January has been quite the month so far. It seems like a lot of people’s lives have been forever changed with new diagnoses or the death of a loved one. I personally experienced the shock of watching my 4-year-old dog have a seizure; he was later diagnosed with epilepsy. And of course there have been a series of deaths of beloved actors and musicians, most notably for me David Bowie, whom I grew up listening to.
One thing that permeates all of these diagnoses and deaths is the way we talk about them. Often you will see something to the affect of “she is battling breast cancer” or “he is fighting off this cold.” To be clear, I do not deny that facing a terminal illness takes courage and strength. What I am curious about, and what I aim to explore in this post, is our relationship to illness.
In the following model, created by Drs. Zeff, Snider, and Myers, we see that disturbances in our health lead to some sort of reaction, which is often the acute disease we experience. This is followed by a discharge process, which, if all goes according to plan, results in a return to normal health.
Naturopathic Physicians are trained to view illness as the body’s way of communicating to us that something is imbalanced, and we work to restore balance by determining the cause of the illness and removing it. This is easier said than done, but in order to fully return to normal health* this is necessary.
However, oftentimes what we see in medicine is that instead of determining the cause, we instead suppress the symptoms. We are used to seeing a fever or inflammation or mucus or a cough as “bad” and thus we take medications to make them go away. I believe this is how we have instilled the belief that illness is something to be fought and defeated.
Obviously having a fever or a cough is unpleasant and it understandable to want it to go away as quickly as possible. Taking cough syrup in order to sleep or a fever reducer to get through the day is sometimes necessary. However, I would argue that any time we cover up an unpleasant symptom, we are reinforcing the habit of ignoring what our bodies are trying to tell us.
Here is a quick review of ways we (myself included) ignore the messages from our bodies:
- Tired? Coffee.
- Muscle pain? Aspirin.
- Acid reflux? Acid blocker.
- Headache? Tylenol.
- Menstrual cramps? Midol.
- Dry skin? Lotion.
- Chapped lips? Chapstick.
- Dry hair? Conditioner.
- Excessive body odor? Stronger deodorants, perfumes.
- Upset? Anti-depressants.
- Diarrhea? Immodium.
- Upset stomach? Tums.
…and so on and so forth. Suppressing the symptoms is in effect shutting up our body’s communication with us, and not eradicating the cause of the symptom(s) can result in driving the illness deeper, leading to chronic illness.
So what I propose is this: next time you experience an unpleasant symptom, before you reach for something to make it go away, consider what your body might be telling you. Try to view the symptom as a message, and be curious about the messenger. Ask yourself, What is going on in my body that could be causing this? Consider how much you are sleeping, how much water you are drinking, your posture, and your stress level.
The more we can become curious about the sensations in our bodies, the more connected we can become to our bodies and work with them rather than against them. I find that making friends with our bodies and getting familiar with our anatomy is a great first step to overall better health.
Questions? Please feel free to ask me any questions in the comment section below, or email me! firstname.lastname@example.org
*”normal health” refers to whatever is the typical baseline health for the individual, and it varies greatly from person to person. A person with diabetes, for example, has a different normal health than a person with asthma.