The Western Medical Model
Looking at the history of the development of medical thinking, there are many different models. A model represents an idea, a structural format that fits for the cause and treatment of disease, a word defined in Webster as “any departure from normal health, an illness”. For example, the model that is used today in the West is completely different from that used by the ancient Chinese and it would seem to be pertinent to look at how our Western model was developed in the first place.
Until the internal structures of the body and their functions were defined it was totally impossible to understand any principles of why we get sick. Throughout medieval history there was in fact no model. Very early concepts blamed demons and evil spirits and for several centuries, bleeding the patient seems to have been the only treatment offered. These ideas were developed out of ignorance. Our present model was derived from the discovery of organisms that were so small that they could not be seen without a microscope. This idea, however, was born even before the development of the microscope.
Semmelweiss was a 19th century Hungarian physician. He had observed that physicians would enter the delivery room directly from the morgue to deliver mothers of their infants. Since the puerperal “childbed” fever had a mortality rate of 10 to 35%, but germs had not yet been discovered, Semmelweiss concluded that the physicians were “bringing something in on their hands”. He made them wash their hands before delivering any of their patients. Childbed fever virtually disappeared, as we would now expect. Even with this practical evidence that the current medical model was wrong, Semmelweiss was persecuted and derided by the medical profession because his concept was “out-of-the-box”. It infringed on the philosophy that governed medical thinking at that time, an unforgivable sin in the eyes of his medical compatriots who were ultimately shown to be themselves wrong.
Well, as we all know, the germ theory was finally accepted and it provided the very first idea for the cause of disease. The foundation of this model is that an attacking agent is “the enemy”. The direction that took place was to kill “the enemy”. The philosophy was “kill the bacterium, kill the virus, kill the cancer cell” and medical science has spent years and is still trying to develop compounds and treatments that would kill the “enemy” without killing the patient. You can be sure that they killed a lot of patients (and still do) in their attempts, until the dramatic discovery of penicillin that opened the so-called antibiotic era. Antibiotic resistance is now a new threat conjured up by the “enemy”.
Facing the Fork in the Road: Kill the Enemy or Bolster Defenses
I like to think imaginatively that medicine was “walking down a long rough road”. It came to a fork with the road leading to the right that carried a signpost. The signpost said “Kill the enemy”. The road leading to the left had no signpost so the right fork was the obvious one to travel. Kill the bacteria; kill the virus; kill the cancer cell. Be aggressive; don’t let the disease take over the show.
The rest of this article deals with what the left fork may have yielded. I suggest that the signpost would have said “Help the defense”. Copy Hippocrates; don’t do any harm; above all, avoid a noisy mechanical hospital so that the patient can assist himself by proper rest while listening to gentle music. Make sure that his nutrition is appropriate so that “food becomes his medicine”.
The Body is a Fortress
I now call into effect the reader’s imagination. Think of the body as like an old-fashioned fortress. An attack would demand a defense orchestrated by a commander. To watch for an attack there would always have to be guards or sentries posted on the battlements. Sighting a would-be attack by a guard would involve sending a messenger to the commander so that he could organize the defense. The body works like that. White cells are just like the imagined soldiers as they “go into battle”. All the other phenomena that we call “an infection” are really generated as part of a complex defensive system. I write more about the body as a fortress in Ostrich Medicine: Shouldn’t we Recognize Host Defenses.
The Brain and Body Work in Unison to Sustain Health
The human brain, complex as it is, consists of two basic parts which I am going to call the “upper” and “lower” brains. The upper brain is responsible for our thoughts and voluntary actions, the “ego” described by Freud. It conducts messages to the body through a nervous system that is called voluntary, giving us what we call willpower. The lower brain, the “id” described by Freud and where the central command is located, is automatic and controls an involuntary nervous system known as autonomic. It initiates a number of reflexes, the best known of which is called the fight-or-flight, a survival reflex activated by any form of danger that threatens life. It acts with “advice and consent” provided by the upper brain, that is then able to modify the reflex action. There are many other reflexes controlled from id, all of them being protective of either personal survival or survival of our species. The fight-or-flight is personal protection whereas the primitive part of our sex drive is species protection. So let us see how an infection (the enemy) is handled.
Imagine someone who has picked up a splinter in his finger. Unknown to him the splinter carries Staphylococci. The first defensive reaction is the development of what we call a pustule. This represents what I like to call a “beachhead”. The pus that forms is created from the dead white cells that have sacrificed themselves to killing the Staphylococci. This is a local mechanism and if handled successfully will resolve the problem.
If this defense is unsuccessful, the “beachhead” is breached and the Staphylococci begin to flow into the body through the lymphatic system. The “battlements” have been breached. The lower brain is informed and begins to activate a general defense. The body temperature goes up (yes, it is the brain that causes your fever) because germs are programmed to have their most noxious effect at 37°C, normal body temperature. By increasing the temperature of the body, the efficiency of the germ is compromised. A message goes out to the body organs to release white blood cells as the defensive “soldiers” (they go to the “breached battlements”) and explains why the white cell count increases in concert with the fever. Lymph glands increase in size because they are being prepared for destruction of the germs that they encounter. The patient feels ill, forcing him to take a rest. This conserves the energy required for carrying out the defensive system. Now the battle is in full effect and the outcome is resolution, death or sometimes stalemate where the battle is neither won nor lost.
The Left Fork in the Road
The point that I am trying to make here is that the defensive mechanism is as important to the resolution as killing the enemy in a safe way. It demands a colossal amount of energy to be effective and this is generated from the results of good nutrition. So let us see how we can assist the process. The paradox is that two thirds of the world population is suffering from starvation while one third is dying from over eating the wrong foods.
The clinical effects of starvation are completely different from those incurred by eating too much of the wrong foods. Behavior of people in the state of starvation is governed by the catastrophic hunger and search for food. The people eating the wrong food have an entirely different course, the effects of what I call high calorie malnutrition. These are “the walking sick”. They are not hospital cases and their symptoms are often referred to as being psychosomatic because all their conventional tests are negative.
A Case Study: When Short and Long Term Defenses are Ignored
By way of example, let us follow the case of John Doe. He sees his physician complaining of palpitations of the heart. The focus is on the heart and no thought is given to the action of the autonomic system. He gets a prescription which governs the symptom. A month later he sees the same physician because of alternating diarrhea and constipation. He receives a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome and gets a prescription. No thought is given to the action of the autonomic system or the possibility that the former prescription has made things worse. No questions are asked concerning the nature of his diet. If and when he has emotional disease such as anxiety, outbursts of anger or depression, no thought is given to the abnormal chemistry occurring in the brain. Imagine the kind of diet that this American citizen, John Doe is ingesting.
Let us suggest that he has a doughnut and two cups of coffee for breakfast, a coffee break midmorning and enjoys a two Martini lunch. Let us suggest that he has a macaroni dinner with several more Martinis before. Exhausted from the day’s work, he sits in an armchair watching television and goes to bed, only to repeat the same performance the next day. His health is good and remains good for many years on this, or a similar, regimen. Let us say that 10 years later he is the John Doe that gets a prescription for heart palpitations. Because his symptoms are constantly relieved, he has a very high respect for his physician and continues to attend periodically for various symptoms such as “an allergy”. The years roll by and one day he develops mysterious symptoms related to his nervous system. He sees the same physician and is referred to a neurologist who diagnoses Parkinson’s disease. In the present medical concept there is absolutely no connection between his years of dietary indiscretion and the appearance of a chronic neurological disease. John Doe may even ask the physician whether his diet has any bearing on the development of this disease and he is told that it has absolutely no connection at all. I submit to you, the reader, “that this is “food for thought”.
Energy Metabolism: A Foundation for Health or Disease
The combination of between 70 and 100 trillion cells make up the human body. Our functions are dependent upon the cooperation of every single one of these cells, each of which depends on energy. Brain cells, and particularly those of the lower brain (the command center) are highly sensitive to energy deficiency. Oddly enough, the reflexes that I have described above become much more active. Panic attacks, so common today, are fragmented fight-or -flight reflexes. They indicate DANGER. The symptoms generated like this are nothing more than warnings. They are merely indicating that the cells in that part of the brain are either starved of oxygen, the vitamin/mineral combination that enables oxidation to occur efficiently, or that empty calories are overwhelming the ability of the vitamin/mineral combination to perform that function. As I have said in other posts before, it is exactly what would happen in a car if the engine was “choked” by too rich a mixture of gasoline.
When you are young, your cells can cope with the situation and for many years you may have either no symptoms or the kind of symptoms that get classified and can be treated with medications, mostly. When they cannot, these symptoms are often deemed psychosomatic. Ultimately, as we saw with the case of John Doe, permanent damage develops. It is not surprising, then, that the brain becomes the focal point of the disease. This strongly suggests that as we “take the left fork in the road”, prevention is far better than cure.
Are Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Necessary?
One might wonder, given the cautionary tale of John Doe, if vitamin and mineral supplements are necessary to maintain health. I would argue that they are, especially when dietary choices mirror those of our example. Additionally, however, because farming practices have changed, even when one’s diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, those fruits and vegetables may not have as much nutrient density as they once did. When coupled with highly processed foods, even those with vitamin enrichment, I suspect our nutrient needs yet outweigh our current intake capabilities. I am, therefore, inclined to believe that vitamin and mineral supplements are becoming a preventive necessity. It does not, however, take us off the hook. Restricting ourselves to real food is still necessary.