I For One Welcome Our New Overlords

5 Dec

If evolution is the name of the game, then the winning strategy for the game is variation. In this case, genetic variation. A genetically-variable population is well-insured for survival. Specifically, if something changes in an environment, introducing a new variable that affects a population’s survival, maybe there is a genetic variation somewhere in the population’s gene pool that just happens to allow them to adapt to this change and survive.

Although we sometimes like to think of modern humans as representing a pinnacle of evolution, the truth is we are still part of the game. Whether we realize it or not, new genetic combinations and variations are showing up in our vast gene pool all the time, through sexual reproduction and even random mutations. Most of these variations are benign. Some accidentally lead to bizarre genetic-based diseases and conditions that might end up negatively-affecting an organism’s survival. But some genetic variations, against all odds, create some genuinely spectacular effects.

One example of this is so-called “human magnetism.” People with this trait are able to stick metal objects to their skin, sometimes with an amazing amount of strength:

Imagine, never losing your keys again….

The effect is well-documented but until recently the cause was a mystery. Researchers knew it wasn’t “true” magnetism since the effect also works with other smooth objects like glass and plastic. The answer finally came when studies found a mutation in these people that gives them unusually smooth, elastic skin. When this skin comes in contact with another hyper-smooth surface (like metal, plastic, and glass), the high-degree of surface-area contact creates a very strong degree of friction, preventing the objects from falling (at least immediately). It may not be magical, but it’s still a wondrous example of the possibilities inherent in a genetically-variable population.

I recently learned of another, lesser-known example of “magical” abilities that is probably due to an unusual quirk of genetics and is tangentially related to the greater paleo community, which is why I share it with you today.

A good friend of mine just spent three weeks travelling around Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. While in Chiang Mai, he heard of an unusual street-food vendor, a local legend known as “Iron Hands.” This guy apparently handles fresh fried chicken by dipping the meat in and out of the boiling oil…

…With his bare hands. With no signs of burns or blisters afterwards.

When my friend heard about this he was like, “Well I gotta check this out,” and actually took a couple days tracking the guy down. He finally did, and saw this feat with his own eyes:

My friend sent the link to me when he returned. My first response was to be suitably impressed (wait, no, I take that back, my first response was too be hungry, cause fried chicken). But my next reaction was to wonder about the possible reason for his burn-resistance. I thought of the magnetic humans and assumed that this is yet another example of an unusual genetic difference.

But what sort of genetic difference? How could genes confer resistance to burns, which are an inescapable part of living in our environment? My hypothesis is that his genetic variation is not so much a resistance to the heat of the burn, but a resistance to the common after-effects of burns. Specifically, inflammation.

At its essence, inflammation is an immune response adapted to help protect us from pathogens. When we damage tissue through burns or other methods, the area becomes inflamed because fluid rushes to the area. This fluid carries white blood cells and other immune system agents that rapidly attack bacteria or other pathogens that might take advantage of the damaged tissue. The pain that comes from burns and cuts is sometimes because nerves have been damaged directly, but it can also be from the tissue inflammation putting pressure on local nerves.

I think what’s happening here is that Iron Hands–whose actual name (and proof that the universe runs on irony) is Khan–is still getting burned by splatters of the hot oil, but somehow his body isn’t reacting as strongly to it as it would for normal people. The oil still feels hot to him, which you can see from him being rather ginger about touching the vat directly, but he’s probably simply gotten used to it over time. Once the heat dissipates from the oil and his skin, for some reason his body doesn’t continue the cycle by erupting in inflammation and blisters, so he’s able to just shake it off and continue again.

Now, before you get carried away, no I am not suggesting we go track him down, isolate his genes, and turn us all inflammation-free Ubermensch. We do need inflammation to some degree as part of the normal functioning of our immune system. But as we in the paleo-sphere are well-aware, many health problems seem tied to an over-reaction of the inflammation response in our bodies, and many of the benefits of our diet seem to come from the fact that it is a relatively low-inflammatory one.

So why am I bringing this up here? Because while we may not have the elite ability of Iron Hands Khan, I have a sneaking suspicion that our low-inflammatory diet has lended us a similar resistance to/an improved healing ability from the effects of burns.

In the last year, I’ve noticed in myself that, although I get smallish burns all the time from cooking mishaps (oil splatters, bumping against the oven racks, accidentally touching the wrong part of my crock pot) the burns throb warmly for an hour or so and then just…disappear. On the bad ones, there’s some skin discoloration that heals in a couple days, but I cannot remember the last time I got an actual burn blister.

A more extreme example of burn healing while on paleo comes from my friend Marie. She has been paleo for a couple years now. Over a year or so ago, she got a very serious, large burn from an overturned pot of boiling water. Unlike these little burns I’ve been talking about so far, she was in a lot of pain and did blister significantly. If you aren’t squeamish or eating, check out her detailed photos here. But once her body recovered from the initial trauma, her healing was incredible. Her doctors at the USF burn center were amazed at how well she was progressing, well-ahead of their expectations and much better than similar burns they had seen. These mainstream doctors flat-out admitted that her diet—low-inflammatory, rich with saturated fats—was likely a large part of the reason. Marie even says that during the healing process, all she craved was meat and some vegetables; no carb cravings at all. Now, over a year later, she has barely any visible scarring (I’ve seen this with my own eyes), which is a far cry from the doctors’ predictions that she would have serious scars for years, if not life.

Now, of course I am not saying that we all go out and dunk our hands in oil or jump in boiling hot water. But I find it interesting to think that, even as we look at extreme examples of human genetic variation, there are wonderful genetic adaptations in our everyday-selves that we are still discovering. Not only are humans not broken by default, I think that, put in the right conditions, we’re a lot more magical than we usually give ourselves credit for.

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