History's Greatest Death Threats
Since humans first began to live in larger organized communities: that is, since the dawn of societies and culture, three feared and often deadly scourges have afflicted humankind. Those afflictions were: famine, disease and war. In Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Homo Deus, he describes how for the first time in all of recorded human history, novel threats have emerged. More importantly, so have new opportunities to actively shape the fabric of our lives.
The fact that people can make choices that not only directly impact our health but can impact the health and well-being of the majority of the world’s population would simply have been inconceivable in the past. Unfortunately, our track record as “wise choosers” of our own destiny has not been so great. For example, Harari notes that as recently as 2010, more than three times as many people died from the consequences of having too much food (3 million obesity-linked deaths) as from too little (1 million deaths due to malnutrition-linked conditions). Statistics compiled through 2012 show that sugar now poses a greater threat of death (through diabetes) than does dying from violence in war!
The Best of Us; The Worst of Us
With the dawning of the potential for living relatively free from starvation, epidemic or the carnage of war, an existential question remains as to whether people will continue to pursue lifestyle choices that expose them to new sources of sickness, misery and even death? Perhaps early Christian scholars were correct in describing how people struggle mightily to tame their most self-destructive urges, which were once defined as the 7 deadly sins of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth.
I view the notion that we can’t overcome our basest urges as a convenient fiction. For more than 30 years, in my clinical work I’ve witnessed thousands of people actively seek and attain greater degrees of health, fulfillment and even joy through a combination of deliberate and sometimes painful expansion of self-awareness, courage in the face of doubts and fears, and diligence in pursuing new paths that boldly rewrite their futures.
At the same time, I agree that acting in accord with our wisest and best self is rarely easy or easily sustainable. But, I disagree that we should ever equate what is easy with what is possible or even desirable. While I could focus on many different paths for creating our “best selves,” in this blog I am going to pick just one. This single path has tremendous potential to improve the health of many. Today, the threat of deadly communicable diseases (e.g., pandemics of smallpox, bubonic plague, or virulent strains of influenza) has been replaced by the pandemic of dietarily-driven inflammatory processes and their role in activating a wide range of auto-immune disorders.
Inflammation as Friend and Foe
Inflammation is an important part of our immune system’s response to threat. Like our stress response, inflammatory reactions were meant to be triggered only occasionally rather than chronically. Chronic activation of our stress response is as bad for our health as is chronic activation of our inflammatory responses. Both throw our natural, built-in systems of check and balance – our innate biological resiliency – out of whack!
Our immune systems, including our ability to produce a local, disease-fighting inflammatory response, evolved when non-injury threats to our lives were largely due to what got into our bodies outside of our conscious awareness or control (e.g., deadly germs). Immune cells do double duty: they repair the injury and the kill off any bacteria or other “nasties” that penetrated the outer skin of our body. Our “inner skin,” on the other hand is the lining of the gut. Our lumen is filled with immune cells that keep the lining healthy while keeping unhealthy substances, including bacteria, from penetrating into the body’s interior.
Today, the fastest growing source of illness in most developed countries often relates to what we choose to put into our bodies, even when we are reasonably aware of the consequences of those choices. In a recent blog (http://bit.ly/BrainsAndBellies), I described the essential role that the colonies of trillions of bacteria play in promoting and maintaining our physical, emotional and mental health. Gut bacterial counts tipped in unhealthy directions are a primary source of inflammation, especially to the inner walls of our intestines. The lining or intestinal lumen is our key line of defense safeguarding us regarding what gets absorbed into our blood and our body versus what simply passes through the digestive tract until it is naturally excreted. Chronic inflammation of the gut’s sensitive lining breaks down the lumen’s ability to filter good from bad threats. This defense-wall breakdown throws wide open the door for any number of pathogens to enter us.
When a Sweet Tooth Becomes Deadly Fangs
Here’s where wise choosing enters the picture: When we consume foods high in sugar; when we eat foods high in unhealthy saturated fats; when we add unnecessary calories that our bodies convert in excess pounds of fat cells that surround our abdominal organs, overburden our joints and distort our musculo-skeletal frame, we are literally multiplying by the billions the number of unhealthy bacteria that flourish within us.
Once our bacterial flora – our gut microbiome – are tipped in unhealthy directions, a cascade of inflammatory reactions can get established. Over time, those bacteria and the body’s fat cells appear to form an unholy and wholly unhealthy union. Both of them secrete molecules that promote inflammatory reactions throughout the body. The inflammatory reactions are a primary cause of illnesses affecting not only the body, but the brain and mind, as well. A short list of these inflammation-fueled illness conditions includes diabetes, early cognitive decline, depression, memory impairment, diminished planning and problem-solving skills, chronic fatigue, certain chronic pain conditions, and increasingly inflammation appears to play a role in many auto-immune diseases where our body’s own defense system is confused and begins to attack itself.
Are You a Wise Chooser?
So, I must ask you. Are we bound to become modern-day victims of our past great societal successes? Here we are, on the cusp of placing the worst threats to our mortality behind us, and we are actively ushering in whole new categories of life threats. Is that inevitable? We are living decades longer but are less healthy. We are more materially secure and consistently less satisfied, fulfilled or happy. We understand so much more about our universe, but the sources of our fears have multiplied exponentially. We are poised to expand our consciousness in ways that promote the betterment of all the world’s inhabitants, but too often we seem ready to express less empathic connection to others, lowered embrace of human diversity, and a disdain for the ripe and ready capacity we now possess to heal our world, our relationships, and our selves.
Inflammation means “to set on fire.” The fire refers to the skin-reddening and palpable heat produced by the inflammatory reaction. What is true for the body is often true for the mind. Given this holistic parallel, I close by inviting you to practice cooling off your physical inflammation (green leafy vegetables, fats such as olive and coconut oil, nuts, seeds, and high anti-oxidant fruits like blueberries and strawberries) and cooling your psychological inflammation, as well. Mental anti-inflammatory practices are tougher to initiate but the payoff lasts a lifetime. Time-tested wisdom practices as relevant and potent today as in the past include empathy, patience, altruistic generosity, and humility. All the best to you in your on-going efforts to become a wise chooser – for yourself, for others and for our larger world.