Posts Tagged ‘health’

Wow! Just look at this poppy which has opened up in the garden a couple of days ago. I went in close to take this photo because I think when you look really closely you see an astonishing creation.

This is like a work of art. In fact, who would have imagined something like this if they hadn’t seen a flower before? I was thinking, what if an alien landed on Planet Earth and encountered this poppy, wouldn’t they be utterly amazed?

Actually, I’m not an alien here on Planet Earth but I am totally amazed by this. Look at the details! As well as the gorgeous red petals, right in the centre we can see this rich, dark array of structures which make up the reproductive system of this flower. The thirteen stripes on the seedhead – what are they? And why are there thirteen? Don’t you think thirteen is a strange number?

Honestly, I think you can lose yourself in contemplation of a glorious flower like this. On single plant, one single blossom, totally captivating.

And it won’t be here for long. Within a few days, all the petals will fall to the ground, ultimately only leaving the seedhead behind. I think it’s amazing. I’m transfixed! In fact, a simple, astonishing, utterly beautiful, intricately complex flower like this, can make me lose my sense of boundaries and separateness. I can experience transcendence in moments spent with a flower like this.

I guess we humans have been, and continue to be, pretty blasé and unthinking about the plant kingdom. But without it, none of us would be here. It’s the plants which capture and transform the Sun’s energy. We can’t do that. We eat the plants, or eat the animals which eat the plants, so existing a bit further along that chain of energy transformation to get what we need to survive and thrive.

It’s not just that there is an emerging consensus that plant-based diets are best for us in terms of health, they are best for us in terms of the planet too. I’m not vegan. I’m not even vegetarian. But I don’t eat meat every day, and in all the studies I’ve read over the years, time and time again, the conclusions seem to be, if you want a healthy life, and if you want a long life, you could do worse than to limit your meat consumption and move towards a plant-based diet.

There are many many studies now which also show us the benefits to our immune systems, to our inflammatory systems, and to our mental health, of spending time in, and connecting with, the natural world. Primarily, that’s the plant world of trees and flowers. So, it’s not just about seeing plants as a source of nutrition. Engagement with the plant kingdom is good for us every day – noticing, stopping, gazing, contemplating, wondering about, and, especially caring about, flowers, plants, trees is one of the best ways I know to increase the quality of everyday life, and to set yourself up to live as healthily as possible.

Glory to the plant world!

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There’s a chapter in James Hollis, the Jungian analyst’s book, Creating a Life, entitled, “Attending the Soul”. This particular chapter is about the practice of psychiatry and he completely nails an important point.

If we consider health, acute and chronic illness, to be a spectrum of experience, then we need to do more than control or manage disease in order to be healthy.

Here’s how James Hollis puts it….

In seeking scientific verification of success, many of these practitioners [psychiatrists] have narrowed the definitions of pathology to behavioural patterns, faulty cognitions and flawed chemistry. While it is certainly true that we are behaviours, and behaviours may be corrected, and we are cognitions which may be challenged by other cognitions, and we are chemical processes which may be compensated by other chemical processes, none of these modalities – behaviourism, cognitive restructuring and psychopharmacology – should be confused with psychotherapy.

He goes on to say that psychotherapy seeks to address the whole person, even the meaning of the person, the meaning of their suffering or even the meaning of their life.

This same point applies across the whole of Medicine. Illness may include physical pathologies which can, and may, be addressed with drugs or surgery, or it may include adaptive, or protective symptoms and behaviours which can be changed. However, if we are interested in healing, in facilitating the experience of wellbeing, resilience, and health, then we face the fact that a whole human being is more than the sum of his or her parts.

Here’s how he concludes his chapter…

To stop at behavioural change, as important as it is, or cognitive restructuring, liberating as it may be, and pharmacology, necessary as it sometimes becomes, betokens a failure of nerve and sells the soul very short indeed.


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Your other brain?

You probably imagine that you do all your mental work – perceiving, analysing, thinking, feeling and so on – with your brain – that organ inside your skull. However, we’ve known for some time that there are networks of neurones around the hollow organs of the body, especially around the heart and the intestines. We’ve also discovered “neurotransmitters” originating from those parts of the body. So, at very least, we are aware that there are two way connections between the heart and the brain, and the gut and the brain.

A recent article in New Scientist magazine described the network around the gut and named it the “Enteric Nervous System” (ENS). There are around 500,000 neurones around the gut (where there are about 85 billion in the brain). Most surprisingly, alongside the 40 or so neurotransmitters in this network, two chemicals known to affect mood and mental functions, dopamine and serotonin, are also present. In fact, it is now thought that 50% of all dopamine is produced in the brain, and 50% in the ENS. Only 5% of serotonin is produced by the brain, and 95% of it in the ENS. This is quite astonishing when you consider the roles these hormones can play in our behaviour.

The other fascinating fact the author of the New Scientist article highlights is the presence of Lewy bodies in the ENS (these are the pathological lesions seen in the brains of patients with Parkinsons Disease), and patients with Alzheimer’s have characteristic lesions on both their brain and ENS neurones. Do those “neurological” diseases begin in the brain, or in the gut?

It’s good to see scientists discovering how interlinked our bodily systems are, and how difficult it is to reduce a person to parts – even the two parts of Mind and Body. Are those parts really such separate parts of they are so connected and inter-related?

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There was an amazing story recently in the NY Times about a Greek man living in the US. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in his mid 60s and given the prognosis of 9 months to live. He decided that instead expensive treatments and a costly funeral in the US, he would return to his native Greek island of Ikaria.

He moved back in with his parents and went to bed to be cared for by his wife and mother. But he started to feel strong enough to go out so reconnected with childhood friends and re-established his Sunday trips to church.

As the months passed he felt strong enough to do some gardening (a common activity on the island) and planted vegetables thinking he might not live to enjoy them, but he would enjoy growing them. Not only did he live to enjoy them but with his regular routines now of plenty of sleep, regular walks up the hill, spending time in the garden and in the evenings with his friends at the bar, and his weekly visits to the church he began to feel well enough to tackle the old, neglected family vineyard.

Three and a half decades on he is now 97, producing 400 gallons of wine a year from his vineyard and seems to be cancer free.

What can we learn from this inspirational story? Well, the author of the story in the NY Times concludes this –

If you pay careful attention to the way Ikarians have lived their lives, it appears that a dozen subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors are at work. It’s easy to get enough rest if no one else wakes up early and the village goes dead during afternoon naptime. It helps that the cheapest, most accessible foods are also the most healthful — and that your ancestors have spent centuries developing ways to make them taste good. It’s hard to get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills. You’re not likely to ever feel the existential pain of not belonging or even the simple stress of arriving late. Your community makes sure you’ll always have something to eat, but peer pressure will get you to contribute something too. You’re going to grow a garden, because that’s what your parents did, and that’s what your neighbors are doing. You’re less likely to be a victim of crime because everyone at once is a busybody and feels as if he’s being watched. At day’s end, you’ll share a cup of the seasonal herbal tea with your neighbor because that’s what he’s serving. Several glasses of wine may follow the tea, but you’ll drink them in the company of good friends. On Sunday, you’ll attend church, and you’ll fast before Orthodox feast days. Even if you’re antisocial, you’ll never be entirely alone. Your neighbors will cajole you out of your house for the village festival to eat your portion of goat meat


Those are probably reasonable conclusions but what inspires me most about this this story is the series of simple, pragmatic choices this man made. He didn’t set off to “beat cancer”, or to find the elusive magical cure. No, what he did was chose, moment by moment, day by day, to live. He might have died in his bed within days of returning to Ikaria. He would have had the death he chose, if that were the case. But he was not at any point focused on trying to determine the detailed outcomes.

Here is what inspires me about this story – at each stage he was focused on how he would live today and at no point did he think how to escape death.

Read the whole article here.

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The Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh hosted the International Storytelling Festival last week and I participated in a series of workshops entitled “Stories and Cures”. What a fantastic, stimulating, rich experience with a diverse range of nationalities and disciplines taking part. Right at the start of the week I heard something I’d never heard before.

Back in the 18th and early 19th centuries throughout Europe when a person wished to consult with a doctor, there was a practice of letter writing. Someone would write a letter to the doctor whose advised they wished to receive. The letters were typically the person’s story, in their own words, describing what they were experiencing and the contexts of those experiences. In other words, the letters weren’t just lists of symptoms, and certainly weren’t tables of figures or readings, but, rather, they were highly personal, unique life stories.

The doctor would then write back, commenting on parts of the person’s story and giving a range of advice , often touching on issues of morals, hygiene or spiritual life. This was the beginning of a conversation which might be followed up with further exchanges of letters and/or with meeting up for face to face consultations.

Joanna Geyer-Kordesch, whose research as a Professor of the History of Medicine was the basis for this series, has read hundreds of such letters in English, German and French.

I didn’t know such a practice had ever existed.

Just think for a moment how different this practice was from our current doctor-patient relationships.

First of all, the record of the person’s illness is now created and held by the doctor. The stories have been turned into case notes and typically it would be extremely difficult to gain any understanding of who the person is if you were to read these notes. Doctors notes (I don’t think they usually could be stretched to be considered as stories) are mainly lists of symptoms, physical findings and results of investigations, then diagnostic labels based on pathology. The advice recorded certainly isn’t in the form of a conversation or exchange with the patients. In fact advice is more likely to have been replaced by a list of drugs prescribed.

What are the consequences of this change?

There has been a shift in power – from the person to the doctor, or the institution. This shift in power is so great that the words recorded are much more likely to be the doctor’s words and his or her interpretations of the person’s experience, rather than any record at all of the story the person has told (it’s not like that where I work because we have a tradition of writing down the patient’s actual words as much as we can – however, it’s still the doctor making and holding the record, not the person whose life it is)

There has been a shift in focus – from the person to the pathology. As Eric Cassell so beautifully describes in his “The Healer’s Art”, and “The Nature of Suffering”, illness is what the person goes to the doctor with and disease is what he comes home with.

It seems to me we’ve lost sight of the human being in the process. By reducing someone to a mere physical body to measured and imaged, we have dehumanised Medicine. The PERSON has been lost. How do we get the PERSON back into the centre of the stage? How do we get the individual’s agenda back at the heart of the medical engagement? How do we regain the truth of the uniqueness of every single human being and move away from the mass production processes of reducing people to diseases, diseases to “managed”, rather that people to be healed?

A good starting place would be to enable people to tell their stories – in their words, in their order of priority, in their own style – to reveal not just their sensations and experiences, but also their choices, their values and their beliefs (and what about the creation of the record? How and where would you create the record of your illness and your healing?)

Maybe valuing each individual’s story would begin to let us re-humanise Medicine?

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The main news programme on the BBC tonight had the word RECESSION plastered behind the newsreaders for virtually the entire duration of the programme. Got me thinking about what on earth’s going on in our “global economy”. It seems the economic system we are all living with is designed around the concept of growth. Technically, a growth rate less than zero for two consecutive quarters is the official definition of a “recession”. Some of the items covered under this heading included fears of shop owners that people won’t buy so much this Christmas. But hold on a moment. Does this make sense? Can you really design a system that will work forever on the basis of consumption and production of more, more, more? We’ve already seen in recent weeks the consequences of a financial system geared around the mantra of making more and more money. In a finite world, does any of this make sense?

And what happens when human beings just keep consuming more and more? Oh sure, they grow all right – take a look at this map of the increasing levels of obesity in the USA – watch it spread across the whole continent like a contagion. This growth, this getting bigger, fatter, consuming more……this is health? This is a goal worth striving for? This is a system which will deliver good lives for the human race?

I don’t think so.

You see growth in a healthy way, growth in Nature isn’t about ever increasing consumption and accumulation. It’s about development. A healthy child grows into a healthy adult by maturing and developing. This involves learning, experience, acquiring skills, becoming resilient, adaptable and fit. That kind of growth is sustainable. That kind of growth is worth pursuing.

I don’t have the answers to this one, but it just strikes me that maybe we need an economic model which is based on a more natural and a more human concept of growth…….development, maturity and the fitness to be able to cope with what comes along. Not the current model based on greed, consumption and ever increasing production. The current model doesn’t work. It’s an illusion.

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There’s an interesting and thought-provoking article in the BMJ last week about health promotion and a call to tackle the ageing process.

The traditional medical approach to ameliorating modern chronic diseases has been to tackle them individually, as if they were independent of one another. This approach flows naturally from our experience with acute diseases, where patients seek medical care for one condition at a time. In fact, applying this same strategy to infectious diseases in the 20th century helped to deliver the first longevity revolution.4 Although some infectious diseases have chronic effects on health (such as malaria and HIV infection), and others remain difficult to treat (including tuberculosis and most viral diseases), public health efforts to combat these diseases have made it possible for people in today’s developed nations to live long enough to experience one or more of the degenerative and neoplastic diseases that are now the dominant causes of morbidity and death.

The phrase which really struck me here is the last one – “public health efforts to combat these diseases have made it possible for people in today’s developed nations to live long enough to experience one or more of the degenerative and neoplastic diseases that are now the dominant causes of morbidity and death.” Think about that for a moment. Yes, there have been great advances in human health and life-expectancy has increased dramatically (mainly due to the reduction in infant and child mortality), and, yes, the ability to effectively treat so many potentially fatal infections has played a significant role in improving human health. But what we have now is more people living long enough to experience a serious chronic disease. So what are we going to do about that? The authors argue this –

Medical research worldwide has already accomplished much, and is certain to achieve more in decades to come, but its effectiveness will become limited unless there is an increased shift to understanding how ageing affects health and vitality. Most medical research teams are oriented towards the analysis, prevention, or cure of single diseases, despite the fact that nearly all of the diseases and disorders experienced by middle aged and older people still show a near exponential increase in the final third of the life span. Now that comorbidity has become the rule rather than the exception, even if a “cure” was found for any of the major fatal diseases, it would have only a marginal effect on life expectancy and the overall length of healthy life

I would disagree a bit – in fact, I don’t think ageing is the issue, it’s health. I think we don’t so much need to understand how ageing affects health and vitality as to understand how health and vitality affect ageing! It’s true that so much of contemporary health care in focused on treating single diseases and disorders (in fact almost the entire evidence base of “evidence based medicine” is clinical trials conducted on individuals with single conditions), but it’s also true that “comorbidity has become the rule rather than the exception”. That’s such an important point to take on board. We will NOT have any significant further improvement on health and longevity by focusing on single conditions and diseases.

Instead, we need to focus on health and vitality. It’s well known that exercise and nutrition contribute enormously to both of these and some commentators on this article have made that point well.

What I take out of this article however is this – if we want to significantly improve health and longevity we need to focus on HEALTH not disease and we need to take the policy decisions to target health improvement if we are to reduce the burden of suffering and illness.

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