The Gods Must Be Angry

Once upon a time we had a very different idea about what caused illness and maintained the balance between life and death. Many cultures including the ancient Greeks believed that your health was based more on your character and relationship with the Gods. A plague of boils might require a ritual sacrifice or the performance of a task to appease angry Gods. In our modern culture we may think that the idea is silly but it looks like we have come full circle. I’ll explain.

Hippocrates is considered the “Father of Western Medicine”. If the name sounds familiar it is probably because you have heard of the Hippocratic oath that many physicians take when they enter practice. It includes such concepts as working for the good of the patient, vows to practice with high ethical standards and to “first, do no harm.” We celebrate his theories and ideas now but in his day he was quite controversial. His ideas about health were a departure from all the traditional beliefs.

Hippocrates asserted that a man’s health has more to do with his environment including his diet and lifestyle than the temperament of the Gods. Prior to his ideas healing was the sole domain of religion being left to the shaman, priest or holy man. Hippocrates introduce concepts in diagnosis, anatomy and physiology that revolutionized the administration of health care. His ideas sparked a cascade of events that has saved and improved millions of lives. Now we don’t think he was really such a quack after all!

You remember I said we have come full circle right? With all of our advances in modern medicine we tend to think that if we get sick or fat or dysfunctional that it is just because of some bad luck. If the problem isn’t bad luck then it’s obviously bad genes. Suggestions that problems like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer are environmental are dismissed as being unscientific quackery by some. Some of this is just garden variety denial. It’s a heavy load of guilt to think that we are responsible for some of the bad things that happen to us. It seems cruel to say that Grandma died of cancer because of her habits or that our children are chubby because of the foods they are eating while they sit around all day. It’s just easier to think that Grandma got unlucky and that Junior is pudgy because he hasn’t grown into his body yet. How unscientific is that?

Some of this thinking is institutionalized. There is much more money in treatment than prevention. If I sell a pill that treats heart disease, the most prolific killer in America, I make money as long as patients take it consistently. I lose money when people avoid getting heart disease. It is much more lucrative when I can make people believe that they are sick because of things beyond their control or influence like “bad genes” or rotten luck. Thinking any other way is just bad for business.

The truth is that anybody can stack the deck in their favor when it comes to developing chronic disease. The solutions are all environmental not genetic. The truth is that thousands of years of genetic refinement has left our gene pool stronger than ever, not the other way around. Our genes are a sort of program or script that tells our bodies at the cellular and chemical level how to respond to their environment. So when we get fat, for example, this is because our genes are responding to the environment they are in. That environment includes the foods we eat, the physical demands on our bodies, the toxins we may be exposed to and various other stresses we face. As we change that environment we change the expression of those genes.

We don’t all respond the same to changes in the environment. Genetically human beings are 99% similar but that other 1% is enough to make each of us unique. This 1% determines things like the color of hair, eyes and skin. It also determines how your body will respond to exercise, polluted air, stress, and certain foods. They aren’t good or bad. They are just different. The whole key to personal health is to create the right environment for your genes.

Wait a minute…. That sounds familiar right? Our health has more to do with our environment, including diet and lifestyle than the temperament of the Gods or chance of the genetic lottery. Hippocrates was right without even realizing how right he was. Regardless of your health and circumstances you can find ways to improve your quality of life by improving your environment.

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