Diabetes – Does Evolution play a role?

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Diabetes has long been looked upon as an epidemic. In America and other westernized countries, obesity is prevalent and plays a role in propagating the disease. I’ve often mused that Diabetes is much akin to a car’s inability to digest sugar in its gas tank. A food we eat a ton of now(sugar) was not as prevalent in the diets of humans for most of the time before the industrialized revolution helped promote processed foods.

Because the relationship between blood glucose, sugar, the pancreas, and diabetes is so closely connected, it is not a stretch to believe that the pancreas simply has not evolved to process as much sugar as it does, and because of this, it can be damaged by processing consistent levels of sugar over time.

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The theory goes like this. Think of sugar instead of a food, as a material. Think of proteins also as a material. Now you’ve gotten two materials that can be burned, and broken down into energy. Now let’s take a living animal who adapts to its environment over time and lets feed it only the protein. Let’s keep that up for say, 1 million years. Now the animal is very different. For the first few generations, some of the animals were weakened or died because they couldn’t process protein very well. The ones that could process protein by blind luck lived healthily, and the subsequent generations were a lot better at processing protein. After hundreds of generations the animals were all excellent at processing protein.

Now imagine that the animals suddenly swapped their diet to a different material for any reason(say all the protein was gone). This new food is sugar. Many of the people who had descended from the protein processers were great at processing protein, but many of them could not easily process sugar. We are now back full cycle to the beginning of the process that caused the animals to be able to properly digest proteins.

According to that theory, we as humans haven’t paid the evolutionary toll necessary to process sugars. One might speculate that this could be because we’ve only recently (in the cosmic scheme of things) began to heavily intake sugar at current levels because; to easily consume sugar a lot of it must be processed by other people in modern manufacturing processes (with exceptions of course).

This theory is only speculation but scientist have lent it enough credence to consider it an area that needs to be studied*. Luckily, due to modern medical science, a lot of the processes surrounding the inability of our bodies to manufacture or process sugar can be stopped or slowed, and hopefully most of us won’t pay too high a toll from adding a little sugar into our diets. Insulin pumps can help our bodies process sugar even when one or two specialized parts(which may currently be best designed to process protein and fiber) break down on us. Yet that is one theory concerning how evolution is related to diabetes.

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One thing we can be sure about is the human ability to adapt. We no longer need generations to adapt to medical conditions and we will always strive for a cure to all the unknown diseases that may be down our path. The human element is hard to define, but it certainly exists in all things. Speculating(some would say wildly) about how or even if evolution plays a role in diabetes might be good for a daydream, but it doesn’t change a thing about how diabetes must be treated today. We must monitor our sugar regularly, and keep it in the goldilocks range between 70 and 170ml/dl to prevent the glass like nature of blood glucose from harming our smallest and most vulnerable capillaries. Remember to keep checking your sugar regularly and to follow your doctor’s orders.

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