I’m looking at her moving through the kitchen to prepare breakfast and something doesn’t feel quite right. She grabs some ham, puts it in a white bread toast, and fills up a glass of orange juice. Finally, as part of the holiday routine, she completes the breakfast with a chocolate croissant.
While she sits at the table, she tells me how healthy she is eating lately and how active her lifestyle has become.
When she finishes, I say: “Mum, are you coming with me tomorrow? I’m going to climb a mountain, it’s a 5-hour hike give or take”.
She looks at me and answers: “I wish! But at my 54 that’s just too much for me. I’ll start the hike with you, but when it gets steeper, I’ll just stop and wait for you”.
She doesn’t have any disease and apparently she looks healthy. Why on Earth can’t she climb a peak? Maybe there’s a certain point in life when our bodies say it’s enough? And suddenly a thought crosses my mind: Is she really healthy?
The definition of health is something that has been striking me lately. Everyone talks about being healthy those days without really being a universal definition of what health exactly is.
In Western countries, we tend to understand health as the absence of disease, but I rather prefer to think about it as the best state in which humans can be. And this is also how the World Health Organization thinks about it. Not as the absence of disease or injury, but as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. A state where your body and your mind function at their maximum potential. Feeling great, having energy, and having a sharp mind are attributes of health.
Being 80 and unable to move, being 8 and weighing far more than what you should, or being 50 and not being able to climb a mountain has become the new norm. It’s socially accepted and thus we feel it’s normal. “As long as I feel fine…”. But that’s just a trap. The absence of disease doesn’t imply the presence of health. And sooner or later, “feeling fine” takes its toll.
Being 70 and going for a run, being 50 and not having to wear glasses, or being 90 and writing a book, those are attributes of health. Most would argue that only a few ones are lucky enough to do so. But the truth is that most of us have been gifted with good health and it’s in our hands to either cultivate it or destroy it with the everyday actions.
The obvious question then would be to ask how to keep ourselves healthy. Nowadays, it seems that people want to find that secret that will make them healthy forever. And not only they want to be healthy but they want it fast and effortlessly. Is the secret drinking one celery juice in the morning? Maybe doing 20 minutes of exercise a day? Or if I just cut eating meat would be enough?
We are bombarded with tons and tons of advertisements every day proclaiming to have found the miracle to health, the secret for your life to change radically, or the potion that will miraculously cure your diseases and make you healthy again.
Black garlic is the new orange juice, you need it in your pantry right now! Do yoga every morning, you’ll never be the same! Meditation 2 times a week! Water with lemon after waking up will change your day! How can you be healthy without a lymphatic drainage massage?
I admit I was pretty confused and shocked by those heavy claims and I started asking myself over and over again “Is there truly a silver bullet for overall health and longevity?”.
The truth is so obvious and simple that seems ridiculous: the secret of health doesn’t exist. It’s just a collective hallucination with a high price tag.
As a scientist, I have studied the human body and how it works at a microscopic level. And it’s just fucking extraordinary! The human body is impressively complex and fascinating. For example, I find mind-blowing the fact that each of us has around ninety-six thousand km of blood vessels throughout the body responsible for bringing oxygen and nutrients to all of our cells and organs. So we could roll up our blood vessels around the Earth 7.5 times! Or that our bodies are not only inhabited by human cells, but also by 40 trillion bacteria that help defend us against exterior dangers.
Definitely, no machine on Earth is so perfect. And what strikes me the most is that our body is hardwired for health. We have a series of remarkable defense systems that keep our bodies functioning smoothly.
With all this complexity, it seems quite stupid to think that by only doing a simple thing, you’ll be forever healthy. But that’s what the world we live in is turning into… Things move at a fast speed and we are used to getting what we want when we want. A new hammock? No worries, Amazon delivers it to you in 2 days. The definition of eucatastrophe? Google tells you in 2 seconds. We have lost the art of patience and we want things quick and easy.
And health is neither quick nor easy. As complex as our bodies are, they require different daily actions over time in order to be healthy. You can eat well but not move from the sofa and your body will notice it. Or you can do exercise every day but be really stressed, which your body will also notice. On both occasions, even if you don’t have a disease, you’re not healthy by definition.
When we’re born, our bodies are, for most of the people, healthy and at its best. And they would continue to be unless we hurt them. Hurting myself? Are you out of your mind? Well, we do that more often than you might think.
Pollution, chemicals found on foods, or a sedentary life are just some of the ways to damage ourselves. And we’re lucky enough to have bodies that are extremely resilient and able to cure themselves. But there’s always a limit on how much our bodies can take on. And that’s when disease kicks in.
As Dr. David Agus says in his book The end of illness, “illness isn’t something that our body “has” or “gets”, it’s something that the body does”.
We have in our hands the power to not only avoid disease but also be healthy. If you eat processed foods often, don’t exercise, and feel stressed, you might not have any disease. But you’re not healthy. And this can’t be cured with a pill.