I recently unexpectedly found myself in exactly this position when I was invited to a lunch at the National Press Club of Australia where the Federal Shadow Minister for Health, Catherine King was giving her inaugural address. We’re a few months off an election here in Australia and if the blustering winds continue in the same direction, it’s likely Ms King will be in charge of our nation's health system in a few months time.
Knowing that many of my readers want real-life solutions to living better with chronic illness, despite the obstacles we face, I was intrigued to hear this influential woman’s vision for turning the tide on the chronic disease epidemic. As I was handed the microphone, a million thoughts raced through my head.
I was taken back in time almost 14 years ago when I was told by a specialist doctor that I have an incurable, life-long disease. Over the years different doctors have given my illness different labels, such as Lupus, Sjögren’s syndrome, fibromyalgia, or simply “connective tissue disorder,” but none have been able to give me a cause or a cure.
Like so many others before me, when conventional medication did little more than cause weight gain or fog up my head, I turned to alternative therapy. I paid extraordinary sums of money for newfangled tests, tried all the fad-diets, bought supplements, and visited “intuitive” healers. I handed over my money to anyone and everyone who promised a cure. But I was still sick.
Looking back on my health crisis, I now understand that I was unwell because of a perfect storm. I had a genetic predisposition to autoimmune disease and my life in the fast lane was causing a runaway train of inflammation leaving me painfully arthritic, lethargic and emotionally wrecked.
It wasn’t until I stopped looking for a magic pill or a single treatment and started looking at all the areas in my life that needed attention, that my health started turning around. Regular readers will know that I turned to scientific evidence and the latest health research to finally understand that the path I needed to follow was maddeningly, ridiculously… simple.
It turned out that I needed to take a whole-health, whole-life approach. This included not only taking my medicine when necessary, but also eating more whole foods and cutting the crap, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. It also meant addressing my chronic stress levels, my anxiety-driven insomnia, and emotional wellbeing. I also worked on nurturing healthy relationships and finding meaning and purpose that would motivate me and help to keep me on track.
All this might sound as though I’m saying that having good health is simply a matter of taking personal responsibility; after all, what we do (or fail to do) plays such a central role in chronic disease. But while I’ve said that the changes I’ve made in order to live well despite my illness have been simple, they’ve also been maddeningly, ridiculously… difficult.
I have every reason in the world to take care of my health – I have two gorgeous kids in need of my love and care for many years to come, I have meaningful work that I’m deeply committed to, and I live in a prosperous, stable country that provides ample opportunity for personal development. On top of all this, I’m a health journalist, who’s job is to stay on top of the latest health advice. And yet, despite all this, as I’ve confessed many times before, I’m constantly falling off the well wagon.
This is an age where junk food manufacturers are at the top of food chain and when the concept of “moderation” is marketed as eating a block of chocolate after a hard day of work. This is a time when overwork has become the norm – both admired and expected, and when an unregulated, multi-billion dollar “wellness” industry blurs the lines between expert advice and quackery. As I wrote in my piece Will Vs Skill: Making Healthy Changes Last, in the face of all that is against us, the evidence shows that self-control alone isn't enough.
As Associate Professor Harald Schmidt from the University of Pennsylvania wrote in this paper about the chronic disease epidemic in the U.S., if I can’t stay on track, then what chance does, say, a child have if they're living in an inner-city borough and being raised in a low-income family, with obese and smoking parents? Schmidt explains that tackling the chronic disease epidemic by making it a matter of “lifestyle” is monumentally problematic because “It can suggest that people choose, for example, smoking or heavy drinking as others might decide between taking up golf or tennis as a hobby.”
All this was playing on my mind at the Press Club lunch when I was handed the microphone to ask Catherine King a question. (You can see the event's broadcast on ABC TV’s iview here. My question is at time code 45:10) Here's an excerpt.
Don't get me wrong; if I were in a serious car accident, had a heart attack, a major wound or infection, I would want to be treated by the best conventionally-trained medical expert I could find. Conventional medicine works wonders when it comes to acute care and life-saving emergency responses. Where it’s falling short is in dealing with ongoing chronic health issues that don't heal quickly and can worsen over time.
If we want to really make a big difference the disease epidemic, in which two in three people will be diagnosed with a long-term illness, we need big changes.
By this I don’t mean another gazillion dollar public education campaign. As Pro Vice-Chancellor Sandra Jones, from the Australian Catholic University recently highlighted in The Conversation, most media campaigns like this don’t work. All the evidence shows that knowing we should look after our health and actually doing it are two different things.
Personally, I would like Ms King to outline a vision for a food labelling system that makes it really easy for me to know what’s healthy and what’s not without having to squint at an obscure chart on the back of packaging. Better yet, how about plain packaging for fake foods that have zero nutritional value? Or perhaps an immediate ban on junk-food advertising to children?
I would have also liked to hear that Ms King will boost funding for the extraordinary Australian researchers who are drilling into the “how” of health, the “why” we’re getting sick, and “what” we can do about it, beyond developing new drugs and surgical techniques.
While the above would make a huge difference in helping me to live better in this over-stressed, topsy-turvy modern world, of all the things I wish the (likely) future health minister of Australia would do, it would be to invest significant money and resources into developing and supporting disease-specific, evidence-based, long-term, ongoing health programs that are designed to help people turn their lives around in the same way that I have.
Most people who are sick are not investigative health journalists like me. They don't have the time and resources to do it on their own. They need experts and support to show them the way.
We have a good starting point for this. For example, the experts that I featured in my documentary The Connection are demonstrating in published, peer-reviewed research that their programs can significantly help people with chronic disease. Here in Australia, Professor George Jelinek’s program for Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis is a shining example. It’s interesting that all these programs have a core set of commonalities including:
- That people are supervised by conventional medical doctors
- That people are supported to shift their diet to include more whole foods and fresh fruit and vegetables
- That people are taught to integrate movement and exercise into their every day lives
- They’re taught how make simple stress reduction techniques a daily habit, not a chore
- They’re taught about emotional balance and how to nurture positive relationships
- They also have access to expert advisors and are part of a supportive community that keeps them on track
In other words, the foundation to the programs that are making a meaningful difference in the lives of people with chronic disease is taking a whole health, whole life approach to getting better.
I don’t think I can be much clearer in my case for a significant national investment in evidence-based programs that make it easier for people to recover from chronic disease, so I’ll simply end with the recent words of Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghbreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, which are far more eloquent then mine –
“The world is full of frameworks, roadmaps and action plans that sit on shelves collecting dust, and never make a difference to people. I urge you, starting now, to translate your good intentions into concrete actions that transform the health of your people.”