THE FIRST TEN MILLION
Healthcare Reform Begins With Awareness
How can disease manifest in a body that is intelligent and capable of self-healing and balance? Our last post took a look at “obstacles to cure,” the issues that can overpower the body’s natural efforts towards homeostasis. It's important now to discuss the nature of disease: what it is and what it is not. By drawing some important distinctions, we can help ourselves understand how and why holistic medicine works, and where it is appropriate...
First, it’s important to distinguish between two types of disease: infectious disease and chronic illness. We have a general understanding of infectious disease as something we get. We “catch” a cold or “come down” with the flu. In these cases, an invading pathogen (bacterial or viral) stimulates a fairly dramatic immune response.
Brief but severe
The sneezing, runny nose, inflammation, aching, and fatigue we experience with a cold, for example, are our immune system’s response to the viral infection. (In the case of fever, the virus itself doesn’t raise our body temperature; the body creates the fever to help kill the invading pathogen. This is an action of homeostasis!) Infectious disease stimulates an acute reaction; we generally experience infectious disease as relatively brief but severe.
While antibiotics can sometimes speed the recovery from diseases that are bacterial in nature, it is largely our body’s own immune system that brings us back to health. While infectious disease tends to be acute, severe, and short term, most chronic illness, by contrast, is long-lasting and not the result of some invading pathogen. This is an important distinction.
You don’t “get” a chronic disease.
We’ve come to rather unconsciously view chronic illness in the same way as infectious disease, as something we “get.” Our language often reinforces this misunderstanding. We tend to say, “I’ve got heart disease,” or “I have arthritis,” as if it is some foreign or invading thing. Most pharmaceutical advertising is positioned to play on this imagined duality between us and the chronic disease we “got”:
“I have plaque psoriasis. But I’m fighting back.”
Who or what are you fighting?
Plaque psoriasis is not an infection; it’s a symptom of an autoimmune issue! We feel invaded and victimized by the disease, then turn to our doctors for help “fighting back.” But there is nothing to fight; it’s your own body!
So then what is chronic illness?
Chronic illness, in most cases, is simply the [long-term] consequence of imbalance that remains unaddressed. In other words, it’s the deepening and compounding imbalance that results from neglecting to address obstacles to cure. So, contrary to what we’ve been taught to think, there is no separation between our bodies and the illness. Chronic illness as imbalance does not “get” you, nor is it something you can “fight.” It's your own body struggling to maintain homeostasis and sending you constant messages--alerts, in the form of symptoms--telling you something is wrong.
The body doesn’t “know” disease; it only knows imbalance.
We go to the doctor when we begin to develop symptoms: fatigue, pain, weight gain, depression, loss of mobility, etc. But the causes of these symptoms are varied and personal. Modern medicine bundles together groups of symptoms and labels them as different diseases. The body, however, doesn’t “know” disease, it only knows imbalance. And symptoms, remember, are merely outward manifestations of the deeper imbalance that is overpowering our body’s natural healing capacities.
The diagnosis doesn’t matter!
This next statement may be challenging for some people to digest, but the truth is when it comes to chronic illness, DIAGNOSIS IS MEANINGLESS. Since the doctor can offer no path to cure and has no real understanding of the root cause of the disease he/she just identified, the diagnosis merely means, “you have a collection of symptoms we’ve agreed to label as _______.” Likewise, the drugs prescribed are designed to treat your symptoms, not cure your dis-ease.
When we move away from needing the label of a diagnosis, we become more receptive to treating the body as a whole system that is simply out of balance.
“At least I know what I have.”
We have been mislead by the dominant medical community. We think their ability to tell us what disease we have (diagnosis) will lead to a path to cure when, in reality, it does not. We experience a false sense of relief: “Well at least I know what I have because the doctor has identified what is wrong with me”.
In truth, the doctor has not identified what is wrong with you; all she has done is lumped you with others suffering similar symptoms. The only treatment options are those designed to treat symptoms and/or reduce risk factors.
Getting to the real issue
When was the last time your doctor said, “Let’s work to discover where your body is out of balance”? Diagnosis (choosing a name for your dis-ease) is not the issue here. Identifying the imbalance is the issue, and the imbalance is specific to you.
The doctors who practice true natural medicine are less concerned with what “disease” you have and much more concerned about where your imbalance lies. Many of them will not even talk about “what disease you have,” as they understand that the name is arbitrary. Their focus is to simply restore balance.
Take IBS, for example
In modern medicine, if the doctor assigns the diagnosis of IBS-D (irritable bowel syndrome - diarrhea dominant) in ten different patients, his treatment recommendation will be similar (if not identical) for each patient.
On the other hand, the natural medicine/functional medicine doctor will treat each patient differently. This is because, although each patient is suffering similar symptoms, the obstacles to cure are unique to each individual and, thus, the treatment recommended will vary dramatically from patient to patient. Some may have an unidentified food allergy; some may have a gut flora problem; some may have a neurotransmitter imbalance, etc...
Addressing the imbalance
The imbalance behind a chronic illness can be minor and easily corrected (a headache caused by dehydration and easily resolved by drinking water), or severe and complex to correct (a chronic state of fatigue). But imbalance is the root of all chronic illnesses. As we discussed in our last post, there are three general things that lead to the breakdown of normal function (i.e. the three obstacles to cure): poor digestion/nutrition, compromised elimination/toxicity, and/or low vitality.
Disease is NOT One Size Fits All
What about the third friend who had no symptoms at all? It is not that the toxic environment was fundamentally healthy for him, it just didn’t cause the breakdown of normal function within his body. This could be due to many factors including genetics, lifestyle, diet, etc. It’s likely that his detoxification system was more robust. Perhaps he also eats a cleaner diet and exercises regularly, thereby lessening the overall toxic burden on his body.
Every Body is Different
The point here is that every body is different: the same insult affects each individual differently, and sometimes not at all. This is why some people seem to rarely get colds, or why certain people can smoke cigarettes for most of their lifetime and remain relatively healthy, while others face serious consequences to their health. It is important to note, however, that while our “third friend” might be less vulnerable to chemical toxins, his unique genetic makeup might predispose him to other forms of imbalance: He might have food sensitivities his friends don’t have, or he might have a more reactive nervous system, making him more vulnerable to digestive dysfunction or anxiety when under stress.
Medicine should treat INDIVIDUALS, not diseases
This is why an approach that “honors the wisdom of the body” is necessary if we truly want to heal. Doctors that practice in this manner will always ask questions and perform tests aimed at uncovering the root cause of an individual’s symptoms. Chronic illness is never “one size fits all,” nor can it be cured by pharmaceuticals that only address symptoms. Effective medicine treats individuals, not diseases.
Next, we will look more closely at the dominant medical paradigm, the alternative medical paradigm, and the path to cure. Stay tuned!
Tom is the founder of ForeverWell and has spent decades studying and working with some of the most gifted healers in the field of natural medicine. Recognizing that our healthcare system is failing us in the area of chronic illness, he is passionately committed to helping catalyze a paradigm shift driven by education, awareness, and individual empowerment.