When I was a freshman at chiropractic school, on the first day of our Principles of Chiropractic class we were required to memorize the definition of health. (Ironically, the source was Dorland’s Medical Dictionary.) It went like this: “Health is the normal functioning of all parts of the body, and not just the absence of symptoms or disease.”
That sentence is deceptively simple. And it contains some important insights about our current system.
If health is normal function, it makes sense that health care should restore disturbed function (disease) to normal. And this is where the rubber meets the road — while it is restoring one function, it should not disrupt others. If it does, it violates the part of the definition that states “all parts of the body,” and we really shouldn’t call it health care.
The mainstay of our current system is medications. Currently, about 50 percent of the U.S. population is on at least one prescription, and the number swells to 80 percent when over-the-counter drugs are added in.
The percentage of people on several meds, as well as the number of children given prescriptions, also are rising rapidly.
The purpose of a drug is to restore a function to “normal.” Drugs lower blood pressure, reduce swelling and fevers, shrink swollen prostates and raise low hormonal levels. But is that all they do?
Of course we have all seen the drug ads, where the list of “side effects” is read. One way to look at these secondary effects of the drug is to see them as bodily functions that have been disrupted. Yes, the drug lowers your blood pressure, but it might also give you diabetes. Yes, the acid blocker makes your heartburn feel better, but it increases your risk of osteoporosis and lower bowel problems. Yes, that anti-inflammatory eases your knee pain, but it also raises your chances of intestinal bleeding and perforation. And while that antibiotic is helping your infection, it is also disrupting the normal balance of bacteria in your system.
According to our definition of health, any treatment where the function of one system is improved at the expense of another does not qualify as true health care. This type of care, where the focus is on attacking a disease, rather than improving the health of the whole body, is better called disease care.
One of the most thought-provoking comments I have heard in my wellness training is that a drug may save your life, but it will never improve your health.
True health care, which only restores function, without upsetting other systems, is sometimes called wellness care. This is the type of care usually given by chiropractors, acupuncturists, naturopaths and physical therapists.
Ideally, a health care system (in the broader sense of the word) should have a good balance between disease care and wellness care. Disease care is a vital part of any health care system.
But it should not be the cornerstone of the whole system, because disease care does not improve health. Despite all the medical advances in recent years, the great strides in treating cancer and other diseases, the millions of dollars raised in research to cure these problems, and increasing numbers of people on medications, our overall health is declining. Rates of chronic diseases are increasing, in particular Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and obesity.
Our current disease-based system does nothing to stop this, and, in fact, seems to contribute to it. Drug side effects are so prevalent, and so many of us are consuming so many meds, we have come to the point that prescription drugs are estimated to be the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S.
Many of my patients simply do not feel well enough to exercise or even improve their diets (that can take a lot of work!) until their health is improved to the point that they can get off some of their meds.
It is commonly assumed that serious diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease are out of the realm of wellness care, and should only be treated medically. This is not true; wellness care can be very successful in treating these conditions, especially in the early stages. In fact, I have also seen serious, even life-threatening conditions like atrial fibrillation that were directly caused by prescription meds. I have also seen these problems resolve when a patient no longer needs the medication, due to wellness care.
I do not make recommendations about patients getting off their meds. I leave that to the doctor that prescribed them in the first place.
Currently, our system is tilted too heavily in favor of disease care. We are not in a position to change abruptly to a wellness-based system; there is too much momentum (and money) on our current course. But the more we understand the nature of health, wellness and disease care, the better our choices. And I find my patients who use wellness as the basis for their health care tend to be healthier, use fewer medications, and have more energy than those who don’t.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town.