Mismatch Disease

What are mismatch diseases? San Diego chiropractor and movement & mobility specialist, Dr. Ryan shares some examples and explains why they occur.

In recent years there has been a growing movement towards preventive medicine. This trend is critical because preventing disease is easier, cheaper, and more efficient than treating the symptoms after getting sick.

Most of our resources, however, are still going to treating symptoms, rather than prevention. The majority of these symptoms are the result of diseases that could have been prevented. Why is this happening? Why have we been experiencing this wave of preventable disease?

Image Source: StartGainingMomentum

Image Source: StartGainingMomentum


What would happen if a zebra was plucked out of Africa and placed in Manhattan? How long would it survive? Would it die of infection, starvation, hypothermia, or get run over by a car? The animal would struggle to live in an environment for which it is poorly suited—and when it comes to the human body, we are not much different from the zebra! 


The homo sapien is around 200,000 years old. This means that you have the same body as someone who lived that long ago. For 190,000 of those years we were primarily hunters and gatherers. We would walk/run many miles a day, eat mostly fruits, nuts, roots, a little meat, sleep on the ground, squat to rest, fight off predators, and store a large amount of fat when we had an abundance of energy.

Only recently have we started growing our own food, raising animals to eat, living in large groups, sitting in chairs, sleeping on soft mattresses, and eating mostly staple crops. We have taken that same body that is meant to be hunting, gathering, eating a variety of foods, and traveling long distances and put it in a completely different environment that does not require any of this. We are like a zebra stuck in Manhattan.


We are plagued by a wave of preventable diseases. These diseases can be thought of as mismatch diseases. A mismatch disease happens when we take our stone-age bodies and put them in an unsuitable environment.

Heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, back pain, depression, anxiety, obesity, flat feet, and many other conditions were extremely rare in our ancestors. Now we spend trillions of dollars every year treating the symptoms of these diseases. How can that be? We have virtually the same bodies and the same genes. What changed?

Looking at these diseases from an evolutionary perspective gives us insight as to why they are so common. Our bodies did not evolve to sit all day, to eat processed foods and tons of sugar, to drive cars, take antibiotics, or wear shoes.


Have you heard the phrase: sitting is the new smoking? We know that we need to move more, eat healthier, stop smoking, and spend less time sitting in chairs. Tackling all these things at once can be overwhelming, but if you start with one thing at a time, like replacing your normal desk and chair with a standing desk and stool, you can make steady progress toward a healthier body and greater overall well being.

When it comes to disease, nearly all of our resources are spent trying to treat someone after they get sick. We are obsessed with finding cures and the latest treatments are designed to cover up the symptoms of mismatch diseases.

We are even starting to engineer organs to replace ours when we get sick. In the words of Harvard paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman, "It is arrogant for us to think that we can engineer heart, liver, kidney, or any other cells better than Mother Nature can." If we take an evolutionary perspective to disease, prevention is the better alternative. 

We should be teaching our healthcare providers more about the evolution of the human body and how to view mismatch disease from this perspective. Taking this view will not only allow us to come up with better preventative strategies, but will teach us more about why these diseases occur so frequently. 

A Promising Future

It’s promising that there is a growing movement toward preventive healthcare. We are seeing more people come into the clinic for wellness care, and are part of this preventive healthcare tribe.

Our clients understand the importance of movement, healthy eating, self-maintenance, and wellness care. As wellness culture continues to grow, eventually we will start to see a decline in preventable disease. 

For more info on human evolution, mismatch diseases, and evolutionary medicine, I recommend Daniel Lieberman’s book The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease.

We didn’t evolve to be healthy, but instead we were selected to have as many offspring as possible under diverse, challenging conditions. As a consequence, we never evolved to make rational choices about what to eat or how to exercise in conditions of abundance and comfort.
— Daniel E. Lieberman, The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease

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