Health Beyond the Numbers

Mahatma Gandhi said: “It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.” He was voicing ancient wisdom that goes as far back as the first century BC when the Roman poet, Virgil, wrote: “The greatest wealth is health.” Today we say, “If you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything.”

We seem to want good health. The majority of New Year’s resolutions center on the physical body: exercise more, quit smoking, eat better. Fitness clubs offer state-of-the-art equipment; television commercials hawk quick and easy weight loss plans, in-home exercise paraphernalia and plastic-encased ready-to- eat meals. We search labels for calories, grams, carbs and use-by dates; we toss out edible food because of a set of numbers. Yet, by mid-February, 95 percent of the resolutions will have fallen by the wayside to be revived next year.

Why this continuing cycle? Could it be that our focus is too fragmented, that we’re missing some structural components in the foundation of our wellness?

“As a people, we have become obsessed with health,” states Lewis Thomas, former dean of New York University School of Medicine and later president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In his essay collection, The Medusa and the Snail, he continues, “There is something fundamentally, radically unhealthy about all this. We do not seem to be seeking more exuberance in living as much as staving off failure, putting off dying.”

Observers outside the medical field have arrived at similar conclusions. Josh Billings, a 19th century humorist, wrote, “There’s lots of people in this world who spend so much time watching their health that they haven’t the time to enjoy it.” A mid-1700s Anglo-Irish clergyman and writer, Laurence Sterne, said, “People who are always taking care of their health are like misers who are hoarding a treasure which they have never spirit enough to enjoy.”

Are these people suggesting we ignore our health? Quite the contrary. They are giving us clues into the depth and complexity of what we call “good health,” echoed In 1948 by the World Health Organization: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” In other words, health is more than correct numbers on a medical chart.

Yet our culture relies heavily on those numbers. We want measurable, provable scientific data to determine health. But is this mechanistic model the only criteria? After all, humans were practicing healing long before the invention of the stethoscope and before the first researcher held a test tube. Even today, in many societies both tribal and urban, healers are able to diagnose without blood samples and heal without prescribing so much as an aspirin. Growing up in the 50s in rural Minnesota, my earaches were treated with heated ginger oil; sore throats were treated with hot sliced potatoes wrapped in a dishtowel. My dad told of his mother treating poison ivy rash with hot willow leaves packed around his legs and wrapped in a wool blanket. Not very scientific, to be sure; but it worked. Until the early 1900s, the traditional belief was that scientists were dispassionate and impartial while collecting, observing, measuring and recording data. Since then, physicists have become aware of something they call the “observer effect” – that a researcher’s beliefs or expectations unconsciously affect the behavior of the observed subject. Larry Dossey, MD, in his 1982 book, Space, Time & Medicine, spoke of “one of the greatest ironies in the history of medicine” noting that medicine had looked “to the hard sciences as models, hoping to embody the precision and exactness demonstrated… by classical physics.” Believing that precision had actually been found “medicine refused to listen to the message that has come from physics for over half a century: the exactness never really existed.”

Physicist and systems theorist, Fritjof Capra, Ph.D., whose 1975 book, The Tao of Physics, is still in print, began exploring how this changing viewpoint resulted in a corresponding shift in consciousness. In his book, The Web of Life, he states: “When we draw a picture of a tree, most of us will not draw the roots. Yet the roots of a tree are often as expansive as the parts we see. In a forest… the roots of all trees are interconnected and form a dense underground network in which there are no precise boundaries between individual trees. In short, what we call a tree depends on…our methods of observation.”

Looking outside the Box

The long-held sacred philosophy that only doctors and pharmacology can cure illness and disease was challenged by patients who began looking outside mainstream medicine for help. Despite warnings by the medical profession and the FDA, the public embraced procedures such as acupuncture, chiropractic and therapeutic massage. Conventional medicine finally had to acknowledge that, indeed, there is more than the existing philosophy and more to the tree than meets the eye. During the past several decades, exactitude and exclusiveness have increasingly yielded to a more holistic and inclusive approach to healing.

Today, many hospitals and clinics around the world include non-mainstream components sometimes referred to as “alternative.” The word does imply an either/or approach and, given today’s inclusive climate, can be misleading and inaccurate. Also used is the term “complementary” referring to using both conventional and nonmainstream methods. More recently, the term “integrative medicine” is used, reflecting the more comprehensive approach prevalent today.GrowingUp-Red150x141

Getting to the integrative medicine model has been a long haul. Many visionaries risked their reputation with pioneering work at a time when it was considered heresy to even suggest that healing beyond mainstream medicine was possible. Despite skepticism and ridicule, they persisted and gained an ever-larger following through books, lectures, seminars, retreat workshops, clinical practices and their own research. A list of these pioneers, by no means exhaustive, would include aforementioned Larry Dossey, MD; Bernie Siegel, MD; William Brugh Joy, MD; Deepak Chopra, MD; Caroline Myss; Norman Shealy, MD; Steven Halpern (Inner Peace Music); Bill Moyers (Healing and the Mind); Michio and Aveline Kushi (East-West Foundation).

Once mainstream medicine caught on to the fact that patients were going to continue seeking alternative methods no matter what the doctors and government said, the landscape of healing began to change. Minnesota has been in the forefront, establishing in 1969 the Family Medicine Residency at Hennepin County Medical Center that includes holistic and integrative medicine. Since then, the University of Minnesota, Woodwinds Health Campus, Children’s Hospital and Abbott Northwestern, among others, have added integrative medicine centers.

A major shift has also taken place across the country. Dr. Benjamin Kligler, founding medical director of the Continuum Center for Health and Healing at Yeshiva University in New York, says, “We’re seeing a sea change in terms of how complementary and alternative therapies are being integrated into the medical environment….” Dr. Diane McKee, co-director of research in family and social medicine at Einstein College sums up, “I don’t pretend to understand why acupuncture works. But, now I know it does. If the evidence says it works, we should use it. If it helps patients, physicians should be offering it routinely.”

From the early days when physicians were reluctant to even discuss complementary treatments and actively discouraged their patients from utilizing them, we now see more acceptance, regular use and, in many cases, a desire for training and knowledge that was not covered in medical school. For example, hospitals are now likely to offer acupuncture and meditation to help manage side effects for patients receiving conventional cancer treatments; guided imagery and massage are regularly used to help manage pain. The Veterans Administration is integrating nontraditional modalities such as meditation, yoga and breathing techniques to help returning veterans overcome war-related trauma.

Seek and Ye Shall Find?

A key component of integrative medicine is an emphasis on empowering the patient to take an active role in all aspects of their health and well-being. The Osher Center for Integrative Medicine states on its website, “Excellent care means more than curing a specific ailment with the latest medical marvels. Excellent care seeks to understand how the ailment affects a patient’s overall physical and mental well-being….considers the interconnected systems of the body and mind….  [considers] all the tools at our disposal – those from…Western medicine, as well as…Eastern medicine. Sunrise600x456

So what are these various modalities? Some of the most commonly used today include: acupuncture, aromatherapy, Ayurveda, bodywork (which includes many modalities such as acupressure, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, Osteopathy, reflexology, Rolfing, Trager), chiropractic, diet, guided imagery, herbs, homeopathy, massage, meditation, music, Native American healing, naturopathic medicine, Oriental Medicine, Qi Gong, Reiki, Tai Chi, yoga.

Volumes of information on these modalities as well as persons and entities mentioned in this article are easily found online. In addition, their websites can refer you to other sources. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is also a great source.

How do you sort through it all and choose what works for you? Keeping in mind that health is a personal matter, start by inquiring among friends, colleagues, co-workers. Understand that what works for your best friend may not work for you. Conversely, just because someone says they had a bad experience with, say, yoga, don’t simply cross yoga off your list. If someone tells you they had a poor meal at a specific restaurant, would you never go to any restaurant ever again? A glowing review on a website can be fabricated; so can a negative one. Wikipedia still refers to the lack of scientific data on alternative healing. As we’ve just discussed, this is no longer true. Cross-reference, check multiple sources, explore further.

It is important to remember that not every system works every single time – not in holistic medicine, not in conventional medicine; it’s why people seek other options in the first place. Be patient; and remain open to new experience. Remember, we humans once thought the earth was flat. In 1633 a chap named Galileo was found to be “vehemently suspect of heresy” because he would not withdraw his opinion that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe. He was sentenced to house arrest where he remained the rest of his life. Sometimes the heretic is right. While more and more doctors are taking it upon themselves to learn about integrative medicine, your doctor may not be one of them – yet. Do not be discouraged. This is where the empowerment of integrative care comes in – taking a cooperative approach to your health and wellness. Keep your doctor informed of other therapies. Remember, it is not an “either/or” issue; it is “and/inclusive”.

Very few of these modalities are new; some have been in use for several thousand years. While no claim should ever be made that any one of them will cure a specific ailment, when integrated into one’s personal lifestyle, they become part of what stimulates healing. Hippocrates, the father of medicine who lived from 460 BC to 370 BC, said: “Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease.”

When we open to ageless wisdom and infinite sources of healing, we activate those inner “true healers” that allow us to do more than “staving off failure, putting off dying” and to truly enjoy “exuberance in living.” One of the most physically disabled people on the planet, Stephen Hawking, said, “People need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit.” And he gave this advice to his children, “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.” Exuberant living, indeed!

Eleanor Ann Leonard is a freelance writer, speaker and leads retreats in mindful living. Please call 612-578-2568.

Last Updated on February 6, 2020