Why People Didn’t Need Doctors in Shangri-La

It Wasn’t Just the Apri­cots

In his nov­el Lost Hori­zon (http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks05/0500141h.html), the British writer James Hilton wrote about a fic­tion­al val­ley named Shangri-La, which was locat­ed some­where high in the Himalayas. There’s some­thing mag­i­cal about this val­ley. Peo­ple who enter it regain their health, and they age very slow­ly while in the val­ley. So they live seem­ing­ly for­ev­er.

Of course, there was nev­er real­ly any such place as Shangri-La, but I was remind­ed of it when I read this pas­sage from Stud­ies in Defi­cien­cy Dis­ease, by Sir Robert McCar­ri­son, Oxford Med­ical Pub­li­ca­tions, Hen­ry Frowde and Hod­der & Stoughton, Lon­don, 1921 (http://journeytoforever.org/farm_library/medtest/medtest_mccarrison2.html):

My own expe­ri­ence pro­vides an exam­ple of a race, unsur­passed in per­fec­tion of physique and in free­dom from dis­ease in gen­er­al, whose sole food con­sists to this day of grains, veg­eta­bles, and fruits, with a cer­tain amount of milk and but­ter, and meat only on feast days. I refer to the peo­ple of the State of Hun­za, sit­u­at­ed in the extreme north­ern­most point of India. So lim­it­ed is the land avail­able for cul­ti­va­tion that they can keep lit­tle live­stock oth­er than goats, which browse on the hills, while the food sup­ply is so restrict­ed that the peo­ple, as a rule, do not keep dogs. They have, in addi­tion to grains — wheat, bar­ley, and maize — an abun­dant crop of apri­cots. These they dry in the sun and use very large­ly in their food.

Amongst these peo­ple the span of life is extra­or­di­nar­i­ly long; and such ser­vice as I was able to ren­der them dur­ing some sev­en years spent in their midst was con­fined chiefly to the treat­ment of acci­den­tal lesions, the removal of senile cataract, plas­tic oper­a­tions for gran­u­lar eye­lids, or the treat­ment of mal­adies whol­ly uncon­nect­ed with food sup­ply. Appen­dici­tis, so com­mon in Europe, was unknown. When the severe nature of the win­ter in that part of the Himalayas is con­sid­ered, and the fact that their hous­ing accom­mo­da­tion and con­ser­van­cy arrange­ments are of the most prim­i­tive, it becomes obvi­ous that the enforced restric­tion to the unso­phis­ti­cat­ed food­stuffs of nature is com­pat­i­ble with long life, con­tin­ued vigour, and per­fect physique.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, if the aver­age Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist got hold of this sto­ry, he or she would prob­a­bly focus on the apri­cots. We’d soon see apri­cot extracts, prob­a­bly in pill form, show­ing up on the shelves of stores that sell vit­a­mins and herbal prod­ucts. Every­one would prob­a­bly miss the main point of this sto­ry, which is that the Hun­za peo­ple were healthy because their diet was based heav­i­ly on an assort­ment of unre­fined plant foods, includ­ing plen­ty of fruits and veg­eta­bles as well as grains.

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