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A Better Health Plan

Faced with the equally unappealing alternatives of paying a fortune for health insurance or going without and worrying about it, which do you do?

As Robert Anton Wilson puts it, “The universe contains a maybe.” A tossed coin doesn’t have to land on one side or the other — it can land on edge. And the way this works out in life is that when either of two alternatives becomes too expensive or unappealing, it’s time to start looking elsewhere. So the answer to the question is, “None of the above.”

Let’s step back a second and look at this. Why is the demand for medical services so high? If you’re middle-aged, you may remember that when you were a kid, going to the doctor was an unusual occurrence. Cancer and degenerative illnesses were rare and were spoken of in hushed terms.

Now, if you’ve worked in a corporate office, you’ve probably noticed that scarcely a day goes by without someone leaving for a doctor’s appointment. One out of two men and one out of three women will come down with cancer, and we’re seeing a veritable epidemic of other degenerative illnesses, many of which show up in children. Is the increase in health problems just the result of population growth? Better reporting of statistics?

No. People are much sicker than they used to be. Everyone has health problems. In fact, Americans are among the sickest people in the world.

There’s a reason for this. Most people know nothing about how to maintain their health. Conventional medicine doesn’t address this, but holistic health does, pointing out that illness typically arises for three reasons: nutritional deficiency, toxic overload, and stress. Most people now have all three and are completely unaware of it. Let me give you a little background.

Nutritional deficiency occurs because conventional produce is grown in depleted soil, and because most people don’t eat enough produce anyway. The typical Western diet is high in sugar, fat, and refined carbohydrates. Obesity is commonplace — Americans are overweight but undernourished. You can’t eat that kind of food and expect to stay healthy. Unfortunately, this is still many people’s idea of a good diet.

According to Earthsave statistics, the average U.S. man’s risk of a heart attack is 50%. For a vegetarian, it declines to 15%, and for a vegan (no dairy or eggs), 4%. Women who eat meat daily have a 380% greater chance of developing breast cancer than women who eat meat less than once a week. The statistics for other diseases are similar.

A celebrated sixth-century Chinese physician, Sun Simiao, said, “First try food; resort to medication only when food fails to effect a cure.” Food includes herbs, which were the original pharmaceuticals. However, much of modern medicine is driven by pharmaceutical companies, and they have no interest in herbs, which they can’t patent and profit from.

Closer to our time, Thomas Edison said, “The doctor of the future will give no medicine but will interest his patient in the care of the human frame, in diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease.” Unfortunately, most doctors know nothing about nutrition, and Western medicine isn’t geared toward causes or prevention anyway.

Toxic overload occurs for the same reasons: most foods in the conventional Western diet contain poisons that build up in our organs. Meat contains residues of growth hormones, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and antibiotics. (About half the antibiotics produced in this country go into animal feed. Most people get far more antibiotics in meat and poultry than they ever do by prescription.)

Dairy is similar. Sugar softens and weakens the digestive system, and refined carbohydrates clog it up. Other toxins include environmental poisons (DDT, PCBs, MTBE, etc.), vaccinations, and our increasing exposure to electromagnetic radiation: cell phones and towers, power lines, electric blankets and microwave ovens, TVs and computers.

And what about stress? Everyone is under stress from the fast pace of life, job hassles (or, conversely, unemployment), and family situations.

From this it should be clear that conventional medicine, even if completely government-paid, can’t handle the avalanche of health problems. Even doctors are throwing up their hands at the increasingly mysterious and obscure illnesses they’re called upon to treat. It’s as if the quality-control department had to repair every item that left the factory because of one defect or another. By the time it reaches that point, you have to look at the overall process and figure out what’s wrong.

There’s only one way to change this. Instead of waiting till we get sick, then going to a doctor and saying “Fix me,” we have to take responsibility for our own health. Many holistic techniques emphasize the need for this.

To do this, as with everything else, we need education. To most people, the workings of the body are a dark mystery. They know nothing about the concept of internal energy, which is fundamental to Chinese medicine, or about the various organs and how they work together. You can prevent most problems and heal the rest if you know how to go about it. This “Better Health Plan” is better than anything you can get from any insurance company. Staying healthy shouldn’t — and doesn’t — require a medical degree or a significant portion of your income.

It’s not that we’re completely unaware eating more grain, beans, and vegetables, and less meat, dairy, and sugar is good for us, but how many actually do anything about it on a long-term basis? Old habits die hard. However, illness and the cost of medical insurance can be powerful incentives to change. If we used medical insurance the way it was intended — for emergencies like broken bones, instead of systemic illnesses—the number of claims would drop like a rock, and so would the cost.

They’ve actually had to do this in Cuba, as Geoff D’Arcy, a doctor of Oriental medicine (O.M.D.), indicates in his article “Cuba’s Green Revolution."  Loss of Soviet subsidies forced the Cubans to convert to organic farming and to use herbs (which they started growing) for health problems, instead of the pharmaceuticals they could no longer afford.

This is just as well, because in addition to being expensive, most pharmaceuticals are highly toxic and typically address the symptoms rather than the cause. In fact, about 100,000 people die every year from adverse drug reactions, according to a 1998 article in JAMA. Moreover, the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most aggressive in its marketing and is adept at persuading people to want drugs they don’t need.

At a rural clinic in Cuba, according to D’Arcy, “The whole community has access to acupuncture, herbal medicine and homeopathy, even if on a crude level. The two doctors and two nurses of this rural clinic suggest cooking classes at the vegetarian restaurant for those with diabetes and hypertension. ... With meat harder to come by, people are eating lots more home-grown vegetables and fruits, and the Cuban people are almost reluctantly becoming healthier.”

This doesn't mean we need to start growing herbs, because a number of companies offer good-quality herbal products at reasonable prices. But it’s imperative to learn about the vast health improvements possible using holistic means, such as a vegetarian diet and herbal remedies. Regular, vigorous exercise is also important — and often overlooked. The purpose is not to burn off calories but to keep the muscles, joints, and glands toned. (Needless to say, if you're not in good physical condition, start slowly and work up to it gradually.) 

Some people think holistic methods are too vague and ineffectual to make a dent in serious health problems, but nothing could be further from the truth. We’re accustomed to instant gratification, and medicine is always holding out the prospect of a “magic bullet” for various illnesses (the cure is just around the corner). But conventional medicine is not the only way; it’s not even the best way. Holistic techniques typically succeed where medicine doesn’t. It sounds too simple to be true, but it happens all the time (see the articles in the Cancer section).

Most people, for example, consider an occasional cold normal. But as George Ohsawa said in Zen Macrobiotics, “Even one cold in ten years is a bad sign, for there is no bird or insect that ever catches cold, even in cold countries and cold weather.”

As time passes, evidence only mounts that the holistic route is the way to go and that more people need to know about it if we’re ever going to dig ourselves out of the healthcare crisis. Education is the way to accomplish that — not only to improve our health but to escape the ever-tightening clutches of the medical, pharmaceutical, and insurance industries.

As Shannon Brownlee reports in the April 2004 Washingtonian, “More than 60 percent of clinical studies — those involving human subjects — are now funded not by the federal government, but by the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. That means that the studies published in scientific journals like Nature and The New England Journal of Medicine ... are increasingly likely to be designed, controlled, and sometimes even ghost-written by marketing departments, rather than academic scientists.”

The worst thing about conventional medicine and health insurance is that it’s buying into fear. Did God really put us here to live in fear of dread diseases and to ransom our health back from the medical profession for tens of thousands of dollars? We fear what we don’t know, and if you learn about how the body works and how to stay healthy, you lose your fear of illness — and of not having health insurance.