As a doctor, I get excited when I see patients really begin to regain robust health, particularly patients whose quality of life has been greatly diminished by their health condition. Sadly, not every person who starts out on a path to health reaches their goal. In fact, most people who seek medical care for a chronic health condition are still sick 10 or 20 years later, and probably most of them are in worse condition than when they first sought medical treatment.
This begs the question: “What does it actually take to get well?”
Not all chronic health conditions can be reversed, but many more can than we tend to believe, and to a greater degree. I don’t think the problem is a lack of good medicines or therapies. On the contrary, I think we have a wealth of good medicines and therapies (although many of them are not well known or accepted). I think the biggest obstacle to healing is the way we have been taught to think about health and disease. Here are two culturally ingrained attitudes that often prevent us from achieving the restoration of health that we really want:
- We have unrealistic attitudes about why we get sick and what will make us well.
- We are taught from early on to be passive recipients of medical care, rather than active participants in our healing.
Attitudes about why we get sick:
I think that culturally, we have been taught to see illness like the ball on a spinning roulette wheel. “Is that ball going to land on my number?” Of course we know that if we do certain things: if we smoke, eat poorly or don’t exercise, for example, the ball is more likely to land on our number, but we still tend to see health and illness as having a lot to do with chance. Many of us are just hoping we can beat the odds! We don’t recognize the reality that everything we do every day of our lives is either moving us towards health or away from it.
Now, there certainly is some chance involved in whether or not we become ill. None of us are responsible for the genes we inherited, for instance, or for many of the toxic compounds to which we are exposed every day. The problem with seeing illness as being a random event, however, is that a) it isn’t random and b) we don’t recognize the power we have to affect our health and therefore we don’t take appropriate actions on our own behalf.
Attitudes about how we get well:
Culturally, we believe in the idea of a “magic bullet”, a pill or other treatment that will somehow resolve our illness for us. This is reinforced every time we see a drug ad on TV or in a magazine. This is reinforced over and over again in the medical television programs that we watch. It is certainly reinforced every time we go for a conventional medical visit. The problem is that it doesn’t work, as can be easily seen by taking a look at the health statistics of our nation.
Sadly, this attitude is being adopted more and more in the alternative medical world as well. A very well respected supplement company that has been selling to alternative doctors for years now has an herbal antidepressant called “Deproloft”. Just combine the words “depression” and “Zoloft” (a popular conventional antidepressant) and you have “Deproloft”, the epitome of magic bullet thinking!
Our cultural attitudes about illness and medicine keep us in a state of terminal vagueness. We don’t understand why we are getting sick and we don’t understand what will actually help us get well again. We only understand that if we have “this” diagnosis or symptom we should be taking “that” medicine. The effects of the medicine on our bodies become secondary and a conversation about why we are ill and what is required for us to be healthy again isn’t even part of the equation.
A patient once told me that she had gone to her doctor and reported that she wasn’t any better after taking the medicine he had prescribed. His response was “well that’s the standard treatment”. His plan was to just leave her on the medication even though she wasn’t getting any better, simply because it was the medically recognized treatment for her condition.
Obviously, the chances of health being restored with this kind of thinking is very close to zero.
What it takes to get well:
If we want to achieve health, we need to understand what health actually is, so that we can take specific steps to move our bodies and minds in that direction. Many of our patients have heard us say this, but honestly, I don’t think it can be said too much:
Health, quite simply, is what we experience when our bodies are working the way they are supposed to.
When all our cells, tissues and organs are working optimally and harmoniously we experience wellbeing, plenty of energy and are free from symptoms. Symptoms and health problems only result when specific tissues and organs lose their ability to function properly (a violin with all its strings in tune will make sweet music, if one or more of its strings are out of tune it will make sour music). If you understand that, you have a very powerful concept that can guide all your actions as you strive to recover your health.
They key question to restoring health then becomes:
What is preventing my cells, tissues and organs from functioning optimally?
Our bodies strive to function at the highest level of efficiency and harmony. That is how they are designed. A close reading of any medical school physiology text book will reveal this. When they are functioning poorly, it is because there are active stresses that are preventing them from doing so. These stresses come in many forms: inadequate nutrition or too many of the wrong foods for our bodies, environmental toxins, psychological stress, past traumas from which we have never fully recovered, inadequate sleep, etc.
They key to restoring health is discovering what those stresses are for us and either reducing them or giving the body the additional support it needs to overcome them so that it can restore itself to optimum function.
If you want to know what Dr. Greta and I are thinking about as we sit across from you during your appointment, that’s pretty much it!
What I have found over the years, and the reason I wanted to write this post is that understanding these ideas and being on board with them is key to a patient’s success. If we seek out the “magic bullet”, even with natural therapies, we are very likely to fail over the long run. If we can recognize that health and illness is a dynamic interplay between the body’s efforts to stay “in tune” and the impact of the stresses that life throws at us, we have a very good chance of succeeding over the long run.
For many people, this is a difficult change to make. It means that we become much more active participants in our own journey towards health. It means that medical treatment is no longer about just taking a pill, it is about identifying and addressing all the factors that are resulting in poor health. It means accepting the fact that we may need to give up some things that we have enjoyed that are ultimately harming us, like staying up ‘til one o’clock every night surfing the internet (you know who you are). But it also means being open to finding new joys in life, like discovering that vegetables can actually be delicious when prepared the right way, or regaining the ability to walk to the top of a hill again and enjoy a sunset.
I think it also involves having some faith in what’s possible. I’m not talking about denial or magical thinking, but we are often told “what’s not possible” with regard to our health. We are often exposed to explanations about our conditions that presume an inevitable slow decline or some very modest benefit from treatment. There’s a kind of odd attitude in medicine that if something hasn’t been proven by the medical hierarchy then it simply doesn’t exist, or can’t possibly have any value. I never promise a patient what I will be able to achieve with them, but I can say that the body is a lot more resilient and capable than we often give it credit for.
This brings me to the most important thing I have found that separates people who succeed at restoring a high level of health vs. those who don’t: STICKING WITH IT. It is a drag getting sick, particularly developing a long standing chronic illness. No one ever put on their list of life goals “Contract a serious illness and spend years of my life recovering from it”. The road back to health is probably turning out to be longer and harder than you thought it would. That is undoubtedly, in part, because we have all been immersed in the idea of the “magic bullet”.
But by and large, my experience has been that patients who do stick with it do get well. You’re going to have bad days and good days. You’re going to fall off of your eating regimen. You’re going to forget to take your supplements sometimes. You’re going to stay up late watching television when you should be in bed. But if you keep coming back to the activities and therapies that are supporting the proper functioning of your body and adjusting them when needed — if you stick with the process — you will get better and better over time and one day, you’ll be amazed at how far you have come.