Book Review: Ancient Bodies, Modern Lives

I haven’t done a book review on my blog before, but I just finished reading Ancient Bodies, Modern Lives: How Evolution Has Shaped Women’s Health, by Wenda Trevathan, and I thought I’d give some of my impressions. My overall review of this book is that it’s a great read. Just as I think all women should read Taking Charge of Your Fertility, I think this book should be up there, too. It gives insight into the evolutionary basis of certain things unique to women’s health.

The book focuses on reproduction as a woman’s function, which is reasonable. Really, the function of any organism is to reproduce. But it goes into detail, talking about maturation of a young girl, menstruation and puberty, and conception. It discusses pregnancy and childbirth, as well as lactation and early child-rearing. But one of the most interesting things I found was that the book focuses two chapters on the post-reproductive phase (menopause and beyond). While other mammalian females decline in fertility or may even stop ovulating late in life, human females are the only mammal that spends a large portion of her life in a healthy, post-reproductive phase.
Of course, as a young woman, I found the earlier chapters more interesting. Tidbits about the menstrual cycle, such as the fact that the hormones secreted during the luteal phase (after ovulation but before menstruation) of the menstrual cycle can increase energy. The sudden withdrawal of these hormones at menstruation may be one explanation for some PMS symptoms. But post-ovulation, a woman’s immune system is suppressed to keep the immune system from attacking a potential fetus, which is, after all, 50% foreign material.
The last chapter gets a mixed reception from me. After a book that talks about how women in “health-rich” countries have higher hormone levels and how eating more fat can alter hormone-levels to be closer to those in health-rich women, the book’s final admonition for leading a healthy life is a parroting of conventional health wisdom: eat lots of whole grains and veggies and fruits, not too much fat or meat, and wear sunscreen. Kind of disappointing that an author with obvious evolutionary cred hasn’t done much looking at the evolution of human nutrition. Also, a minor complaint, she pays little heed to the practice of women charting ovulation. She seems to think that commercial ovulation kits are a sign that fertility signs are hard to read, when my opinion is that it’s a sign that there isn’t enough education of women about their own fertility cycles.
All in all, however, it is an insightful look into women’s health. The main message is that most of the “problems” that women face are in fact natural, healthy stages in a woman’s life. The best thing that medicine can do is to stop treating women like they are broken in some way, as established medicine tends to treat things like menopause or even miscarriage (yes, miscarriage has an evolutionary basis), and instead treat only the things that really are problems. Also, good nutrition seems to always be good, though we may disagree on what that means, exactly.
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