My grandmother, may she rest in peace, smoked. A lot. Being a religious Jew the only time she didn’t smoke was on the Sabbath. She smoked from around the age of 16 until 91. She lived in England and because the government increased taxes on cigarettes, she quit. She died at age 93 of “old age”. It was really complications from pneumonia. We joked that quitting smoking killed her. My mother, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky. She didn’t smoke nearly as much as her mother but died of lung cancer at age 78. Why? What makes one person with almost identical genetics die from lung cancer? What makes one person keep getting sick over and over? ‘Why am I always sick?’ is a question I often receive in my medical practice. I want to try to help others understand the process. It isn’t necessarily because of exposure to a pathogen though. There are many reasons why there are people who don’t get sick at all and people who get sick often. There are physical, emotional, and even spiritual reasons that people have imbalances.
Why am I Always Sick?
The answer to this question is complex and not obvious. Illnesses arise out of imbalances in mind, body, or spirit. For many people there are physical reasons for their illnesses. As a Naturopathic Physician in Portland, Oregon, and the island of Oahu, this is relatively easy to determine. We can point to patterns, exposures, and so forth. For example, some get sick because of a poor diet. Much research shows that people who eat high fat, high sugar meals are at greater risk of heart disease and diabetes. Poor diet definitely contributes to illnesses in many people. Other people though eat a terrible diet, live many years and don’t get sick. Why?
Some people feel sick all of the time because of environmental exposures. Air quality in many cities can be poor. Even though it rains so much in Portland, we have high levels of toxic metals. Manganese, for example, can cause tremors in otherwise healthy people. This could be why some people keep getting sick over and over again. One summer, I saw a cluster of patients who all had tremor due to manganese exposure. There had been a leak at one of the local companies. Fortunately, the treatment was simple.
Brain injury can be another factor in illness. Focus, attention, sleep, mood, and behavior can be affected post concussion. LENS neurofeedback is highly effective in treating this even years after a concussion. For many patients, that is my starting point because if the brain is out of balance, other parts of the body may be too. Brain injury can affect almost any part of the body including digestion.
Elimination or a lack thereof can lead to many health problems. This is why Naturopaths are so interested in digestion. If one is not eliminating properly it could be that their bodies are storing toxins that are making them sick. Getting your body working efficiently is crucial. I have many natural treatments to help with this besides diet. These treatments help the body eliminate more efficiently. Many people feel sick all the time not because of a pathogen. Rather they feel this way because their body is trying to remove something but can’t. The body feeling sick is a response to the toxins.
Mind Body Healing
Epigenetics is another aspect of explaining why some people get sick. Some people are just wired to be more susceptible to illness. My mother and grandmother are a perfect example of this. Same genetics, different outcomes. We are starting to be able to test for some of this, though not using genetic tests.
Many of my patients complain of always feeling sick to their stomach. They are queasy particularly in the morning. This is where things start to get interesting. Does the physical symptom arise from a physical or mental imbalance? Sometimes they are one and the same.
Let me explain.
Everything we eat, breathe, think, and experience is changing our epigenetics. Our mental state affects our physical state. But what if you feel sick all of the time? Your mental state affects your physical state. See the problem here? What do you treat? The physical or the mental?
Let me tell you a little secret.
There is no separation between body and mind. It’s a continuum. Messages travel from the brain to the body and the body to the brain. That’s why when someone comes to me with an emotional issue, I treat the physical first. I want to be sure that the body is in balance first. What sort of emotional issues? Reactive Attachment Disorder, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, anxiety, depression, and insomnia to name a few. Many people have a physical imbalance that causes the behavior. Treatment is easy. It requires testing and then supplementation. It is safe, effective, and non-invasive. Pyroluria for example is a condition that leads to zinc and vitamin B6 utilization problems. Blood tests may show that levels are normal but they aren’t available for the body to use. In effect, the person is deficient. But a supplementation regimen can see positive results in a few weeks. The best part is that there are little or no side effects. It’s a great example of how mind body healing really is one continuum.
But what if the simple answer doesn’t work? Do you go to pharmaceuticals? In my experience, drugs don’t work long-term. Maybe it’s better to look elsewhere. This is when looking at the mind may be a better approach.
We know that many problems start with stress.
Stress reduction is so important for physical problems. Heart disease, diabetes, digestive problems, even high cholesterol have been tracked back to stress. Stress causes cortisol levels to rise which interferes with many of the body’s processes. Blood sugar regulation and blood pressure are just two things that cortisol can affect. But stress is likely also affecting the epigenetics of the cells. Sometimes stress is external. Maybe you don’t like your job, marriage, car, living situation. But it is our attitude about these things that has more power over us in some cases than the actual situation.
Here’s the deal.
Our thoughts create our experience. What is stressful to one person is paradise to another. I am not that interested in bungee jumping. In fact, it downright terrifies me. But other people love it! For them it’s a thrill. I would be a basket case all the way down, and back up, and down, and back up, well you get the idea. Talk about screaming high cortisol levels! We often think it’s obvious that a situation would cause stress in any “normal” person but that isn’t the case.
Here’s the good news.
You can change your thinking. That’s right. You can change your thinking. I could easily change my attitude about bungee jumping and enjoy it. Some of my patients changed their minds about their jobs and started liking what they were doing. It’s possible. It isn’t always easy however . And sometimes you need someone to help you. Or the inability to change your thinking could be because of one of the imbalances in the body I mentioned earlier. Sometimes you need to change the circumstances in your life too. But whatever the case, changing your thinking can save your life and improve your health. Because it will reduce stress hormones and change epigenetic patterning. Change your mind, change your body. We are just starting to scratch the surface about how much we control our cell function with our thoughts. The power of epigenetics is just starting to be discovered.
The Science of Soul
For some people though, they can change their minds but there is still a problem. Maybe they aren’t as triggered by something but they also aren’t as happy as they could be. Or they are anxious.
This is where things get a little less measurable. See the challenge is that there is likely another layer here but it’s hard to quantify. I’m talking about heart. Or soul. Or spirit. Different people call it something different. We can’t prove or disprove that it exists. But I believe it does and that it can affect our health and well-being.
How do I know?
I have had too many people come for help for anxiety or depression who didn’t have anything wrong with them. They were completely healthy. Their lives looked great on the surface.
And they were miserable.
Something was missing. It was my observation that when the person let go of the false ideas they had about themselves they were able to find happiness. You could say that these ideas are just about mind. But for most of my patients the transformation occurred because they not only let go of ideas but gave themselves to something bigger.
Deepak Chopra tells a wonderful story in his book Reinventing The Body, Resurrecting The Soul. A person lives in a very comfortable but small house. She never leaves until one day it feels cramped. She goes outside and the sun is shining and there is an expanse of space she didn’t know was there. She spends a few moments outside basking in the glorious day. Then she becomes anxious and runs back inside. She stays there until she remembers how lovely it was outside. So she goes back out and enjoys the sun and the space and stays a little longer until she goes back inside. This continues for years until one day she decides to move on.
The story is an allegory of ego and soul. The house is our ego. It is comfortable and familiar. The outside is our soul. We stay in our comfort zone unless we don’t have to. We protect ourselves as much as we can from hardship and disaster. It is only when the apple cart is disrupted that we seek change. As a side note, this isn’t to say that the ego is bad and the soul good. We need our ego to navigate through the world in many cases. It can be helpful. But it can be limiting in many ways too. We get fixated on ideas and images of ourselves.
My practice is full of people who have been forced out of their comfort zone. Some of them have physical ailments that require healing first. Some are caring for a sick child or parent. Their stress levels are through the roof. Others have mental imbalances that need help. Still others become anxious for no apparent reason except that they are being called to something greater.
And this is the beauty of taking a more holistic view of medicine. It’s impossible to treat a spiritual crisis with a drug. It’s not taught in medical school what to do. (Fortunately, I received some training getting my Masters Degree in Transpersonal Counseling.) Some homeopathics and botanicals may help loosen the ego some so that people have less resistance to change. The power of change resides with the person. I (or anyone else) is just a facilitator. But I can help balance the emotional states and the physical states to allow for it to happen. Without a firm foundation, spiritual transformation can be difficult or dangerous. This is why many traditions start with diet, exercises, and then more advanced breathing techniques. I have seen people who tried to do spiritual work without the foundation. It looks a lot like schizophrenia but I’ll save that for another post.
You might be wondering:
Why did my mother die of lung cancer but not my grandmother? I don’t have a clear answer to that except for something my mother said to me after she was diagnosed. She likely had cancer for about 15 years before discovery. (As an aside, it would have been detected with a chest X-ray earlier had one been taken. My advice? If you smoke, quit. If you can’t or don’t, get checked regularly. ) When detected, the cancer had spread throughout her body. I knew she had less than a year to live. She did too but decided to have treatment to help my father with the transition. We had some very candid conversations at this time and she said to me something that I don’t think I’ll forget. She told me that she didn’t want to be left behind by my father. It made me wonder if she died not from cancer but a fear of being left alone.
Why We Get Sick?
So when you wonder why we get sick it’s a little more complex than just having a weak immune system. There are physical reasons for sure. There are issues in the mind too. And there may be spiritual lessons that we have no clue about. Mind body healing and balance is important before delving into the spirit. Once you’re grounded though that world opens for you.