In this episode, we will explore the complexity of health.
Winston Churchill did all the wrong things. He drank too much. He smoked too much. He had odd sleep hours. He ate too much rich food. But, while he had heart problems, he lived until he was 90 and held the highest office in the UK in both his 60’s and 80’s. The answers to why he was healthy and active in spite of all the “bad” things he did, is why there can never be a simple answer to health. And why only we, and not an institution that only offers help in a simple product manner, can do the work to give us the best chance of being healthy.
While diet is the key trigger factor in Chronic Illness, Churchill shows us that other factors are involved, principally stress. Stress that in humans, as in all social animals, is primarily caused not by real threats but by social threats and pressure. So, in our case, worrying about global warming, about what to wear tonight, your boss and so on, can drive high and persistent stress levels that diminish or destroy our immune system. This is the core of Chronic Illness. Chronic illness expresses itself in some kind of autoimmune response, where our immune system starts to attack us.
Here is how this process of constant stress works against us.
As Sapolsky and Marmot (see prior post) tells us, our position in the social hierarchy is key to this response. The further down we are, the less control we have and so the more stress. This has nothing to do with medicine and cannot be remediated by a doctor.
It appears that the modern diet, both agricultural and industrial is a factor in making our stress response worse.
The impact of the Industrial Diet also has a gradient of harm. Least affected, AT FIRST, are people from populations that have been well adapted to the western agricultural diet. Such as peoples from Northern Europe or the Middle East. Most affected are populations that have had the least exposure. Such as all Indigenous peoples.
But even those of us, who have some adaptation, lose that in our 40’s and 50’s.
If we continue to live our lives inside the pre-jump world where all the forces of the “shoulds” are the most intense and where we have the least control, then medicine cannot help us when confronted by the chronic illness epidemic.
Only if we step outside and begin to build a life based on how humans are designed to live and so be healthy, so we have a chance. In the next episode, we will look at what that might mean in practice.
Epilogue 1: Here is the full hour of Sapolsky’s thesis on stress and an excellent introduction to Marmot’s work on human hierarchy and stress and illness – The Whitehall Study
Epilogue 2: Here is Sir Michael Marmot talking more on the social determinants of health. He explains why it is that our social differences and situations determine our health and not access to the healthcare system. It is inequality not poverty that is the issue.
Here is a comparison of an artery from a low status monkey on the left compared to a high status monkey on the left. Look at the plaque build up on the low status animal. Both monkeys have the same diet. The issue is stress driven.
Here is Marmot going deeper into the issue of stress driven by rank and control – showing that there are not only radical health differences between nations but also inside them that have nothing to do with access to healthcare.
Below is a slide from this video that highlights these differences.
Marmot’s slide shows us all UK data. At the top, we see a ten year gradient in life expectancy between the best off and the least. All have access to the NHS. The health issue is not access but the hierarchy itself.
The graph at the bottom shows disability. Here the gradient is even steeper. The quality of life degrades all down the gradient. Here is where individuals and societies bear the most costs.
So when the call is for the NHS to be funded more or to have a national system of health in the US, all these calls ignore the reality that our health is not determined by access to a healthcare system.
I don’t think that any government will be able to act upon this insight. Surely, only each of as individuals can?