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Just Health (article)

by | Oct 17, 2021

Where is the mind in relation to the body? How easy is it to separate physical health and mental health? Could there be an alternative way of thinking about and treating disease?

Simplistic Pattern-Matching

In general, human beings like to categorise and lump similar things together to help us make sense of the world. If we feel like we understand the world, we can feel more secure when navigating our way through it. If society generally agrees on a model of reality, we can relate and communicate more easily with each other. We clearly like to simplify things wherever possible; defining situations in black or white terms saves energy. It takes more effort to consider the complexity of situations and may even lead us towards new truths which don’t fit our established model of understanding. Accepting new truths takes us away from the norm and so may mean having to break away from the group. As a social animal whose survival, throughout our evolution, has always depended on belonging to the tribe, going off in a different direction may require a lot of conviction and courage. Many do not necessarily have the capacity to make that move.

We can see examples of what I am talking about all around us and throughout history. In society, individuals and groups are granted social status based on a set of simplistic characteristics and may have to work much harder to demonstrate their merit. Politics encourages us to choose one side over another, one good, one bad. In conflict, we have the righteous versus evil. The media will often strip stories of context and background to leave us with something sensational and easy to understand with simplistic conclusions we can all agree on. In sport, we are the goodies, they are the baddies. In entertainment, all forms of art can be sorted into nice, neat categories; we can then know with more certainty what we like and dislike.

Identifying similarities between objects or experiences is a very important function of the brain. Pattern-matching is how we understand all the information that is continually coming in through our senses. If it makes sense, we can relax and save energy. If it is unfamiliar, our brains will be rapidly searching our database of patterns to find the best match. Categorising any new stimulus could prove vital for our survival, so it is given high priority. The way our brain gets us to pay attention to something important is by using feelings, sensations and emotions. This is why we may feel uncomfortable when experiencing something new. The brain knows unfamiliar situations could pose danger, so we need to be alert to the possibility. Once we have categorised the experience as safe, we can start to relax and so conserve energy.

The ‘western’ medical model tends to focus on categorising diseases and illnesses and separating everything into its component parts. This clearly makes diagnosing and curing disease simpler and certainly suits those trying to improve health on an industrial scale. The name of the illness is generally diagnosed according to a set of symptoms. With the correct action, these symptoms can be eliminated and therefore the illness will go away. This all seems perfectly logical and sensible and generally we all buy in to this model of reality.

Symptoms versus Cause

There are, however, many people who suffer symptoms – in other words, pain and discomfort – that do not lead to a clear diagnosis. Their symptoms may point to a range of possible illnesses. Or sometimes not. Sometimes, the experts do not have an answer as to what might be causing the patient’s ill health. The medical model then focuses heavily on alleviating the pain and discomfort whilst possibly carrying out tests to try to ascertain the ‘name’ of the illness.

This is in no way a criticism of anyone working in the medical profession. For me, it goes without saying that dedicated individuals working hard to help others in their time of need deserve our gratitude and respect. What I would like to think and talk about is the medical model that has developed and whether there isn’t a way of improving our understanding of health and wellbeing and therefore dealing with illness more effectively.

What is largely missing from our current model is a broader understanding of cause. Some medical problems are very simple to diagnose and treat because the cause is straight forward. Take, for example, a broken bone which has resulted from blunt force trauma. This problem is easy to understand and there is a common-sense treatment. However, if clear cause was not established, that broken bone could have resulted from a deficiency in bone minerals and the break may have occurred too easily due to poor bone strength. This demonstrates that even seemingly simple diagnoses could miss important information if we are to help someone achieve improved health in the future.

In the above example, finding out that someone has poor bone strength is not necessarily useful. This, too, is just a symptom. We need to go further and keep asking the question, ‘why?’. Why do they have poor bone strength? What is the cause? We may have ways to improve the patient’s bone strength but if the cause is not found, there is a higher chance that the problem will reoccur. I’m sure many who work in the health profession do try to investigate the causal factors and improve them, but I think it is fair to say that this is despite the medical model, not because of it.

Many diseases and presenting symptoms do not point to obvious diagnoses. This causes confusion and frustration amongst medical professionals as they sincerely wish to help their patients. One danger is that experts can jump to oversimplification in their attempt to make sense of disease. One conclusion may be that the patient is imagining it or seeking attention. Another example is to blame genetics. Often, when this ‘cause’ is cited, it is not based on the discovery of a harmful gene. It is often a ‘catch-all’ reason so that people stop asking ‘why’. Even if an illness is genetic, there still must be a process that is malfunctioning which leads to illness. Once we understand why something is going wrong, we are in a better position to solve the problem.

The Body’s Internal Environment

Let us take, for example, the common cold. We know the symptoms and we may know of various remedies to help alleviate them. We also know that it is caused by a virus. But does everyone who is exposed to the virus catch a cold? We know that some people may catch several colds each year whilst others seem to avoid them entirely. One person may experience very mild symptoms whilst another suffers badly. Therefore, exposure to the virus itself is not really the cause. The real cause is a lack of ability to fend off the virus.

We all have an immune system that is designed to defend us and prevent us from succumbing to the harmful effects of all the bacteria and viruses that surround us. If the bacteria, virus or alien particle is stronger than our defence system, we will become ill. If our defences are stronger, we will beat off the invading particle. This surely means that our medical model should focus heavily on optimising our immune systems and so preventing illness from developing where possible.

Does modern science really start from an appreciation of the role of the immune system? There is a branch of modern science known as psycho-neuro-immuno-endocrinology. Researchers in this field investigate how our thinking and behaviour, our brain activity and our hormone system all interact to affect our immune system. Our immune system is a complex network of interacting chemicals with various functions. How well these chemicals can perform their duties depends entirely on the healthy functioning of the body’s internal environment. Every emotion, thought and action is a complex collection of electrical and chemical reactions. If the internal environment is already overwhelmed with excess harmful chemicals, the chemical immune system cannot perform at optimum. The immune system will already be overstretched and unable to deal with every threat.

Imagine the immune system as the country’s armed forces. The army, navy and air force are highly complicated organisations, comprising far more than just those on the frontline. Behind them is a huge infrastructure and so it is with our immune systems. Our armed forces can only deal with so much at a time. If they are away fighting battles and then expected to help with domestic crises, there will come a breaking point where they will have to prioritise and let something go. The more pressure we put on our defence systems, the less able they are to perform their duties. When we become ill, our immune systems have become overwhelmed, and our defences have been breached.

Whilst we cannot guarantee that we will not become ill, we can improve our chances. If we are in good health, we will have a well-functioning immune system. If we are in good health, we will feel good. If we feel good, it means our internal environment is operating well. If our internal environment is operating well, it means we do not have excessive stress hormones in our system. If our hormones are in balance, it means we are not suffering too much stress. To not feel stressed means we are managing our emotions well. If we are not feeling stressed, we will be feeling calm, secure and in control. If we are feeling calm, we will be thinking clearly. If we are thinking clearly, we will be able to perform at our best in each area of our lives. We would call this a feeling of wellbeing.

If we reverse the logic, we can see how our thinking and behaviour can have an adverse effect on our health. If, for whatever reason, we are experiencing stress, we will have reduced access to our intelligence as the feelings force us to pay attention and focus in on our problem. As we enter further into the fight-or-flight zone, our thinking style becomes increasingly black-or-white/all-or-nothing, as we try to deal with the situation that we find ourselves in. Stress triggers the release of hormones; powerful chemicals designed to get the body to accomplish certain tasks. These chemicals affect the ability of the immune system to perform its duties. These systems are designed to work alongside each other, but stress hormones are designed to have a quick impact to help bring about a solution to an emergency.

The internal environment is not equipped to have these powerful chemicals coursing around for long periods. Stress hormones are designed for immediate action. Excessive stress hormones are toxic to our internal environment. When we are exposed to extended periods of stress, we are flooding our system with powerful chemicals whilst reducing our body’s ability to defend itself. In these circumstances we have the opposite of wellbeing – this is ‘un-wellbeing’. Feeling ‘unwell’ means feeling ill. We are experiencing the opposite of a sense of ease – this is ‘dis-ease’. There may be many symptoms that follow but, ultimately, we are ill because our systems are not functioning in the way they have been designed. Surely the best health model should focus on how we all improve our understanding and ability to optimise the functioning of our internal systems.

Back to Pattern-Matching

This now takes us closer to answering the opening questions. To survive, we must be able to continually sense our internal and external environment. We have seven ways of sensing: touch, sight, hearing, smell, taste, interoception, proprioception. When we sense something, whether internally or externally, our brain must try to understand it so it can navigate us through life safely. It does this by scanning its database of stored knowledge to match it to the most similar pattern. If the stored pattern has negative, threatening, or dangerous connotations, the brain will release chemicals into our internal environment to give us a ‘feeling’ so that we take notice. Once we pay attention to the ‘perceived’ threat we should then be able to decide whether the threat is still real and present or just a pattern-match to an old threat that is no longer relevant.

When we have good awareness of these natural systems, we can make good choices as to whether we need to act or not, and what action might be the most appropriate. When our awareness is low, the uncomfortable feelings that we get can serve as a cause for concern in themselves. If we end up worrying about the uncomfortable feelings, we end up missing the point of why they are there and create a new problem for ourselves. We now have excessive stress hormones in our internal environment. This is where the chemicals start to have a toxic effect. They start to have a negative impact on the body’s chemical immune system. The immune system is now struggling to perform all its functions optimally. It will now struggle to fight off invading particles, repair damaged cells, clear away dead cells and maintain good vigilance over its territory.

Excessive stress chemicals are like emergency vehicles racing through the streets. Everything else must stop whilst the emergency is dealt with. This is entirely appropriate for our bodies to prioritise in this way, and an amazing evolutionary development for keeping us alive when emergencies arise. Unfortunately, too many of us suffer excessive stress due to lack of awareness, resulting in poor emotion management, leading to a compromised immune system and a range of difficult-to-explain health problems.

Once we have this understanding of how our body’s natural processes work, it is easier to see that our national (if not international) model of health is missing the point of how we need to help people to be in a good state of health. Simply treating symptoms as if we are mechanical machines made up of separate component parts is failing to understand how we operate as living organisms.

Every experience affects our beliefs and understanding of the world. Our belief system is how we perceive the world. Our perception dictates how we react to our environment. How we react to our environment requires thoughts and behaviour. If we do not have good knowledge of how to react appropriately to situations, we can perceive situations as more dangerous than they are. This will stimulate the body’s emergency reaction systems and create unnecessary disruption internally. This internal disruption will prevent the body from performing its regular functions optimally. As a living organism, if our systems are not performing as they are designed to, our health is compromised. If our health is compromised, we will start to get signals that things are not as they should be. If we do not pay proper attention to these signals and act accordingly our health will continue to worsen.

Conclusion

There is no separation between the mind and body; it is all one system. It is too simplistic to try and separate physical and mental health. If a part of the body is not working properly, for whatever reason, pain will be used to get us to pay attention. The feeling of pain is stimulated through the nervous system to message the parts of the brain that are able to choose the appropriate course of action. Whether the poor functioning is a result of something externally or internally is largely irrelevant to the body’s systems. The purpose of the feeling of pain and discomfort is to drive us to fix whatever the problem may be. If our internal environment is being overly exposed to emergency chemicals that are causing disruption on a regular basis, this is the problem. The symptoms of pain are not the problem, just the messengers.

If our medical model focuses primarily on finding ways of alleviating the pain and the symptoms of ill-health it will always be chasing its tail. If it truly wants to help people achieve optimal health, it must focus more on the cause, not the symptoms of ill-health. Seeing an individual as a whole living organism, a complex network of interrelated systems, should give us more opportunities for intervention when they become unhealthy. Understanding – and helping individuals to understand – the internal effects from life experiences, thoughts, beliefs, behaviour, and emotions is essential as part of an effective medical model. This could prove a far more effective way of considering and treating disease.