Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Health and Illness = Light and Darkness?

I like to think in parallels.  Can we draw a parallel between the concepts of light and darkness and our understanding of health and illness?

Illness is easily compared to darkness, or dark corners.  It is often hidden away, difficult to discern or recognize.  We can imagine a transition from light to darkness, corresponding to the similar transition from healthiness to illness. We often speak of the darkness of mental illness, the blackness of unhealthy tissue, and we know that black stools can indicate internal bleeding.  Health is viewed as bright and alive with colours.

Like most parallels, this comparison provides some useful insights.  It closely matches the 'medical paradigm' where illness is bad and health is good.

It is a useful metaphor - but its weakness is a focus on illness.  We need a metaphor that has a focus on health.  And as we develop a metaphor for health, as we view illness and health thru a different lens, we will see things that could not be seen thru the medical paradigm.

Healthiness is not measured by brightness, nor colour, it is measured by balance. The more our nutrition, cells, tissues, organs, etc are in living balance - the healthier we are. Health is the living balance between deficiency and excess. Our bodies are always working to maintain the balance - when we lose balance - we become ill and may die. When we view health as thousands of balances, and illness as being severely out of balance - it is easy to imagine that we have many small illnesses all of the time.

We cannot shine a light on illness to create or improve health.  We cannot improve health by 'cutting out' the darkness (illness). We can only improve health by changing the balance.  I often use Vitamin C as an example, but you can substitute many health factors and come to similar insights.

Viewed through the medical paradigm, scurvy is illness, or darkness.  Scurvy can be prevented by consuming sufficient Vitamin C.  If scurvy is present, it can be treated with Vitamin C. The effects of severe scurvy cannot be 'cured' - if you lose teeth because of scurvy, Vitamin C will not grow them back. This is a useful paradigm to prevent or treat illness, but a poor paradigm to optimize health.

Viewed through the healthy balance paradigm, scurvy is not simply an illness, it is an imbalance - a prolonged deficiency of Vitamin C. If you are suffering from a deficiency of Vitamin C - you can improve your health by adding Vitamin C to your diet. It is useless and trivial to say "Vitamin C prevents scurvy" because it is the same saying "Vitamin C prevents Vitamin C deficiency". Vitamin C does not 'cure' a Vitamin C deficiency.  Vitamin C does not prevent, nor cure scurvy.  A deficiency of Vitamin C is scurvy.  The medical paradigm only recognizes this when the deficiency is severe and prolonged. It may well be that people who are exposed to prolonged minor deficiencies of Vitamin C, or severe short deficiencies of Vitamin C develop conditions exactly like scurvy - but on a much smaller scale, not recognized as 'illness'.  When we can accurately measure 'healthiness', as opposed to only measuring 'illness', we will see the effects of Vitamin C deficiency earlier and understand much more about healthiness.

The challenge, even in the simplest situation, is to determine what is 'out of balance'.  The symptoms of prolonged severe Vitamin C deficiency are well documented and easily recognized - and named scurvy.  However, a minor Vitamin C deficiency has symptoms in common with many other problems.  So, how can you know if you are suffering from a minor Vitamin C deficiency?

Medical researchers do not attempt to define the 'healthiest' intake of Vitamin C.  Medical researchers cannot even agree on the recommended 'minimum intake' of Vitamin C.  The United Kingdom Food Standards Agency recommends a minimum of 40 mg per day.  The World Health (so called) Organization recommends a minimum of 45 mg per day (although they claim to be a 'health organization' they do not make a recommendation for optimal health). Health Canada (so called, they also do not make a recommendation for optimal health) recommends 75 to 90 mg per day as a minimum.  The National Academy of Sciences in the USA recommends 60 to 95 mg per day as a minimum.   Although each of these numbers may be presented as the 'recommended healthy intake', the numbers are very specifically designed to be used by prisons, armies, schools, etc to ensure that minimum nutritional needs are met.  No official organization recommends a 'healthiest daily intake of Vitamin C', or of any nutrient.

How can you decide what is healthiest intake of Vitamin C for you?  This is your personal health decision. You need the right to decide for yourself - your personal health freedom.

Vitamin C is a health factor that has a very wide 'healthy balance' area.  Our bodies can compensate for low or high consumption of Vitamin C quite effectively.  Vitamin C is very well tolerated in excess, or as  deficiency for short periods of time. In contrast, a deficiency of oxygen can have rapid, severe consequences while selenium and iron can have toxic effects at very low levels.  In each case, health exists at the balance between deficiency and toxicity.  If we try to understand this using the light vs darkness paradigm, it is as if there is only light in the centre - and darkness at both ends of the balance.

A healthy body maintains thousands of health balances, as best it can.  When one or more of the health components goes out of balance, your body does its best to compensate and to bring you back to balance.  When you lose your ability to maintain the balance of life, you tip and die.

Can you be perfectly healthy?  Can a light be perfectly bright?  Maybe, just before it destroys you.  I love photography, but I can't take a picture unless I can see both light and darkness.

Can your body be only 'healthy' with no 'unhealthy' components? No.  Your body is composed of hundreds of different types of cells.  Each cell type lives, divides and dies at a clearly understood rate.  Some of your cells are young and vigorous.  Some are dead or dying.  This is a normal aspect of our healthy state.  Our healthy balance does not just exist for a moment, it is a living balance always adjusting and moving forward.

Is health and illness like light and darkness?  This useful metaphor is insufficient to a full understanding of health, and of health freedom.  We need to move beyond it - to a new paradigm with a focus on health. A healthy balance.
Tracy is the author of two book about healthicine: