The Definition of Health

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Most people who come to see a naturopathic doctor are in some sort of state of dis-ease. That is, they are often exhibiting symptoms that indicate that their bodies have begun to offer up warning signs that something is off balance. After all, if they didn’t have symptoms, how would they know something was wrong with them? The trouble with our society is we often don’t notice our bodies until we have a glaringly obvious symptom that we can’t ignore – like how I never pay attention to a car I’m driving until there is a red light and a beeping noise I can’t turn off. And, even at that, how often do we find ourselves out-of-touch with even the most annoying symptoms – like gas and bloating or pain and itching – simply because we’ve “learned to live with them”?

A few months into my internship, I made it a practice to have patients outline their goals for treatment. After doing this for a while, there was something I noticed: most of the patients’ goals revolve around making their symptoms go away. I suppose that this is a reasonable goal for someone consulting a healthcare provider. After all, their lives were just fine before the symptoms arrived. And, if we’re following our naturopathic principles correctly and treating the root cause of symptoms and educating our patients, our patients will leave us in a much better state of health than they came in with. But, I have to wonder, is good health really just the absence of symptoms?

To find out, try this exercise with me. Close your eyes. Focus on your breath. Notice your breath deepen. Notice your breathing slow down. Notice the feelings of calm. Now, very gently, and very slowly, begin by focusing on your toes. What do you feel there? Do you feel your toes? Perhaps you feel nothing, perhaps they feel cosy and warm, perhaps they could use a little more circulation. Gently move your attention around your body, to your feet, up your legs, all the way through your body to the top of your head.

If I do this exercise now, I notice that my shoulders feel tense, so does my neck – probably because I’m sitting at the computer typing this right now. I feel that an appropriate remedy for this would be to stand up and stretch. So I do. I feel better. I sit back down.

If I hadn’t done that exercise, I might not have noticed the tenseness, the tightness. I would have continued on, until things actually hurt and then I probably would have just ploughed through the hurt, focused on the task at hand, ignoring the flesh I embody, as we often do. After a few days, months and years of sitting at a desk, ignoring the twinge of aching muscles, I might even have slid into a state known as disease. But, when I increased my body awareness, I was able to care for myself. We rarely spend any time in our bodies; our bodies are just vehicles used to carry our heads around, it seems. We often forget what it’s like to live here, in them.

The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being... I wonder what that could mean for you.

It might mean better friendships, more bubble-baths, exercising every day, taking vacation, playing with your kids, cooking dinner most nights of the week, hosting dinner parties, going to see movies, continual learning, completing a novel, getting out of debt or having safe and meaningful work, among other things.

A great naturopathic doctor wrote that he always asks his patients to list their top 5 life values. He then asks them if they feel that they are living in accordance with these values. In this way, his approach to healthcare becomes more than just a focus on disease but a focus on living a life of value, intention and meaning. Not many people can say that they get that from their annual medical check-up; that’s why I love our medicine.

Whatever your definition of health, I think it starts by taking an honest look inward, beginning by cultivating body awareness, asking yourself what a state of complete well-being would look like and deciding what you require in order to move into that state.

What is your definition of health? What can we do to help you get closer to it?

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