I consider myself one of those health nuts. I drink my green juice, take my vitamins, hike and practice yoga daily, get quality sleep, see a doctor and avoid harmful toxins. And yet I have come to believe that the purely physical realm of illnessthe part you can diagnose with laboratory testsis only part of the equation. It's a big part, mind you, but not the whole shebang. My experience with patients (as well as my personal background) has led me to the conclusion that whether they become sick or stay healthy, as well as whether they remain ill or manage to heal themselves, might have more to do with everything else that's going on in their lives than with any specific health standard they abide by.
When healthy habits aren't enough
Five years ago, I started working in an integrative medicine practice. My new patients were some of the most health-conscious people I've ever had the privilege to serve. Many of them ate a vegan diet, worked out, slept soundly each night and took vitamins every morning. But some of them were also mysteriously sick, complaining of fatigue, aches, gastrointestinal disturbances and other symptoms. I was baffled! I ran batteries of tests, and occasionally I would pick up something that eventually resulted in the complete resolution of a patient's symptoms. But more often than not, I would find nothing.
I was really motivated to solve the puzzle of why these "healthy" patients were so sick. Instead of focusing exclusively on physician-recommended behaviors, medical history and other traditional factors, I dug deep into their personal lives. I asked them questions: "What do you love about yourself? What's missing from your life? What do you appreciate about your life? Are you in a romantic relationship? If so, are you happy? If not, do you wish you were? Are you fulfilled at work? Do you feel like you're in touch with your life's purpose? Do you feel sexually satisfied? Do you express yourself creatively? Do you feel financially stable, or are you stressed about money? If your fairy godmother could change one thing about your life, what would you wish for?"
My patients' answers often gave me more insight into why they might be sick than any lab test or exam could. They were unhealthy not because of bad genes or poor habits or rotten luck, but because they were lonely or miserable in their relationships, stressed about work, freaked out about their finances or profoundly depressed.
On the flip side, I had other patients who ate junk, forgot to take their supplements, rarely exercised and enjoyed seemingly perfect health. Their responses revealed that their lives were filled with love, fun, meaningful work, creative expression, spiritual connection and other traits that differentiated them from the sick health enthusiasts.