Take a meander through recent media coverage of health and medicine news; you’ll discover that hospital drug reactions are ‘common,’ with one in seven hospital patients in the UK experiencing adverse reactions (half of which are completely avoidable); that the drug methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin and prescribed for hundreds of thousands of children each year who are labelled with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may physically change the brain in the same way that cocaine does; and that ‘addictions to over-the-counter and prescription drugs are a “significant” problem and require “urgent” attention’.
Meanwhile, clinical trials showing unfavourable results for pharmaceutical drugs ‘often go unpublished,’ while those showing a positive effect are much more likely to make it into scientific journals (a bias that ‘makes it impossible to make a fair assessment of a drug’s safety and efficacy’ according to the researchers).
It doesn’t take more than a small step back to realise that there’s something amiss here. It’s time to stop and consider the implications for each of us of how our society addresses issues of health and medication.
Our health: possibly the most precious thing we each have. Yet we readily submit our bodies to outside forces and influences of which we have little or no understanding. Many of us eat what is made for us by machines in factories; we exercise if at all according to the fashion of the day; we indulge and imbibe to excess to conform to society’s norms. When we feel unwell we consult a near-stranger for just ten minutes, and then unquestioningly consume the unknown, manufactured chemicals she or he prescribes us. If more help is needed, we lie down and open our bodies to physical invasions and then try to recuperate in airless, artificially-lit, machine-infested places where the food has neither measureable nutritional value nor noticeable flavour. We feel embarrassed if this makes us uneasy and frown on those who discharge themselves from the system without sign-off from the medics.
Modern medicine is of course a shining beacon of intellectual achievement, built on centuries of endeavour and application by dedicated and talented people. But while it is excellent at some things – fighting infections and dealing with physical trauma for example – it is less able to explain or address chronic or persistent disorders, especially of the immune, digestive and circulatory systems.
For these it relies on an approach based on the treatment of symptoms through pharmaceuticals, which often backfires. The above headlines are but subsets of the overall picture. In the UK, no less than 6.5% of all hospital admissions are because of adverse reactions to prescription drugs, which are ‘estimated to cause one million hospital admissions per year at a cost to the NHS of £2 billion’ according to the Guardian.
For all its scientific brilliance the medical profession appears to lack the self-knowledge to recognise the part it plays in problems such as these. Worse still, in seeking to be the omnipotent solution to all ill health, state-sponsored modern medicine can actually prevent us from taking opportunities to heal ourselves. But there is an antidote to the creeping levels of sedation, toxicity and passivity that this technology brings in its wake, one that could represent a huge opportunity for personal and societal transformation.
Before you switch off in anticipation of a predictable soliloquy from an alternative health obsessive, bear with me; while alternative therapies have their place, this is not the main driver here. This article is informed by a combination of common sense and emerging evidence (much drawn from the theories and practice of medical experts who trained in mainstream fields), which between them signal strongly that there is more to health than modern medicine, that the solution lies within each of us, and that it’s up to us individually to take control.
One of the experts in question is Dr Dean Ornish, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) and founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute. Alongside three other distinguished medical and scientific experts, Dr Ornish co-authored last month an article in the Wall Street Journal that said if Barack Obama wants to ‘make affordable health care available to the 45 million Americans who do not have health insurance,’ that country’s health policies must address the ‘fundamental causes of health and illness, and provide incentives for healthy ways of living rather than reimbursing only drugs and surgery.’
The authors contend that the US health-care system ‘is primarily a disease-care system,’ pointing out that in 2008, $2.1 trillion was spent in the US on medical care, of which 95% was spent to treat disease after it had already occurred. Yet: ‘The latest scientific studies show that our bodies have a remarkable capacity to begin healing, and much more quickly than we had once realised, if we address the lifestyle factors that often cause these chronic diseases.’
Modern medicine, it seems, routinely overlooks this opportunity.
Dr Ornish illustrates his claims in more detail in an astonishing, fast-paced talk at the TED conference in 2004. While recommending sensible lifestyle behaviours for maintaining health, which focus on diet, stress management and exercise, Dr Ornish also spells out how significant shifts in the right directions and away from unhealthy lifestyles can actually reverse disease, including severe coronary heart disease and prostate cancer. He backs up this claim with proven clinical data: in one trial 99% of the patients on his regime stopped or reversed their heart disease compared with less than 50% in the control group. At the time, he had thought that good scientific evidence such as this would change medical practice, but it was not so. The reason? “We doctors do what we get paid to do … and we get trained to do what we get paid to do.”
Dr Ornish is not the only one calling for recognition of the body’s ability to heal itself.
The directors of ForeverWell, also in the US, claim a unique approach to curing migraines. They say on their web site: ‘We believe that the human body is not only capable of healing itself, it is constantly trying to do so.’ The testimonials from patients for the nutrient-replenishing course of migraine-curing treatment they sell are moving and compelling.
President and founder of ForeverWell Tom Staverosky explained to VIVID how his company’s approach differs from the mainstream: “The dominant medical community (and sadly a large percentage of the alternative medical community) operate under the belief that most chronic diseases, like migraine, are incurable and of unknown cause. Thus, their only option is to treat symptoms.
“I have been inspired by the doctors, sadly few and far between, who consistently get sick people well. They operate under a philosophy that says chronic disease is caused by the breakdown of normal function in the body. Furthermore they believe that only the body is curative and that their job is not treating symptoms but rather doing what they can to help a patient’s body work better. The starting point is always the same: gut and liver.”
Tom Staverosky does not doubt the good intentions of most conventional medical practitioners, believing them to be “truly interested in doing the very best they can for their patients” and acknowledging that drugs can improve quality of life for many people. But he does see a “deeply ingrained unwillingness for science and medicine to acknowledge the limitations of their knowledge,” suggesting: “if they were more willing to acknowledge the lack of success most drugs have with many patients they might be more willing to look at new paradigms”.
Another interesting, if less moderate view, is taken by Dr Matthias Rath, an arteriosclerosis and cardiovascular specialist who worked previously at the University Clinic of Hamburg in Germany and the German Heart Centre in Berlin, and who now runs the non-profit Dr. Rath Foundation. He is a controversial figure, claiming as he does to have exposed the pharmaceutical industry ‘as the largest investment industry on earth, maintaining and promoting one of the largest deception and fraud schemes in the history of mankind’. But his aims are laudable: to eliminate cardiovascular disease, cancer, AIDS and other diseases globally, by promoting cellular health through essential micronutrients, commonly deficient in people with these conditions.
The aim here is not to argue for or against any particular treatments but to open eyes to the intelligence of alternative approaches and philosophies. The overlap between ForeverWell’s thesis and that of Dr Rath is marked, and both align intriguingly with the widespread understanding among indigenous peoples of food as medicine. Philosophies such as these raise crucially important questions that we should all ask ourselves.
Are we giving our bodies the best chance of being healthy? Are we aware of what our bodies need most, and why they become unhealthy? Do we not owe it to ourselves to take responsibility for our health, and end our dependence on paternalistic authority structures that keep us in ignorant passivity? Is it not time to stop relinquishing control of our health and welfare to outside agencies and to start regaining knowledge of and faith in our own bodies?
If your answers to the first two of these questions are no and to the last two are yes: get researching. But be vigilant. To take control means to make active decisions about what we subject our bodies to, and active decisions about what we protect them from. Unfortunately, both of these are getting harder. Environmental pollutants are increasingly pervasive; national and international bodies are pushing for ever-greater control over our options.
Resisting these developments means deciding that our passivity is optional, rather than inescapable. It means realising that when we are trained by our culture to become disconnected from the real world, from life, flesh, blood, waste, this has the knock-on effect of disconnecting us from our own body and numbing us to whether or not it is in balance. Yet these disconnections are not natural. En masse they present as an alarming epidemic of ignorance about the most basic requirements for health.
However there is a cure – and the delightful potential for a peaceful mass revolution. Some would say it is already underway.
In Tom Staverosky’s words: “The best doctor you will ever find is the one you see in the mirror every morning. Learn to pay attention to yourself and your body and to follow your instincts. Vibrant health is a function of balance. This balance includes mind, body and spirit. Love life and all that it has to offer.”
The first step is for each of us to take responsibility for our own health. What are you waiting for? You only need permission from yourself.
Memories, for those of us (like me) over fiftyish, of Ivan Illich’s Medical nemesis – the expropriation of health. “Iatrogenic” was a new and frightening word to most of us, back then…
Crikey, you’re right – and I hadn’t even come across this. I’ve just been reading his introduction in which Illich describes the ‘medicalization of life’ and says this is ‘the result of internalized colonization of liberty by affluence’. Wow – I have some catch-up reading to do! Thank you.
(He also says: ‘The threat which current medicine represents to the health of populations is analogous to the threat which the volume and intensity of traffic represent to mobility, the threat which education and the media represent to learning, and the threat which urbanization represents to competence in homemaking. In each case a major institutional endeavor has turned counterproductive.’)