There’s a reason why medicine is called a practice. Much as we, especially Americans, would like to believe that everything is clearly defined and absolute, it is not. Medicine more closely resembles art. And while its practitioners are invariably intelligent, well-educated, well-intentioned folk, pledged to bettering the lot of mankind, they are still just fellow humans trying to make their best guess from the murky soup of often conflicting data that is called scientific evidence.
I’m not the first to express this opinion, but I thought it years before I heard it from anyone else. Long ago I discovered that I stayed healthier when I depended mostly on my own resources — a combination of research, common sense, intuition, naturopaths, medical intuitives, faith healers (yes, that means psychics!) — and consulted MDs only when all else failed, which wasn’t often. Happily, in recent years something very close to my homemade approach is available prepackaged. It’s called holistic or alternative medicine. So I was eager to hear the lecture, “Your Health and Its National Significance,” given at Greenwich Hospital by an alternative medicine practitioner: Greenwich Hospital’s Integrative Medicine Program medical director, Henri Roca, MD. Henri is also one of the expert sources for information on alternative medicine topics that we at Boardroom Publications interview for our health newsletters and e-letters, including the one I work on, Daily Health News. You can learn what Henri has to say about the state of health and health care in America on his Web site, http://drhenriroca.com.
There is no one for whom I have a higher regard than Henri. He is not only knowledgeable about a wide range of healing practices, extremely painstaking and thorough, but he is a truly warm and caring guy. His passion for getting us all back into balance shines through not just in his lectures but in conversations, a lighthouse beacon guiding us past the dangerous shoals — trans fats, processed foods, not enough exercise, self-destructive attitudes, etc. — where well-being runs aground. He is also an eloquent, persuasive speaker and I’m very grateful that he’s lending his time, talents and energy to spreading the message that a holistic approach to our health is the only one that makes sense.
The main points of the lecture were that what is currently called “health care” in our country is misnamed. Our current system is designed only to treat symptoms once we become ill. It is not set up to keep us from getting ill in the first place. Henri had a plethora of facts, figures, graphs and other data that clearly — and alarmingly — show that if we continue on the same path, we will not only impoverish our health as a nation but we will impoverish ourselves in all other ways as well. He concluded by encouraging us to all spread the true health care message to our families, friends, coworkers and to use the power of community action to take back the choices we need to have in order to lead healthy lives.
It was a brilliant presentation and enthusiastically applauded. Much of what he presented were things I already know from fact checking the articles we publish, but I was still impressed. However, going back to my first paragraph, because I have spent so much time researching these topics, I’ve also come to my own conclusions, some of which are not exactly what I heard at the lecture. But as I said at the beginning, there isn’t always an absolute right or wrong on the subject of how to get healthy. So, for what it’s worth, here are a few of my own thoughts…
Current thinking on coconut oil is that it’s a very healthful food — primarily because of the medium chain fatty acids it contains. Mary Newport, MD, believes that it reversed her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease, as she explains in her recent book Alzheimer’s Disease: What if There Was a Cure? (I hope the grammatical error in her title doesn’t indicate less than rigorous research.) Hydrogenated coconut oil is definitely very bad for you, and when Henri listed coconut oil among the fats to be avoided that might be what he meant. (Check our Daily Health News article “Coconut Oil Helps Keep Weight Off” for a some more about coconut oil’s health benefits.)
Whether humans should consume the milk of other mammals has been an ongoing debate for so long that I don’t see a resolution any time soon. I can’t eat or drink cow’s milk myself, but I would not throw dairy under the bus. Milk is a good source of many healthful nutrients, especially if goat and sheep milk, both of which are nutritionally superior to cows milk, are included. Check out “Got Goat, Sheep or Buffalo Milk?” for other out of the ordinary — and very healthful — dairy delights.
Now agave seems like something you would be better off avoiding. It is at least as bad as high fructose corn syrup, which it actually contains in abundance. You can read more in our article “Agave Health Claim Doesn’t Match Its Hype”.
Then we come to the thorny — or maybe I should say scaly — issue of eating fish. Is it healthful or dietary Russian roulette? Mercury in the oceans is certainly a big problem. But not all fish are high in mercury. The Environmental Protection Agency has compiled a list of fish that are considered safe and those that are not so safe. You can find it on the National Resources Defense Council site. Studies come out regularly showing that eating fish has many heath benefits. Most recently, a news item reported that fish consumption lowers risk of colon polyps. Since the nutrients in food work synergistically, we may need everything that’s in the fish, not just separated out omega-3.
Nor is detectable mercury in your blood necessarily caused by last weekend’s clambake. I know I can’t hold my breath for the 45 minutes or so it takes to get a tooth filled, and if it’s an amalgam filling that’s getting replaced, even the most scrupulous precautions to minimize exposure can’t prevent at least some mercury from being absorbed into my body.
If you really want to freak out about mercury, listen to this: In my youth it was standard practice for dentists to distract nervous young patients by giving them some mercury to play with. The little silver puddle in my own palm soon bounced out onto the floor, where it joined the tiny beads dropped by other kids, rolled into corners of the room, collected under the file cabinets. My dentist probably went home with some in his trouser cuffs.
It seems logical to me that since heavy metals get stored forever in your fatty tissues, having some turn up in your blood — for instance any time you lose lose fat, such as if you start exercising a lot and turn fat into muscle or go on a diet and lose weight — might actually be a good thing. It might be a sign that your body is getting rid of what was stored. Interestingly, during my investigation of this topic, I read in Radical Medicine: Cutting-Edge Natural Therapies That Treat the Root Causes of Disease,written by naturopathic doctor Louisa L. Williams, MS, DC, ND, that sun chlorella is a very effective chelating agent for ridding the body of mercury. (Henri is the doctor, I’m not — this is not a recommendation to anyone!)
My take on all of this is that eating some fish from the list of those that are low in mercury is more likely to help than to harm. But I don’t expect to persuade Henri — I doubt he’ll be sharing my bowl of bouillabaise.
In a lighter moment, Henri elicited a laugh from his audience when he explained that for women, levels of oxytocin, the “feel good” hormone, actually rise when they gather together to socialize, but that the same doesn’t work for men. Men, he quipped, need to get a dog. I don’t dispute the health benefits that can derive from owning a pet (if you happen to like pets). But if that’s the whole story, it’s very discouraging. So if I were to come home after a weary night selling violets in a chilly marketplace, flop down in my Morris chair and pine for someone’s head to be resting on my knee, tender and sweet as he can be — I shouldn’t waste my energy because the guy would be happier with a dog??? How on earth has the human race (not to mention romantic musicals) flourished this long?
Eliza Doolittle and I are seeking a second opinion from Dr. John Gray, the relationship guru who wrote Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. He maintains — and cites scientific evidence to prove it — that a woman’s “feel good” hormones rise when she receives the appropriate attentions from a guy to make her feel cherished and respected…while for a guy, the action of demonstrating his love to a woman and getting positive feedback from her that his efforts are appreciated — in other words, that he has succeeded — charges him up. Then everybody’s happy! What could be nicer? A more complete explanation is in Dr. Gray’s book Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice: Hormonal Balance–the Key to Life, Love and Energy.
Winding all this up, let me offer some general observations about healthful living. I don’t find that the majority of people I know who are not already on board are unwilling so much as overwhelmed by just trying to get from day to day. Ask them to do anything additional and they can’t even listen — it’s too much. For instance, we interviewed a doctor for an article on the alarming increase in incidence of high blood pressure among young adults. After citing the usual culprits, such as junk food and too little exercise, he commented that his young patients could be loosely divided into two groups: those who couldn’t find any job at all and those who had to work three jobs to make ends meet. I know representatives of both groups, and I can tell you that those without jobs can only think about where to get enough income to pay their bills…and those with the multiple jobs are tunnel visioned on trying to keep them.
Here’s another thought: we have made busyness sacred. In fact, the very word “scheduled” bestows on any event an inviolate sanctity. No one can argue if you can’t get together with him or her because that time frame is scheduled. But if you’re always busy and fully scheduled, where does that leave you at the end of the day?
Frequently, too, it feels as though returning to simpler ways — my goal for most of my adult life — can end up adding a lot of hassle to your life. For instance, while I agree that buying local is a good thing, I’m not going to drive around looking for local produce when I can find a perfectly good variety of fresh fruits and vegetables in the grocery store I can walk to at the end of my street. I also happen to love kiwis, pomegranates, mangoes, enoki mushrooms, etc., none of which are indigenous to Connecticut but which are all very healthful. Plus I think it’s fun to try something exotic from another part of the world that I’m never likely to visit.
Let me also point out that my Swedish great grandmother, after whom I am named, lived a very full, active life down along the Jersey shore until she died at 101 — eating all sorts of home cooked Swedish foods, which are not known for being low in saturated fat, and lots of fish!
Walter Seward, oldest alumnus from my alma mater, Rutgers University, died at the age of 111. His son was quoted in the obituary that ran in a local newspaper: “He absolutely doted on strawberry ice cream and would eat bowls of it from my earliest memory on,” Jonathan Seward said. “His diet was largely a matter of fat, salt, sugar, chocolate, ice cream and vegetables and carbohydrates cooked until they lost all resistance.”
Importantly, both great grandmother and Mr. Seward were active. It was said of great grandmother that she never sat down and Mr. Seward was an avid hiker. The importance of staying in motion most of the time you’re awake — it doesn’t have to be jogging, puttering around is fine — can’t be emphasized enough, to my mind. It’s long periods of inactivity that are deadly.
I’m going to close with some Jewish wisdom I learned while I was in college. This was passed on to me by the secretary at St. Michael’s Episcopal church at Rutgers: Throughout your life, God will give you many things to enjoy and He means you to do just that. Because when you die and come face to face with Him, you’d better have a very good reason for why you turned down pleasure.
And now I’m done — I don’t think there’s anything to say beyond that!