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Do You Want a Health Care System or a Healing System?

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The current debate over health care reform has been about politics and money. There is no escaping either factor. Huge vested interests are spending millions of dollars a day to pressure Congress into minimal reform. But even if the political system were pure as snow, an aging American population makes it inevitable that the health care system is going to grow more and more expensive. These external factors fill the news every day, obscuring a simple fact: Your health depends far more on the healing system than the health care system. The healing system is inside your body. Its intricacies are just now being fully explored, but certain broad trends have become clear.

  • The healing system is more flexible and powerful than previously thought. For example, the brain can heal itself, a finding that seemed impossible a few decades ago.
  • The healing system is highly sensitive to outside conditions. Stress and emotional discomfort, for example, can severely compromise your ability to heal.
  • Healing affects your genes and how they are expressed. An expressed gene is an active one, and this activity turns out to be far more responsive to your state of mind-body health than previously thought. The old image of fixed genes is rapidly changing to a conception in which the body's genetic material is eavesdropping on all the experiences in your life. In short, a gene isn't a thing; it's a process.
  • The healing system is automatic, but your lifestyle choices make a huge difference in the efficiency of healing.

These factors hold true throughout your life, and if we simplify them to one sentence, this would be it: Change your life and you change your healing system. That may sound like the advice we get constantly about proper diet, exercise, and stress management. But with new evidence showing up every day that lifestyle affects an incurable disease like Alzheimer's, for example, it's becoming clear that your own healing system will always be the front-line defender of your well-being, not your doctor or the drug companies. So-called lifestyle diseases used to be restricted to conditions like heart disease, obesity, and type II diabetes, where a link with improper diet was easily demonstrated. Now a wider range of disorders is being linked to lifestyle choices, not by one-to-one correlations but through more general trends. That is, no one can predict exactly which disease you might contract due to poor lifestyle choices, but at the same time, reversing those poor choices has a broad effect in improving your power to heal.

Some recent statistics bring home how crucial it is to rely on the healing system rather than the healthcare system:

  • 58 million Americans are overweight; 40 million obese; 3 million morbidly obese
  • Eight out of 10 people over 25 are overweight
  • 78% of Americans don't meet basic activity level recommendations
  • 25% are completely sedentary
  • 76% increase in Type II diabetes in adults 30-40 years old since 1990

The statistic that really jumps out has to do with sedentary lifestyles. We are addicted to sitting on the couch watching beautiful, slim, fit actors and athletes on television, with a steady increase in other sedentary activities like surfing the Internet and playing video games. In addition, these activities are reaching into younger age groups, making children less active and therefore more inclined to obesity. Yet the simple fact is that the alternative to being sedentary isn't joining a gym. The greatest benefit of exercise occurs when you move from being sedentary to light activity like walking, doing housework, gardening, and climbing the stairs. Exercise at higher levels will bring increased benefits, certainly, but this first step brings the biggest single improvement in health. Being sedentary is more harmful to you than forgetting to jog three times a week. In addition, at least one study has shown that when overweight adults are put into groups that walk, jog, or run every day, the group that lost the most weight were the walkers.

Thrashing out health care reform is a defining issue for the coming decade and an inescapable duty. Having said that, I urge you to look inward rather than outward. The most perfect health care system can't do as much for you, on a daily basis, or do it as cheaply as your own healing system. The evidence is there, waiting to be acted upon.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle

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