The Wrong Model For Medicine
It was a Tuesday afternoon, a couple of weeks before Christmas, I'd just finished a long day at work and on the way home I called my mother to catch up.
"I'm in hospital, but the doctors are with me so you don't need to worry".
(Hearing that a loved one is in hospital will inevitably cause you to worry of course)
It was later in the conversation that I realised my mother had been diagnosed with a condition called Guillain Barre Syndrome or GBS.
Prior to this point, I'd never heard of GBS, never mind thinking it could mean anything other than Great British Sausages....
Consumed by anxiety, straight after the call I flicked open several different web pages, simply trying to understand what GBS is and what my mother might be suffering with many miles away.
I found that GBS is a "disorder inn which the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system" . In other words, your body starts destroying nerves in the body starting at the furthest points away from the brain, e.g. feet and fingers.
Sadly, this doesn't simply make you immune to pain, but increases in intensity over time to cause the person to lose feeling in parts of their body, so much so that those parts of the body become fairly useless.
This is what happened to my own mother. When I went to visit her in hospital - she had no feeling in her legs at all, could barely sit up in the hospital bed, never mind walk. She'd also lost so much weight that she was a mere shadow of her former self.
I was unable to hide how upset I was with the situation and could barely turn my head away quick enough before I broke down in tears. I knew I would be unable to say "I can't remember the last time I cried" in the future.
The next day I visited my mother again, this time being able to maintain a slightly stiffer upper lip. The disease, disorder, condition or however it should be called, had demolished my mother's muscles, strength and general immunity.
Over the past few months I'd become a qualified sports nutritionist and knew the power of nutrition in developing these areas; strength, lean muscle and a healthy immune system. I'd reasonably expected a well devised nutrition plan to help my mother in her recovery.
I was completely dismayed as to what the hospital had decided to serve her.
Almost in disbelief, I mentally analysed the meal and guessed it would have contained no more than 20g of protein at a push, was most likely heavily processed and contained not 1 single serving of vegetables.
How on earth did they expect my mother to recover effectively without any real food?!
My mother's body had been completely ravaged by the disease and she now needed all the support possible to retrain her body and reconnect with functional movement and strength.
Sadly in the hospital environment, food was merely an afterthought. It was a provision of basic calories, often in the form of microwave meals, merely provided to prevent patients from starving during their treatment.
I knew that a healthy hormonal balance and effective recovery would be a long shot in the hospital environment and was grateful to hear she'd been given a release date to continue training with support at home.
I'd drawn up a balanced meal plan, complete with a variety of vegetables, healthy protein and suggested macro-nutrient breakdown for optimal recovery and immunity. I'd also proposed a structured exercise regime, which was progressive yet balanced, for her to follow in my absence.
Almost a week later and the improvement was noticeable, but in the place where she should have received the best help and support, she was given an environment where it was difficult to sleep (there was often shouting and screams down the hallway from other patients) and meals which were probably worse than are being served in high schools across the developed world.
How could this be? How many other people are having this single minded approach to recovery and health?
Around this time I had watched the below video which sparked my thinking around how we could potentially have a better approach to helping people become healthier again.
Cure Diseases with a Cell, Not a Pill?
The video speaks at length about a "lock and key" mentality to treating people in hospitals, where drugs and medicines are used to kill a particular virus or otherwise. For example, have pneumonia > take penicillin > kill microbe.
It's a pretty convincing thought process for a whole range of different diseases and illnesses. Why not pop a couple of pills that can hunt down and destroy the thing that is making you feel unwell right?
You could even compare it to sending a homing missile to take out the enemy's command center in battle before they can hurt more of your own forces (if you're a fan of military analogies).
But it becomes easy to dismantle this thought process once Siddhartha gives us a couple of facts;
- The entire universe of chemical reactions in the human body is over 1,000,000
- The number of reactions which can be targeted by the whole range of medicinal chemistry is 250
Less than 0.025% of the chemical reactions in your body are target-able by our current range of pharmaceuticals.
We need to update the way we think about medicine.
A New Approach
Historically a pharmaceutical approach has been taken for people with depression. Prescribing anti-depressants has been seen as a way to "turn off" or stimulate faulty signals in the brain which are contributing to depression, e.g. serotonin, dopamine etc.
Despite it's merits, there is no "magic" pill which can act as a silver bullet to treat depression. Later thinking realized we may need to change the physiology of the brain - to help rewire it if we can - and so came "talk therapy".
Examples of talk therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy are listed as "the most effective psychological treatment for moderate and severe depression" . Even more encouraging is the fact that when combined - talk therapy with particular medical prescriptions is more effective than either solution alone.
But how can we take this further to get even better results for patients?
Fortunately - within the field of depression, thinking has progressed to take a more holistic approach to helping people.
What's one of the most effective approaches you might ask?
No surprises here if you've done any reading around the subject of fitness. You've guessed it: exercise.
Further studies also demonstrated that adopting cardiovascular exercise or resistance training (e.g. running and weights) can have more amazing effects.
Now we're not saying that simply doing 10 push ups if an individual has clinical depression will cure symptoms permanently overnight (though try 50 or more, or some HIIT and you're going to get a great rush of endorphins!).
What if we, as a population, started taking care of ourselves a bit more? With any illness a trip to speak to a medical health professional is always advised - but what if... we actually started to PREVENT the causes of getting sick and ill rather than always reacting to illness and trying to find a CURE?
Maybe, just maybe, the "immersion" therapy Siddhartha eludes aren't too far away and can hopefully offer greater solutions than we have already...
Again, a very delicate, often emotional, and deeply troubling subject in the world.
In America alone there is more than 1,500 people dying of cancer every single day. It is the second leading cause of death in the US, exceeded only by heart disease (which could also benefit from an "environment" and preventative school of thinking" .
Personally - I dread the day where one of my loved ones faces this terrible disease and I can only empathize with many of you reading this who will have experienced cancer in your lives in some way shape or form.
Historically - we've already tried the "lock and key" approach to treating cancer. We've tried targeted therapies such as chemotherapy, which have worked to an extent - but it has not been the silver bullet wee need it to be to solve all cancers.
More recently, in the last 10 years or so, we've started to think about using the immune system. Cancer of course grows in a human organism, rather than a vacuum. This thinking has lead to some of the most effective cancer treatments we have available today.
How can we use the environment and other factors to implement a more effective and holistic approach to treating one of the most prevalent illnesses in our society?
There's lots of work to do in this area, but we're nowhere near where we need to be in terms of results, every year hundreds of thousands still die from this terrible disease.
The next advancement in cancer treatment may be around changing the environment. But what measures can we take now to prevent us even needing treatment in future?
For those of you who have read 35 foods for greater health, you might have noticed a bit of a common theme with lots of the different green vegetables...
That's right. cancer prevention.
Now I don't know about you, but I'm a strong believer in prevention being better than cure.
Personally, I'd much rather eat my way through a ton of vegetables every week than have to tell my loved ones I'm not sure I'll have that much longer to live...
Each one of us is expected to die in one way or another at some point, however the specific nature and time of the end of our lives is still anyone's guess.
Fortunately my own mother is on the road to her recovery using a healthy diet, exercise and medical intervention, although it could have so easily ended another way.
Think about what is is that we can do to take more control of our futures and ensure we give ourselves the best chances possible of a long and healthy life.
One place you could start is through all the things you already know such as, exercising more, quitting smoking and eating more vegetables.
For a convenient list of simple changes you can make - consider these top 10 nutrition tips from a clinical nutritionist to see what positive changes you can make in your life.
We're not immortal - but the way in which we live our lives can make us feel invincible.
What changes are you and your loved ones going to make to avoid that next trip to the hospital?
What's your favourite thing to do to keep yourself healthy?
Is there someone you love who needs to read this article?
Simply leave a comment below or share on Facebook :)
 Cognitive Behavioural Therapy - http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mentalhealthinformation/therapies/cognitivebehaviouraltherapy.aspx
 The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed - http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC474733/
 Cancer Facts - http://www.thomlatimercares.org/Cancer_Facts.htm
However, before you get ill, or even once you're feeling a bit run down - address the positive changes you can make in your life to give your body the best chance of a full recovery.