Engineer's Approach to Physiology

· 2374 words · 12 minute read

1. Intro 🔗

My journey into physiology began unpleasantly when my family member was abruptly diagnosed with an immune disorder. I initially assumed the experts knew the answers, but the troubleshooting process didn’t feel right. For example, prescribed medicine (immunosuppressants) snoozed the alarms that the immune system was firing. For a system engineer, that’s intuitively bothering since solid monitoring is so crucial. Snoozing alarms can be accepted as short-term mitigation when the situation is very dire, but we need to develop a more sustainable long-term solution.

After ad hoc research, we decided to try less fancier solutions, like faithfully avoiding processed foods and potential stressors like gluten. The rationale was that our bodies didn’t evolve to handle them well, but it required a leap of faith because the solution didn’t come from “expert"s. Also, those foods were too ubiquitous to avoid, and the progress wasn’t apparent initially. Luckily, we were still in time to reverse the trend, and the immune system started to work fine with no prescription! It is apparent modern medication is powerful, especially when it handles localized and measurable health issues like broken bones or high fever. However, as this incident shows, it often struggles to address the whole’s complex and interconnected nature, like cancer or Alzheimer’s. This gap may narrow over time, but it will not disappear soon as we still know too little about our complicated body system.

Moreover, the issue isn’t limited to the medication but a broader lifestyle. When you don’t care, you tend to pick readily available options or what others choose, but these default choices are often harmful to our long-term well-being. So, I found it helpful to build my own mental models and run systematic analyses to counterbalance them. Without prior medical knowledge, I believe we can still start improvements with the first-principled thinking and problem-solving skills that anyone has. So, this post attempts to share the basics others may find useful, too.

The first step in solving a problem is to recognize that it does exist. – Zig Ziglar

2. Basic Practices 🔗

Let’s start with what we have. We have tens of trillion cells (so more than 13 0s) and a similar number of microbiome bacteria that seamlessly collaborate to sustain who we are. While the system has its limits (like aging), it handles lots of mundane work autonomously so that we can proceed with a higher purpose. For example, it will be overwhelming to handle the logistics of streamlining the oxygen from the lungs to each cell’s mitochondria 24/7.

In this sense, we are more like stewards of the body system than mighty owners. If we had complete control, you should be able to order the digestive system to ignore the chocolate cake you just enjoyed to avoid high sugar disrupting metabolism. Or, cancer patients should be able to terminate toxic cells happily residing in their bodies. Indeed, what we know or what we can do is very limited. With this limited power, however, our role in running the system healthy is still critical. I’ll suggest the three pillars of good stewardship for the complex system below.

Stewardship for Physiology

2.1. Inflow Switch 🔗

Key word(s): Fasting, Sleeping

In the pre-agricultural world where our body systems evolved, food scarcity and periods of fasting were common. However, in modern society, we are constantly bombarded with diverse options for eating and entertainment, available 24/7. We have developed habits of eating in response to slight hunger or minor boredom, rather than out of genuine need. Similarly, we easily succumb to the continuous stream of digital feeds and videos vying for our attention. In essence, while our body expects “nothing” by default, the constant inflow of food and information is the norm in the modern world. Even worse, we are often educated that continuous and steady flow is required for our body – however, fasting for a few days is surprisingly doable with some preparation. And problems tend to arise when the system receives an input pattern that drastically differs from what it has evolved to expect.

Not surprisingly, science started revealing wonders about what nothingness (fasting, sleeping, or just deep breathing) can do to our bodies. Fasting triggers autophagy, where malfunctioning cells get terminated smoothly rather than brewing them to be toxic or cancerous. Sleeping allows the glymphatic system to clear out neurotoxic waste products that are linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Even just deep breathing can help reduce stress and stimulate the lymphatic system to remove waste. Some advocate more aggressive forms of nothingness like NSDR (non-sleep-deep-rest) or meditation. None of them will have an immediate impact, but such invisible work tends to determine life or death over the long term, just as effective reliability engineers or insurance policies do.

Capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child. – Adam Phillips (Psychotherapist)

So, I think it is reasonable to set the first pillar of a loyal steward as staying strong to protect those “nothingness” moments. In this regard, we have more immense challenges than previous generations. Technology is making everything faster and more responsive, and our brains are getting more wired to want faster rewards. With dopamine reinforcing our instant gratification, “nothingness” is hard to achieve, and we need strong faith to practice it. One good starting point is to set the environment to make nothingness more natural. If chocolates are everywhere you stare, you must keep resisting to protect nothingness, which is draining and unsustainable. Similarly, when a phone with a full internet connection is always nearby, we are having a losing battle for attention.

Without knowing any of those fancy terms like autophagy, I think the basic rationale to tackle the input for the system is pretty solid. For example, a system designed to handle 100 requests per second cannot tolerate 10,000 requests (similar to a DDoS attack). Since changing the system is out of the question (for now), our next best option is to change the input rate.

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2.2. Inflow Content 🔗

Key word(s): Ancient food

I once believed that modern food is absolutely superior. Can’t mighty science synthesize a perfect meal (like Soylent) to satisfy all the checklists and end the hassles of cooking, eating, and dishwashing? Unfortunately, humanity still knows too little about the body, and we cannot fully comprehend all the potential pros and cons of artificial foods, especially their long-term effects. It isn’t just we don’t know. It is closer to unknowable because there are too many variables, and the impact of food hugely depends on each individual. Another significant problem is that the food chain isn’t immune to the market forces. When certain foods are cheaper to produce, even if they have potential long-term health consequences, they are more likely to thrive in the market. Non-market systems, such as government-controlled food production and distribution, are not necessarily better alternatives, as they may be subject to even more severe convolutions.

In this context, the least processed ancient foods seem the safest bet because they are time-tested and unaffected by gigantic market forces. Admittedly, this reasoning isn’t infallible as we live in different circumstances, and ancient eating habits are hard to imitate. For instance, ancient grains have undergone significant changes through selective breeding for higher yields, making them genetically different from their historical counterparts (e.g., genetically engineered soybeans comprised over 90% of all soybeans planted since 20071). Similarly, farmed animals today have lifestyles that diverge from their wild ancestors, potentially altering the nutritional composition of their products. Although strictly adhering to ‘real’ ancient foods for all ingredients may be unrealistic in modern times, we can still make an effort to gradually incorporate them into our diets. This can include choosing butter from grass-fed cows or full-fat yogurts with minimal processing.

Interestingly, our society has developed a default tendency to avoid those ancient foods that often contain high fat content, which is the exact opposite of what I just advocated above. It’s understandable that people have begun to associate dietary fat with body fat. However, the human body’s complex systems don’t simply store the fat we consume directly in our adipose tissue. Instead, fatty food like steak, salmon, or nuts provides nutrients more efficiently with essential vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compoounds. Superiority becomes more apparent compared to today’s common energy sources like pastries, french fries, or crackers, which can cause rapid spikes in blood sugar and contribute to chronic inflammation.

Real food

Before the research, I was also accustomed to such typical food and was surprised (and annoyed) that the default options were toxic. If you care, you can easily see the rationale for avoiding fats from real food is very weak. Without research, it is still easy to wonder why Homo Sapiens thrived with ancient fatty food and started to have modern diseases like type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver, or Alzheimer’s recently. So, instead of avoiding those fatty ancient foods, we can go one step further in the right direction and start consuming the entire entity, including organs and bone broths, as we used to do for millions of years.

In contrast, cheap ingredients with high demand are the right target to be suspicious of, as the market will heartlessly support them. Good examples are sugarvegetable oils, or additives like MSG. Their risks are finally getting some attention, but their widespread usage shows no hint of retreats. If successful, we may gradually reduce their usage like margarine. Surprisingly, margarine used to be promoted as a healthy alternative to butter, and it took almost half a century to lose popularity. The problem is that our body is resilient and handles toxicity reasonably well, at least for the short term, and we don’t have a suitable mechanism to detect long-term issues quickly. Even if we finally mark some ingredients as bad, the market will tirelessly supply new options.

This risk isn’t only in recent inventions but also in how we produce old ingredients. Even for basic farming, we are inventing more efficient mechanisms to produce, like processing raw wheat into flour for cheaper delivery or using stronger pesticides for higher yields. Efficiently supporting calories is essential for sustaining the humanity of 8 billion people. However, we can still consider its downsides. For example, it isn’t a secret many people significantly improve their immune systems when they cut off gluten. We still don’t know the exact root cause – it can be wheat breeds, food processing, or something else. However, it won’t be surprising that some methods to enhance market value can harm human bodies (there’s no reason for them to be positively correlated).

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2.3. Outflow Exertion 🔗

Key word(s): Movement, Exercise

As the continuous inflow became the norm for the modern lifestyle, our default outflow was significantly reduced in reverse. Unlike the hunter-gatherer society, we don’t need to keep walking and chasing food to survive. While I’d advocate doubting the social norm, the benefits of more movements seem pretty obvious, as widely believed. Research also shows that even walking can help cardiovascular or mental health. Even better, faster walking can strengthen the core muscles to reduce strain on the spine and lower the severity of chronic pain. Additionally, mobility is often a topic that doesn’t get deserved attention when our sedentary lifestyle particularly hurts it.

Along the line with the previous pillars, it is still helpful to have some doubts because not all movements are good. Exercises with poor posture can directly cause injuries and may cause long-term damage to joints or the spine that don’t heal as quickly as muscles. Even well-known exercises like sit-ups can easily hurt the spine. Some sports, like snowboarding, are also quite dangerous and easily lead to serious injuries. They can be fun but may have negative expected health results if we account for their failure rates. In sum, while it is reasonable to assume that exercises are good in general, we should still avoid mindlessly following the norm.

In my observation, unlike the previous two pillars, the bigger risk here is not a misconception but incorporating goals in our busy real lives. Regularly dedicating a few slots to the gym is an unrealistic goal for many people (I also gave up). Instead, inserting minor habits into the existing life can be more effective and realistic. For example, using stairs on the commute or doing extra stretching on restroom breaks are much more doable.

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3. Real Life and Future Work 🔗

When there are myriads of variables like physiology, it is important not to aim for perfection. The goal is to apply better principles that we can perform, not to regret the past or be overwhelmed by complexities. Also, as the previous sections showed, better principles require questioning the social norms, which is definitely tiring and not doable on every topic. Despite all the efforts, sometimes, the final outcome can be worse than the default, even when the expected value is much higher, but that’s also part of life. For example, you will continuously hear cases where some people live long and healthy with seemingly poor management, and others die young with solid life patterns. They may give us some applicable lessons, but many simply come from innate noise.

Lastly, while this post focused on serving the body well as it is, modern science provides a huge potential that evolution couldn’t offer. For example, vaccines allow us to gain immunity to deadly diseases without sacrificing a large portion of the population. Or, surgical intervention can handle problems that the body cannot fix on its own. While we should be cautious of misuse and harmful marketing, I believe there are good enhancements that we can incorporate into life, and I hope to cover more about them in the following posts. ∎

Disclaimer 🔗

This blog post is based on personal experience and research, and is for informational purposes only. I am not a medical professional, and this content is not medical advice. Readers should use their own judgment and take personal responsibility when considering any health/finance-related information or practices.