Absence and opposites have been a recurring theme in my fantasy readings of late (Discworld novels, Black Leopard, Red Wolf). Darkness as the absence of light, but yet something else as the opposite of light; silence as the absence of sound, but not its opposite; sadness as the opposite of happiness, not its absence. Health is looked at in the same way these days: not merely as the absence of disease, but as a state of “complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing” (1).
This distinction is important and merits consideration. Health, so defined as the opposite of disease, implies that disease lies in the physical (obvious), mental (also sort of obvious), but also in the social (very much less obvious). There is of course talk of healthy environments, healthy relationships, healthy lifestyles; but not so much of diseased environments, diseased relationships, or diseased lifestyles. That would be too blunt, and too unnerving. But if we really want to achieve this ideal of health, we need to heal all three aspects. And I think that we are doing a very poor job there.
First of all, the physical. Chronic diseases are rampant everywhere. During my course “Nutrition, Heart Disease and Diabetes” the “undiagnosed” were even mentioned as a special category of the sick: people who have no idea they are sick, and people who probably know they are, but are not part of the statistics, either because they don’t have access to, or don’t make use of, medical care. But let me ask you this: how well is the medical establishment prepared to achieve your complete physical wellbeing? I am not talking about individuals, there are numerous wonderful people out there working on this, but I am talking about the system as a whole. We need the whole system to work well, not just a few of its members.
Let me give you a personal example. I have suffered from terrible headaches most of my adult life (that the doctors think are probably, but not definitely, migraines). I had them checked out for the first time in my early twenties, because they had got out of hand and I couldn’t lead a normal life anymore. I went from the GP to the neurologist to the optician. No one found anything wrong with me. Yet, 3-4 times a week I was confined to the darkest spot I could find in the house, lying down and covering my eyes and ears for hours at a time. Then one day, I took a food intolerance test, which may or may not have been scientific, and may or may not have been marketing hocus-pocus. The truth is I don’t care what it was, because I actually got what I needed out of it. The result of the test was a list of foods I should not be eating. It included random stuff like white flour, corn, rice, salmon, fish eggs, beer, green tea, mayo. But the one food on the list that has actually changed my life was oats. I love oats, and I was consuming them on a daily basis. I stopped after the test, and for several months I didn’t eat any. And the headaches went away almost completely. Then I decided to give them a try, had one serving one morning, and the next day I was hiding in the dark again. Ever since, I think I have eaten oats or something containing oats less than 5 times. But here is what adult me, reading about food and nutrition, thinks: it was probably not oats in general, but processed oats in particular (yes, I was eating boxed cereal). And it may not have been processed oats necessarily, but processed foods. Oats were just something I consumed often at the time.
I still get these nasty headaches, and they are truly crippling. I have seen other doctors, and I have been given medication to control the pain, but nothing on how to avoid getting the pain in the first place. It can’t be the oats, because I don’t eat them. But it can be the processed foods, because I still eat some of those. Not all the time, but I do. And I am starting to think that they are truly the reason why I feel sick so often, why I wake up with a headache almost every morning, why my energy is low, maybe even why my mind is heavy.
Which brings me to the second point, mental wellbeing. The physical wellbeing impacts the mental one. You can’t have mental wellbeing when you don’t sleep enough, or well, when you are stressed, overwhelmed, feel like you never get to do everything you would like to, or feel unsatisfied, maybe without being able to point to the reason. There are many reasons for mental “unwellness”, but I think the one that everyone has to deal with is stress. Stress is a part of life, but a lot of it today is unnecessary. Stressing about conforming or not to social norms; stressing about making your employer more money; stressing not just about achievement, but overachievement. These are all man-invented things that we can all live without. Yet they bring us so much misery. And this misery will creep into our social life.
I think for most of us, at least that is my case, we are happy with parts of our life, but there is one, or more, that we would change. We may have a happy private life – family, friends; or a happily satisfying career; or a side activity that brings meaning to our lives. But how many are happy in all areas? Don’t check social media, you don’t know what’s behind an edited life…
So truly, how complete is our social wellbeing in general? How well do we fit in our communities? How happy are we with our work-family-self balance? By WHO’s definition, how many people on Earth are actually healthy? I, for one, don’t think that I am. Are you?
(1) WHO’s definition of health, most recently found in “Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems”, p. 7