The Challenge of Good Health in the Modern Age
by Jennifer Herbert
From the moment we are born, we enter a world full of stimulation and movement. Our senses are overwhelmed with modern life and all it entails. Our bodies constantly experience nervous, mental and muscular tensions. The tensions in our lives have a direct result on our state of health. As the modern world is full of unnatural and unhealthy stresses which we both voluntarily and involuntarily inflict on our bodies, it is not surprising that we are becoming more and more at dis-ease as a civilisation.
Over 800 years ago, Moses Maimonides said “The physician should not treat the ailment, but the patient who is suffering from it”. This truism is of even greater importance today than ever. The body is a complex organism that has the ability to heal itself if listened to and cared for properly. Think of the body as being a machine which consists of million of tiny engines. Some work together, some work independently but they all work to make the machine function perfectly. Theoretically, if fed the right fuel and allowed to operate in the optimum conditions, these engines, and thus the machine, would run forever. However in the modern world, the variables are almost infinite. In the search for a definition of optimum health we would need to encompass, among other influences, genealogy, nutrition, environment, fitness and emotions.
The Importance of Genetics
Before the body is even born, it carries a genetic coding with inherited weaknesses from the parents. Scientists work ever harder to unravel the secrets contained in human DNA. The United States Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health began the Human Genome Project in 1990. Among their goals were to identify all the approximately 20,000 – 25,000 genes in human DNA and determine the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA. Now in theory, knowing how to manipulate genetic coding in order to prevent and cure diseases and to make life easier and healthier is a utopian ideal. In reality, our understanding is incomplete and the results of such manipulation cannot be accurately predicted, nor can the impact on the delicate ecosystem which exists on earth and on which we rely for survival. Even procedures which have become relatively commonplace such as xenotransplantation are not without risk.
There is a real threat that transplanting animal organs, cells and tissues into people could expose them to an animal virus that could decimate not only the original recipient, but could spread to the general population. In addition to this, for the past decade there has been one scare after another of diseases crossing the species barrier, the two most famous being bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE – “mad cow” disease) and its links with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), and Avian Influenza A/(H5N1) or “bird flu”. Modern farming methods and genetic engineering are thought by many to be at the heart of the problem. These examples serve to illustrate that although we cannot deny the knowledge gained and the advances made in understanding our genetic coding, we are still a long way from understanding the long-term effects of tampering with it. While scientific progress on molecular biology has a great potential to increase our understanding of nature and provide new medical tools, it should not be used as justification to turn the environment into a giant genetic experiment.
Genetic engineering enables scientists to create plants, animals and micro-organisms by manipulating genes in a way that does not occur naturally. In nature, organisms evolve in response to environmental pressures. They do this through mutation and natural selection. An illustrative example is that of the English peppered moth. These moths come in two varieties, light and dark. Before the industrial revolution dark moths were very rare. During the worst years of the industrial revolution when the air was very sooty dark moths became the most prevalent. In recent years, since the major efforts to improve air quality, the light moths are replacing the dark moths.
A famous paper by H.B.D. Kettlewell proposed that the reason for this was simply that birds eat the kind of moth they can see the best. The moths perch on the trees and normally are well camouflaged. Where there is little air pollution the lichens and barks on the trees are light and therefore light coloured moths would be hidden and the dark ones eaten. Where the trees are dark in colour it is the lighter coloured moths that would be more visible. This leads us to the maxim, “the fittest survive”. The point of this moth example is to show that nature will adapt. Our inept meddling in genetic engineering has far-reaching effects and every effort should be made to exercise the utmost care.
The Importance of Nutrition
From genealogy, we move to the next requirement for a healthy life – nutrition. The foetus is at the mercy of the mother as to the nutrients and care it receives whilst in the womb. From the moment of birth, the baby is exposed to world full of toxins. The air that we breathe, the foods we eat and the liquids we drink are increasingly contaminated by pollutants. In fact, studies over the last 25 years have proved that as polluting chemicals have built up in the environment they have even invaded the most natural of all sources of nourishment – mother’s milk.
Because of the way some chemicals bind to fat in our bodies, measurable concentrations can build up and eventually work their way into mother’s milk when the body calls on fat supplies during lactation. Some 75% of breast milk is derived from body fat, with only about 25% derived from the mother’s current diet. Among the chemicals that can invade breast milk are a number of members of the persistent organochlorines, including DDT, PBDEs and PCBs. Several other substances also threaten the purity of breast milk including lead, mercury, cadmium and many solvents.
Infants’ brains and other organs undergo rapid development so it is critically important that their developing bodies receive the correct signals. Exposure to hazardous substances during critical periods of infant development can disrupt these signals of normal development and lead to health problems later in life. A newly born baby is immediately thrust into a hostile environment, one which will continue to challenge it throughout its life.
A lot of the persistent organochlorines first found their way into the food chain as pesticides. Through treating soil and spraying for airborne pests we unwittingly started to poison ourselves. This is a prime example of what good intention but a lack of knowledge of long-term effects can have on our environment. Add to this the aforementioned concerns attached to genetically engineering food sources and we can see why there has recently been a move back towards organic farming.
The biodiversity and environmental integrity of the world’s food supply is too important to our survival to be put at risk. We simply do not know enough about what we are tampering with. Numerous studies have shown an alarming decrease in nutritional value of many fruits and vegetables. Research undertaken by Dr. Donald Davis, of the University of Texas in America examined 43 food crops and compared nutrient data between two dates – 1950 and 1999. The following average decreases were recorded:- Calcium 16%; Phosphorous 9%, Iron 15%, Riboflavin 38%; Ascorbic acid 15% and protein 6%. Reasons for this decrease can be linked to modern farming methods compromising the integrity and quality of the soil and a growing lack of biodiversity. We are all aware of the extinction of a creature such as the dodo but are less aware of the thousands of plant species which are lost every year due to deforestation and large scale commercial farming. The lack of diversity in our diets leaves us more venerable to disease and the loss of plants represents a loss to us of future medicines etc.
The Importance of Demography
There is no doubt that advances in modern medicine and in other technologies have increased our average life expectancy and decreased child mortality rates. The effect that this has had on the planet we live on has been a population explosion. We have already touched on the strain this puts on resources as commercial farmers struggle to produce more and more food and scientists try to produce the perfect crop, one that is disease and pest resistant and that can grow in less fertile soil needing less irrigation. One wonders though, if the population is more healthy. We may be living longer but is the quality of that life better?
There are more than 6.5 billion people currently inhabiting Planet Earth and in the most case living out of harmony with it, polluting the environment, consuming resources and adding to global warming. Each day there are some 240,000 more.
This exponential rise in human population has led to a myriad of problems including global warming, and an increase in ever-more virulent disease strains. The ease and affordability of air travel has led in turn to disease rapidly spreading from country to country and continent to continent, as well as impacting on global warming due to carbon emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels. Thus the environment in which we live is full of challenges that the human body has had to adapt to within a couple of generations:- air pollution, water treated with chemicals to make it “safe” to drink, foods sprayed with pesticides, irradiated to make it last longer, chemicals in almost every product we use, radiation from mobile telephones, power lines and television. All this is compounded with the pressures of living in the modern competitive, over populated world.
How can we look after ourselves?
We have briefly touched on some of the problems and challenges which keep us from enjoying optimum health, but how do we look after ourselves better despite the negatives? Firstly we need to get more in touch with ourselves. We have a natural, inherited genetic gift of intuitive knowledge of what our bodies need. Unfortunately the world we live in bombards us with so much stimulation that this intuition can get lost and reconnecting with it requires self knowledge and patience. One of many good things about the advances made in medical science is that we now have so much more information available to us about what our body needs in terms of nutrition, hydration, fitness and rest.
We also have more access than ever before, due to books and the internet, to ancient wisdoms and teachings from past civilisations. In short our generation has every advantage to use knowledge, both ancient and modern, to enhance our health. We have already looked at disease as being a body at dis-ease. Illness or disease cannot be merely cured but needs to be treated in a holistic way. Curing a problem does not prevent it from reoccurring. Treating the person and not just the disease will ultimately result in a healthier outcome.
There is not much that we can do to alter our genetic coding, and nor should we, as it is what makes us unique and human. The first thing that we have control over and that has a huge impact on our health is the correct nutrition. What we put into our bodies on a daily basis has a direct effect on the body’s ability to deal with every eventuality. Going back to our earlier analogy of the body being a big machine made of millions of little engines, feeding the body with the correct nutrition is like giving a machine the best fuel for it to perform at its optimum level. The machine will work on other fuels but not at its highest level. There is no formula as to what is the perfect intake, as the body will have different nutritional needs at different stages of a person’s life.
A baby will have different needs to a teenager, or a pregnant woman, or a professional athlete, or a senior citizen. And even different people at the same stage of life will have different needs due to their body make up and how well it assimilates different foods. We do know that we require water, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. Although we have greater knowledge than ever before about what constitutes different foods, and what the average person requires every day for the body to perform, there is still a lot we don’t know.
Take phytochemicals for example. Fruits and vegetables are full of these organic substances. Phytochemicals have a number of differing properties. Some act as antioxidants, some have hormonal actions (such as the isoflavines in soy which imitate human oestrogens), some stimulate enzyme activity and some are anti-bacterial. There is evidence to prove that some phytochemicals can interfere with DNA replication – very useful in the fight against cancers. Approximately 1,500 phytochemicals are known and their effects on the human body are largely only barely understood. It is estimated that there could be as many as 20,000 in total, most of which have yet to be isolated and their delicate effects on our lives discovered. We do know that they are not necessary for life but are extremely beneficial to making that life healthy, particularly in their applications of free radical control and disease prevention.
Free radicals are released into the body after oxidation. They enter into our bodies after we are exposed to them or ingest them and are formed as a result of environmental forces such as radiation, X-rays, drugs, pesticides, air and water pollution, smoking, alcohol, diets high in saturated fats and food additives. Free radicals damage living cells and can cause disease in the body such as cancers, premature aging, heart disease, arthritis and interference in DNA programming. The existence of phytochemicals are what make it so much more advantageous to eat as large a variety of fruits and vegetables as possible rather than just taking synthetic supplements.
As well as the right foods to fuel our bodies, we need to ensure that we drink enough water. Water is a coolant for the continual workings of every cell in the body, it regulates blood pressure, gets rid of toxins through sweat, urine and faeces, is the primary joint lubricant and generally is essential to help the body stay in homeostasis or balance. This homeostasis is affected by the body’s pH balance and other factors. Optimum pH should be 6.4, a swing on either side of this to a more alkaline or acidic state will encourage the invasion of free radicals.
As well as giving the body as much help as possible nutritionally, we can ensure that we nurture it in other ways. Keeping physically fit is very important. Not only does regular exercise help to ensure that our heart and breathing systems work efficiently, but it ensures that our skeletal system remains strong as we age and that our muscles and joints remain strong and flexible. Exercise also has the advantage of releasing endorphins into our bloodstream. Endorphins are peptides produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus. They have a painkilling effect and promote a feeling of natural wellbeing. The “happy” effects of endorphins are a good antidote to the stress hormones which flood the body when a person undergoes mental or physical stress.
A little stress is a good thing, but prolonged excessive stress can be bad for the body. Current studies have estimated that up to 90% of all illnesses are thought to result from excess stress, these illnesses being both physical and mental. When you think that 157 million prescriptions were dispensed for antidepressants in 2005 in America alone, one starts to realise how out of balance we are. Exercise is certainly a great way to contain the effects of stress on the body. We also need to get enough sleep – the body heals itself during sleep. Cell repair and growth is at its most active at night during rest.
The quality of our relaxation time is also very important. Too many people rely on television to relax them. They would be better off learning how to breathe properly and meditate effectively. Breathing is something that we all take for granted and often don’t even think about until we have a blocked nose! Eastern philosophies have long recognised the importance of breathing to maintain health. As children we breathe deeply right down into the abdomen, using the diaphragm fully. As we get older, our breathing gets shallower and we stop using the abdominal muscles and the diaphragm. The result is that the lungs don’t fill completely with air, or empty “dead” air either. Other than the obvious effects of less oxygen being available and an inefficient removal of metabolic waste, the body is deprived of ions – charged particles found in the air which help to supply the electrical current within the body’s cells. Ions are depleted by pollution, over-population of living spaces etc, and cause us to become tired, depressed and weak. Many people use an ioniser in their homes to try and counteract the effects of modern city life on air quality.
In the modern world, we try to juggle highly-pressured jobs with family obligations, with trying to fulfil our physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual needs. Very few people succeed, there just don’t seem to be enough hours in the day. Eastern philosophies embrace the theory of balance. People are part of the universe in an intricate and delicate balance. They are no more or no less important than any other part of the universe and should aim to live in harmony with it and with each other. In every person it is thought that the lifeforce, known in different cultures as supple energy, chi, qi or prana, exists in a delicate balance, both with the outside world and within the body. Illness is believed to result when there are blockages or an over abundance of energy running through the meridians of the body.
Even emotions are thought to be both a cause and a result of the delicate ebb and flow of the energy balance. In a way this ties in with the theory of metaphysical causations, a term which describes the power in words and thoughts that create our experiences and can physically manifest themselves as physical illness. In other words the good in our lives and the disease are thought to be the results of mental thought patterns that form our experiences. If we regard mental and emotional states as being energy then we can see the link with the ancient teachings of both east and west.
In fact these philosophies see the connection between our emotions and the various energetic systems or meridians in our bodies. An imbalance in a meridian can be signalled by a dominant emotion. If we view illness as a chance to make needed changes, and restore harmony and balance, we have the opportunity to heal ourselves and create a positive outcome. According to Newton’s laws of physics, energy cannot be created nor destroyed. This scientific statement fits into the beliefs of many ancient civilisations who think that the human body is a conduit between the sky’s energy and the earth’s energy, and abstractly explains why love and touch are so beneficial to human wellness. It is after all a positive channelling of energy.
Health means wholeness and must take into account the physical, mental, psychological and social spheres. I would argue that the spiritual also needs to be addressed. Human life is more than just a collection of billions of connected cells. We are a part of the universe and it is almost a fundamental human trait to believe in a creator or have some sort of spiritual awareness. There are numerous documented studies of the beneficial powers of prayer and meditation and the positive effects that they have on human health. Happy, balanced people are more resistant to illness.
In conclusion we can see that trying to define health is almost impossible. There are so many variables and so much that we still have little or no knowledge of. Yet by combining ancient and modern knowledge we can have a better understanding than ever before. To be effective, that understanding must start with the premise that we need to look at health from a multifaceted holistic viewpoint. Disease or illness is a result. Understanding why we are sick will not only hasten our recovery but prevent reoccurrence. Having an holistic understanding of ourselves and what we can do to make ourselves healthier on a myriad of levels will prevent illness, even in the increasingly stressful modern world.
Prescription for Nutritional Healing (ISBN 1-58333-077-1) by Phyllis A. Balch
Anatomy and Physiology for Dummies (ISBN 0-7645-5422-0) by Donna Rae Siegfried
Heal Your Body A-Z (ISBN 1-56170-792-9) by Louise L. Hay
Vitamins and Minerals (ISBN 0-600-60757-7) by Sara Rose
Relieving Pain with Acupressure (ISBN 0-8069-4213-4) by Dagmar-Pauline Heinke
Reflexology and Acupressure (ISBN 0-600-60870-0) by Janet Wright
100 Days to Better Health, Good Sex and Long Life (ISBN1-56718-833-8) by Eric Yudelove
Natural Resources Defence Council: http://www.nrdc.org
Pesticide Action Network: http://www.pan-uk.org
Friends of the Earth: http://www.foe.co.uk
Optimum Population Trust: http://www.optimumpopulation.org