How Chronic Illness is Like Global Warming: A Paradigm Shift for Conceptualizing Human Health
The day I emailed my doctor asking for lab tests, the sky was a dark and sinister orange. That the Earth seemed to be yelling for help called to mind for me the similarities between the human body and our planet.
Our nature ecosystem is interconnected, with one organism dependent on another. Understanding the role that all play is crucial for comprehending the larger system that they constitute.
So too are our bodies complex homes to interconnected systems, each communicating with and influenced by another.
Before my 2020 celiac diagnosis, signs indicate my possibly having had it since childhood or adolescence. In 2014, tinnitus began the day after eating a huge pasta dinner. A few days later, vertigo overcame me as I looked out onto the star-speckled view from my parents’ balcony window.
At 25 when I developed lactose intolerance, I had no idea of its possible connection to Celiac—but as I later discovered, the two are highly correlated.
The signs of climate change began small and subtle; now they are dramatic and undeniable. Similar to our response to global warming, when something runs awry in our bodies many of us begin to pay attention to their signals only once they have escalated to “disruptive to the point that they can no longer be ignored.”
I accepted my symptoms as normal, because they had always been my normal—plugging along for several years, until one day I couldn’t any longer. They began to significantly interfere with daily functioning, prompting me to push for more of an answer.
Noel Rose (referenced in an episode of Fresh Air on NPR) pointed out that in some cases with autoimmune diseases, “our tests only show damage when the organ under attack is already 80 percent destroyed.”
How did we get here? The mechanisms underlying global warming and chronic illness
Rates of autoimmune disease are steadily rising—higher in the U.S. than in any other country.
One theory for their increased incidence is that they are a byproduct of modern living. A 2020 study found that since 1991, the levels of ANA antibodies (common biomarkers of autoimmunity) on tests have risen significantly.
“Because, by and large, humans’ genetic material hasn’t changed in a generation, scientists attribute the dramatic rise to changes in environment or lifestyle, including diet and its effect on the microbiome,” wrote Meghan O’Rourke, author of The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness.
Some autoimmune disease and chronic illness is the result of an accumulating toxic load: the foods we eat (fried ones, cheese, preservatives and chemicals that even Autocorrect doesn’t know how to spell); alcohol consumption, smoke inhalation; emotional stress on overdrive; not enough time spent outside; an excess of blue light, overuse of antibiotics; the medications we take.
Additionally, according to Chiropractic Economics, “Trauma or intense stress may up your odds of developing an autoimmune disease, a new study suggests. Comparing more than 106,000 people who had stress disorders with more than 1 million people without them, researchers found that stress was tied to a 36 percent greater risk of developing 41 autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease and celiac disease.
If you are a woman, every ACE point raises your chance of being hospitalized with an autoimmune disease, such as hyperthyroidism, lupus, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, or celiac disease, by 20%. For men, your risk increases by 10% for every ACE point.”
Mark Hyman, who had personal experience with elusive ailments that for years he could not find a solution to within the conventional medicine system, uses a bucket metaphor to illustrate the way an accumulation of stressors and insults over many years all contribute to a disruption in the body’s homeostasis: “It wasn’t one thing that broke my brain. It was everything piled higher and higher until my brain and body couldn’t take anymore. It seemed sudden but was the end of a long series of exposures to toxins, stress, and a strange infection.”
The body keeps the score, as Bessel van Der Kolk put it. The bucket fills ever higher with toxic sludgey water, until one day, it overflows—turning on autoimmunity. No single one of these factors flicks the switch on. It’s the totality of all of them.
All of this is to say that mechanisms similar to the ones that have triggered degradation of the planet are triggering autoimmune disease in (primarily women’s) bodies. And the multifactorial nature of these illness’ causes means that curing them won’t be a quick fix either. Popping a pill won’t rid your body of years of accumulated offenders— because no single one of them is responsible.
Conventional medicine has yet to embrace this more holistic perspective, instead treating organs as separate and distinct.
Despite adequately serving people with more standard or widely known medical issues—as Dr. Davis wrote, “if you cut your hand or have cerebral palsy, go to the emergency room right away”— far less clear-cut treatment exists for autoimmune patients. 73 percent of doctors do not feel qualified to diagnose and treat autoimmune disorders.
Mark Hyman admits to having been trained “according to the dogma of separate medical specialties.”
“For heart problems you see the cardiologist, for stomach problems you see the gastroenterologist, for joint pain you see the rheumatologist, for skin problems, the dermatologist,” he wrote. “You just don’t ask the skin doctor about your joint pain. If you do, he or she will cut you off and tell you to see the joint doctor. There are doctors for every inch of your body. But there are very few who understand how the whole body works as one complete ecosystem.”
That our current medical system tends to symptoms more than underlying causes disadvantages autoimmune sufferers, many of whom suffer from a constellation of seemingly unrelated symptoms. We also often confuse symptom remission with cure of the underlying problem. One doctor told Megan O Rourke that her hives and night sweats were something that would just go away. Reading this brought to mind for me Donald Trump’s similar forecast for global warming.
An episode of GERD or a skin rash is comparable to a fire or a flood—singular episodes emblematic of larger problems (in the latter case, of global warming). The extinguishing of an isolated fire doesn’t signify an easing of the threat of climate. That pills helped my stomach upset after I ate gluten didn’t mean that I no longer had celiac disease.
Admirable as their service is, fire-fighters don’t eradicate global warming by putting out fires. Doctors who prescribe medicine to ease symptoms don’t cure or pinpoint a chronic illness just by dousing the flames of one of its many symptoms.
Though the battle may have finished, the war will still wage on in the background, out of sight.
We need a paradigm shift. Global warming will require more than firefighters and fire prevention policy. It will require changing both the way we think about our Earth and the way in which we live. Similarly for chronic or mysterious illnesses, change is necessary both in the way we conceptualize it and in the way we diagnose and treat it.
I have a utopian vision of a societal model that’s less hospitable to the myriad conditions that give rise to chronic illness and autoimmunity. In this world, both are less likely to thrive. It would be one with fewer toxins and processed foods, and more collectivism over individualism. It would be one with communities whose members care for one another; one with more attention given to thoughtful activities and slow burn connections, with less emphasis on (and need for) instant gratification.
I’m of the belief that our collective unrest creates the need for instant gratification in the first place. If we were more at peace, and with more of our deeper needs met by a healthier societal structure, the pull towards it would be lesser. We’d be better equipped to invest in substantial and enduring pursuits that left us feeling full for longer.
We won’t shift any of this overnight—but awareness is the first piece. If we are unable to transform the way we think and live, then recovery can only be piece-meal and superficial at best. Howard Hendrix writes, “Fantasies about the dragon of wildfire and the phoenix of resilience are more powerful than ever. But it’s time to demythologize both of them and live in reality.”
To fully recover from anything, be it a lifetime of trauma or bodily stressors, it’s important to understand what happened. Only then will “rebuild, recover, resilience” feel less like empty proclamations of hope and more like real possibilities. As Hendrix wrote: “Why rise from the ashes without asking why you had to burn?”
Failure to see the bigger picture leads to harm in both our planet and our bodies. It leads many to fall through the cracks. In my case, focusing on only one piece of the larger whole (acne, GERD, mental health problems) obscured the underlying problem for years on end.
Slowing down. Gentleness. Wide open eyes. Allowing connections the time they need to unfold, or reveal themselves naturally. Resistance to the offer of shortcuts. Because when we’re moving too fast, the image gets blurry. It’s hard to really see it. You see the edges, but not what’s really going on inside.
We will need all of these to heal the affliction—which is a modern one for reasons beyond a greater number of pollutants and processed foods, but also due to the pace at which we live, and the ways in which we (aren’t) taught to really see.
Traditional science reduces whole beings to the sum of their parts. Spirituality and holistic health shine light on that intangible element that makes us intimately and infinitely more.
It’s time we regard this. We need medicine to become the force that looks deeper.
About the Author
Eleni is a freelance writer and Spanish interpreter. Her work has been published in Them, Tiny Buddha, Peaceful Dumpling, Elephant Journal, LGBTQ Nation, and Introvert Dear, among others. You can follow her on IG @eleni_steph_writer and on Medium at https://medium.com/@esteph42190.