Holistic Health Matters
Holistic is a good word for what most people refer to as complementary or alternative medicine. That's good to know since the words we use to describe something really do matter. They color how we see things and shape how we value them. Naturopathy is another useful word, but probably more limiting than holistic. "Pathy" comes from the ancient Greek word for "suffering." Thus, naturopathy implies that you are suffering because you are out of sync with nature--or conversely, that you can alleviate suffering through natural methods. That's certainly true for diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but I'm not sure how it applies to contracting Ebola, which actually arises from nature.
Modern or Western medicine is also shaped by the terms used to describe it. Doctors themselves like to refer to it as "scientific" or "evidence based" medicine. How nice! By definition, that classifies anything other than Western Medicine as unscientific and disconnected from all evidence--by implication, then, placebo and charlatan based. It should probably be pointed out that whereas Western medicine may be "scientific," it is far less evidenced based than is claimed by its proponents. According to Michael Millenson, "More than half of all medical treatments, and perhaps as many as 85 percent, have never been validated by clinical trials."1 Now, to be sure, if you go out on the blogosphere, you will find that the medical community disputes these numbers claiming that, in fact, upwards of 75% is evidenced based--and that most of them personally practice 100% evidenced based medicine.2 Unfortunately, in what must certainly qualify as more than a tad ironic, those claims themselves are not evidence based. The historical record shows that many so-called evidence based procedures and drugs turn out to be ineffective or even harmful over time,3 not to mention the fact that, according to a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, only 11% of physicians rely on evidenced based medicine for all their treatments.4 When push comes to shove, some 90% of doctors like to go with their gut at least some of the time.
Allopathic medicine is an expression commonly used by proponents of alternative medicine to refer to mainstream medicine's use of pharmaceutical drugs or physical interventions to treat or suppress symptoms, diseases, or conditions. "Allo" comes from the ancient Greek world for "other," thus implying that the treatments and drugs used in Western Medicine create symptoms "other" than those produced by the disease itself--what doctors like to call side effects. The expression was coined, somewhat derogatorily and in juxtaposition to the principles of homeopathy, in 1810 by the creator of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann. The expression "allopathic medicine" is still used by many in the alternative community to refer to "the broad category of medical practice that is sometimes called Western medicine, biomedicine, evidence-based medicine, or modern medicine.
In other words, everyone likes to use words that enhance the perception of their own practice, while at the same time denigrating the competition--wink wink, nudge nudge.
Name calling aside, let's take a look at why "holistic" is such a powerful, and largely accurate, term for defining a branch of the healing arts and why "evidence based" medicine, for all its success, frequently comes up short.
The History of Modern Medicine
I've talked before about how modern medicine likes to trace its roots to Hippocrates, the patron saint of today's doctors. But the fact is that the true foundation of modern medicine is sunk much deeper in the Newtonian views of the 17th century when philosophers and scientists defined the universe as a giant machine ruled by physics and math. According to this view of the universe, objects behave in predictable ways unless acted upon by outside forces. Physicians of that era were not immune to this new paradigm and likewise began to define the human body as a machine made up of separate pieces (heart, lung, kidneys, etc.) that would run smoothly until acted upon by some outside agent, or until one of its parts failed. According to this paradigm, the human body could be analyzed, catalogued, adjusted, and tweaked as required--just like any good machine.
This viewpoint became more and more dominant as time went by, until by the 19th century:
- The human body was no longer viewed as a holistic entity, but rather as a grouping of separate parts and pieces.
- Disease was no longer viewed as a body state, but rather as a set of symptoms affecting one or more parts.
- Medical research was defined as the observation and classification of both the body parts and their sets of symptoms.
- The physician's job was then defined as eliminating (or at least managing) those symptoms.
- In other words, disease (or illness or injury for that matter) manifests as symptoms entirely separate from the body as a whole. Eliminate the symptoms, and you eliminate the problem.
And to a large degree, this paradigm is unchanged over the last 200 years and still in place today. Modern doctors continue to:
- View diseases as isolated from the whole.
- Treat symptoms over causes.
And to be fair, this paradigm works extremely well when it comes to surgical repair. If you break an arm, the doctor works with that part of the body and repairs the arm. If you're shot by a bullet, the doctor removes the bullet and repairs all of the separate parts of your body damaged by the bullet. It's pretty much a direct one-to-one correlation.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work quite as well for either catastrophic illness or idiopathic diseases--i.e., diseases for which there are no clearly identifiable causes.
And more to the point of this particular newsletter, it plays havoc with the complex interplay of the different bodily systems. That is to say, it not only ignores how one part of the body is influenced by another and how each part generally has multiple functions across the entire body, but it actually runs counter to that interplay--ultimately contributing to compromised health and the onset of disease, both short term and down the road.
For the rest of this newsletter, then, let's look at some examples of how different body parts influence each other and how each part tends to have multiple functions. In other words, let's look at some examples of the body's holistic nature.
Back in 2012, we talked about the microbiome, the great scientific "discovery" that beneficial bacteria living in our guts and on our skin play a major role in promoting health. Setting aside the fact for a moment that the alternative health community had been talking about this issue for decades while being mocked for such unscientific beliefs by modern medicine and the mainstream media, the scientific community is now all abuzz with its latest discovery. The essence of this revelation is that the human body plays host to an estimated 10 times as many microbial cells as human cells, and the vast majority of these bacteria are actually beneficial and "support" our biological functions. These symbiotic microbial partners perform a number of metabolic reactions that are not encoded in (and therefore not handled by) the human genome but are nevertheless necessary for human health. And conversely, if you kill off or unbalance any part of the microbiome, health begins to rapidly break down and disease begins to take over.
"This is a whole new way of looking at human biology and human disease, and it's awe-inspiring," says Dr. Phillip Tarr of Washington University at St. Louis.5 "These bacteria are not passengers. They are metabolically active. As a community, we now have to reckon with them like we have to reckon with the ecosystem in a forest or a body of water." And like environmental ecosystems, your microbial makeup varies widely by body part. Your skin could be like a rainforest, your intestines teeming with different species like an ocean.
And even more amazing, according to the wide-eyed researchers, is the fact that the microbial populations of the microbiome are in constant "intelligent" flux to accommodate changing circumstances. For example, according to researchers in a report that appeared in PLoS One, during pregnancy, the vaginal microbiome becomes less diverse and less abundant, with one particular type of bacteria dominating.6
Unfortunately, the whole concept of the microbiome is a relatively new breakthrough. You won't find it listed in any anatomy books, even though it sits like another layer of your body on top of your skin and on your intestinal wall. In the world of medicine, it takes, on average, anywhere from 15-35 years for the majority of the medical community to let go of the past and accept the present. Yes, there are quick adopters, but on the whole, the medical community is ruled by habit. But in that sense, are they really any different than the rest of us?
In the meantime, it means that a majority of doctors blithely go on administering antibiotics in cases where they cannot possibly provide any benefit--but do wipe out the entire population of the intestinal microbiome, thus creating a state of dysbiosis. And they still blithely go on recommending that their patients use antibacterial soaps, even though such soaps wipe out all the protective bacteria on our skin. Keep in mind that the Centers for Disease Control has stated for several years now that 25 to 30 percent of humans are carriers for MRSA (the flesh eating bacteria). In people with a healthy bacterial population on their skin, harmful bacteria such as MRSA are kept in check by billions of helpful bacteria (unable to proliferate wildly). But use enough antibacterial soap, wiping out the protective good guys, and you pave the way for MRSA to use the now blank slate to replicate exponentially.
In other words, if you separate the microbiome from the body, you pay a price. Any doctor who does not understand this holistic relationship is likely to give bad advice when it comes to your gut or your skin--or any conditions triggered by an imbalance in the microbiome.
Your Skin Is Much More Holistic than You Think
There are countless examples we could use to demonstrate how each body part tends to have multiple functions and how each part tends to perform holistically across the entire body. But since we've already used the skin to explain the microbiome and its holistic function, let's continue using the skin as the focus of our examples.
According to Western medicine, the somatosensory receptors for the skin lie just below the surface and come in several varieties. These include receptors that respond to mechanical pressure (touch), temperature, and pain. But in truth, your skin is so much more aware than that--and so much more tied into the health of your body than most (but not all) doctors comprehend. In truth, your skin's receptors not only do their own thing but parallel the receptors in your eyes, ears, and nose. To quote Hamlet, when it comes to your body, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Your Skin Can See
As it turns out, your skin can not only feel and sense, it can "see", and what it sees has profound impact on your health.
Just last year, researchers discovered how your skin cells sense ultraviolet light and act to protect themselves with melanin.7 They reported on experiments that showed that the TRPA1 ion channel, well-known elsewhere in the body for its chemical sensitivity, plays a central role in this process. The TRPA1 channel allows a flood of calcium ions into the skin cells when they are exposed to UVA light. The resulting abundance of calcium ions signals the cell to begin making melanin, the pigment responsible for the tanning response in people--ultimately protecting the skin from further damage. How does this qualify as "seeing"? Because the phototransduction pathway discovered in the skin is similar to that found in the eye.
And this is not the only way your skin "sees". A study published in PloS Biology in 2008 shows that human skin contains a class of photoreceptor proteins called cryptochromes, which are activated by light.8 In plants, these same proteins trigger a number of physiological responses when exposed to light, such as maturation of seeds and the unfurling of leaves. The 2008 study found that these same cryptochromes, which are also found in insects and mammals, including humans, may be equally responsive to light in these higher life forms.
It would appear, then, that humans are able to detect light through skin as well as the eye.
Is this important? Yes, when you think of all the conditions and functions affected by exposure to light--think melatonin production and seasonal affective disorder. Now we need to think of this exposure, not just in terms of what we see with our eyes open but what our skin sees when our eyes are closed.
Your Skin Can Hear
Georg von Békésy, a Noble prize winning biophysicist, was among the first to research the skin's ability to "hear" back in the 1930's. He found that virtually all the acoustic elements involved in hearing--like rhythm, pitch, and volume--had touch based equivalents. In fact, the primary receptors in the skin that we've already talked about that respond to touch (pressure), pain, and temperature can recognize sound and respond to different frequencies. In fact, a whole new field of research evolved based on this concept of the tactile communication of speech.9
Yes, it's true that experimental devices, whether they vibrate the skin around the ears or on the hands and fingers, have capabilities that are far less precise and far more limited than those of the ears; and, in fact, this research was temporarily sidetracked by the invention of the cochlear implant, which does a better job interpreting the vibrations of speech. But it has found new life as a means for deaf people to comprehend and enjoy the "emotional content" of music by allowing the deaf to "hear" it with their skin.10
Your Skin Can Smell
Humans have approximately 350 different types of olfactory receptors in their noses. Surprisingly, some of the function of those receptors has also been shown to exist throughout the body--in, for example, sperm, the prostate, the spine, the intestine, and the kidneys.11 And now, thanks to research published just two months ago in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, we now know that your skin likewise contains olfactory receptors--and more importantly, that their stimulation can accelerate healing.12
The researchers studied the OR2AT4 olfactory receptor found in the skin and discovered that it is activated by a synthetic sandalwood scent. When activated, the OR2AT4 receptor triggers a calcium-dependent signal pathway which is associated with an increased proliferation and a quicker migration of skin cells -- processes which typically facilitate wound healing. Curiously, upon "smelling" the scent, the receptors did not send a message to the brain as nose receptors do, but rather, they directly triggered skin cells to divide and migrate, important processes in repairing damaged skin. In fact, cell proliferation increased by 32 percent and cell migration by nearly half when the skin receptors were triggered by the sandalwood scent.
So What Does It All Mean
According to the traditional medical model, your body consists of a bunch of parts, each with separate discrete functions. That is, your eyes see, your skin feels, your tongue tastes, and your ears hear. And bacteria in your gut and on your skin have no business being there, do not contribute to health, and are, in fact, most likely harmful. Thus they can be killed with antibiotic medicines, antibacterial soaps, and chlorinated water with no consequences.
But as we now see, this model is sorely deficient.
Our bodies are not machines made up of independent pieces. They are truly integrated, holistic entities, where each part has multiple functions that reflect what's going on throughout your body. Whatever you do to one part affects the whole.
Yes, modern medicine has accomplished much. Evidence based medicine has definitely pushed our understanding of the human body to new heights. But it has also repeatedly failed us too. At one time or another, it has told us that:
- Fiber in the diet didn't matter.
- Trans fats were preferable to natural saturated fats.
- Everyone should be on statin drugs.
- Vioxx is good for us.
- Diet has no connection with cancer.
- Environment is not responsible for cancer.
- The "small" amount of pesticides in our environment and on our food have no impact on our health.
- Baby formula is not only a good alternative to breast milk, but actually preferable to it.
I could go on and on, but the point is clear. Despite its successes, evidenced based medicine has also missed a large number of important calls. When you treat the body as a bunch of independent parts, it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that you miss some of the connections between those parts--and the health consequences tied to those connections.
Now to be fair, alternative health has missed a number of calls too, given some unsound advice, and promoted some woo-woo ideas along the way. On the other hand, it also got a lot of calls right decades ahead of science based medicine, savings millions of lives in the process. Which brings me to my pet peeve of the day.
In conclusion, I'd like to vent briefly on something that really annoys me. For at least the last 50 years now, the alternative health community has been preaching the importance of optimizing our beneficial bacteria. We didn't call it the microbiome, but we nevertheless preached the importance of eating foods rich in probiotics and taking probiotic supplements, while at the same time telling people to avoid antibiotics as much as possible and to avoid like the plague the use of antibiotics soaps, as they would wipe out the beneficial bacteria residing on your skin. And the whole time, the medical community pooh-poohed the advice.
Now Western medicine is "discovering" beneficial bacteria--what they call the microbiome--and preaching its importance. So what's my peeve? Nowhere in any of the "scientific" literature announcing this discovery is there even the slightest mention or tip of the hat to the alternative health community for being decades ahead of the curve on this issue. And this isn't the first time we've seen this.
As far back as the late 1800's, natural healers such as John Harvey Kellogg were talking about the importance of fiber in the diet and a colon condition they called "herniations of the colon." As with probiotics, also promoted by Kellogg,13 the medical community mocked the idea of it saying, "We've done autopsies on hundreds of bodies and never seen one of these herniations. They don't exist." It wasn't until half a century later that they "discovered" them--and renamed them diverticula--a condition they now claim afflicts 100% of people on a developed world diet, if they live long enough. Quite a change from saying a condition doesn't exist at all to saying it affects everyone, yes?
Fifty years ago, when the medical community was telling people to move from butter to margarine, those of us in the holistic community were saying that natural saturated fats were not a major health problem, but synthetic partially hydrogenated oils were--the same oils being used in the margarines promoted by the medical community. You all know how that turned out. The medical community discovered the danger of partially hydrogenated fats, renamed them trans fatty acids, and never acknowledged that natural healers had beat them to the call by half a century. Ah! And no apology at all for the several million heart attacks they caused by convincing people to switch from butter to margarine.
I could go on and on, but the pattern in consistent. Mock a holistic health concept until you eventually discover it's valid. Then rename it and claim it as your own--never crediting the people who first discovered it. Why is this a big deal? Because if you never give credit to the alternative health community for the things they get right and steal health concepts from them once you "discover" them, it allows you to continually mock alternative health. To quote from Bob Carroll, master of illogical, non-critical thinking and founder of the Skeptics Dictionary, "The entire benefit from CAM [complementary and alternative medicine] comes from the so-called placebo effect."14 Well yes, if you steal everything that CAM gets right, give it a new name, ignore the millions of people who died because mainstream medicine had it wrong for so long, and give no credit to the people who discovered it, then what you're left with are the things not yet proven or those that are just plain wrong. You've proven your point by rigging the game. But remember, as we discussed above, a large part of modern medicine too consists of things unproven and things that are just plain wrong. Just ask the 55,000 people who died from using Vioxx15 or the millions of the millions of people who died from heart disease after switching to margarine and prepackaged foods high in trans fatty acids--both as recommended by their doctor at the time. But the medical community is not mocked for those mistakes. They are not held accountable. Instead, these errors are considered mere "explorations along the path of knowledge."
The bottom line is that:
- Words matter.
- Defining the body holistically matters.
- And letting the medical community and its defenders get away with rewriting the history books in their favor whenever it suits them is just plain wrong--and deadly.
- 1. Michael L. Millenson, AB: "Demanding Medical Evidence: Doctors and Accountability in the Information Age." The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Issue 2, September 1998. http://www.amazon.com/Demanding-Medical-Excellence-Accountability-Information/dp/0226525880
- 2. Steven Novella. "How Much Modern Medicine is Evidence-Based." Neruologica blog, Accessed 4 Aug 2014. http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/how-much-modern-medicine-is-evidence-based/
- 3. Shannon Brownlee. "Newtered." Washington Monthly 2007 (Accessed 4 Aug 2014.) https://washingtonmonthly.com/2007/10/01/newtered-2/
- 4. Finlay A McAlister, Ian Graham, Gerald W Karr, and Andreas Laupacis. "Evidence-Based Medicine and the Practicing Clinician." J Gen Intern Med. Apr 1999; 14(4): 236--242. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1496564/
- 5. Lauran Neergaard. "10,000 germ species live in and on healthy people." Associated Press. Jun 13. (Accessed 23 Aug 2014.) http://news.yahoo.com/10-000-germ-species-live-healthy-people-170516382.html
- 6. Aagaard K, Riehle K, Ma J, Segata N, Mistretta T-A, et al. (2012) "A Metagenomic Approach to Characterization of the Vaginal Microbiome Signature in Pregnancy." PLoS ONE 7(6): e36466. http://www.plosone.org/article/fetchObjectAttachment.action?uri=info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0036466&representation=PDF
- 7. Brown University. "Linchpin of skin response to UVA light discovered." ScienceDaily. 21 January 2013. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130121161928.htm
- 8. Hoang N, Schleicher E, Kacprzak S, Bouly J-P, Picot M, et al. (2008) Human and Drosophila Cryptochromes Are Light Activated by Flavin Photoreduction in Living Cells . PLoS Biol 6(7): e160. http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.0060160
- 9. Andrew R. Brughera, Lorraine A. Delhorne, Nathaniel I. Durlach, Seth M. Hall, Eleanora Luongo, Geoffrey L. Plant, Charlotte M. Reed, Mandayam A. Srinivasan, Han-Feng Yuan. "Tactile Communication of Speech." National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders Grant 2 R01 DC00126. http://www.rle.mit.edu/media/pr151/22.pdf
- 10. Sujata Gupta. "Music for Your Skin." Nova Next. 09 Jul 2014, (Accessed 31 Aug 2014.) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/body/haptic-hearing/
- 11. Tim De Chant. "The Scent Receptors in Your Kidneys." Nova Next. 15 Jul 2013. (Accessed 31 Aug 2014.) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/body/the-scent-receptors-in-your-kidneys/
- 12. Busse, Daniela, Kudella, Philipp, Gruning, Nana-Maria, Gisselmann, Gunter, et al. "A Synthetic Sandalwood Odorant Induces Wound-Healing Processes in Human Keratinocytes via the Olfactory Receptor OR2AT4." J Invest Dermatol 2014/08/07/online. http://www.nature.com/jid/journal/vaop/ncurrent/abs/jid2014273a.html
- 13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Harvey_Kellogg
- 14. "Q. Why do you criticize "alternative" medicine only?" The Skeptic's Dictionary. http://skepdic.com/faq.html#9
- 15. "FDA's Drug Safety System Fails to Protect Public." Union of Concerned Scientists. (Accessed 31 Aug 2014.) http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/abuses_of_science/vioxx.html