Today I have the pleasure of sharing an article written especially for Holistically Haute™ by Dr. Larry Berkelhammer, PhD. Dr. Berkelhammer is a researcher and psychophysiologist who uses his blog, www.LarryBerkelhammer.com, to show how learning to live with conscious intention can maximize health and well-being. His own personal experience of triumph over chronic illness is incredibly inspiring, and led him to explore various unique avenues of healing the mind and body holistically. Please enjoy and share the following article:
Almost all the cancer and chronic illness patients I ever worked with wondered if there was something they may have done to cause their cancer, autoimmune disease, neurodegenerative disease, or other medical condition.
Co-workers, friends and family members often feel vulnerable when someone they know well is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. This is especially true when they know that the person lived a reasonably healthy lifestyle. It soon dawns on them that if such a healthy person could be diagnosed with an advanced cancer, it could happen to anyone and they could be next.
Then come the questions, often directed to the individual or to that person’s family in an effort to identify some factor that may have caused the disease. In querying the individual and family, the hope is that by identifying a cause, they can feel safe if the putative cause doesn’t in any way relate to them.
Is Lifestyle Responsible?
Some people do indeed engage in behaviors that increase the odds of getting sick, such as smoking, using recreational drugs (including too much alcohol and even too much caffeine), eating an unhealthy diet, overeating, not exercising, not getting enough sleep, not getting proper medical care, and not managing chronic debilitating stress. These behaviors, when they are long-standing, weaken immune and endocrine function, and interfere in various ways with every single organ system, thereby increasing the odds of getting sick and dying at a younger age.
However, the vast majority of patients I worked with had practiced reasonably healthy behaviors, yet they had serious, debilitating, and sometimes life-threatening medical conditions, such as cancer.
The cause of most disease commonly remains a mystery due to all the variables and complexity that make it impossible to definitively identify the actual cause. It is important to understand a little of the complexity regarding potential causes, or etiology, of disease in order to support health as much as possible.
The Role of Stress
Disease is caused by chronic physiological stress, such as a chronic inflammation, which often leads to cancer. Physiological stress is triggered by a multitude of factors, such as physical trauma; infection from viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites; some prescription drugs; exposure to environmental or endogenously produced toxins; or temperature extremes. Other potential physiological stress factors include genetic predisposition to disease, epigenetic events, unhealthy behavior, and an endless number of pathophysiological processes. Often, disease is the result of an unfortunate confluence of more than one of these physiological stressors.
Chronic emotional distress can magnify the effects of all the other physiological stressors, because emotional distress causes physiological stress. Think of a time when you developed a headache, neck ache, belly ache, or back ache as a result of feeling emotionally distressed. The pain, discomfort, burning, or other unpleasant sensation is a symptom of physiological stress. Physiologically, the symptom could be the result of the triggering of an imbalance in stomach acidity or from a constriction of arteries in the chest or in the wall of the heart. When experienced day in and day out, these symptoms serve to warn us of potentially impending heart disease, gastrointestinal disease, depression of immune function or of the malfunction of virtually any organ system.
Ohio State Medical School researcher Janice Kiecolt-Glaser describes how chronic physiological stress that accompanies chronic emotional distress increases what is called allostatic load—cumulative strain on the body—and this in turn increases vulnerability to disease. Of course, emotional distress is just one factor, and many people diagnosed with cancer have not experienced any chronic emotional distress prior to diagnosis.
What About Genetics?
Some people are very lucky to have been born into families with exceptional genetics. Those individuals have some degree of immunity against many of the causes of disease. However, chronic emotional distress or some other form of chronic physiological stress will eventually shorten the lifespan of even the genetically well-endowed.
By the same token, there are others who inherit a genetic profile where family members typically don’t live beyond their forties. Yet, when these individuals avoid bad habits, eat a nutrient-dense diet of just the right quantities of food, get an hour of daily exercise, sleep seven to eight hours a night, and minimize exposure to environmental toxins, they are more likely to live full, vibrant lives well into old age. When they engage in additional healthy practices, such as becoming a contributing member of some type of caring community, their quality of life and longevity increase still further. In addition, there are other practices that can improve quality and quantity of life even more. Practicing gratitude, authentic self-expression, altruism, having meaning and purpose, living by self-identified life values, and mindfulness are all evidence-based attributes and attitudes, consistently associated with better health that can be adopted as intentional practices.
We cannot change our genetics, but we can avoid bad habits and adopt healthy ones. We can try to minimize exposure to environmental toxins, but living in the modern world makes a certain degree of exposure unavoidable. This is also true when it comes to exposure to pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, and even parasites, unless one lives in an isolated, hermetically sealed environment. However, the single most healthy attribute of people who live vibrant lives into old age is that they are contributing members of a caring community.
Researchers in psychoneuroimmunology, psychology, and mind-body medicine often recommend identifying and living in harmony with your personal values, going toward what gives your life meaning and purpose, finding a way to be a contributing member of some type of cohesive community, and living as full a life as possible.
I want to extend my gratitude to Dr. Berkelhammer for this insightful article. Please share your own thoughts and insights in the comments.