A recent Lancet study titled “Atherosclerosis across 4000 years of human history: the Horus study of four ancient populations” purports to show that our ancient painors suffered from arteriosclerosis or “just as we do. They concluded: ” The presence of atherosclerosis in premodern human animals suggests that the disease is an inherent component of human aging and not characteristic of any specific diet or lifestyle.” In other words, go ahead and eat another Big Mac and wash it down with a supersized Coke because your arms will eventually clog up no matter what you do. Thank you judge Tingling for borrowing Mayor Bloomberg's ridiculous super-sized soda ban, although looking at your picture I suspect that you may want to back off on super-sizing of anything, especially yourself.
Unfortunately this study seriously ignores the actual disease process leading to heart attacks and strokes. This study documented calcium deposits in the treaties of mummies from four different variable ancient cultures: Egyptians, Peruvians, ancestral Puebloans and Unangans from the Aleutian Islands. Although it is reasonably true that as humans grow older they tend to accumulate some calcium deposits in their arms, by itself this process will not likely lead to heart attacks and strokes. To turn arteriosclerosis into a deadly killer, you also need to add some inflammation.
It's All About the Details
To understand how this process works, we first need to review a little anatomy. Arteries are lined by endothelial cells that form a tight junction to keep blood elements from leaking into the surrounding tissue. These cells are covered with a hair-like protective surface called the glycocalyx. This layer keeps the flowing blood from coming into contact with the endothelial cells. It more or less acts like Teflon, allowing the blood to flow smoothly. Fats are transported in the blood stream as combinations of fat and protein called lipoproteins. Low density lipoproteins (LDL) carry cholesterol and fatty acids into cells and high density lipoproteins (HDL) carry cholesterol and fatty acids out of cells.
LDL cholesterol comes in two forms-small, dense LDL particles and fluffy, large LDL particles. When you consume a diet high in saturated fat, LDL particles migrate to the intima, the layer benefit the endothelium. Small, dense LDL particles tend to hang around longer and become oxidized, leading to inflammation. Oxidized LDL particles strip away the protective glycocalyx layer and damage the under endothelium, leading to endothelial dysfunction. White blood cells are attracted by this inflammation and migrate to the intima where they gobble up the oxidized LDL cholesterol, creating fat-ladened foam cells. This inflammatory mess can always lead to dangerous blood clots, so your body responds by walling it off with a layer of calcium and a fibrous cap. With a solid fibrous cap, blood continues to flow freely and everything is good-that is until you add more pollution to the mix.
Harden My Arteries but Please Do not Give Me Inflammation
Many components of our modern diet can feed this inflammatory process, including trans fatty acids, excess omega 6 fatty acids relative to omega 3 fatty acids, excessively fructose mainly from sugar and HFCS, and high glycemic carbohydrates mainly form grains. These dietary elements lead to high glucose levels, high insulin levels, high uric acid levels and systemic inflammatory. Grains, legumes and dairy products can lead to a leaky gut, further feeding this inflammation. Consuming our Standard American Diet (SAD) is like throwing gas on a fire when it comes to feeding inflammation. All of this inflammation can ever cause the fibrous cap to rupture, where all the pro-inflammatory foam cells spill into the circulation. This leads to a blood clot, your bodies' last brave attempt to seal off the damage. If the blood clot is large enough, it blocks the artery leading to a heart attack or stroke.
Although arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) may be a normal part of human aging, heart attacks and strokes are clearly not. When the authors of this study examined the mummies with CT scans, they were documenting calcium deposits in their treaties. They could only document arteriosclerosis and as the discussion above describes, hardening of the treaties will never kill you without throwing in a lot of inflammation leading to rupture of the plaques. We really have no idea whether these mummies were prior to such events and this study is not helpful in this regard.
Did Mummy Ever Have to Dial 911?
It is possible that they did sometimes have heart attacks and strokes, because we know that all of these groups consumed some food items found in our modern diet. Three of the groups were already heavily into agriculture by growing and consuming grains. The Unangan's from the Aleutian Islands were presented as a group of hunter-gatherers, yet the mummies from this group died around 1900. Even though their traditional lifestyle involved hunting sea animals, fishing and collecting shellfish, by this time they had already been trading with Russians and other groups for several centuries. They traded animal pelts for subsistence items like food and clothing. Obviously we can not classify this group as strictly hunter-gatherer.
This study made headlines around the world, suggesting that our ancient victims suffered from the same vascular problems that we do. This is simply poor science. In order to suffer from increased morbidity and mortality, you need to add inflammation to arteriosclerosis and this study does not discuss the issue of inflammation. Studying mummies can be exotic and fun, but let's not forget to include a little science and common sense in the discussion.
News articles about this study often concluded that because the mummies had arteriosclerosis, our modern diet was probably not contributing much to this process. In other words, go ahead and eat junk food because your arms will harden no matter what you eat. Although this may be true, having “hardened” arteries or arteriosclerosis will never by itself kill you. Throw a pro-inflammatory modern diet into the mix and people start falling like flies from heart attacks, strokes and other modern inflammatory diseases.
Mummy, I need help!
So what's a confused, modern non-mummy supposed to do? To keep calcium from building up in your arteries, taking vitamin K2 as a supplement might be helpful. This form of vitamin K moves calcium out of your arms and into your bones where it belongs. I recommend taking at least 1,000 mcg of vitamin K2 daily. More importantly, you should do everything possible to eat a diet that does not promote inflation. A good starting point is to eliminate sugar and HFCS, two explosive bombshells in our modern diet. I also recommend keeping your fructose take below 25 grams per day as Richard Johnson suggests in his books “The Sugar Fix” and “The Fat Switch”. I also recommend reducing your intake of omega 6 fatty acids from vegetable oils and increasing your intake of omega 3 fatty acids. You can also measure your omega 3 index to balance your diet so your ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids is between 1 and 3. For more information about fatty acids, I recommend reading “Toxic Fat” by Barry Sears or “The Omega Diet “by Artemis Simopolos. To learn more about the adverse effects of high glycemic carbohydrates, read “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and “Why We Get Fat” by Gary Taubes. Gary really understands the woes of carboholics.
I'm Not Your Mummy-If You Want to Be Healthy, You Need to Take the Bull by the Horns
To keep poisoning infection out of your body, you need to become self-educated and these books are a good place to start. Most doctors and dieticians still follow the government's nutritional recommendations like the disastrous Food Pyramid recently replaced by the incomprehensible Food Plate. These dietary recommendations are highly influenced by our modern food and agricultural industries, the very folks who have been peddling a pro-inflammatory diet for decades. If you are already suffering from inflammatory diseases like obesity, type II diabetes, hypertension, strokes and heart attacks, you might want to consider following a Paleo diet. This type of diet eliminates all pro-inflammatory grains, legumes, dairy and bad fats. For more information about going Paleo, read “The Paleo Answer” by Loren Cordain or “The Paleo Solution” by Robb Wolf. Even if you decide not to go full Paleo, moving in this direction will help to reduce dangerous inflammation in your body.
Hopefully the next time mummies make the headlines, it will be in the context of solid science. Unfortunately, this Lancet article does not make the grade.