When giving health talks I usually ask, “What is health?” I am amazed at some of the answers that seem to come up again and again. The most common is disease or symptom free. This answer comes up so frequently that, obviously, it’s what most people think, if they think about it at all. Unfortunately, this definition or belief is probably what guides these people in their health decisions, whether consciously or not; and approaching health from this angle won’t always lead to wise choices.
The truth is that symptoms actually are health. Think of your common cold symptoms–runny nose, sneezing, coughing, congested sinuses, fever, and night sweats. Each one of these has a role to play in fighting the infecting organism:
- Runny nose—mucous membranes in the nasal passages and nasopharynx (orifice connecting nasal passages to the throat) release a thick, sticky substance that carries away microorganisms which have tried to infiltrate this primary entrance to our internal environment. Think of mucus as quicksand or mud in a mudslide–nothing will escape.
- Sneeze–a powerful blast of air, saliva, lacrimal secretions (tears) and mucus taking out anything and everything in its path. Microorganisms entering the mouth, nose or pharynx are sneeze-blasted the heck out of there. Consider a sneeze your body’s internal tornado, just worse.
- Cough–similar to a sneeze, just clearing out the lungs, bronchi and oropharynx, as well as the nose and mouth. We’ll call the cough the body’s internal hurricane–not a dang thing left unshaken; and during a coughing fit–fuggedaboutit—category 5 cyclone!
- Congested sinuses–infections or any other irritants, including allergens, can lead to swelling of the mucous membranes; as membranes swell, they close off the nasal passages. Essentially, sinus congestion is the Royal Guard–try getting in, go ahead…try.
- Fever–heats the body to incinerator temperatures, much higher than in what microorganisms can survive. Fever is Death Valley for germs.
- Night sweats–heat and sweat flush the external barriers out, so the skin, scalp and orifices are like a hot, wet boiler room. Consider night sweats a monsoon for microbes.
You can see that each one of these symptoms is the body’s way of protecting itself. And every illness/disease has associated symptoms to return the body to homeostasis.* So why associate symptoms with sickness?
It’s because historically–at least over the last 80 years or so–medical care has focused on relieving symptoms. OK, that’s nothing new–we all know that. However, it is the reason why so many people still see the presence or absence of symptoms as the definitions of illness and health. But I assure you what most consider illness actually is health. Any questions?
*Or in the case of the body being overloaded by disease (AIDS, let’s say), it’s the body’s attempt to return to homeostasis. Whether or not the body can return to homeostasis is the true difference between illness and health.