Pulse to Planet by Dr K.Srinath Reddy published by Harper Collins describes how much good health is impacted by the environment and, also, how some human activities are responsible for destroying health. Carrying the stamp of a top cardiologist and public health expert, this thought-provoking book is aimed at young readers who, as the author says, “are the only ones that can reverse the trend which is worsening human lives the world over.”

A Professional’s Plea

Most health-related conditions are assigned a chronological, medical, and contemporary context which is helpful. While the narrative uses language which is suave and refined, the author is brutal while decrying the greed, apathy and power-play that defines the politics of for example, tobacco, harmful foods, beverages, air and water pollution. Exposing the way Governments and regulators the world over have left hapless citizens to bear the brunt of untold dangers, it is not an activist’s rant. It is a professional’s plea urging people to act.But the warnings stop short of naming the key players who are responsible for overlooking the transgressions.

Despite professing to be written for young readers, occasionally the book contains medical and scientific clarifications which might challenge even adults. Fortunately, these can be overlooked at no cost to the general understanding of the book. What shines through is the commitment and sincerity of the writer. Also some valuable takeaways.

One example is the relatively new emphasis on the importance of the gut microbiota, which as the author explains might carry more influence than genes or heredity. Examples of what triggers disease (such as the food one eats, exposure to environmental hazards, bad habits and stress) are explained in a readable way, giving everyday instances that resonate.

The main reading material is just 189 pages long. It is refreshingly devoid of statistical data, laborious tables or laments about poor funding which suffuse most books on health. Instead, the book just helps an ordinary reader (from any age group) to understand the trajectory of a disease,its causative factors, supported by research findings.

For example the genome was once held up as a panacea for identifying hereditary factors that contribute to diseases like diabetes, cancer, heart conditions, mental illness or hypertension. Apparently it has been relegated to being of relatively marginal importance compared to factors like adverse environmental exposure and harmful behaviour.

The description of the role of microbiomes that exist “in teeming trillions on our skin, in our gut, mouth, airways, urogenital tract and secretions such as breast milk” would be a revelation to most non- medical readers. All mothers-to-be need to know the role of the vaginal microbiota and how a caesarean baby may be denied the protection he or she is entitled to. Also, how breast milk is an infant’s inherited defence against infection and goes far beyond the prism of just nutrition.

Likewise the book unravels how the ‘pleasure hormone’ dopamine induces the brain to crave for sugar, fat rich foods and extra salt,while disregarding signs of feeling full; also how such cravings drive people to becoming obese, diabetic, or otherwise unhealthy.

But thankfully, instead of badgering the consumer for wrong eating, he comes down heavily on the manufacturers and marketers of unhealthy products who exploit “the chink in the rational armour of a person’s brain”. That harmful products are being cleverly targeted towards the less educated – particularly those just joining the aspirational lower middle class - is sobering.

Stress and other burdens

The segment on stress is compelling as he unravels how the human body has in-built defences which once armed and protected the hunter gatherer; but in modern times how those defences have little use. Yet, those very mechanisms that once helped confront life- threatening situations now emerge in situations of episodic anger, fear or anxiety -- when such strong reflexes can cause heart attacks and stroke.

While explaining the role of Body Mass Index (BMI) and the Asianpropensity to become diabetic, the book reminds the reader that WHO has reduced the threshold for South Asians- a warning bell for the Indian population.

The author is dismissive of the nutritionists’ fixation with molecules and single food items, explaining what should in fact constitute a prudent diet. While extolling the “power-packed” properties of fruit and vegetables, the writer is a strong proponent of a plant-based diet and critical of the water guzzling and antibiotic filled content of animal-based foods.

The unintended consequences of technology and research have also been traced back - for instance, he takes us back to the celebrated Green Revolution which after decades of plenty has unintentionally led to the depletion of groundwater, reduced cultivation of nutritious crops like pulses and millets, promoted residue burning, so causing hazardous pollution.

The book abounds with references to devious tactics employed by the tobacco and ultra- processed food and sugary drink producers – stuff that not only young people- but all consumers mustknow to exercise correct choices.And how when enforcing regulationagainst pollution or harmful products, all Governments remain slow and soft.

Pulse to Planet is a valuable book for anyone concerned about the impact of environmental factors on health. More importantly, in deciphering within all that is happening around us, what matters most.

Shailaja Chandra was a Secretary in Health Ministry and Chief Secretary, Delhi. Her website is: over2shailaja.wordpress.com

Check out the book on Amazon here.

About the Book

Title: Pulse to Planet: The Long Lifeline of Human Health

Author: Dr K.Srinath Reddy

Publisher: Harper Collins India

Price: Rs 599

Pages: 264 (paperback)