What is Health? Deep Questions and Tough Answers

Growing up I had lots of "childhood diseases" in my early years at school. So much so that I missed so many classes that my Mother was given the option of me repeating the last year of my primary education so I could catch up!

Luck for me she skipped that option and found another way for me to catch up and the rest of my schooling was pretty smooth.

In those early years I hated that school and found it extremely stressful. I think that was largely responsible for my experience of stress and illness.

The rest of my life has been almost completely healthy!

Did I grow out of illnesses as people say? Not really I did have some asthma from time to time until I got fed up of that and took action to fix it.

And since I've had no asthma for the last 30 years whatever I did actually worked.

But if you ask the question "What is it that makes us healthy or not?" you may get many different answers…

That interests me a lot, so let's look at this question and mull over some of the answers.

Health and Our Genes

The set of genes that we are born with used to be understood to be like the blueprint of a building.


The blueprint is the blueprint and all is predetermined.

If our genes were like that we would be stuck with our health; we would be born with good health or poor health and we could do nothing about it.

But that is wrong…

The good news is that we understand a lot more about genes nowadays and they don't compare to a blueprint at all. A better comparison would be to the keys of a piano.

The number of keys on a keyboard is fixed; so is their size, structure and colour.

Logically the music that comes out of these limitations must be rather boring and limited eh?

Not a bit of it.

There is an almost infinite variety of feelings and expression, passion and delight that flows from a piano piece by a professional pianist.

The keys are fixed but the music isn't.

And that is like our genes.

The music played on the keyboard of our genes is our bodily experience and our health. We can play energy, exhaustion, malnutrition, Olympic fitness and mastery depending on our choices and practise.

The genes to switch metaphors can be compared to an unworked piece of wood.

It is what it is.

But after skilled work by a master craftsman it may be a beautiful carving or piece of furniture.

Our genes are where we start from not where we end up.

Are You Healthy, Yes or No?

Are you ill right now or totally healthy?

Fact is that you might just be feeling "ok" now -not at death's door and not really feeling in tip top form either.

Health is not binary healthy or ill – we have many more states of health than just these two – ill and healthy.

As we age, as we change and take on more responsibilities – kids for example our health may be in constant flux.

It might be better to view our health like our IQ – everyone has a number.

So average health might be a 100 so on a particular day you could feel exhausted from over exertion and your "HQ" or Health Quotient is 90, a few days later you get a cold or flu and the score is just 85.

After a peaceful restorative holiday it may be at 110 !

How is your health right now? What's your number? Being aware of this HQ may help us make better decisions and optimise our life styles to better reflect our values and priorities.

In other words – to take more charge of our health.

What Exactly IS a Health Shop?

I spend quite a lot of money in "Health shops" but it occurs to me from time to time that if call shops selling good food and nutrients "Health shops" we are implicitly called other places "Disease shops".

Health shops usually focus on organic produce and unusual foods not routinely found in supermarkets. They usually specialise in upmarket supplements with less well known nutrients.

Everyone has heard of vitamin C but a lot fewer people have heard of Ubiquinol or CoQ10.

And the vitamin C tablet found in the supermarket may supply 100 mg per dose and that found in the Health shop may have 1000 mg and have Bioflavonoids.

Fact is that you can't buy health in a shop but for better health we need to pay attention to what we buy and how we nourish ourselves.

Moving on to Mental Health

I have wondered about the concept of "Mental Health" ever since I first heard the phrase. What exactly does it mean to be "mentally ill"?

Not much in my opinion. Purely normal human emotions like grieving for a loved one can be classified as Mental illness; and anxiety due to a big change in your life too, not to mention "Black Dog" or depression.

It seems to be based on an artificial notion of a person as having a body and a mind. Then the theory goes if you are ill it must be either the body that has a Physical illness or the mind that has a Mental illness.

The theory probably dates from Rene Descartes philosophical writings around 1640 and has the rather grand title of Mind Body dualism.

Why am I rambling around philosophical and historical byways? Because this is still the worldview imposed on us by medical doctors.

Medicine always has been a philosophy with very practical results. In my view Medicine is not a science but a craft backed up with a world view or philosophy of mind – body dualism.

Natural medicine is based on the sciences of Physiology and Ecology and therefore has a totally different worldview and naturally comes up with different answers to any particular question.

This is why there always has to be room for the patient's individual views in medicine.

Freedom of speech implies freedom of medicine.

Why do we find it necessary to label someone "Mentally Ill" when they suffer from, let's say, Depression?

Why not just help them?

Far easier to dole out a drug than to enquire about that person's life. Quite simply the concept "Mental Illness" is superfluous, bogus and unhelpful. We all need help from time to time and stigmatising people in suffering does not help at all.

Let's all stop doing this.

Health is Private, Health is Public

We discussed a topic dear to my heart – that of taking charge of your life. We can choose what we eat and drink and whether we live an active life or a lazy one!

But some things can break through this little bubble of independence – such as polluted air and polluted water.

The effects of pollute air right now in Chinese cities is well known and often featured in news broadcasts. However well you care about health if the very air you breath is poisoned and polluted by factory chimney smoke or transport vehicle exhaust then our health suffers as a direct consequence.

Such pollution back in the 1950s when I was growing up In London caused or aggravated the asthma I mentioned earlier in this article. When the British government passed "The Clean Air Act" the effects were fast and astonishing!

Similarly a hundred years earlier a serious outbreak of cholera in London was caused by the pollution of well water by a nearby cess pit and when the local authorities removed the handle of the well – the numbers suffering from cholera fell drastically.

This is Public Health and is the realm and contribution of Local and Central Government who can pass laws to build sewers and improve the supply of drinking water and other public goods.

And then Private Health is our contribution to our health is to clean up our diet and live our lives with as little stress as we can and to improve our health by engaging in activities such as walks, gardening and sport.

Seems to me that we have the balance between Public and Private health out of kilter.

As a Naturopath I know that our health is largely due to our decisions about what we eat drink and do and I totally recognise the essential role of Government to protect the environment in which we live.
Both parts of the Private and Public divide must be engaged and balanced. Medical Doctors however approach illness as something that must be responded to with pharmaceutical drugs.


While not totally decrying the occasional role of a select few drugs in emergency medicine, when used for long term illnesses such as Arthritis, diabetes and Cancer they can cause serious damage and disease themselves putting the patient and the medical Doctor in an impossible therapeutic and moral position.

The way out of this paradox is for both patients and doctors of all kinds to recognise that our mental and physical health is our own responsibility and we get such help as we need from experts according to our own goals and beliefs.

If you don’t believe in vaccinations then you have the total right to live your life in freedom and with full access to all public facilities unmolested by other people's fears. The only exception I would make is for extremely infectious and unusual diseases such as Ebola.

The Cholera outbreak of 1868 in London was "Cured" by removing a pump handle from a water supply and not by injections, vaccines and pharmaceuticals.

And when Victorian engineers built a proper underground sewerage system cholera was dealt a knockout blow.

All too often susceptibility to disease is discussed on a the microscopic level of the Immune system when it ought to be engaged with as issues of poverty, food supply, clean water and sewerage.

And I think this is a major part of the general confusion between our roles and responsibilities in Private and Public health.

The Final Confusion -Fitness and Health

Fitness is controversial. We barely notice joggers huffing and puffing through our cities and neighbourhoods. We may not be sure whether "Going to the Gym" is worth the time and money and how all this relates to health anyhow.

One problem we have is a chaos of voices promoting their own interests and few of the "Experts" putting themselves forward are relying on hard evidence.

Let's start with getting cleat what "Health" is what "Fitness" is -otherwise we just add to the confusion.

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. WHO

(World Health Organisation) http://who.int/about/definition/en/print.html

Fitness is defined as the quality of being suitable to perform a particular task  Wiki


So now let's spell that out and see how they relate to each other. Health is an overall rating of how we feel live and function in terms of freedom from disease whether "physical" or "mental" – but there is also a social and spiritual component to our being. Living without any social connection and spiritual purpose is dysfunctional and the WHO definition above recognises that.

Fitness is task orientated and very narrow. Notice that the definition says "…ability to perform a task"
The task in question may just be that you want to walk upstairs – so if you can walk upstairs you are fit and if you cannot then you are not.

Someone who wants to climb mountains has a different task in their mind and a much higher standard of fitness.

An Army drill sergeant is going to have a very precise and different idea of what fitness means!
Fitness depends on who you are and what you want to do in your life. Health is a total measure of how we are mentally, physically, socially and spiritually.

If you are not suffering from any disease but never take any exercise – your health is going to reflect that your fitness is way below par.

We used the idea of a Health Quotient earlier – so let's take that a little further and suggest that we have a "Fitness Quotient" too. Our FQ is 100 if we average fit people. We'll be able to walk a mile with no bother but would find mountain climbing impossible and the Drill Sergeant would roll his ideas.

Maybe our mountain loving friend has an FQ of 120 and the Sergeant 140.

Somebody seriously out of condition (FQ = 80 say ) is going to boost their health and their HQ as they learn to walk a little faster and engage in some easy yoga.

Exercise stimulates drainage from all parts of the body and circulation generally. It can also raise our spirits and do that with measureable results.

Exercise, I would say is an essential part of a healthy life, but here's the thing – exercise cannon compensate for a low HQ, you cannot compensate for poor nutrition.

You cannot out exercise a poor diet or a toxic attitude

Fitness is part of life, health is all of it

AuthorAlex Newell ND

I love learning and being healthy so as soon as I came across Yoga, read and practised to get the health benefits. When I was approaching middle age my health declined under the onslaught o stress and possibly poor diet, I had a perfect opportunity to learn more and I qualified in both Osteopathy and Naturopathy. Our health really is in our own hands and not in the hands of "The Doctor" or our Genes :-)

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