Most people significantly overestimate the capabilities, quality, and efficiency of our medical system. They wrongly assume that doctors possess deep knowledge of the underlying causes of most illnesses and that they will be provided with optimal health care if they ever get sick. Even if they do get sick and fail to get better, despite seeing many different health practitioners, they don’t necessarily lose their faith in “the system”, due to the fact that they deeply trust the system and the authorities that designed it and keep it running. Instead of questioning the validity of conventional medical practices and asking themselves whether there’s something wrong with the way we’re currently treating disease, they may be led to think that the problem lies with them.
Perhaps needless to say, mainstream medicine does get some things right. Among other things, it does a decent job of treating acute injuries and wounds. Unfortunately though, it gets more things wrong than right. This is worrying, seeing as it means that not everyone gets the health care they need and deserve. There’s no doubt in my mind that the failures of mainstream medicine causes untold suffering and death every year. The government takes billions of dollars out of people’s pockets, via taxation, in order to keep the health care system up and running; hence, it’s not too much to ask that our medical system works well.
In this article I thought I’d list and briefly talk about 10 things that mainstream medicine gets wrong. I strongly believe that a lot of human suffering and death could have been avoided if these things were given more widespread attention within conventional medical circles.
1. It fails to acknowledge that the basic components of our biology were designed for Stone Age conditions
Deep down, we’re all hunter-gatherers. We’re so used to our current, manufactured environment, which bears little resemblance to a natural milieu, that we easily forget that our current conditions of existence are both novel and abnormal, as seen from an evolutionary perspective. Humans evolved in nature. We obviously didn’t evolve in an environment filled with highly processed foods, skyscrapers, cars, and technological gadgets.
Perhaps needless to say, biological evolution didn’t come to a halt with the Agricultural Revolution. Over the past millennia, genetic mutations have occurred and various adaptations have spread within human populations. With that said, scientific research has shown that we are, from a biological point of view, quite similar to our Stone Age ancestors (1, 2, 3, 4). This isn’t surprising, seeing as the ~10.000 years that have passed since the Agricultural Revolution is just a drop in the ocean evolution wise. When compared to the millions of years our ancestors roamed the African savanna, doing their hunting and scavenging and foraging, the time that has passed since we humans first took up agriculture has had little impact on the human genome.
This is obviously very important for health professionals to acknowledge, seeing as it has widespread implications for how we approach human health promotion and the prevention and treatment of disease.
2. It fails to recognize the vital role that the microbes that colonize our bodies play in shaping our biology and health and has historically paid little attention to the detrimental impact that drugs such as antibiotics have on our microbiomes
Historically, mainstream medicine has devoted virtually all of its attention to the human genome. The genomes of the trillions of microorganisms that colonize the human body have largely stayed out of the spotlight. This is very unfortunate, seeing as bacteria, fungi, and other microscopic organisms that live “in” and on our bodies have a profound impact on our health. They are involved in pretty much everything that goes on inside our bodies. Most diseases don’t develop because the human genome is inherently flawed, but rather because of unfavorable interactions that take place between the human genome and its environment, including the human microbiome.
Over the past decade, as more and more research on the human microbiome has been published, the trillions of microbes that colonize our bodies have gradually made their way into the conventional medical sphere. With that said, they are not a ubiquitous part of their newfound environment. Far from it. Despite the fact that microbiome disruption has been inked to virtually every disease under the sun (5, 6, 7, 8, 9), many health practitioners still pay little to no attention to the critters that colonize our bodies. Instead of instructing their patients in how they can improve the condition of their microbiotas, they practice what they learned in medical school many years ago.
This is extremely worrying, seeing as it means that a lot of sick people don’t get the medical care they need to get better. There’s no doubt in my mind that countless human lives have gone down the drain due to mainstream medicine’s excessive use of drugs and neglection of the role the microbes that colonize our bodies play in shaping our biology and health.
3. It largely overlooks the fact that the human body is a biological system composed of many interconnected parts and that a myriad of different diseases and health problems develop as a result of poor gut health and chronic inflammation
Medicine, as it exists today, is a fractionated discipline. Different health practitioners focus on different aspects of human health and disease. Some focus all of their attention on the human brain and its associated disorders; others are exclusively concerned with the human heart and circulatory system; and yet others are primarily interested in what goes on inside the human gut. The good thing about having people specialize this way is that we – as a species – become extremely knowledgeable about many different parts of the biological system that is the human body and that sick people have the option of seeing a health professional that specializes in the condition(s) that they suffer from. The bad thing is that it can make us forget that the human body is a complex system composed of many interconnected parts. No organ operates in isolation. If one part of the system stops working “correctly”, then chances are many, or all, of the other parts of the system will be affected somehow.
Moreover, by cutting the field of medicine into many different sub-disciplines, we may overlook the fact that a similar set of etiological factors underlie many diseases and health problems, some of which affect completely different parts of the human body. Mainstream medicine is notorious for making this oversight. It seems to operate under the dogmatic belief that the human body is a machine, and that the problems that can cause one part of this machine to break down are very dissimilar from the ones that make another part vulnerable to malfunction. As anyone who understands biology and has read up on evolutionary health and medicine will tell you, these ideas are based on a fallacious understanding of how organisms work. The fact is that a similar set of problems underlie a long list of different illnesses. On top of this list of problems, you’ll find chronic inflammation and poor gut health, which are driving forces behind a myriad of health disorders (7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14).
Unfortunately, mainstream medicine pays little attention to the role inflammation and gut health play in chronic illness. As a result, many sick people are never able to cool down their bodies and instead end up relying on a cabinet full of pharmaceutical drugs to keep the symptoms of their health problems at bay.
4. It fails to fully acknowledge that friendly bacteria are extremely powerful allies to have in our fight against bad bugs
Ever since we humans first discovered that some microscopic life forms are capable of making us ill, we’ve gone to great lengths to try and rid our bodies and environment of bad bugs. We, as well as the animals we’ve domesticated, have swallowed tons of antibiotics, we’ve sprayed our fields with various antimicrobial substances, and we’ve taken up the practice of using harsh cleaning detergents in order to keep our homes as sterile and clean as possible. Virtually all of our attention has been devoted to getting rid of bugs that are capable of causing us harm. We’ve largely overlooked the bugs that do us good. Moreover, in our haste to destroy villainous bugs, we’ve “forgotten” that microbes evolve at a very rapid pace and are able to swap genetic material between themselves. Getting rid of a bad bug is not as easy as throwing an antimicrobial at it. Before we know it, the bug in question will have mutated and become resistant to our antimicrobial drug. Not only that, but by attacking the bug with an antimicrobial compound, we may wipe out other microbes as well, some of which may be important in that they keep critters that are capable of causing us harm at bay.
A lot of people are unaware of the fact that many of the antibiotics that we humans use to kill pathogens were not originally developed by humans, but rather by microbes. We’ve simply isolated antimicrobial substances that microbes produce and turned them into drugs.
Every year, millions, if not billions, of dollars are spent on research devoted to the development of new antimicrobial substances. I would argue that much of this money would be better spent on microbiome restoration and the development of medicines that are effective for enhancing the microbial biodiversity of the microbiotas of sick people. A healthy microbiota acts as a natural defense against bad bugs. Perhaps needless to say, a person who harbors a resilient, diverse microbiota is not completely immune to all pathogens; however, he’s certainly a lot better protected than a sick, immunocompromised person who harbors a degraded and disturbed microbiota.
5. It fails to acknowledge that all organisms on this planet, including humans, were designed via natural selection and that Darwin, in his book On the Origin of Species, equipped us with a powerful framework that helps us understand why organisms are vulnerable to disease
Mature scientific disciplines are characterized by the presence of organizing, governing principles. One of the key principles that govern the workings of the field of biology is natural selection. What a lot of people fail to realise is that this basic principle of evolution can help bring order into many, if not all, fields that are somehow connected to biological sciences, including nutrition and medicine. If one doesn’t appreciates the workings of natural selection, one can’t fully make sense of why diseases exist, what types of environments that different organisms are adapted to live in, and why organisms look and behave the way they do.
It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of Darwin’s theories for medicine. Evolutionary science can help bring order to nutrition and medicine, both of which are at present chaotic disciplines. By acknowledging that all life forms were shaped via natural selection, we immediately get a better understanding of why diseases exist and what type of environmental stimuli that different organism require to function well.
The fact is that we humans are not separated from other organisms with respects to the reasons why we are vulnerable to disease. A similar set of evolutionary explanations underlie all illnesses, irrespective of the species they affect. Unfortunately, this is something mainstream medicine ignores.
6. It pays no attention to the connection that exists between health and biological fitness in the context of Darwinian evolution
Natural selection “favors” organisms that are reproductively fit. If one animal gets more surviving and reproducing offspring than another animal, it is more fit, in a Darwinian sense, than the latter animal. The fact that reproductive success is “all that matters” in biological evolution has led some people to believe that evolutionary science doesn’t have much to contribute to our understanding of health and disease. This belief is based on an erroneous and overly simplistic understanding of how evolution works.
It’s important to acknowledge that healthy organisms are typically more reproductively fit than unhealthy ones. This is particularly true when talking about organisms that live in a natural environment, where one has to be fairly healthy and physically fit to be able to survive and reproduce. Not only are healthy animals typically more capable of getting a hold of food, evading predators, and undertaking other activities that are essential for survival than unhealthy animals, but they also tend to be more fertile, have a higher libido and an easier time attracting a healthy mate, and be more sexually active, in part because inflammation, which goes hand in hand with chronic illness, negatively affects sexual and reproductive health.
In my opinion, this is extremely important for medical scientists and doctors to acknowledge, because it helps us make sense of why we get sick and what type of environmental stimuli that different organisms require to be healthy.
7. It fails to acknowledge that many manifestations and symptoms of illness (e.g., fever) are bodily defenses shaped by evolution and that blocking these defenses (e.g., via a drug) in many instances do more harm than good
Organisms that are good at surviving are generally more reproductively fit than organisms that are bad at surviving. This is particularly true when taking about survival up until and throughout reproductive age. Hence, it’s not surprising that evolution has equipped us, as well as other organisms, with a variety of different apparatus and systems that help us effectively evade and combat dangers that threaten our ability to survive and reproduce. We crave sugary, calorie-dense foods, in large part because these foods were rare in the ancestral environments in which we evolved and provide energy that can be used for survival and reproduction; we are repulsed by the smell of runny feces because it’s a source of pathogens; and we fear snakes and spiders because snakes and spiders are capable of harming and sometimes killing us.
This is easy to understand, and it’s also something a lot of people know. What a lot of people, including most medical professionals, don’t know though, is that many of the manifestations and symptoms that occur as a result of illness, such as fever, diarrhea, and vomiting, are also defenses shaped by evolution that exist because they have an adaptive function. Fever, diarrhea, and vomiting for example all cause pathogen clearance. Mainstream medicine often fails to take this into account and frequently blocks bodily defenses via drugs, thereby potentially prolonging disease duration and inhibiting optimal recovery.
8. It pays too little attention to the role nutrition and lifestyle plays in shaping our health
Mainstream medicine is heavy on drugs. It has close and firm ties with the pharmaceutical industry. One could argue that Big Pharma shapes the workings of mainstream medicine. This is unfortunate, seeing as a long list of diseases and health problems are best treated with diet and lifestyle interventions, not with drugs.
The sad reality is that medical students learn virtually nothing about nutrition or how sleep, sun exposure, and physical activity affect our health. This is perplexing, considering that it’s well-established that the major diseases of our age, including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and colon cancer, are all largely caused by unhealthy diet and lifestyle practices (1, 10, 14).
It’s long past time that diet and lifestyle interventions become a routine part of conventional medical care.
9. It fails to fully acknowledge that most diseases develop as a result of complex genome-environment interactions and that it’s impossible to control all of these interactions with a drug
It seems like rarely a day goes by when newspaper articles claiming that scientists are one short step away from developing a cure for cancer, heart disease, obesity, or other similar conditions aren’t published. This has likely led some people to believe that cures for these and many other disorders are right around the corner. I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news, but the fact is that this is simply not true. The reality is that a cure for cancer or heart disease won’t become a part of your local Pharmacy’s drug arsenal anytime soon.
The reason is simple: Most diseases develop as a result of complex genome-environment interactions. It’s obviously impossible to control all of these interactions with a drug. Also, the process of trying to modify our genomes so that we become resistant to certain complex diseases is obviously not simple and straight-forward, seeing as most diseases involve the expression of thousands of genes. Unfortunately though, this is something a lot of people are ignorant of, perhaps because Big Pharma and mainstream medicine, which focuses much of its attention on locating and manipulating individual receptors, genes, and cells involved in various health disorders, have done such a good job of making us believe that they hold the solution to all our health woes.
The sad truth is that much of mainstream medicine’s arsenal of medical treatments only suppresses or blocks symptoms of disease, as opposed to eliminating the underlying problems of disease. I would argue that it’s long past time that we acknowledge that we can’t drug ourselves to good health. Drugs can help make the lives of sick people more manageable, but we shouldn’t expect them to equip us with good health.
10. It fails to recognize that the basic circuitry and components of the human brain were designed for conditions that differ markedly from the conditions we – contemporary humans – find ourselves in
This point ties in with many of the previous points on the list. The reason I feel this issue deserves its own spot on the list is that it’s almost completely overlooked by mainstream medicine, despite the fact that it’s extremely important.
I find it very concerning that mainstream medicine and modern psychology pay so little attention the evolutionary history of the human brain. Principles of evolutionary psychology have yet to make their way into the realms of conventional health care and mainstream psychiatry. This is unfortunate, seeing as it’s impossible to make sense of why we humans behave the way we do and why and how different mental illnesses develop if one doesn’t know anything about the evolutionary pressures that sculpted the human brain.
The human brain obviously didn’t come into existence over night. It was shaped over millions of years of evolution. Throughout most of this time period, the environment of existence was a natural environment. Human behavior, like the behavior of other organisms, is most easily understood when it’s examined under evolutionary light.
The development of the human brain was guided by the evolutionary pressures that acted upon our ancestors. Traits that conferred improved survival and reproduction in past environments were favored by natural selection. Much of the circuitry of the human brain was designed for Stone Age conditions, not for the conditions that we find ourselves in. This helps us make sense of why we behave the way we do, why various mental disorders exist and develop, and what we can do to enhance our mental health.
I can’t emphasize enough how important evolutionary theories pertaining to the workings of the human brain are to medicine, including psychiatry.