It’s All Connected

dominosI realise that the title of this article might seem like it’s taken straight out of a book about supernatural phenomena or religion and divine forces. It doesn’t sound very scientific. In science and medicine, different things and phenomena are typically studied in isolation. In its totality, the world around us is too complex and massive for the human mind to fully get a grasp of, so, in order to make the task of exploring the world seem less daunting, we try to cut it into smaller pieces. Some scientists focus all of their attention on one or a couple of microorganisms that live on Earth; others spend their whole careers investigating the workings of a single human organ; and yet others single out a specific hormone or compound that they set out to learn everything about.

The upside of doing things this way is that we – as a species – acquire in-depth knowledge about many different things. The downside is that we may forget or neglect the fact that “everything” is connected: nothing operates in isolation. History has shown us that we humans are extremely prone to make this error in thinking. We often forget that the world, including the human body, is built up of complex systems, which interact in various ways, not by isolated structures or compounds that are unaffected by each other.

We fail to see the big picture

Let’s imagine that a gym goer notices that he has tight hamstrings. Most likely, he’ll start doing a lot of static stretching in an attempt to loosen them up (the standard approach to fixing muscle tightness). Chances are he’ll pay little attention to the question of why his hamstrings got tight in the first place and which other muscles that may be involved.

If another part of his body malfunctions, he’ll likely use a similar strategy. For example, if his brain stops working properly, then chances are he will seek out the help of a brain specialist, who will most likely scan and investigate what’s going on up in the fantastic organ that equips his patient with cognition and memory. Most likely, all of the brain specialist’s focus will be on the brain; little attention will be paid to other organs and how they may affect the workings of the mind.

I could go on, but I think you get the message. The problem with specialization is that it can lead to oversimplification. We oversimplify things and forget to look at the big picture. We forget to see the forest for the trees sort to say. This problem is particularly severe and widespread within the field of medicine.

The field of medicine is separated into many different branches. Some branches deal with the nervous system of the human body, some deal with the workings of the musckuloskeletal system, some are built up of theories and concepts related to mental health, and so on. Different health practitioners and medical scientists specialize in different areas. Some know a lot about brain disorders, some are experts on gut health, and yet others do their best work when they are presented with patients who suffer from liver-related diseases.

Some doctors, in particular general practitioners, haven’t specialized in one field, but rather know a little about “everything”. Unfortunately though, modern medicine and medical training are built on the way of thinking mentioned earlier: “the separation approach”. The result is that many conventionally trained health practitioner fail to see the big picture of things. Perhaps needless to say, it’s recognized that different bodily systems and organs interact with each other. However, this fact is not given enough attention. Far from it.

This is unfortunate, because it’s impossible to locate and address the root causes of illness if you’re caught up in the workings of just a single organ or receptor and operate under the belief that all diseases and health problems are separated from each other by their etiology.

If one part of your body isn’t working correctly, then chances are many other parts are malfunctioning as well

To illustrate the issue above, let’s take a look at brain disorders. Disorders such as autism, ADHD, and chronic depression have historically been thought to originate in the brain, and health practitioners and scientists have focused virtually all of their attention on locating and manipulating the parts of the brain that are involved in the development of these types of conditions. This approach hasn’t gotten us very far. The incidence of these and many other brain diseases just keeps on increasing. It’s clear that our current approach to preventing and treating brain-related illness isn’t working.

I would argue that the main reason it isn’t working is that we’re overlooking several factors that play a key role in brain health. The assumption that the brain is separated from the rest of the body in terms of its health and functioning has proven to be highly flawed. The brain is not separated from the rest of the body; it’s a part of it. Actually, it is greatly affected by what goes on further down in the larger system that it is a part of.

Particularly the gut has a profound impact on the brain. Actually, as you probably know if you’re a regular reader of this site, the gut is likely the place of origin of many, if not most, brain diseases. Hence, we have to bring it into the equation, or else we will never be able to effectively prevent and treat ADHD, autism, Alzheimer’s, and so on.

We have to acknowledge that when something is wrong with the gut, it’s not just the gut that’s compromised, but also many other bodily organs. If you go to your doctor and tell him you’re suffering from gastrointestinal problems such as bloating and diarrhea, he will likely diagnose you with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), unless he’s able to detect signs or symptoms of organic gastrointestinal disease.

What he may not tell you though, is that your problems are not isolated to the gut. A faulty gut goes hand in hand with a faulty body. Your immune system is not working at peak capacity, your energy levels are undoubtedly lower than optimal, your memory and cognitive abilities are likely impaired, and your libido is low, among other things. In other words, your whole body is compromised, in part because poor gut health is tightly linked with chronic inflammation.

This is something a lot of people don’t know. They think that conditions such as liver disease, depression, and type-1 diabetes are isolated to the organs they affect (the liver, brain, and pancreas), failing to realise that these disorders typically develop as a result of chronic, systemic inflammation and/or imbalances in the microbial communities of the body. Hence, it goes without saying that a holistic approach is required to treat these conditions. You can’t simply go in and manipulate a couple of receptors in the diseased organ.

This is one of the key things I want to convey with this site. Most diseases and health problems originally develop as a result of faults in the system that is the human body; not due to faults in the specific organ that’s affected. Most of the time, the organ damage is a secondary occurrence. For example, in type-1 diabetes, a loss of microbiota diversity, dysbiosis, and chronic inflammation typically precede the destruction of the pancreatic beta cells.

All of this is to say that very few, if any, diseases and health problems develop in isolation. For example, if you are obese, then chances are you also suffer from other health problems, such as insulin resistance. You are also at a higher risk of developing various types of cancers, heart disease, and many other disorders, due in part to the fact that your body is chronically inflamed.

This brings us over to the next thing I wanted to talk about in today’s article: “the cycles of life”.

The cycles of life

Again, I’m using a heading that may seem like it’s taken out of a book on divine or supernatural forces. The notion that life operates in cycles may seem foreign to a lot of people. They may see the world as a fairly static structure that is composed of many distinct building blocks; not as a massive, complex system that is composed of many smaller systems.

One such subsystem is the human body. One of the things that have become increasingly clear to me over the past decade is that many of the processes that take place inside the human body occur as part of different types of cycles. For example, in the case of obesity mentioned above, the consumption of an unhealthy diet, coupled with an unhealthy lifestyle, leads to dysbiosis and fat accumulation. This then sets the stage for chronic inflammation, cravings for more unhealthy foods, and fatigue/sedentary behavior. In other words, a vicious cycle is set in motion. The intensity of this cycle will likely increase over time, unless the deleterious behaviors that drive it are eliminated.

If the deleterious behaviors are eliminated, the vicious cycle may turn into a virtuous one. In other words, a new set-point or homeostasis is reached. For example, if the imprudent diet is replaced by a prudent one, the state of the microbiota will improve, fat will be released from adipose tissue, and the levels of inflammatory cytokines in the blood will decline. This will then translate into changes in dietary preferences and less fatigue, which will fuel the engine of the virtuous cycle.

Many other parts of the human body operate in a similar manner. For example, let’s return to the tight hamstrings I mentioned at the beginning of the article. Hamstrings don’t get tight for no reason. There’s always going to be an explanation as to why they tighten up. Often, we have to expand our perspective beyond the hamstring muscle to find this explanation.

vicious-cycle-muscle-imbalance-syndromeAs I’ve discussed in many of my articles on musculoskeletal problems (e.g., this one, this one), hamstring tightness often develops as a result of muscle imbalances in the hip region. Typically, when the hamstrings are tight, other muscles, including the glutes, abs, and hip flexors are also in a compromised state. The former two tend to be weak and inactive, whereas the latter tend to be tight, like the hamstrings.

This type of muscle imbalance syndrome develops due to a vicious cycle, in which excessive sitting and/or other deleterious behaviors lead to tightness of the hamstrings and hip flexors and weakening of the muscles that produce posterior pelvic tilt. These imbalances then cause the person in question to change how he moves his body and compensate for poor glute and abdominal strength, which further exacerbate the muscular imbalances. Again, this cycle can be turned into a virtuous one; if the deleterious behaviors are eliminated.

These types of processes don’t just take place inside the human body; they take place in the rest of the natural world as well. This is one of the reasons why it’s important that we are cautious about interfering with nature.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a good track record in this regard. Via our activities we have disrupted the flow of nature: we’ve damaged the soil in which we grow our food and harmed the ecosystems of the world. The consequences of these changes are more severe than we think. We don’t fully acknowledge that we’ve disrupted the “natural” flow of the cycles of life and that some of the fallout of our actions lands upon us and our health. For example, when we disrupt the microbial ecosystems of the soil in which we grow our food, we also change the microbial communities that cling to the plants we eat, something that will obviously affect our health.

This loops us back to the statement I made at the beginning of the article: “It’s all connected”…

Comments

  1. Good article. Thanks for pointing out what should be obvious to everyone, but obviously isn’t.

  2. Alessio says:

    I think that modern medicine focuses on one part at time not only by mistake but also because this mechanism is the most powerful tool for making business.
    Even researchers in good faith tend to lose the big picture because they are overspecialized. If you tie this natural behaviour with the need of who makes money on people’s healthcare, you can see the big picture of how misguided medicine is the best tool to fill the pocket of the actionists of big corporations.
    As long as people won’t be able to recognize that, I hardly believe that things are going to change in the good direction.

    • “I think that modern medicine focuses on one part at time not only by mistake but also because this mechanism is the most powerful tool for making business.”

      That’s a very good point, Alessio. Drug-centric approaches to healing and specialization/medical branching go hand in hand, seeing as most drugs target specific receptors, organs, or other isolated components of the human body. They don’t work in a holistic fashion.

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