- General Health -

Take Care of Yourself!

Don’t take two aspirin and call this doctor in the morning. He’d rather see you nourish, protect and heal your body for real.

From the earliest phases of my career as a doctor, I was uncomfortably aware that, despite all my rigorous medical training, I did not have all the answers and solutions for my patient’s health problems. Many vague complaints, lingering aches or acute “viral syndromes” seemed to fill the clinics. Very often, a complete history and physical exam, x-ray and laboratory tests revealed only findings within “normal limits,” and I regularly had to leave my troubled (and sometimes suffering) patients with the vague reassurance that “everything seems to be fine.”

In truth, much of the health difficulties I saw seemed intertwined with life’s daily stresses, tension in family relationships, poor health habits and worries about jobs or money. All those fancy diseases I had heard about in medical school were far and few between, and I had little chance to use the medications with which I had been taught to treat ailments. In fact, I saw a great many medication-caused problems.

Something wasn’t right. I was reminded of the Hippocratic Oath I took at medical school graduation: “I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but I will never use it to injure or wrong them, I will not give poison to anyone though asked to do so…”

My own judgment was now telling me that there were answers and understanding beyond the predominantly accepted interpretations of disease and treatment, and so I went in search of them. I began examining the true roots of illness and also began exploring a broad range of holistic and alternative treatments, including nutrition and detoxification, and many new and ancient healing methods. In the process, I dramatically expanded both my perspectives and my practice of medicine – away from curing specific mystery ailments and toward the pursuit of health.

As I began integrating these different approaches and disciplines into my own life and practice, I very quickly began seeing and experiencing dramatic, positive results. My own health was transformed, as was the well-being of my patients, many of whom I was finally able to help for real. Increasingly, my patients began remarking that they felt better than they had in years. To me, this was what healing was supposed to be about.

Shifting Gears

I began exploring this new approach to medicine in the 1970s, when alternative and Eastern methods were just beginning to gain ground in the United States. Much of the information I’ve worked with for decades is still not proven under scientific method, and because it is of little interest to the conventional medical community or pharmaceutical industry, very little of it has even been scientifically studied. Fortunately, this is beginning to change. In the meantime, the positive, observable results of many alternative methods are undeniable, and the risks are comparatively tiny: While negative reactions to most naturopathic alternative treatments are quite rare, negative reactions to prescription drugs rank as the fourth leading cause of death in this country, and preventable medical errors rank as the eighth – above breast cancer, traffic accidents and AIDS.

Over the course of the past 20 or 30 years, our view of health and healthcare in this country has changed a great deal. Much of the change has stemmed from dissatisfaction and disillusionment: Many people are simply no longer satisfied with the way that the conventional American medical establishment deals with illness.

On the whole, people have grown increasingly dissatisfied with superficial “Band-Aid” approaches, with dangerous and unaffordable drugs, with bewildering side effects, with invasive surgeries, with bureaucratic “health-maintenance” organizations. They’ve also grown tired of feeling lousy all the time, and of being dependent on a system that doesn’t seem to have their best health or their best interests in mind. As a result, many people are now seeking more involvement with their healthcare, and seeking out doctors, healers and teachers who can help them to become more proactively involved. Rather than “curing” patients with drugs, these experts assist individuals in healing themselves using integrated methods.

Making Better Choices

One of the basic healing philosophies of integrative medicine is: Lifestyle first, natural therapies next, and drugs last. Rather than prescribing pills as a “first line of offense,” integrative medicine first attempts to address the cause of any disturbances and to then strengthen the body’s own defense systems. I believe in this philosophy wholeheartedly – because I have seen it work, and because I have seen it powerfully enhance lives.

When our overall goal is one of integrated enhancement (vs. the battling of isolated symptoms) we become partners with our bodies, not adversaries. We do a better job of nurturing our life force and our vitality. Moreover, the health issues we do encounter challenge us to grow and change for the better. As we adjust our lives for greater balance, we evolve in unanticipated ways and enjoy immense, unforeseen side benefits (vs. unwelcome side effects). We can also avoid encountering many of the more serious problems from which unexamined life habits can too often result.

Although much of Western medicine is founded on heroically resolving specific health problems only after serious symptoms or injuries arise, I prefer to see my patients rise to embark on what I call a “creative health program” and to embrace preventive challenges rather than reacting to life-threatening ones. Basically, this involves heeding the body’s subtler distress signals and making intelligent, simple changes that improve health, eliminate symptoms and prevent disease – before the body’s system starts falling apart.

Making It Simple

I think one of the simplest, most useful ways of understanding health challenges involves recognizing that problems in the body and mind typically arise from: A) deficiency (where we are not acquiring sufficient substance, nutrients or rest to meet our body’s and mind’s needs); B) congestion (where excessive intake, sluggish elimination or general overload clog or overwhelm our systems); or C) a combination of the two.

Deficiencies occur from not getting adequate nutrients, fresh foods, fiber, water, fresh air and sleep. Congestion results from taking in excesses of heavy and over-processed foods, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, refined sugar and other additives. Both kinds of imbalances can also occur with mental, emotional and physical factors (e.g., thinking more than feeling, talking more than listening, sitting more than walking).

Naturopathically, deficiency and toxicity define the two extremes of the human health continuum, and in some cases, their symptoms can appear similar. People who are deficient may experience such problems as fatigue, coldness, hair loss or dry skin. The first healing choice for deficiency is to nourish the body with wholesome foods, adequate rest and whatever else is required to stimulate and support healing.

In Western, industrialized civilizations, congestive problems are far more common. Symptoms may include acute colds and sinus or allergic problems, skin rashes, sluggish energy, digestive disturbances and excess weight. Likewise, many chronic diseases, from arthritis and diabetes to cardiovascular disease and cancer, can originate from congestive, health-destroying habits.

Of course, poor food choices are not the sole culprit. We are constantly dabbing, spraying, imbibing and inhaling chemicals from the air and water, from personal care products and household cleansers to over-the-counter drugs and prescription medications (the last of which regularly ranks among the five leading causes of death in this country). Many of our acute and chronic diseases result from the clogging of our tissues and tubes in this way, suffocating our cells, confusing our immune systems and sapping the mental clarity and vital energy we need to make healthier choices.

Because so many medical problems proceed from congestive causes, many can also be prevented or treated (at least in part) by embarking on a purification process of cleansing and detoxification. The March issue of EL will focus on this topic in depth, and I’ll be covering this and several related topics (including gastrointestinal health, healthy bacteria, food reactions and false fat) over the course of the next several issues, but to encourage you to start thinking about these concepts now, here is a brief overview of some key points.

Getting Well

In more than 25 years of medical practice, I have extensively utilized various detox and healing/rejuvenation practices for both me and literally thousands of patients. I believe in and consider the cleansing/fasting/detoxification process to be the missing link in Western nutrition and a key to the health and vitality of our civilization.

There are two important levels to what I call the Purification Process:

The first is the clearing of any substance habits, abuses or addictions. To me, this is very often the first step in health liberation, freeing ourselves from the emotional connection and dependence on certain items we use to give us energy or sedate us. This program encourages you to take a break (which may be temporary or lifelong) from such common habits as the daily intake of sugar (including all refined sugar and corn syrups – present in virtually everything these days), caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and food-additive chemicals (especially watch the regular use of aspartame and MSG), from chemically loaded beauty products and household cleansers, and to the extent possible, from over-the-counter and prescription pharmaceuticals. Do not stop taking any prescribed medication without consulting with your doctor, however, and if you are unable to kick a particular habit, do not let that stop you from proceeding with the rest of the purification process. You may find your cravings diminished when your system is stronger. Come back and tackle your habit when you are ready.

The next factor to examine is food reactions. Food reactions typically occur with the foods we eat most regularly and the foods most commonly available in society, namely wheat, cow’s milk and sugar, followed by eggs, corn, soy and peanuts. My recent book, The False Fat Diet (Ballantine Books, 2000), is all about the great variety of health conditions caused by these reactions and about how following a systematic program of avoidance and challenge can help you discover your individual sensitivities, reactions and needs.

The Sensitive Seven*
*The seven most common food reactions, mainly due to the persistent intake of these foods in the diet and as the base of most processed foods.

  • Wheat
  • Sugar
  • Cow’s Milk
  • Eggs
  • Corn
  • Soy
  • Peanuts

Food reactions are quite common and often result from digestive dysfunction. There are many factors that impact the function of the gastrointestinal tract (see Sidebar below). Overeating, combining too many foods at once, incomplete chewing, drinking too much while eating (which dilutes the digestive juices), and chronic stress all weaken our ability to digest foods thoroughly.

Furthermore, many people have an imbalance of intestinal flora. This can happen as a result of a chemical imbalance in the body, or because healthy bacteria have been killed off by an overuse of antibiotics – extremely common in modern medicine. When healthy bacteria aren’t present, irritating bacteria flourish, and fermenting yeast organisms or parasites can take up residence within our intestines. These cause an irritation of the membranes, preventing the proper absorption of nutrients and causing abnormal absorption of larger molecules (often referred to as “leaky gut” syndrome).

Allowing toxins to enter the bloodstream in this way can affect our brain function, mood and energy level, and cause a host of secondary immune and biochemical reactions, including swelling, water retention, weight gain, digestive distress, depression, metabolic disturbances, hormonal imbalances and depressed immunity. (It is interesting to note that our digestive tract has the highest amount of immune activity of any area in the human body.)

Getting Past Reaction

Food reactions are generated through multiple systems in our body – digestive, immune, biochemical and hormonal – causing bloating and swelling in the gut and soft tissues, plus many other possible problems. These reactions caused by an allergic or depleted system also make us more sensitive to environmental toxins. Allowing all these reactions to quiet and clear can help any person who is suffering from them to feel much better in short order.

Following an elimination diet (avoiding our habitual or commonly eaten foods as well as the most reactive foods) initiates the purification process. After a week or two of this avoidance, you will likely be feeling and looking much better, and many of your body’s symptomatic reactions will have subsided. At this point you can challenge your system by eating one of these foods and then carefully monitoring any untoward effects over the next few days.

Most (but not all) food reactions occur within the first 24 hours. If after a few days – the amount of time it generally takes a food to totally clear your body – you’ve still experienced no problems, the food you tested is probably okay for you to include in your diet.

Getting the Answers

Testing for food sensitivities and flora imbalances is available from many naturally oriented physicians (N.D.s, D.O.s and some M.D.s) as well as from some chiropractors and acupuncturists who have studied gastrointestinal function and nutritional medicine. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted, relatively few conventional medical doctors have substantial training in this type of health knowledge or much experience working with subtle, pre-disease health states. But as patients begin to express an interest in and demand this information, the state of medical practice will change. For the time being, if your regular doctor doesn’t seem well informed, don’t hesitate to seek advice from another well-qualified practitioner.

I also recommend that you continue to educate (and re-educate) yourself about the workings of your own body and about self-care strategies. In future articles of EL, I’ll be addressing what I see as some of the most important fundamental concepts in creating optimal health and vitality. You can also refer to my books or visit my Web site (www.elsonhaas.com) for more health and wellness suggestions.

What I attempt to do – in all my other writings and in my medical practice – is to place your health and that of your family back into your own hands, because so much of it is up to you. It really matters how you live – what you do and what you eat, and what you think and feel.

So go ahead and be your own best doctor. Take hold of yourself and your habits, and do what you can to be vital, healthy and happy. You’ll find it is well worth the effort, and more empowering than you ever imagined.

Elson M. Haas, M.D., is medical director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin in San Rafael, Calif., and a leading practitioner of integrated medicine. He is also the author of many highly acclaimed books, including, Staying Healthy With Nutrition, The Detox Diet, and A Cookbook for All Seasons. His classic book, Staying Healthy With the Seasons, is currently in its 25th reprinting and will soon be available in a fully updated 21st-century edition. Dr. Haas will be a regular contributor to EL in 2003. You can find out more about him and sign up for his free newsletter at www.elsonhaas.com.

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