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Otzi the Iceman and the Diseases of Inflammation

In 1991, hikers in the Italian Alps discovered Otzi the Iceman, a man who was preserved in ice after his murder about 5,300 years ago.  He was killed by a hard hit on his head and an arrow through his shoulder when he was about 46 years old.  He is now entombed at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, with a life-size statue of him as he may have looked standing nearby.  Recent analyses of this most-studied mummy of all time show that he had signs of inflammation linked to many of the diseases we suffer today.  He had:
• extensive arteriosclerosis 
• a common bacterium that causes stomach ulcers
• damaged cartilage in both knees 
• whipworm parasites
• Lyme disease 
• decayed teeth
He also had 61 tattoos inked on his skin, which may have been decorative or the result of a primitive pain control effort similar to acupuncture.
 
Inflammation
Your immunity is good for you. It is supposed to attack and kill invading organisms to prevent them from harming you.  You have cytokines that punch holes in the membranes of invading bacteria and white blood cells that kill and eat them.  However, your immunity is supposed to dampen down after it has done its jobs of killing germs or healing wounds.  If it stays active all the time, you will suffer from inflammation as your immunity uses the same mechanisms that kill germs to attack you. Today we know that inflammation is linked to arteriosclerosis, arthritis, various auto-immune diseases and so forth.  Inflammation can be caused by or made worse by any chronic infection.
 
Extensive Arteriosclerosis and Meat
CT scan X rays showed that Otzi the Iceman was at high risk for a heart attack or stroke because he had huge plaques in the arteries leading to his heart, carotid arteries leading to his brain, the distal aorta leading to his legs and the right iliac artery leading to his right leg (Fortschritte auf dem Gebiet der Röntgenstrahlen, May 28, 2018).  
 
He was at high risk for a heart attack, but unlike most North Americans today who suffer a  high rate of heart attacks, he was not overweight, did not smoke tobacco, probably did not drink much alcohol, was very active, and certainly did not eat the typical Western high-sugar diet.  An earlier study analyzed the contents of his stomach and found that his last meal included the meat of wild goat and deer and some grains, and earlier meals also included meats.  He may have been a shepherd and his clothing was made from animal hides of six or more domestic and wild species, so apparently meat was readily available to him.  
 
Studies on this mummy from 50 centuries ago add to the evidence that eating meat can be linked to plaques in arteries. Today, autopsies on apparently healthy North Americans under age 30 who died from homicides, accidents or suicides have shown that almost all already had extensive plaques in their arteries (Pathology International, June 1995;45(6):403–408). Other studies show that arteriosclerotic plaques start to form at bad LDL cholesterol levels of 50 to 60 mg/dL (J of the Am Coll of Cardiol, Dec 19, 2017;70:2979-2991). Almost never does a doctor today see an untreated  patient with LDL below 50, and red meat appears to be a major culprit.  For each three ounces of meat a person eats per day, there is a 16 percent increased risk of death from heart attacks, a 10 percent increased risk of death from cancer and a 12 percent increased risk of death overall (Archives of Internal Medicine, November 12, 2012).  
 


 

The Bacterium that Causes Stomach Ulcers 
It wasn't until 1982 that Barry Marshall first reported that the bacterium, Helicobacter Pylori, caused stomach ulcers, for which he and Robin Warren received the Nobel Prize in 2005. Otzi suffered from the oldest known case of Helicobacter pylori.  Today, half of the world's human population has this germ in their stomachs, but less than 10 percent develop stomach ulcers from it (Science, Jan. 7, 2016). However, he is likely to have had a chronic infection as he had high levels of antibodies against this bacterium making it more likely that the germ had invaded into his stomach lining.  Today many cases of stomach ulcers can be cured just by taking antibiotics for a couple weeks. 
 
Osteoarthritis of His Knees 
Otzi had severe cartilaginous damage of both of his knees.  Today, 80 percent of North Americans have X-ray evidence of osteoarthritis by age 65 and 60 percent have significant joint pain.  Most cases of knee arthritis are caused by inflammation from obesity, lack of exercise, a pro-inflammatory diet and lack of vitamin D (JAMA, November 22, 2017).  For Otzi, the likely causes of his inflammation would be his chronic infections and probably a high-meat pro-inflammatory diet. Otzi had to be extremely active just to survive, so his knee cartilage damage was most likely caused by trauma from hunting and fighting, but today, less than 10 percent of knee osteoarthritis appears to be related to trauma.  
 
One study compared the size of knee cartilage in skeletons of people who:
• lived from 6000 to 300 years ago (from U.S. museums) and were probably very active, 
• died between 1905 and 1940, a period during the early industrial era when the majority of people were active and slender, and 
• died between 1976 and 2015 during the modern post-industrial era, when the majority of people were inactive and fat.
The authors found that the incidence of knee osteoarthritis (loss of cartilage) has risen at a frightening rate over the last 50 years, reflecting changes from active agrarian or industrial lifestyles to a post-industrial inactive society in which most people do not do a lot of physical labor and gain too much weight (Proc Nat Acad Sci, August 29, 2017;114(35):9332-9336).  Knee cartilage has such a poor blood supply that it has to get its nutrients from constant movement and weight bearing that effectively pumps the nutrients into the cartilage. Not moving your knees enough deprives knee cartilage of the nutrients necessary to sustain itself so that the cartilage becomes smaller and weaker. See Osteoarthritis has Doubled in the Last Fifty Years


 

Lyme Disease
Lyme disease is a chronic infection usually caused by a bacterium called Borrelia from a tick bite.  It usually starts as an expanding circle around a tick bite and then can damage every tissue in your body. The most common symptoms are muscle and joint pains and it can usually be cured by taking antibiotics.  Otzi is the first known carrier of Lyme disease, which means that this disease has been around for at least 5000 years.
 
Dental Cavities
His teeth were full of cavities, usually caused by plaques loaded with bacteria that dig holes in teeth.  Tooth decay and gum diseases are common sources of inflammation and are strongly linked to heart disease.
 
What We Can Learn from Otzi the Iceman
The ongoing studies of Otzi the Iceman offer evidence that even 5300 years ago, inflammation was a major cause of diseases just as it is today, and that: 
• eating red meat can be associated with the formation of plaques in arteries, 
• trauma can damage knee joints, even though the most common cause of osteoarthritis today appears to be lack of activity, and
• bacterium that cause chronic diseases such as Lyme disease, stomach ulcers and tooth decay are still with us after 5000 years.
• ALSO remember not to let your enemies sneak up on you from behind.
June 10th, 2018
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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