As we enter the sixths month of our fight against the strange enemy, I can’t help but pull my notes from healthy policy and public health classes out, in an attempt to process and put our current situation in context. Immediately, I come across the definition of health, coined in 1948 as ‘a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ by the World Health Organization.
Asides from the definition, I am reminded of the great world of difference that exists between the concept of health in conventional versus traditional medicine, the one we had finally started welcoming into our health systems, one slow step at a time. Why? We had realized that conventional medicine was leading us in the wrong direction. Yes, it had accomplished great advanced in life-saving drugs and technologies, but it had started taking away our autonomy, our body’s innate ability for self-healing. It was also leading us astray from ancestral wisdom of nature’s ability to prevent and restore our full health.
As a society, we had come much closer in the last decades to understanding health in its holistic form, as an intricate equilibrium dependent on a number of factors, and not merely as an absence of disease. Even western medicine had to accept that seven of the ten leading causes of death were preventable and fully attributable to lifestyle factors; and that in the US alone each year we lost close to 2 million people to preventable diseases, attributable to lack of access to clean air, poor eating habits, sedentarism, and mental disturbances.
Yet in the current scenario, not only did we leave to the side the integrative nature of human health, completely ignoring its social and mental aspects, but came to reduce its physical aspects to a fight against one single microbe.
Microbes are the greatest enemy of allopathic medicine, which believes that disease is caused by a single agent that needs to be eliminated, while traditional medicine understands the ever-present nature of microbes and instead focuses on strengthening the immune system, favoring the interconnectedness of the human being to its environment, both internal and external, seeing disease as a disequilibrium of these interconnected factors. Instead of fighting microbes with pharmaceutical drugs, traditional medicine welcomes bacteria and viruses, seeing them as part of our ecosystem and their complete elimination as detrimental to our health. Recent studies have attributed many of the recent spikes in autoimmune diseases, included chronic inflammatory problem, to the lack of adequate exposure to microbes.
Given this difference in approach, western medicine seeks to cut off, kill off, and isolate pathogens with drugs, while integrative medicine uses remedies present in nature to strengthen body’s natural defense systems. Finally, while prevention in the former is predominantly dependent on vaccines and drugs, the alternative approach integrates diet, exercise, stress reduction, exposure to nature, and naturopathic or homeopathic medicine to strengthen our immune system. Western medicine had taken note, seeing that even something as simple as good night’s sleep or relaxation techniques could make a difference in the onset of disease. In one study, even the direct injection of virus into subject’s nose was completely offset by the immune response of those who had eaten and slept well.
Once we assume that the responsibility of taking integral care of our health lies in self-care and healthy living, microbes are never seen as the enemy, nor can they ever be avoided. Shields cannot protect us from them, while lack of interaction with pathogens weakens our system only to attack us even stronger once we come in contact with them again. On the other hand, negative environment and hopelessness cause very real dampening effects on our health, as do lack of exposure to sun, limited oxygen, poor circulation from lack of movement, and sleep disturbances.
Let’s hope that the tremendous movement that we have created in avoiding this virus will remind us that we still have a lot of work in progress that could greatly benefit from decisive actions we’ve taken in the last months. Thought we do not receive constant media coverage and graphic updates, 18 million die yearly form Cardiovascular disease, 10 million from cancer, and close to 3 million from stroke. Every minute of each day, four children die of hunger, while every 40 seconds we lose someone to suicide. Most of those deaths are fully preventable. We are all responsible. As a society and as individuals. We all play part. It may not be as easy as staying home or wearing a mask, but just as necessary nonetheless: avoiding fast food, reducing our meat consumption, making sure our schools don’t sell soft drinks to our children, walking more, not driving or flying as much, being kind to one another, talking to strangers and asking them how they are doing are just some of the steps we can take in preventing premature death.
If we truly care about human health, let’s remember its multifaceted definition and its dependence on an interaction of complex factors, in most part controlled by our daily actions. Let’s create a new normal that’s not about hiding from disease, but embracing our well-being and feeling empowered to create a world where wellness and health are never reduced to the deplorable state they are in right now.