Shatter Your Entire View Of Health

Join others getting their entire idea of what health is shattered every Sunday while reading The Progress Letter.

July 2, 2023 | Max Jenkinson

Understand Your Cells, Understand Yourself

I am a biologist that likes to view things through an evolutionary framework.

To me, it is obvious why.

But, this may be due to my bias in viewing biology as the fundamental way of understanding humans.

As I wrote in this post, self-development ends and starts with knowing thyself.

So why do I love the evolutionary framework so much?

Well, it is where we find the most accurate answers to who we are.

Remember, we are the designers of the zoo and the animals living in the zoo, so why not design it better?

To design the zoo we need to understand the animal we are designing the zoo for. In this case, that is humans.

You need to get acquainted with the animal in which you exist (Homo sapiens).

  • Evolutionary biology is the user manual for the human body.

  • Evolutionary psychology is the user manual for the human mind.

Let’s look at the human body like a computer.

The hardware is our genes, the rest is software.

If there is something wrong with the hardware in a computer, we fix it or replace it.

In humans, this is often not an option as almost all issues are software-related (and because changing genes is hard).

Despite this, modern medicine views humans as machines, as made up of only hardware.

A patient comes in with a symptom, we look at the textbooks, determine the cause, and prescribe a drug.

We should solve complex problems with complex solutions (my tweet).

The software that runs on our hardware is dependent on environmental inputs. And it evolved over billions of years.

Let’s assume an issue is not purely genetic (which almost no diseases are).

These issues are then emerging based on the software we run.

To fix the software issue we need to understand what environmental inputs the software needs to run smoothly.

We understand our software by looking at evolutionary biology.

The environmental inputs include:

  • The food we eat

  • The sleep we get

  • The air we breathe

  • The water we drink

  • The physical touch we get

  • The information we take in

  • The light we get exposed to

  • The movements we perform

  • The social interaction we have

Our psychology is also an evolved software that has emerged based on external input.

Getting a grasp of evolutionary psychology, or how our minds are wired, helps us understand:

  • Love

  • Meaning

  • Motivation

  • Logical fallacies

  • Impluses & desires

  • Negative & positive emotions

But, also:

  • How we learn

  • How we change

  • How we develop

It’s time for you to move a step beyond the evolutionary framework.


I have a very hard time getting a sense of how most people conceptualize health.

I did three years of science in Swedish high school. I then did a year of biomedicine & exercise physiology.

Then I went straight into three years of biology.

During this time I was also obsessed with health, consuming any information I could get my hands on.

Because of this, I seem to have a hard time sensing what ground most of you reading this stand on when we talk about health.

Today I want to give you a lens to view physiology and how it relates to health.

Instead of saying:

  • This is good for my heart

  • That is good for my brain

  • That is good for my inflammation

You will have a lens to view this or that, which will allow you to at least have a sense of why this or that is healthy or not.

A lens rooted in evolution applied to how our cells function.

If you’ve read some of my previous work you will now be well versed in the evolutionary framework of health.

To be healthy we need to mimic our natural environment

Eat, move, dance, love, and live like your ancestors.

Understanding our evolutionary past gets us far, but it doesn’t get us all the way.

To gain a deeper understanding of how to be healthy we need an understanding of how cells work.

I have a saying that works well when making decisions about health:

Do less of what you want and more of what your cells want.

But what do your cells want?

In this post, you will learn why this is such a good saying (if I may say so myself).

How you feel, think & how healthy you are, are all dependent on the cells that make up who you are.

One could say that understanding cells is one of the most fundamental ways by which we get to know ourselves.

Let’s dive in.


Cells Are at The Center of Physiology

Evolution optimizes for survival and procreation.

Organisms that live under the rule of evolution are constrained by the fact that they are competing for limited resources.

Billions of other organisms are all fighting with two goals in mind,

  1. Survive long enough to procreate

  2. Be healthy enough to procreate

Survival is usually strongly dependent on good health.

Assuming this is true, all organisms (including humans) optimize for health.

Our bodies are trying to be as healthy as possible.

Even though this is the case, in only 100 years we have drastically changed.

From a population with non-existent chronic disease to one where around half of the adults in the West have at least one.

What has changed?

Many things.

But, we need to determine what things are making it hard for the body to do its job.

To do this, we need to understand how the human organism optimizes for health.

In biology, we categorize the organizational level of the body into:

  • Organism

  • Organ systems

  • Organs

  • Tissues

  • Cells

  • Organelles

  • Molecules

  • Atoms

Cells seem to be at the centre of this organisation.

The structure and function of the cell are dependent on atoms, molecules and organelles.

  • Multiple cells with a shared function make up tissues.

  • Multiple tissues with a shared function make up organs.

  • Multiple organs with a shared function make up organ systems.

  • Multiple organ systems with a shared function (to keep you healthy and alive) make up the organism, you.

The fascinating thing is that all cells have the exact same hardware (genes), yet they perform wildly different functions.

A cell in your eye allowing you to see have the same genes as the cells in your pancreas producing insulin.

What makes them different is the organisation of those genes (DNA).

As the body develops, the cells differentiate. The DNA is coiled up so that some genes are active and some are not.

The combination of active versus inactive genes gives rise to the function of the cell.

The cells also constantly alter the active/inactive genes depending on external circumstances.

For example, when you eat something a bunch of cells change to facilitate digestion, absorption and metabolism of the food you ate.

At every functional level above the cellular, cells are working together to fill a specific function.

If this is the case, shouldn’t we look at cellular function when trying to solve complex diseases?

The answer is a resounding yes.

The question to answer then becomes,

What determines the function of a cell?

A Mitochondrial Paradigm of Metabolic and Degenerative Diseases, Aging, and Cancer: A Dawn for Evolutionary Medicine

This is the title of a paper from world-leading mitochondrial (the energy plant of the cell) researcher Doug Wallace.

Researchers are converging on the fact that all chronic diseases are metabolic in origin.

It all seems to come down to energy production, largely at the level of the mitochondria.

And this should make sense.

Unless it is entirely genetic, or an infection, the disease has to start with dysfunctional cells.


Energy Production & Cellular Function

The key idea was that energy and structure are interdependent, at every level

Raymond Peat, PhD

The study of cellular energy production is colloquially called metabolism.

This is why we call diseases of dysfunctional energy production metabolic diseases.

Anything that interferes with cellular energy production can be viewed as cellular stress.

We improve cellular energy production by mimimizing cellular stress.

Cellular energy production is synonymous with cellular function.

  • Functional cells lead to functional tissues.

  • Functional tissues lead to functional organs.

  • Functional organs lead to functional organ systems.

  • Functional organ systems lead to a functional organismyou.

A functional organism is a healthy organism.

Yet, biology is complex.

It is almost never – this is only good, that is only bad.

Biology usually works in spectrums.

Too much or too little of something is bad, and so we want to hit the sweet spot.

  • Not too little sleep, not too much.

  • Not too little food, not too much.

  • Not too little exercise, not too much.

Too much of something is stressful, and so is too little of something.

Here, the Swedish word “lagom” – just the right amount – is a good concept to hold in mind.


A New Way of Viewing Chronic Disease

In From Hibernation to Obesity: The Seed Oil Connection I wrote about the hypothesis that insulin resistance and obesity start in the fat tissue.

Functional cells lead to functional tissues, remember?

Let’s apply what we have learnt about cells to dysfunctional fat tissue.

Fat tissue is fuel storage and an endocrine (hormone) tissue important in metabolism.

It regulates fat metabolism, sugar metabolism and appetite.

We can thus assume that what we eat will have a direct effect on the cells in our fat tissue.

Anything that impairs cellular function (think energy production), will affect some cells more than others.

This is why we get liver disease from drinking too much alcohol.

Alcohol is metabolised in the liver and so it will cause liver cells to become dysfunctional first.

When enough cells in one organ are dysfunctional a disease emerges.

In the case of alcohol, the liver is the weakest link in the causal chain.

Thus, alcohol abuse usually creates liver issues first.

The function of fat cells is disrupted by too much polyunsaturated fatty acids (usually from seed oils).

When enough fat cells become dysfunctional the fat tissue gains in size until it reaches its storage capacity.

Overfull fat cells start leaking fat and inflammatory mediators into the blood driving insulin resistance.

Whole-body insulin resistance is what we call type-2 diabetes.

Again, we could do this for every single chronic disease.

It all starts with something we are doing (environmental input) that causes cellular dysfunction.

If this occurs for long enough a disease will emerge at the weakest link in the causal chain.

In the case of seed oils, it is usually diabetes and obesity.

In the case of alcohol, it is usually liver disease.

Some things are not local. Sleep affects the entire body.

Getting insufficient sleep will lead to increased cellular stress in all cells.

View cellular stress as an attack on your cells, and it is coming from all angles:

  • Diet

  • Insufficient sleep

  • Psychological stress

  • Environmental toxins

  • Insufficient movement

We are all different depending on our genes and our environment.

Both cause a susceptibility for certain cells to become dysfunctional first.

Depending on where these cells are located we develop disease there first.

To reverse and prevent lifestyle-related diseases all we need to do is create functional cells.

Again, we do this by minimizing cellular stress.

Doing this maximizes cellular energy production creating a functional organism.

A healthy organism.

If you have any health issue, be it mental or physical the cause is almost always a lack of energy (on a cellular level).

There is no one cause, so:

  • Move more

  • Eat proper nutrition

  • And get enough sleep with good quality

Everything affects cellular function (which is why lifestyle interventions can do miracles).

Your psychology is dependent on your physiology.

Who you are is dependent on how your body functions.

Then, why wouldn’t you make your body as healthy as possible?


You Are a Scientist & the Subject is You

Trying to become healthy based on experts’ advice is often impossible.

Instead, we should get a sense of what creates functional cells and apply that to diet, sleep and movement (and much more).

Over time you will develop your understanding of cellular function.

You can then test your hypotheses on what you should do in the real world.

The goal is to become a scientist with you as the subject.

You know your body the best.

If you feel better doing something even though an expert tells you it is bad, trust yourself.

Ground your practice in sound logic and you will stand firm in your actions

That’s it for today.

Next Sunday we’ll analyze diet.

We will use:

  1. The evolutionary framework (which is now etched into your psyche)

  2. Cellular physiology (what you learnt today)

  3. & Digestion (coming next Sunday)

We do this so that you can ground your understanding of diet firmly in three levels of analysis.

You probably have no way of knowing why something is healthy or not.

After reading this and the next newsletter you should be able to give a logical argument for why something is healthy or not.

I will also describe how you would test if your conclusions are true or not on yourself.

Stay tuned.

And until next time, do what makes your future self proud.

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Shatter Your Entire View Of Health

Join others getting their entire idea of what health is shattered every Sunday while reading The Progress Letter.