Friday, April 5, 2019

Book Review: Survival of the Sickest by Dr. Sharon Moalem

By Kristy McCaffrey

Survival of the Sickest:
A Medical Maverick Discovers Why We Need Disease
Dr. Sharon Moalem with Jonathan Prince

This fascinating read delves into how certain conditions such as cystic fibrosis, diabetes, and high cholesterol may have benefited humans at one time. Evolution favors survival, and in the face of environmental pressures our genes have, at times, given humans the ability to conquer an immediate biological foe only to have that solution work against us in the long term. The book begins with hereditary disorders, and normally such conditions should die out somewhere along the evolutionary line, but many haven’t. Why? Evolution likes genetic traits that help us to survive and reproduce. Anything that doesn’t contribute to this won’t last long in the genetic pool.

Dr. Moalem first examines a condition called hemochromatosis, a hereditary disease that disrupts how the body metabolizes iron. Normally, the body can detect if there is too much iron and will thereby reduce the amount that is absorbed into your intestines, and the excess will pass out of the body. But with hemochromatosis, the body thinks that it never has enough iron, so continues to absorb it. Over time, this can damage joints, major organs, and affect overall body chemistry. Ultimately, it can lead to liver and/or heart failure, diabetes, arthritis, infertility, psychiatric disorders, and even cancer. If nothing is done, death is inevitable.

Surprisingly, however, the gene for hemochromatosis is the most common genetic variant in people of Western European descent. Humans need iron for nearly every function of our metabolism, but so do parasites and cancer cells. In order to keep it away from deadly invaders, our body has iron-related defense mechanisms, such as proteins in our mouth, eyes, noses, ears and genitals that lock up iron molecules and prevent them from being used.

In 1347, the bubonic plague swept through Europe, killing upwards of 25 million people. Not everyone infected died, however. Research has indicated that the more iron in a given population, the more vulnerable they were to the plague. Generally speaking, adult men were at greater risk than malnourished children and the elderly, who were often iron deficient, as well as adult women, who were iron-depleted from menstruation, pregnancy and breast-feeding.

So, what does this have to do with hemochromatosis? People with this condition, while they have too much iron in much of their body, actually have too little inside their white blood cells—the police of our immune systems and the vector that many infectious agents use to feed off iron and multiply. The plague could never get a foothold in these people.

Hemochromatosis is thought to have originated among the Vikings and was spread throughout Europe as they colonized the coastline, and its purpose may have been altogether different initially. But although the condition would have eventually killed them in the long term, it offered short-term protection against the plague. Those who survived reproduced and passed the mutation on to their children. With successive waves of plague breaking out as recently as the nineteenth century, this condition has survived into today’s population. This might also explain why there was never an epidemic as bad as the Black Death of 1347 to 1350, because people with hemochromatosis made up a majority of the survivors, thereby giving subsequent generations protection.

Dr. Moalem analyzed diabetes, specifically Type 1, which is common in people of Northern European descent and appears to have risen during a rapid cool-down of the earth about 13,000 years ago. It turns out that sugar is a natural antifreeze, and the body’s ability to pump a high amount of glucose into the blood may have helped those caught in a sudden ice age to survive. Moalem also touches on cystic fibrosis (carriers of this gene are protected from tuberculosis), childbirth (and why it has evolved to be so dangerous for human females), as well as HIV and aging.

The bottom line is that while evolution is amazing, it’s not perfect, and every adaptation comes with a compromise. This riveting read will change your perspective on disease and the role genetics plays in our lives.

Read Survival of the Sickest at Amazon

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Navajo Spirits

By Kristy McCaffrey

The Navajo, from the southwestern region of the United States, believe a chindi is the ghost of an individual who has died. It is the part of that person that was imbalanced, or unreconciled, with the Universe. The Navajo believe that it’s best for death to occur outdoors, since this was the best way to disperse the chindi. If a person died within a homestead, or hogan, it was abandoned after the death; the chindi would likely be trapped inside the dwelling.

A skinwalker, or yee naaldlooshii, is a medicine man who has chosen to use his powers for evil. Navajo don’t like to speak of them for fear of retribution, believing them to move among their people undetected. Skinwalkers have the ability to transform into animals or other people. They often take the form of coyote, owl, fox, wolf or crow.

Some Navajo taboos:

Do not mention a dead person’s name or the ghost may come and haunt you.

Do not say chindi (evil spirit) or one will come to you.

Do not let a strange dog follow close behind or you may turn into a wolf man. The dog might be a skinwalker.

In my historical western romance novel, INTO THE LAND OF SHADOWS, Kate Kinsella and Ethan Barstow are forced to confront a chindi.

For the month of April, I'm offering a print copy of this book to one lucky winner. Hop over to my website to enter.

Kate wondered how far she’d get on foot before the man standing a few feet away caught her and did God-knew-what.

Ethan Barstow.

Of all her bad luck. She had never met the man, but Charley’s recollections of his brother filled her head. Liar. Swindler. Killer.

“You must be Charley’s fiancée,” he said, watching her closely, his gaze dark.

Swell. He knew who she was. She nodded, deciding now wasn’t the time to share the truth about her and Charley's relationship. Instinct told her she needed to ditch Mister Barstow, but losing the donkey was a bit of a problem. Maybe she could find the animal herself on foot. But what if the three buffoons who’d stolen her horse were still out there?

“I arrived in Flagstaff three days ago looking for Charley,” Ethan said. “I was told he’d left town unexpectedly so I’ve been trailing him. I take it you don’t know where he is, either?”

She cleared her throat. “No, I don’t.”

“Is there some reason why he wouldn’t tell you where he was going?”

Well, it’s not me, but Agnes he didn’t tell. It was far too complicated to explain, least of all to this man, so she uttered, “We’ve had a bit of a misunderstanding.”

“Yeah, Charley and I’ve had a bit of a misunderstanding as well,” Ethan said quietly, almost to himself.

Kate plastered the biggest smile she could onto her face. “I think I’ll just go look for that donkey myself. I really don’t want to be a bother to you.”

She moved past the man who was a dead ringer for Charley, possessing the same angular cheek bones and long nose, the same dark hair, the same lean build as her fiancé. Her fiancé! What a ridiculous mess that was. There had been a time, far back in the beginning of her acquaintance with Charley, when she’d found him attractive and fun. It had been short-lived, especially once Agnes entered the picture. Now, she was face-to-face with a man much like Charley, but while his eyes had been green and his demeanor inviting, Ethan’s eyes were blue, almost gray, like a lake frozen over.

There were other differences, as well, and none of them flattered Ethan. He was a man who had killed other men, and Kate knew she would never find anything appealing in that.

“Hang on a minute,” he said. His hand wrapped around her forearm to stop her—a large, warm hand. “I don’t suppose you have any idea who I am since Charley and I haven’t spoken in over five years, but I came to Flagstaff to hopefully put the past in the past. I came to see if Charley and I could bury our differences. The least I can do is to help you find him, especially since we’ll be kin one day.”

She made the mistake of looking into his eyes. Up close, she could see flecks of gold buried within the blue, and a few wrinkles in the skin around the edges of his eyes. It must be her imagination that he seemed the slightest bit more friendly. Charley had charm and it would seem Ethan did as well, although Kate sensed it wasn’t without shadows.

A killer of men would undoubtedly have many shadows to keep him company. She couldn’t think of how to reply. The last thing she wanted was company, and least of all Ethan’s company. She’d find her damned fiancé herself.

“Yes, it would make sense to look together.” So much for thinking fast on her feet. Her brother, Owen, had always said she was a little slow off the mark. It would seem he was right.

“You can ride Brandy,” Ethan said as he released her arm.

He moved to his other horse and began untying the bags of supplies he’d brought with him. He moved the largest satchel to his horse and tied several knots swiftly to anchor it in place. Kate chewed her lip. She could just make a run for it. The only after-effect of her fall from the donkey was a splitting headache—her legs were perfectly fine. But Ethan would probably chase her down. And then, he’d wonder what was wrong with her. And then, maybe he’d just shoot her in the back if he decided she wasn’t worth the trouble.

The image horrified her. Perhaps she should at least be civil to the man, to ward off her immediate murder. An opportunity for escape would surely present itself.

She had a plan. This was good. Her plan was to make small talk with Charley’s brother, then run for her life when she got the chance.

Copyright © 2013 K. McCaffrey LLC

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