What is health really?

Dr. TonyNSA

In the next series of weekly articles I’d like to explore the question “What is health really?”

You might imagine at first glance that this topic is immense and draws from many disciplines and aspects of life. And you would not be mistaken. However through my professional and personal experiences as well as my continued studies, we can identify certain underpinnings or foundation principles upon which HEALTH rests.

This exploration will be like a painting. And just like a painting, the scope and magnitude is limited by our imagination and the size of the canvas.

Many years were spent by Michelangelo on his back, painting the ceiling of the Sistine chapel (a masterpiece that I was blessed to be able to see with my own eyes when I was 12). I’m not planning to take as long:) let’s hope.

Merriam Webster defines health as the condition of being well or free from disease. This definition is quite limiting.

First of all how do you determine what “being well” is? How do you determine what “free from disease” means? Using a person’s subjective feedback is not necessarily the best indicator of health. After all, there are many examples of people not having any symptoms while having a grave illness such as heart disease or cancer. But does that necessarily dictate that we completely ignore a person’s subjective feedback? Not necessarily. Quality of life, which is an important aspect of health, is subjective in nature.

We can use external objective measures such as blood tests, MRI, and CT scans to help assess a person’s health status but they also don’t paint a full picture and sometimes they are not helpful at all. I can’t remember the number of times a patient has told me that they have horrible pain or obvious symptoms and they’ve had testing done only for the results to come back as “normal”.

So if objective testing and subjective feedback are not enough to determine one’s health status, what is?

In order to assess our health, both as individuals and as a society, we need to expand our definition of what health really is. If we continue to use an incomplete definition of health, then our approach to improving health will be incomplete and unsuccessful.

Health is not just a physical thing. It is not just a mental thing. I think we have come to see health as merely physical and mental because of the nature of our thinking. Take for example science at a university level. You start with a general look at various subjects and then as your time at university goes on, you start to focus more and more, moving from general to specific. To study the human body, we take specific courses of biology, physiology, anatomy, chemistry, biomechanics, the list goes on. As we focus our thinking on specifics, we start to lose the forest for the trees. We look less at how all of it works together and we look more at individual pieces of the puzzle.

Looking at the individual pieces is an important part of the process in order to learn in depth. However what this creates is separate branches of study, and even competition between departments at the academic level. Separation leads to value judgements where one form of study is seen as more valuable or real than another one. More weight is given to something physical like how a drug can act on the body than to something more emotional such as the effect of empathy on a person’s well-being, as if the drug was more real than empathy.

One researcher who has been taking a vastly different approach is Dan Siegel. He refers to his approach as using “Consilience”. Consilience is the linking together of principles from different disciplines especially when forming a comprehensive theory like when you’re trying to form a comprehensive theory about how the human body becomes healthy.

The key to health is INTEGRATION: Rather than looking at HEALTH as being just physical or just mental, let’s look at it through a more complex, more integrated lens. Let’s look at how feelings such as empathy can affect someone’s physical or mental health. Let’s look at combining the physical state of nervous system tension and how someone sees themselves or what narrative is playing itself out day after day.

INTEGRATION and consilience are the next step in our evolution in the health sciences: Health Professionals and researchers talking to each other and working together for the benefit of the patient rather than keeping apart and solely seeing their own territory as real and valid.

What is health really? Part 2
Which way to go?