I want nothing more than to protect my children from harm, which includes getting sick. All parents can agree with me here, across all walks and stages of our parenting journey.
I want to have allies on my side and a culture filled with understanding to help me in turn understand how to keep them healthy. Before I begin diving into this topic, I preface with: I am a work in progress and don’t have everything figured out. I never will. But I also won’t oblige a system without first demanding for LOTS of answers to my questions. The question “why do we get sick” is one of those demanding questions.
Why do we get sick? I am sure you can imagine, this is a complex topic. Let’s assume your body is caught in the stealthy feedback loop caused by the interactions between your inherited genes, your environment, and your decisions. I call this feedback loop stealthy because it can deviously steer us off-course. Much of the steering comes from the decisions made because of modern life. Why does a negative feedback loop unknowingly creep up on us? Because when we look at the ancestral perspective, we are not wired to be healthy. Over time, our bodies have adapted to a wide range of conditions, and “healthy” is not necessarily one of them. That means if the changes over time (evolution defined) that brought us into modern life DID NOT bring with it chronic diseases of inflammation, prolific antibiotic resistance, and other serious health problems, all would be well. The conditions would be favorable for these changes.
How do we know humans are coping poorly with recent environmental and cultural changes?
We’re suffering the worst chronic disease epidemic humans have ever faced. Six hundred thousand people in the U.S. die of a heart attack each year. A billion people around the world suffer from diabetes and obesity combined. Obesity in adolescence has quadrupled just in the past 30 years, and now almost 20 percent of kids ages six to eleven are obese. One in four women and one in six men now suffer from an autoimmune disease. Over half of adults in the US take prescription drugs. Forty percent of the elderly take more than five medications, and 90 percent take over-the-counter drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism prevalence has more than doubled since the year 2000, and that’s not just because of increased rates of detection. The number of people diagnosed with depression increases by 20 percent each year. And here’s the real punch in the gut:
Today is the first generation where our children have shorter lifespans than their parents.
Not long ago, humans did not suffer from these modern, mysterious plagues. We did suffer, that’s certain. A woman risked death from childbirth fever. A child risked death from a chest infection. A man risked limb amputation from an infected wound. Modern medicine has blessed us with overcoming these risks. But we have replaced these risks with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases, digestive disorders, dementia, allergies, asthma, arthritis, depression, ADD, autism, Parkinson’s disease, hormonal problems, antibiotic abuse, over-treating minor illnesses and more.
What about acute infections? Here’s what I don’t understand. If we have overcome the risks of acute infection, why are we still treating these infections as life-threatening to the masses? We need a different paradigm here – one that empowers an individual to take charge of day-to-day health and stops scaring that same person into over-treating. The decision resides in the hands of the individual, and I would recommend that person take charge of preventable health BEFORE blindly choosing a treatment prescribed by someone who does not know the day-to-day decisions that drive the root cause(s). Our children rely on us, and it is up to the primary care provider to take that role seriously. For example, most ear infections do not require antibiotics. If the care provider, usually a parent, researched the risks/benefits BEFORE the doctor’s appointment, guess what? She would be helping the doctor too! The parent cannot depend on the doctor to say “yes” or “no” to antibiotics for that ear infection. The doctor will usually choose the recommended “yes” for you unless you provide more of your own research in the bi-directional conversation. And then what happens when the parent declines antibiotics for that ear infection? She has contributed to the greater good by reducing the risk of antibiotic abuse that leads to ineffectiveness for the rest of us. And as a mother who wants antibiotics to continue on as a life-saving tool for my children, I would thank her for that contribution.
Medicine is a young science. There is no time-tested theory of medicine, no organizing principles that helps us navigate the territory of chronic disease; that helps us navigate the territory of herd immunity and disease prevention. It’s a best-guess effort centered around a new mode of science. We need this field of science to migrate in functional medicine — as this science recognizes ancestral patterns and evidence to then pair with modern medicine. Functional medicine examines the curiosity in us all that demands for the root cause(s). Functional medicine treats the problem, not just the symptom.
If our bodies are mostly-maladaptive to modern life because of the apparent evidence, what do we do? How do we stop eating sweets even though our wiring draws us to them? How do we find a balance even though we are not wired for “optimal health” (a term defined by our modern culture)? How do we fix these mismatches? How do we stop getting sick and improve life? How do we enjoy lower mortality AND lower morbidity? (Right now, we have lower mortality and higher morbidity.)
Well first, you must see weaknesses for what they are. If we are wired to eat as many sweets as the current access provides (abundance is a recent privilege), then we must oblige ourselves (and our children) to eat foods that promote “health.” This won’t be easy! Don’t expect your child to ever stop asking for sweets, even once far removed from your lifestyle. We must move our bodies even when the motivation drives us to space out in front of the television. We must put down our phone, develop a healthier relationship with that phone, and connect with others regularly (we are a social species). And I don’t mean connect in the superficial term. I mean really connect and build a tribe. We are not wired necessarily to enjoy the company of every person. We find distension and war among tribal groups as far back in history as we can trace. But find YOUR people and build a benevolent tribe! Your family’s health depends on it (you can thank your ancestors for that dependance).
If you stop getting sick all the time and are free of modern plagues, that’s “health.” Once you achieve that, maintain with the proper managed expectation that it won’t always be easy. That’s where the tribe comes in to help you. If you are making a concerted effort to rid your family of sugar addiction, then your tribe should not tempt you! Think of it this way. Do you wave a shot of vodka in front of a recovering alcoholic? NO! Then your tribe should not wave sweets in front of you when you are trying to overcome sugar’s vehement addiction!
After studying functional medicine’s depths, I have identified five core underlying causes of diseases and symptoms, both with acute illness and modern plagues.
- Toxic burden
- Sugar addiction
- Gut dysfunction
- Nutrient imbalance
- HPA-Axis dysregulation/Hormone imbalance
I left out chronic infections, cellular dysfunction (methylation impairment, etc), and autoimmunity because the above first five areas MUST be addressed before even beginning to look at those more-complex issues.
You know the more I think about it – disease management sure does appear fixed and flat, just as once the earth seemed flat to us. We are on the cusp of discovering that the “world is actually round” when it comes to disease management. And I hope that discovery helps us see that disease is a false idol as Jeffrey Bland, the father of functional medicine, believes. He asks us to consider the patient who has symptoms of sadness, hopelessness, insomnia, loss of libido and a lack of interest in daily activities. She will be diagnosed with depression. Depression is not the cause of those symptoms. It is the name we give to people who have them. We then treat it with an anti-depressant. And it’s fine to give her the medication as a rescue intervention, but without therapy, lifestyle changes, life purpose, etc, will she recover with just the medication alone?
So why do we get sick? Why are we terrified of illness when we have a the blessings of “modern medicine?” Are we making progress or going backwards? I have lots of questions. You have lots of questions. Let’s ask them!
In my upcoming book, I will explain the five core underlying causes of diseases and symptoms.
I’ll see you in conversation,
~ Farmer Ashley
(Ref: The Kresser Institute and Disease Delusion by Dr. Jeffrey Bland)