Disease is not caused by one thing, but by many interacting factors
One of the most important lessons learned from When the Body Says No is that chronic disease is very rarely caused by just one thing. We like to have black and white answers; we like to know where to place our blame. But when it comes to chronic disease, there are few definitive answers. As Dr. Maté writes, “Even where significant risks can be identified…these vulnerabilities do not exist in isolation. A systems model recognizes that many processes and factors work together in the formation of disease or in the creation of health.”
“The cure of many diseases is unknown to physicians…because they are ignorant of the whole. For the part can never be well unless the whole is well.” —Plato
Since the discovery of the double helix in 1953, the subsequent surge of genetic research, and the mapping of the human genome that was completed in 2003, we’ve become obsessed with our genes. As of August 2017, there were approximately 75,000 genetic tests available in the market, and the genetic testing market is projected to be valued at 25 billion dollars by 2025. But the reality is that our genes give us relatively little information about our overall health.
For example, inherited genetic mutations play a major role in only 5% to 10% of all cancers. About 10% of ALS cases are considered “familial,” and inheriting a gene for familial ALS does not guarantee that someone will develop the condition. And less than 1% of Alzheimer’s cases are inherited or “familial.” Genes are regulated—turned on and off—as a result of our environment and lifestyle (stress, diet, toxins, etc.), and most of a cell’s genes never get expressed.
Toxins are blamed for many diseases, and while exposure to certain toxins significantly increases the risk of disease, it does not guarantee it. For example, a study of over 5,000 Europeans found that among heavy smokers, the risk of lung cancer was 24.4% in men and 18.5% in women. That means that the majority of heavy smokers—75.6% of men and 81.5% of women—managed to avoid lung cancer.
Likewise, a neurotoxin called BMAA (which is produced by blue-green algae and found in seafood) clearly plays a role in developing ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. In Guam, high exposure to BMAA from dietary sources contributes to ALS in up to a third of the population—a rate more than 100 times higher than in the U.S. And yet, two thirds of the population of Guam does not develop the disease, despite high exposure to the neurotoxin.
There is growing awareness about how eating animal products increases the risk of cancer. High consumption of red meat increases the risk of colon cancer by 28%, and high consumption of processed meat increases the risk by 20%. The link between cheese consumption and breast cancer is so strong that 12,000 physicians signed a petition to the FDA to put breast cancer warnings on cheese products. And a review of 47 studies found an increased risk of prostate cancer due to eating animal products. And yet, 1 in 23 people develop colon cancer, 1 in 8 women develop breast cancer, and 1 in 9 men develop prostate cancer—despite the fact that most people consume animal products regularly.
One of the biggest risk factors in disease is stress; according to Dr. Mark J. Doolittle of the Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine, “most standard medical textbooks attribute anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of all disease to stress-related origins.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 75% of doctors visits are due to stress. Yet when it comes to chronic disease, the medical community seems far more concerned with genetics and potential toxin exposure than with our mental health.
In the vast majority of cases, it is not accurate to blame a single factor for a chronic disease. Our state of disease or health is the result of many interacting factors, so the more we can adopt a holistic approach to our health—one that takes into account all aspects of our biology, physiology, lifestyle, and environment—the better off we’ll be.