Ancestral Health in General Practice

Dr Pam Olver has been practising as a GP in Wellington since 2001. She migrated there from South Africa in 1996. When not working as a GP her time is occupied with family life, walking the dog in the nearby tracks, and reflecting on how fortunate she is to live in this wonderful land of plenty. Just the place to put an ancestral health lifestyle into practice.

What a privilege it is to be a GP. I would love to say it was a calling. That would be dodging the truth. I arrived here more by default than by design. At times I wondered how different my life would have been if I had pursued an early option career pathway in Dietetics or Food Science. I chose medicine for no particular reason other than it sounded like a good idea. I did my medical training at a large university in Johannesburg, South Africa and then migrated to New Zealand in 1996. My training was by all accounts a conventional medical programme  led  from the top down. One never questioned anything from the professor’s mouth. Professors knew everything.

Modern medicine is the business of fixing broken bodies. That might be okay for broken bones and other traumatic injuries or for infections. Sadly modern medicine is driven by the need to fix chronically broken bodies. Bodies that have been neglected, insulted, used and abused. We are continuously trying to find the Holy Grail to fix these broken bodies: a drug to lower cholesterol (believing that if you lower your cholesterol you won’t die from a heart attack – but that’s a myth ripe for destruction another time); a fancy new treatment for diabetes (so you can continue to eat sweet junk) or a medicine that will ‘fix’ obesity (so that it is someone else’s problem). Our expectation is that science will sort it out. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it will, but at what cost?

We seem to have made preventative health so complicated.  We seem to have lost our way in a rabbit warren of complex algorithms and guidelines, gurus and self help books and websites. We seem to have lost common sense.

Fixing broken things is always difficult and a repaired object is never quite as strong as one that has never sustained the damage in the first place. Ask anyone with a cracked antique vase. Surely the best line of defence is to prevent damage in the first instance? In medicine it’s called Primary Prevention and so we provide Primary Care. Primary Care should be a partnership between provider and patient  with the sharing of up to date knowledge so that patients are able to make decisions that benefit them. Nutrition is fundamental to preventive health and primary care but it is so neglected. We have a primary care focus on screening, detection and treating chronic medical conditions. If only we could recognise just how much chronic ill health could be prevented by informed and true evidence based guidance rather than hanging onto old paradigms in a one size fits all model where many hypotheses remain hypotheses. New information has well and truly superseded old paradigms.

The tide is turning. No longer can academics sit in their ivory towers expecting all to accept everything that is said at face value. With the accessibility of information today they can be questioned and held to account. We can all be researchers. My journey down the rabbit hole started by chance. Chance is a fine thing! A casual comment about the ‘Tim Noakes Diet’ sent me scurrying to Dr Google. A few key words later and a world of intelligent people hungry for up to date, science -based knowledge of health and nutrition exploded. I was fascinated and hungry for more. The more I read, the angrier I became at the deception that had invaded nutritional advice. I was angry because I was a very unfortunate beneficiary of this conventional wisdom. Being a victim does not empower one. Knowledge is power.

We seem to have made preventative health so complicated.  We seem to have lost our way in a rabbit warren of complex algorithms and guidelines, gurus and self help books and websites. We seem to have lost common sense.

Hippocrates, the father of medicine to whom all doctors swear an oath, is quoted as saying “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. Many patients are convinced of the importance of food in both causing and relieving their problems, but many (if not most) doctors’ knowledge of nutrition is pretty non-existent. Most feel much more comfortable with drugs than foods, and the “food as medicine” philosophy of Hippocrates has been largely neglected. That may be about to change.

My patients engage easily with conversations around food and health. They are interested in their health but with the abundance of conflicting information they often revert to the conventional advice. When we talk about our ancestors we are not talking about cavemen. Our parents and grandparents are our ancestors too. People can relate to what their grandparents cooked and ate and it makes sense to them. It is my job as a GP to inform, empower and enable my patients to make decisions that benefit their health in a meaningful way. Offering a pill-for-all-ills just doesn’t sit comfortably with me.  I want to act in my patients’ best interests, respecting their values and choices too but remembering that guiding principle for doctors: Primum non nocere – First do no harm.

Being part of the Ancestral Health Society is exciting. It has the potential to empower and enable patients to own their own good health. It does not exclude the benefits modern medicine offers of which there are many. There is not an endless pot of money to treat and cure our chronic  diseases of civilization. Our best protection comes from how we live today. Living in New Zealand we have an endless supply of quality real food, wide open spaces and lifestyle opportunities. Grab them with both hands. You won’t look back.