Health: Who to trust?

There is so much information in the world, and it is so widely accessible with this powerful thing many of use keep in our pockets at all times: the Internet. There is so much information from so many sources, and each source with it’s own unique bias. Bias from the individuals sharing the information and also from society’s overarching cultural norms. While this is true for all fields of knowledge this diversity of “facts” has been weighing heavily upon me especially as it pertains to the physical and mental health of myself and those closest to me. I have now reached the age where I am making the vast majority of my choices about my own diet and health. I am even responsible for the health of another living being, my beloved puppy Jupiter. In my research have found the world of alternative and ecological agriculture is tightly intertwined with the world of natural and alternative food and medicine. While this connection is understandable, (what we grow and put into our bodies has very significant impacts on our health, how could it not?) the more reading I do, the more questions I have, and in the case of health the stakes are so high. The conversation turns away from abstract food systems and agronomy and turns into you and your family’s immediate physical well-being. From the most abstract energy channeling healer to the aggressive monopolized pharmaceutical industry, I just don’t know what sources I can trust.

To be clear, I am not as disenchanted with modern healthcare as many of my permaculture peers. I’ve never been a fan of over the counter pain meds, but I’ve also never had a miraculous recovery that I can attribute to herbal remedies. I make my own yogurt (yay, probiotics) and try to stick to organic and homegrown produce, but I also eat a lot of cookies and ice cream (eek, refined sugar). I come from a family of doctors and an institutional science background that I respect, but often find myself spending my time with yogis and herbalists hashing out the flaws with the agro-pharma-chemical complex. I live between these schools of thought, and in critiquing both sides I don’t feel as though I know how to take care of myself anymore. Maybe I never really knew how to begin with.

You may be saying to yourself, “Starr, you’re thinking too much. Just follow what the doctor says, and follow what the research says. You will be fine.” If you’re thinking this, I have some things to tell you that may be upsetting: There is a vast array of legitimate research out there and it often doesn’t agree on one magical answer. One affirmative study doesn’t make a theory fact, and studies often question, build-upon, critique, destroy, and modify each other. On top of that, research is inherently biased, like all things. What major trials get carried out is often fueled by funding which is subject to commercial and popular pressure. As laypeople most of us just don’t have the skills or energy to determine what studies are preliminary with insignificant sample sizes and likely no follow-up and what is secretly bankrolled by major cooperate interests. Even our highly-trained doctors are subject to the bias of their training and the culture in which they live. For example, well into the Fifties doctors were saying smoking in moderation was fine, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Smoking was just too culturally pervasive for doctors to see clearly. Doctors across the world also have a wide array of opinions. There many MD’s out there who are speaking out against GMOs, researching abstract ideas like how diet and gut health relates to brain function, and extolling the benefits of fermented foods and vegetarian diets. And of course there are many who aren’t.

There’s tons of disagreement in the the alternative circles as well. Take the vegan (a diet excluding all animal products) crowd versus the paleo (a diet based on human diets from the caveman era) crowd. One side has studies that supports saturated fats, often from animals, as an important foundation of a healthier ancestral human diet, while the other side has studies of red meats causing cancer and anecdotes of raw vegan diets curing it. Both of these camps are aggressively defended within even the smallest alternative/permaculture communities. Everyone is generally advocating against processed foods and refined sugars, but the plant versus animal product health debate will leave you scared to eat just about any anything. Well, not dark leafy greens. Everyone seems to agree those are great for you, as long as they aren’t covered in pesticides.

I have more questions than answers, but I think it is important to take every bit of knowledge we consume with a grain of salt and try to find the balance and what’s best for each of us individually. Does it make sense to take a broad spectrum antibiotic for a relatively mild case of acne? Probably not. Antibiotics can have a lot of side effects and modern culture is rapidly creating antibiotic resistant infections largely because of over-prescription. Does it make sense to take a targeted antibiotic for a bacterial infection that could kill you? Absolutely. Please use modern medicine not to die, that’s the point. Does it make sense to look into diet modifications and natural remedies along side (or, in safe instances, instead of) your mainstream treatment of what ails you? To me, it seems irresponsible not to do so. Logically, what we use to fuel our bodies has a huge impact on our bodies. Just taking the drugs and keeping everything else in our lives the same doesn’t address the root cause. There’s a lot of support out there that natural remedies can do some pretty amazing things, and there is real science behind it. However, I certainly wouldn’t chose a life in an era before modern medicine.

The challenge is not falling into complacency and engaging actively with our food, health, and society. Dogmatically avoiding commercial pharmaceuticals is just as risky as taking the prescribed pills without reading the fine print and digging a little deeper. Often reiterated, but none-the-less valid, we need to be focusing on preventative healthcare. To me this means cleaning up our food system and making chemical free produce accessible to all. If the predominate culture is one of whole healthy foods and walk-able green cities rather than car-based fast food-fueled nightmares, we could avoid a lot of our health issues to begin with. This doesn’t address bias in our research institutions, close-mindedness of opposing camps, or my general concern that I am slowly killing myself and my dog, but at least a vision about a healthier society gives us something to talk about and strive for.

That’s the end of my confused ramblings, but if you’re interested in some more content, here is some loosely related media from around the web that have gotten me thinking on this subject:


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