Updated: Mar 3, 2019
Do you consider yourself healthy? How do you know if you are? There’s no shortage of discussion about the factors that contribute to health and how to optimize and improve it. But what is health, really? How do we define it? And can the way we define health actually influence or direct our experience of it?
I read so often that health is this or that. Some people define it as a blood chemistry thing, others a certain body fat or by how they feel, and there are those who define their health by how active they are. So which of these are correct? The concept of health is so familiar that many of us have never thought much about what it really means, or if, in fact, those ideals are reasonable or obtainable.
If asked, I suspect most people would define health as “the absence of disease.” And in fact, if you look up “health” in the dictionary, you’ll find a very similar definition: “the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit; especially: freedom from physical disease or pain.” But what of those days that you do have pain? During those brief periods are you suddenly unhealthy? As an active person I have pain every now and again. Sometimes I overdo my lift, sometimes I just have a little ache that lasts a week or two then dissipates. My physical health during this time did not change even though I dipped into the Merriam-Webster definition of not being in perfect health!
I once knew a runner who was extremely healthy, even though his body was being ravaged by cancer, causing him to have multiple surgeries and eventually succumbing to that disease very early in life. He was one the most cardiovascularly fit people I have ever known, he was also happy and loved life, but by definition he was not healthy! If anything, the conclusion is that health is really not just the absence of disease, and therefore disease cannot be the absence of health!
So, while the common definition of health certainly has some teeth, I think it’s too limiting and overly simplifying to be of any real value. Let’s put it this way, imagine someone (we will call him John) who is the picture of physical health: he has boundless energy, a sharp mind, no chronic conditions, and rarely (if ever) get colds and flus. He has a slim frame, even muscular, and he always appears happy. But in his private life he is withdrawn, has no lasting relationships, does not contribute to his family or others needs and is depressed.
Now consider Amanda who in many ways is the opposite of John. Amanda struggles with low energy and is often bloated and gassy after she eats. Her digestion is weak and she may have an autoimmune disease. Amanda has difficulty sleeping even though she is tired all the time, and she is plagued by muscle aches and knots. Unlike John, Amanda’s life is incredibly rich and satisfying: she has deep, nourishing relationships with others, she does meaningful work that makes a difference in the world, she is full of joy and humor, and she loves to have a good time.
The question is, which of these two are truly “healthy”? Both? Neither? If you had to choose between the lives of these two, which would you choose?
Of course, there is another possibility: Someone who is healthy physically as well as mentally, emotionally, and socially. Someone who does not have constant aches and pains but may every now and again struggle with some ache or pain. Someone that is active, has energy and sleeps well. Sure it’s what most of us aspire to, and it’s a perfectly natural and valid goal, but is it obtainable?
Many people who live in chronic pain or depression do not see themselves ever pulling out of their life’s spiral. It’s a common theme. During the course of living with the problem, they adapt to the problem and then the problem becomes part of who they are. An identity that allows them the ability to graciously bow out of something that might hurt them more physically or mentally; perhaps even something that they don’t particularly want to do, a crutch to excuse themselves. The problem however, is not the issue at hand, it’s the inability to imagine yourself under different circumstances. Often this inability to peer beyond our present predicament often leads to despair, depression and hopelessness, and the mental health issue is often as much or more destructive than any physical one.
But as the saying goes, the darkest hour is just before dawn. At some point you must realize that the depression and despair is a direct result of comparing your actual experience with an idea of what you think your experience should be and then comparing that option to an inability to accomplish it in your lifetime.
So how must we change these expectations? Perhaps we should begin by understanding that we are a work in progress. That nothing great ever accomplished was accomplished overnight! Instead of trying to fix your symptoms by bouncing from herb to supplement, from doctor to therapist, or from medication to gizmo, we should understand that our present state is the start line, not the finish line, and our story is yet to be written.
What I’m asking you to do is to shift your approach by letting go of the relentless pursuit of your end vision to slowly chipping away at your now. What if you focused on enjoying the journey and not the final goal? Do you think you might get more meaning from life, more joy, and more success? Of course you would, and what’s more you would not be caught in the imbroglio of the now versus the then.
So let’s begin a new journey. A journey in which we embrace each day as a step towards accomplishment. To do this we must first eliminate the things that cause us problems (sugar, processed carbohydrates, excessive alcohol, soda etc) and instead begin to adopt new eating patterns that arrest the spiral of decent. Not all at once, if you love your soda, cut your consumption in half, then half again when it feels right. Slowly shrink the carb helping and increase the vegetable helping. Begin by walking a few blocks a day rather than running that 5K. Make it your intension to do 10 pushups and 10 sit ups each night, then expand it to as many as you can! The point is to do something versus nothing, even if that something is seemingly insignificant.
To achieve anything, we need to focus on the things that we can control rather the things we cannot. Can you improve the quality and time of your sleep? Can you stretch and exercise daily? Can you substitute the cereal in the morning for something a little healthier? The changes you make will be small, but in time they will energize you, invigorate your mind and your body. Just understand that your mind is a powerful tool. How you frame your problem has great influence on whether you live with it or do something about it.
So now we have stopped defining health as “the absence of disease,” we instead should search for some other definition that makes more sense. From a mental state we could begin to define it as anything that gives us more joy and motivation to become someone who feels better. But health is more than mental, it is physical too, and the physical being often defines the mental. So the question is how can we become more physically healthy without any working definition of it.
Most of us are suffering from one or more conditions that influences our long term health, and sadly we have no idea how to eliminate it or treat it. Most doctors are now utilizing pharmaceuticals in lieu of getting to the root cause of your problem, and in the process making people’s lives worse, sometimes even contributing to their early disease and death. Why? Because the drug cannot cure you, it can only treat you if you have an immediate life threatening condition, or mask the symptom if that condition yields discomfort.
Most all of these “conditions” first manifest as something quite innocent, and often either undetected or dismissed as age, a bad day or what other argument we can conjure to explain it. Nonetheless, the most common symptom is inflammation. Therefore, I believe the place to begin is to address our inflammation in order to address our health.
Inflammation is the body’s way of telling us something is not quite right. So perhaps we need to explore why we have it, and how to eliminate it from our body. And to do that you need to slowly change your lifestyle into something that does not cause pain and inflammation.
Inflammation controls our lives. It manifests as pain, obesity, peripheral neuropathy, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, migraines, thyroid issues, dental issues, digestive issues, cancer, the list is long and as yet we still only scratch the surface of what it really is. It may seem foreign to you, but the majority of inflammatory diseases start in the gut with an autoimmune reaction which progresses into systemic inflammation. Your gut is made of an incredibly large and intricate semi-permeable lining (somethings pass through while others do not). The surface area of your gut is huge, it can cover two tennis courts if it were stretched out flat. It uses this space to absorb nutrients.
The guts ability to absorb nutrients fluctuates in response to a variety of chemically mediated conditions. For example when your cortisol (stress hormone) is elevated due to the stress of an argument or your thyroid hormone levels fluctuate due to burning the midnight oil your intestinal lining becomes more permeable. In the long term, foods such as fake sugar and processed carbohydrates chemically destroy the guts ability to absorb nutrients and over time the gut breaks down, allowing larger gaps for food absorption than is necessarily healthy.
Then you sit down to eat and partially undigested food, toxins, viruses, yeast, and bacteria have the opportunity to pass through the intestine and access the bloodstream. As your diet remains primarily based on bad food, fast food and processed foods your gut’s effectiveness is compromised and begins to allow more into your blood stream than your body is able to handle. This is known as leaky gut syndrome. At first, there are few symptoms. A little indigestion or bloating and gas perhaps. Perhaps a feeling of unease. As the condition spirals the symptoms worsen. That’s because the intestinal lining is repeatedly damaged due to reoccurring leaky gut syndrome, damaged cells called microvilli become unable to do their job properly. The gut begins to have difficulty digesting and utilizing/absorbing nutrients and enzymes that are vital to proper digestion. Eventually, digestion is impaired and absorption of nutrients is significantly affected. As more exposure occurs, your body initiates an attack on these poorly digested food particles assuming them to be a foreign invader. The response is inflammation, allergic reactions, and other symptoms we relate to a variety of diseases.
It may sound relatively harmless, but this situation can and often does lead to numerous serious and debilitating conditions. Since your immune system can become overburdened, these inflammatory triggers are cycled continuously through your blood where they affect nerves, organs, connective tissues, joints, and muscles.
The presence of inflammation is what makes most disease perceptible to an individual. It can and often does occur for years before it exists at levels sufficient to be apparent or clinically significant. You may be tested and find you do not have Celiac disease, a common argument, but nonetheless know that if you have sensitivities to it then the process is in play. In reality, those sensitivities are warming signs of things yet to come. How long it has been fermenting really determines the degree of severity of the disease and often the prognosis assuming the inflammation can be controlled. One could also argue that without inflammation most disease would not even exist. Consider the common allergy for instance. We know of four mediated types plus their sensitivities, all of which have a root cause of inflammation.
Asthma is very similar to that. It is understood that asthma is caused by inflammatory cytokines which induce autoimmune reactions against the airway lining. In arthritis, those same inflammatory cytokines destroy joint cartilage. It’s those same inflammatory cytokines we keep seeing in anemia, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, autism, fibrosis, fibromyalgia, GERD, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, kidney failure, lupus, multiple sclerosis, neuropathy, pancreatitis, poly rheumatic, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma and surgical complications. Even Celiac and Crohn’s Disease, where chronic immune mediated inflammation damages intestinal lining.
The fact that your immune system drives the inflammatory process in disease is well established. Unfortunately Western medicine offers little in the way of actual answers as to managing or overcoming the autoimmune process primarily because it is ill equipment to handle prevention. Western medicine is only equipped to control symptoms with medication. Therefore, the typical approach to therapy is generally to suppress the immune response with Immune suppressive agents or sometimes steroids. Both approaches are designed to reduce inflammation but neither stops the underlying disease processes or allow for damaged tissues to regenerate.
In essence, unless you turn off the actual cause of the inflammation, all you have done is postponed the inevitable and potentially destroyed more of your immune system in the process. There are ZERO drugs that can rebuild you back to your former health, zero.
What western doctors might tell you is that the ability to be inflamed is absolutely necessary for any normal repair processes to occur. And when we are talking about an acute injury or trauma, they are correct. But it is when the regulation of inflammation is not properly controlled that we begin to have a problem with inflammation.
Why is the inflammation bad then? The answer is not a simple one, but many of the inflammatory diseases we suffer from do not present as gut issues, which complicates diagnosis. It’s the same concept as referred pain. You have a headache because your cervical vertebrae is fixated, because your lumbar vertebrae is subluxated. Western doctors would address the headache, a good chiropractor would address first the lumbar subluxation.
Referred pain is a little like pulling on a bed sheet that is tucked in at the end. The tension is loaded on the part that tucks in, but the pulling (spasm) occurs at the opposite end of the sheet (muscle origin). In much the same light the gluten sensitivity that your doctor refuses to admit is a problem because you did not test gluten intolerant develops into chronic inflammation and eventually pain and then disease. You can also have brain or neurological problems due to a gluten sensitivity that you do not test positive for!
The point is that the antibodies a person has when they are gluten sensitive can be directly and uniquely toxic to the brain or nerves.
One study suggested that the variability of neurologic disorders that occur in celiac disease is broader than previously reported and includes softer and more common neurologic disorders including chronic headache, developmental delay, hypotonia and learning disorders or ADHD. Clearly we have a poor evaluation criteria in place which needs to be addressed by medical science, not pharmaceutical science.
Since we understand that inflammation is commonly initiated in the gut, it should be a logical starting point in the evaluation process of any patient, right? Again, clearly a good naturopathic approach is required in order to pull yourself from this problem. There are seven common areas that should be considered when looking at causative factors that create the environment for chronic inflammation. These are:
Diet Related Factors: Alcohol, Gluten, Casein, Processed Foods, Sugar, Fake Sugar, Fast Food
Medication Related Factors: Corticosteroids, Antibiotics, Antacids, Xenobiotics
Infection Related Factors: Such as H-Pylori, Yeast or Bacterial Overgrowth, Viral or Parasite Infection
Stress Related Factors: Increased Cortisol, Increased Catecholamines
Hormonal Related Factors: Thyroid, Progesterone, Estradiol, Testosterone levels
Neurological Related factors: Brain Trauma, Stroke, Neuro-degeneration
Metabolic Related Factors: Glycosylated End Products (inflammatory end products of sugar metabolism), Intestinal Inflammation, and Autoimmune
In reality it’s not just food, but food can trigger the most responses when paired with other factors such as stress or infection. Once the immune system is compromised with the leaky gut syndrome, there is an inflammatory cascade that takes place by any inflammatory trigger (diet, medications, infections, stress, hormonal, neurological, or metabolic) which can break down the intestinal permeability and allow for the leaky gut mechanism to flourish.
In the long run, your immune system, or what’s left of it, will begin to recognize leaking proteins as other similar proteins like cerebellum, thyroid, etc... When that occurs you will experience symptoms that generally are far removed from what someone would consider to be food related problems since they are not necessarily felt in the gut.
You might experience brain fog, pain, fatigue, poor sleep patterns, anxiety, or endocrine dysfunction. When antibodies combine with our structural proteins, specific genes are turned on in a special type of immune cell in the body. Inflammatory chemicals are created (here’s those cytokines again), which are strongly damaging to all systems within your body.
An autoimmune disease is not clinically diagnosed until you have tissue destruction. Are you willing to wait for that? Or would you rather do something about it now? If you wait, it may be too late. Some neurodegenerative conditions need up to 70 percent demyelination (nerve damage) before it will show on an MRI.
So, what can we do now? First of all, if you are dealing with inflammation you need to get a comprehensive evaluation to look at what is perpetuating your condition. This will require a stool sample (for parasites), a blood sample for blood chemistry, and a number of other evaluations that any good naturopathic doctor can do.
Next, you need to address your diet. You may have to go on a restrictive diet to begin with. Your primary goal is to stabilize your blood sugars, remove food autoimmune triggers (sugar, fructose, processed carbs, dairy and peanut butter), you also need to promote intestinal integrity with proper flora (probiotics of 40 billion or stronger) and nitric oxide and glutathione pathways. It is important to include fermented foods daily too.
Strength Train. Believe it or not, strength training, especially whole body vibration releases myokines. These myokines combat the destructive force of cytokines and thus has an anti-inflammatory effect.
Remove adverse stress from your life. This includes poor sleep, distress, over exercising, blood sugar regulation issues, burning the midnight oil, overwork and negative environments as much as possible. Lifestyle factors (stress) can trigger immune markers which turns on the immune pathway.
Finally address your lifestyle and take back control of your life. Perhaps as we consider the question, what is health, we should consider health more of an absence of inflammation, or at least establish a cytokine level that predicts risk to be more accurate? Either way we do not become healthy overnight, it is done in small doses. So instead of focusing on your perfect body, focus on doing something today, the next day and the next. Instead of dreading those pushups, find ways to enjoy the idea of the accomplishment. You need to move beyond the drudgery of your pain and instead focus on that which brings the joy back into your life.
Are you ready to live your life under your own terms? So what are your terms?