I recently learned that Michael Johnson, former USA 200m, 400m world record holder, had a stroke.
In 2012 Johnson articulated the onerous warning, in his documentary Survival of the Fastest, that descendants of slaves who are sprinters and possess the fast-twitch gene, actinin 3, might be prone to diabetes, hypertension and cardiac-related problems.
I was a part of the documentary and had told him that based on a DNA analysis, he had similar copies (alleles) of the fast-twitch gene and that this genotype might be related to the history of diabetes in his family. Johnson went to his room at Strawberry Hills stunned that night, knowing that the very genes that helped him to set world records might one day predispose him to a stroke. Our lab at The University of the West Indies, Mona, has constructed a metabolic map that interlinked some inherited genes involved in sprinting and chronic diseases.
We came up with a novel way of detecting stalled performance or the “Detraining Syndrome” in athletes. On Saturday, November 24, 2018, my former PhD student Dr Aldeam Facey was awarded the Prime Minster's Youth Award for Excellence in Innovation, Science and Technology. He has done a fantastic body of work on energy mal-programming in diabetics and athletes. There are a group of Jamaican athletes, many of them former Champs standouts and World Youth champions, who have reached a stage where they cannot improve their performance (time) regardless of the rigours of training. These are young men/women between the ages of 22-28 years.
They seemed to have reached a pinnacle at a young age and something in their genetic profile then stops them from advancing. They possess a high level of post-exercise lactate beyond what is normally seen in athletes and impaired or just above the normal level of glucose; their muscles are not storing the glucose as glycogen, as is expected. The muscles are ineffectively overworking and thus their lactate threshold is increased, more lactate is produced, but less is used up for muscle energy.
We have seen this time and time again in former young super sprinters who we have tested and retested after each national trials, as we ourselves could not understand why they have not returned to the glory days of sprinting even with intensified training.
We call this phenomenon the Detraining Syndrome because this condition is usually seen in former athletes over 40 years old who continue to eat as if they were still actively training two times per day, five or six days per week.
To protect our future athletes, Jamaica will also need to examine the nutritional practices in schools. Athletes are fed lunch at 10:30 am - 11:30 am and start training at 3:00 - 4:00 pm up until 6:00 - 7:00 pm, without a banana or something to restore their energy stores. This practice is destroying the muscle energy balance and leaves the athletes prone to injuries and energy dysfunction.
Recently, Professor Errol Morrison spoke about some children needing some sugar in the mornings since they might live far from school and get up early without breakfast to try to get to school. There were some naysayers who did not agree with Professor Morrison's view. Nutrition is complex and is related to more than just the drinking of sugary drinks. I do agree with Professor Morrison that although this carbohydrate might be an empty carbohydrate, sugar might be the carbohydrate of choice. The other option would be for the body to produce ketone bodies for energy from the empty/starving system, which will then mess up the brain of a youngster going to school if this mal-eating is continued over a period of time.
Nutrition for many poor Jamaicans is not just drinking sugar, but trying to eat food at the correct time so one does not revert to the other metabolic pathways for compromised energy. Glucose is the first choice of energy for the brain, but if glucose is not available the body will pull from the other metabolic systems to survive. These systems also make unwanted metabolites which eventually lead to chronic problems in cognition and physical ability. This brings us to The University of the West Indies negotiating with the University of Glasgow, UK, for reparation payment.
It was the University of Glasgow which initiated the genetic testing in 2008 - 2010 of our athletes who represented Jamaica between 1948 - 2008, and they found a high prevalence of the actinin 3 or the fast-twitch gene which makes Jamaicans superb sprinters — the very same gene that allowed our ancestors to survive the slave trade as they learned to adapt to a lack of oxygen and little or no water and food in the cramped slave ships. Those who survived had efficient lungs, kidneys that filtered superbly, and a metabolic system that was able to survive the high-salt diets they were fed and the waste sugar residues they ingested on the plantations. These practices have, however, left our population predisposed to many health conditions.
In 2012 we were part of a Diaspora lecture on genes, athletics, and history of chronic diseases given to the Birchfield Anglican congregants in Birmingham, UK. A large majority of the Windrush generation who settled in Birchfield, Birmingham, suffers disproportionately from diabetes and other chronic diseases. They possess almost the same genotype as the Jamaican athletes. Descendants of Maroons who escaped slavery by fleeing to the hills of Jamaica seemed to have fared better. Their genotype is highly conserved and closely matches those of the Jamaican athletes.
Ironically those descendants of Maroons, who retained the African ancestral eating habits, by and large, tend to have been spared the devastations of these chronic diseases. It is therefore fitting for University of Glasgow to seriously consider massively funding research on chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes in Jamaica and the Caribbean because we are still reeling, many generations after, from the ill-effects of improper nutritional practices passed down, intrauterine, from our ancestors who were enslaved.
With the high incidences of Detraining Syndrome in our athletes, mal-eating syndrome in our children and chronic diseases in the general population, Jamaica is the ideal site to set up an international health research unit that blends athleticism with health and wellness research. Money that we have run and slaved for should be used by the UK to set up this centre.
Editor's note: Dr Irving is a senior lecturer in the Department of Basic Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medical Sciences, The University of the West Indies, Mona.