What the Hell is Health and Can I Have Some Please?

The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) offers a simple definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

There are a lot of “completes” required to fulfill the above statement. As nice as it sounds, the above definition is functionally Utopian in that there are no absolutes in life, and I have yet to meet anyone who embodies all of  the above criteria. Even the best among us, has something they are working on or should be. When it comes to an understanding of the true nature of wellness it has been my experience that few people have any clear conception about what ‘being healthy’ really entails. We all have an idea of what we think it should stand for… We know that being healthy is definitely something that everybody wants, but there is surprisingly little depth of understanding as to what being health actually entails. So, there is a bit of a conundrum here! How can you ever successfully work towards or ultimately possess anything that you can’t reasonably conceptualize, and is functionally  unattainable?  It is pretty much impossible. We all want to be healthy, but  really, what exactly is this often elusive “shape shifter”, and where is the working game plan to achieve or maintain it?

 Sadly, my research has demonstrated that even the average health care practitioner is so engrossed in fighting disease and injury that they possess little understanding of what the term “health” really encompasses. If you doubt me, next time you are with your health care provider ask them what it means to be in a ‘state of health’, and wait for the stumbling to begin. My point here is not to criticize, as I believe that we as health practitioners are so conditioned and entrenched  in roles dedicated to disease and injury management, that little time has been left in our training or practices, to properly conceive of,  (much less foster) viable strategies aimed at health maintenance or enhancement.

As we have heard so many times before, our health is something that is essentially taken for granted and for the most part ignored until such time as it is threatened or taken from us. A big part of this occurs not by intent, as nobody  plans to be unhealthy, but in many ways how healthy you are, is a byproduct of social conditioning. For most of us, we just fail to understand the concept, or buy into the importance health maintenance has to the quality of our lives, until the reality of disease/ injury slaps us in the face. In fact, our current North American lifestyles and eating habits are constantly playing Russian Roulette with our health. We think we get away with it  because the consequences of bad behavior when it comes to our health are rarely immediate. The unavoidable reality is, sooner or later, that gun is going to go off.

My practice experience has shown me that notions of health are also a very individual reality. We have been led to believe that being healthy is living in the absence of disease, but what my work with patients has revealed is that for many of us, the definition of what it means to be in a “state of health”, encompasses so much more. So lets play human for a moment.

Few if any of us will ever achieve the dictionary definition of a complete state of health. I suppose it is possible, but for most, it would require several decades of isolation in an ashram in Tibet. My aim here is to give you a working understanding of what it means to be in a state of health. With that, a plan and tools to enhance vitality and make a stronger you, within your individual life-environment. The key to this statement is contained in the ‘within  your individual life-environment’ part. We are all on unique paths with differing demands and challenges impacting our quest for health and a long life. For example:

 In the case of a 50- yr.-old male who is 65 lbs. overweight, being heallthy may mean getting to the point of being comfortably able to run and play ball with his 16yr.-old son without suffering three days of knee pain as a result. For the 60yr.-old out of shape divorcee, health is generating the energy necessary to start a new life. All she knows is that she wants to look and feel better to begin the next chapter of her life. Or, perhaps for the 80 yr.-old arthritic grandmother whose goal is no more complex than being able to comfortably get her own groceries, health is the ability to walk 50 yards without stopping to rest, and comfortably being able to carry her parcels from the car to the house. 

You see, health is not a condition; rather it is a state of optimal performance and functional satisfaction that allows us to feel good and move comfortably. It is the freedom to perform life-tasks, without undue effort, residual discomfort, restriction, or physical/chemical assistance. Super-health is having all green lights on the dashboard while systemically living without restriction, while possessing the vitality to comfortably pursue new tasks and activities as they may present themselves.

 I am sure that you are all wondering: “OK, sounds great, now give me the goods, tell me how to get super-healthy.” I promise to get there, but in order for it to make sense, there is a need for perspective by connecting a few more dots. I am sure that some of you reading this, are thinking,”I am already pretty healthy, I don’t take a lot of meds, I get a little exercise and eat pretty good. I really don’t need to be a whole lot healthier…do I? If I feel well, why the need for change?”

Everybody has a story that is his/her life, a unique tapestry of experiences and personal circumstances that have culminated in where we find ourselves standing in the world today. If you are lucky enough to be someone who can look in the mirror and say: “I am truly happy and content with my health,” good on you. For the rest of us still requiring a little fine-tuning, lets dive a little deeper into exploring why in today’s world, the need for change is so critical to health and potential for survival.  

One day in practice, I asked patients what they thought “health” was. The answers I got back varied from the sublime to the ridiculous. Everything from: “feeling fine” to “not being sick” to “having energy” and my favorite… “Not having any bugs in my body”. One 56-year-old patient named Todd summed up what my clinical experience has subsequently verified to be the prevailing attitude of “Joe-public” towards the topic of health. After digesting my question and taking a particularly long pause, he said to me: “Doc, to tell you the truth,I really don’t know…I don’t think about it much because it kind of scares me. At that moment, it became brutally evident that as sad as his response was, he probably represented the norm. As mentioned previously; in our current society, we collectively understand far more about disease than we do about what it means to be healthy.  Also, processing the whole ‘being healthy’ thing is more often than not, quite confusing and somewhat intimidating, therefore for many, it is easier to ignore than explore. As a result of  this collective void when it comes to appreciating health, you are about to see that just in the twenty-two years of this new millennium,some serious “doo-doo” has gone down and a lot of it is not very pretty.

One thing is for sure, as we move towards the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, for all the money spent on health care, we are statistically sicker than we were 50 years ago. There are more people suffering with chronic disease, requiring doctors’ attention and prescription medications than ever before in human history… and the process is accelerating.

The pace of modern life, with its explosion of stress related syndromes, general increases in inflammatory disease and astronomical rises in use of medications, is negatively impacting us physically in ways never before imagined.   In turn, this has served to seriously compromise health and vitality to the point that we are actually getting older, younger. Combine the above, with genetic modifications in agriculture and animal husbandry, prevalence of ultra-processed foods and our sedentary lifestyles, and it is not difficult to conceive how our bodies are being forced to attempt to radically adapt to what in many ways is a dramatically different and challenging environment than that experienced by our parents or certainly our grandparents. Unfortunately, adaptation is not without consequences… 

Mankind is now perhaps the sickest species on the planet with ever-rising levels of degenerative and environmentally related disease, the likes of which has never before experienced.  As a race we are showing all the signs of approaching extinction as we continue to ignore the lessons of evolution in favor of more seemingly agreeable pretenders to health and wellness.

Our continued existence as we go deeper into this millennium will in many ways again become survival of the fittest. Rather than fighting the historical threats to life such as famine, pestilence, war and violence, we are now facing new and more insidious threats. The unrelenting escalation of cardio-vascular disease, degenerative and inflammatory conditions, cancers, autoimmune disorders, obesity, diabetes, asthma and autism are the real new enemies. There is overwhelming evidence pointing to the fact that the rising prominence of the above conditions have direct links to our current North American diet and lifestyle. Add to this, an astronomical rise in stress related emotional illness, also with strong ties to diet and lifestyle choices, and the answer to the question; “where are we heading?” becomes self-evident. Even though you may think that you are doing the things you need to in order to stay healthy such as eat a well-balanced diet, exercise and rest adequately, it just may not be enough. Experience is showing that thriving in the 21st century is far more taxing on our health resources and well-being than was ever the case 50 years ago, and that successful adaptation  for survival, may require a different strategy with new tools.

According to the World Health Organization- “The burden of chronic diseases is rapidly increasing worldwide. It has been calculated that as early as 2001, chronic diseases contributed approximately 60% of the 56.5 million total reported deaths in the world and approximately 46% of the global burden of disease. Almost half of the total chronic disease deaths are attributable to cardiovascular diseases. Obesity and diabetes are also showing worrying upward trends, not only because they already affect a large proportion of the population, but also because they have started to appear earlier in life.” The report goes on further to make the following observation: “Chronic diseases are largely preventable diseases. Although more basic research may be needed on some aspects of the mechanisms that link diet to health, the currently available scientific evidence provides a sufficiently strong and plausible basis to justify the absolute need for taking action now.” The data is sound; the problem is that nobody is really listening, much less doing anything about it. The result is that we are getting sicker and sicker, with the focus being totally disease based and almost zero effort directed towards establishing strategies for strengthening health as a primary preventative strategy.

 Health is, and always has been, the intended expression of life.

Have you ever asked yourself, why does it seem to be that we seem to lose our health as we age? Most species in their natural environment remain vital, active and self-sufficient until the very end of life. On the other hand, for us as humans, disease and disability have started to permeate our lives ever earlier and with greater frequency than previously experienced in our evolution.

For the most part, we are all born healthy. Look at a group of 5 yr. old children playing in a school yard. From a health and activity perspective, they all look about the same, demonstrate the same freedom of movement and possess similar vitality and endurance. Fast forward to age 50 and look at the same group of people: the disparity between the players here being much more dramatic.  So, what happened in that period from childhood to middle/old age? Why do some of us stay healthy and energetic while others, much earlier show signs of physical breakdown, disease and poor health? The truth is that health and disease rarely just happen by chance. Rather they are the byproduct of the unique circumstances and events that ultimately become each of our life stories.

By far the great majority of us are born with a massive adaptive capacity favoring vitality and with that health. I firmly assert that this same adaptive survival capacity is inherent at all stages of our existence. It is the core essence of the life process itself, and is the genesis of how we heal. It is always there, but ultimately for most of us as we get older,it becomes overwhelmed, due to the accumulation of collective insult over time or more immediately due to catastrophic circumstance. This compromises the ability of the body to rebound from threats. In short, much of disease, aging and conversely health is directly correlated to the speed and efficiency by which we heal. Recovery time, and the effectiveness of healing is  in turn a direct reflection of our resident vitality. Due to the accumulation of injury (both macro and micro) over time, the body systematically weakens, losing its adaptive capabilities for efficient repair. To  a great degree, what we have here is the essence of the phenomenon called aging. The eventual end-game of this  is how and why we ultimately die. (On the other side of the coin,  buried within this same process is where we find the seeds of health and ultimately super-health which we will explore thoroughly a little further on).

 Following this thread, accumulated insult over time, leads to system breakdown (dis-ease) creating more stress on companion systems (more dis-ease) and ultimately with enough insult, the organism as a whole fails. Many health care providers will tell you that this process is a natural part of getting older and essentially unavoidable, making getting sick an expected outcome. For the average person this assumption  is easy to buy into. After all, with the massive volume of advertising devoted to what ails you and available treatments, it must be true, …or… are we being systematically conditioned to be sick. Now, I would not for a moment intimate that this is being done purposefully. That would be far too sinister to even imagine. But, what if we are being so tolerantly bombarded with the reality of disease, that we have consciously forgotten that we possess a natural inherent capacity to be healthy. My experience with patients over the last 45 plus years would lead me to believe that this is  a tragic truth and especially so for those of us getting older.

I know that this all sounds like ‘doom and gloom’, and the reality of it is, for the most part, if we continue down our current path it will be just that …an ugly ending! I am sure you are thinking: OK, so when do we get to the ‘super-healthy’ part you have been alluding to? I promise we are going to explore that going forward but first we have to understand the mechanics and reasons why we find ourselves in this mess in the first place. That famous old saying: “If you don’t know the why, you can never construct an effective how”. With this in mind, let’s go straight to the elephant in the room.

If you are looking for a quick fix or a magic pill to get and keep you healthy, quit reading right now, because it is probably that exact mindset that got you into the mess you may find yourself in today. Health, like disease, is a process. It’s attainment certainly takes time, but time is usually not the problem. Rather, it is all a head game that comes with three potential stumbling blocks;… ingrained beliefs,  attitude towards change and level of motivation to follow through. Getting healthy, and certainly attaining super-health in the later stages of life can only happen with a concrete understanding that for any substantial difference to occur, you have to intellectually commit with certainty to the need for change.  If you have been down this road before and failed, you know that any chance for future success going forward, hinges on taking a different approach  this time around. Famous quality expert guru W. Edwards Deming   had   a great quote that went something like this: “You don’t need to change   – your   survival is not mandatory.”   I know you want to survive, or you would not have read this far.. So ask yourself: do you want to be healthy… I mean super-healthy? Of course you do. All hands up! It is like asking people if they would like a million dollars. This is a real “no-brainer.”. The real question is: ‘What are you prepared to do to get it?’ As the world’s number one motivational speaker Eric Thomas says: “When you want it as much as you want to breathe, you will get it.” To quote Tony Robbins : “When your wants become a must”…you will get it.

None of what I am going to ask you to do is difficult, expensive or demanding, but it takes a little discipline. You are also not going to be required  to make wholesale changes to your lifestyle,  as statistically for most of us this approach just does not work.  Rather, I will have you consider adopting some key life-enhancing strategies designed to help your body heal and perform more efficiently while limiting the negative impacts of living in our current 21st century environment. We are looking to get you super-healthy, but first, for many, we have to just get you well. This we will examine next as we dig into the five key pillars of life. It is here that we find the gateway to super-health. Hint!!! It is all about limiting inflammation,  using movement as medicine,  and the efficient creation of energy.