Monday, February 2, 2009

Heredity and Environment

Remember that whole hoopla about "heredity vs. environment"? There was so much debate, for decades, over what the cause of human behavior was -- heredity (i.e. genetics) or environment (i.e. upbringing)? Eventually, everyone agreed that it is both, always both -- an interaction between our heredity and our environment makes us who we are. I believe it is time for a similar consensus about the real cause of chronic illness -- it's not just lifestyle (environment) or just biochemistry (heredity) -- it's both, and more. Who we are and what we do are both important causative factors of illness.

Who we are -- our genes, our personality, our dosha (ayurvedic type), our innate strengths and weaknesses -- interacts with what we do -- where we live, how we eat, how we use our bodies and minds, how we interact with others and our environment. It is the result of this interaction between who we are and what we do that can lead to chronic illness.

A "strong" person -- a person with a strong constitution, a strong will to live, kapha-dosha, resilience, and hardiness -- can withstand a harsh lifestyle -- a stressful environment, say, or an unhealthy diet -- and not get sick. A "weak" person, on the other hand -- timid, sensitive, vata-dosha, prone to self-doubt or inner self-sabotage, perhaps from a long line of malnourished and overworked ancestors -- may succumb to serious illness simply from the stresses of daily life. However, as the stresses of modern life increase, more and stronger individuals will be affected by our common, unhealthy environment.

We cannot change our constitution, or change the past. We can only change our present and future -- reduce stress now and from this day forward, and reduce our probability of becoming or staying ill. But really, it is all a numbers game. Your probability of becoming ill decreases if you reduce stress and live a healthy lifestyle, and it increases if you are under stress or make unhealthy choices.

However, not everything is under our control. All of us are exposed to the toxins that modern Western society has created. Here in Oregon, for example, a recent study found that average Oregonians have all six classes of toxic chemicals in their bodies, including mercury, phthalates, PCBs, PFCs, organophospahte pesticides, and bisphenol A.

The most serious result of pollution is its harmful biological effects on human health and on the food chain of animals, birds, and marine life. Pollution can destroy vegetation that provides food and shelter. It can seriously disrupt the balance of nature, and, in extreme cases, can cause the death of humans --

Healthy lifestyle choices can help mediate and reduce the dangerous health effects of stress and pollution. Relaxation exercises such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, and walking can reduce the "stress response" (fight or flight), stimulate the "relaxation response" (parasympathetic dominance), and minimize the impacts of stress on the body.

Healthy dietary choices such as eating fresh, raw or lightly-cooked, organic fruits, vegetables, sprouts, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and lots of filtered water can fortify and cleanse the body to ward off many health threats.

Nutritional supplements can also strengthen and shield the body against disease. For example, omega-3 oils protect the heart and connective tissue, and antioxidant vitamins such as A, C, E, selenium, coQ-10, and quercetin can destroy the pollution-created free-radicals that may lead to cancer and other illnesses. So a healthy lifestyle can help protect you, despite the toxicity of our modern world.

So, if you are ill, make new, healthier choices, and you will increase your odds of healing and reduce your odds of getting or staying ill. But remember, if you still don't get better, it is not necessarily your fault. It may not be your fault at all.

Perhaps you were never breastfed, you were raised on junk food, and like all of us you were and are exposed to thousands of toxic substances. Perhaps as an adult you have been single-parenting or experiencing major work and financial stresses. And maybe now you have a chronic illness that isn't getting better despite all of the supplements and herbs and medications and exercise and broccoli sprouts in the world. Please don't blame yourself. It's not your fault. Just do your best, and let go of the rest.

First, it may take months, years, or even decades of healthy living to heal the injuries of the past. Second, even if healthy-living doesn't "cure" you, it can and will improve your quality of life and prognosis immensely. Third, even if your current illness doesn't disappear or even visibly improve once you've changed your lifestyle, you may be preventing the emergence of other, more severe illnesses or a worsening of your current illness. You new life-changes may not make you better, but will most likely prevent you from getting worse.

Finally, living well is its own reward. By taking care of yourself, you are healing. You are learning to love yourself and live with integrity. You are setting a positive example for your family, your friends, and everyone you know. Your example of holistic living may prevent untold numbers of other people from getting ill. Healing is its own reward.

Be well, or die trying. That may sound morbid, but the joy is in the journey. We may never "get healthy" (as in, "get perfect"), but we can live healthy, and enjoy what life we have, with self-love and integrity. Rachel Naomi Remen says it best in her Kitchen Table Wisdom essay "Life is for the Well":

What she thought was that you had to be without symptoms to enjoy life, to go to the theater, to have children, to love. It was as if life was only lived by well people, could only be lived by well people....She has stopped pursuing the perfect health she once had, and does what she can to strengthen her body in simple, natural ways....Laughingly, she says that she has made a substitution in the cross-stitched sampler that hangs on the walls of her inner life. It used to say, "Life is only for the well." Now it says, "Anything worth doing is worth doing half-assed."


Athlyn Green said...

These insights are so on-target.

Thank goodness that awareness is growing about environmental toxins, stress, and chemical laden foods.

People are increasingly opting for healthful dietary and living choices.

Each small step we take makes a big difference to overall health.

jindi said...

Yoga holds that a person’s health condition depends on himself. It lays emphasis on physical, mental and emotional balance and development of a sense of harmony with all of life. There’s nothing mystical about it.Nor is it external. Rather it is an inner faculty. Yoga endeavors to re-establish inner balance through a variety of ways, ranging from the gross to the subtle. Which is why it is considered a holistic art.Rather than prescribe treatments, yoga therapy encourages awareness. Through age-old yogic techniques, we get to know ourselves better.From that knowledge, comes the ability to more easily accept and adapt to change, resulting in enhanced well-being in body, mind, heart and spirit. Hence its applicability to almost all chronic conditions.

What approach does yoga therapy take?

Contrary to modern medical science that tries to identify the pathogenic factor (be it a toxic substance, a micro-organism, or metabolic disorder) then eliminate it, Yoga takes a totally different point of view. It holds that if a person is sick there must be a deeper reason behind it – that illness doesn’t arise by chance. It is the result of an imbalance, a disruption in the body-mind complex that creates the condition. Here the symptoms, the pathogenic factors, are not the issue. Yoga believes that the root cause lies somewhere else.
yoga therapy