I have been thinking a lot about relationships lately. Yes, I’m thinking about interpersonal relationships, but I’m also considering our relationship with ourselves and our bodies, with food, with nature, with substances that impact our ability to be fully conscious. I’m considering relationships with our communities, with systems within which we work and play. How are we woven into the context of our life? How healthy is that web? How do our relationships impact our health and vitality?
We humans are natural beings, made up of complex systems and living within complex systems. In the field of biology, this dynamic complexity is called an ecology, and it seeks to understand the relationships and interconnectedness of living beings and their relationship to their physical surroundings. Creatures living within a healthy ecology thrive. Those that do not don’t do so well.
How are we human beings doing? Well, 50 percent of Americans suffer from at least one chronic disease (like heart disease, hypertension or diabetes), and nearly one third of us suffer from multiple chronic health conditions. That number increases each year as obesity rates climb. (Nationally, more than one third of us are obese.) Our staggering health care expenditures go toward the management of these conditions, usually with medications, costly procedures and, often, hospitalizations. Seventy percent of deaths in the United States are due to chronic disease.
But statistics about chronic disease tell only part of the story. How are we doing on an existential level? Social science points to a trend in increasing rates of loneliness and isolation, with one in four people feeling that they have no one to talk to about personal difficulties, and 50 percent of Americans feeling they have no one outside of their family to talk to. The cultivation of friendships and neighborly relationships are challenged by long commutes, more work and less play, and ever-increasing time in front of screens. Rates of depression are also on the rise. Not surprisingly, rates of chronic disease increase in the setting of loneliness, isolation, stress and depression.
Yikes. How about the systems in which we are living? How about our relationship with our beloved, life-supporting Mother Nature? Unfortunately, that has become a distant relationship, too. We spend much less time outside and are increasingly distracted and less connected. Additionally, as biodiversity and habitat are lost, the precious strands of the web that holds all lives are broken. Extinction rates are escalating. Those of us who remain connected to nature may find our hearts nearly breaking.
Deep breath…. Surely there must be good news?
If our health is so poor, can we look to the medical system for guidance? Under the best of circumstances, yes. We are fortunate here in West Marin to be able to cultivate relationships with primary care providers who know us within the context of our families and communities, who make an effort to listen carefully and work collaboratively. Yet it is common for people to feel rushed through visits and that their concerns have not been heard or their opinions respected. In our fast-paced, high-stakes environment, mistakes get made. The British Medical Journal published an article in May asserting that the third leading cause of death in the United States is medical error. While the methodology and statistical analysis of that study has been called into question, a sobering truth remains: hospitalization is risky, procedures may go wrong and medications (especially in combination) can cause harm. The complexity of decision-making and the pace of modern medicine do not make a good combination.
Here, finally, is some great news. We can re-weave the connections and cultivate the relationships that heal. We can honor our bodies’ tremendous capacity to heal itself when it is given what it needs. The vast majority of chronic diseases can be slowed or reversed with lifestyle changes. Supportive, loving relationships and friendships are healing. Altruistic acts and volunteering lengthens lives and treats depression. Walking in the forest turns on genes favoring health. Food grown locally and organically is some of the best medicine that money can buy….or that you can grow. Change happens, even within medicine.
We humans have evolved over tens of thousands of years within an ecology of social connectedness, whole-food nourishment, regular movement, deep nature immersion and connection to a sense of the sacred. We carry this wisdom within our DNA, and our bodies respond when we honor these human needs. I invite you to imagine what your life might look like if you were held within supportive, loving relationships with yourself, your friends, your community and nature. Let’s deepen the connections we share and reclaim our ability to heal ourselves and each other.
If this ignites your curiosity, join James Stark and me at the Dance Palace next Tuesday, Sept. 13 at 7 p.m. We’ll be exploring these ecological considerations, weaving connections and supporting each other in making change. We will also be sharing our work at the Commonweal Garden; we call it the Art of Vitality. May we all experience a deepening of our collective well-being.
Anna O’Malley is an integrative family medicine physician with the Coastal Health Alliance. She lives in Bolinas.