate immune system response should last about 12-28 hours. If the immune challenge is not resolved, the adaptive immune system, the body’s second line of defence, takes over, producing a much more speciﬁc and targeted reaction to individual pathogens. This is a self-limiting response that ends after about 28 days. Inﬂammation is the natural process by which the immune system deals with an acute danger signal. Ancient stressors that directly affected our survival included hunger, thirst, cold, fear and violence. Fast forward half a million years and we see a very different picture. New stress signals arise from processed foods, sedentary lifestyles, environmental pollution and levels of psycho-emotional stress that would rarely have been a part of our early, tribal history.
So, how does the immune system, designed to respond to injury or acute infection in the short term, deal with ongoing worries about paying the mortgage, or social isolation, or high blood sugar and insulin levels from an overload of reﬁned carbohydrates? Quite simply, it can’t! What we see instead is a slower brain-hormone-immune activation and a weakened immune response, because our body can’t resolve these 21st century stressors using our age-old mechanisms.
The smouldering fire of chronic inflammation
Because the immune system has no other means of meeting these new kinds of ongoing stress, it responds with inﬂammation. We can think of this chronic, low-grade inﬂammation as a smouldering ﬁre, which can only be put out when the problems are solved. But the body is unable to produce the substances needed to mount a full inﬂammatory response that comes to a natural conclusion. The innate immune system also has a high demand for energy and nutrients. Even short-term, mild mental or social stress can increase the amount of energy needed by the brain by 12 per cent. So where does this energy come from? The only way an inﬂammatory response can be maintained longer than the maximum 28 days is if the immune system actively takes more energy from other body systems. To do so, it uses the same mechanism that evolved to keep our vital organs functioning during acute danger, by ‘closing down’ other non-vital organs. The thyroid gland, the body’s main regulator of energy metabolism, is able to down-regulate all other organs so that their energy can be re-allocated.
The selfish immune system
We can now see that the process of inﬂammation, so useful in one environment, becomes detrimental in another. It is the mechanism through which psycho-emotional stress produces sickness behaviour, memory changes, tiredness and depression, as well as chronic inﬂammatory diseases.
The longer low-grade inﬂammation persists, the more selﬁsh the immune system becomes in demanding an ever greater share of the body’s energy, at the expense of all other organs and body systems. It has been suggested that the brain is selﬁsh and will never relinquish its energy demand. But this is only true up to the point where the immune system takes over the priority. Stress inhibits pancreatic insulin production so that blood sugar remains high, ensuring a good supply for the brain. But now the immune system is able to down-regulate glucose transporter receptors at the blood-brain barrier, as well as in muscle and fat tissue to utilise more of the available glucose itself.
Hormones that also have an immune system function, such as leptin, insulin and cortisol, are diverted for the immune system’s use by various mechanisms, inducing resistance of the rest of the body’s organs to these hormones. Eventually, almost all neurotransmitters are also put at the service of the immune system and so are depleted from the rest of the body. This process is considered to mimic mammalian hibernation; it has been called non-permissive brain syndrome and essentially it is long-lasting sickness behavior. It is present in diseases with disturbed brain function, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ﬁbromyalgia syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome and depression.
The bottom line
Activation of the stress response and immune system leads to the redistribution of the available energy in the body. This favours the brain, other vital organs and the immune system initially. However, chronic, weak immune activation by long-term stressors eventually causes the energy demand from the immune system to override the ‘selﬁsh brain’. But all along the immune system is only doing what it is designed to do – protect us. Sickness behaviour and non-permissive brain syndrome, as a response to chronic immune activation, are the last means of protecting the body in a new environment, from new danger signals to which it has not had time to adapt. Understanding this and the ways in which diet, exercise and stress reduction techniques can help to resolve the situation is key to the clinical PNI approach to the treatment of chronic disease.
*By Profit From Your Health Associate, Lucy Stephens.