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Victor Dominocielo: After Getting Sick, Why Do We Get Well?

After we get sick, why do we get well?

Modern, evidence-based medicine has only been around for about the last 140 years, so how and why did we get well in our early history and pre-history? Thousands of years ago, how did we get well?

When we are sick, we get well for the same reason that all plants and animals get well after getting a disease: We are the result of 3.4 million years of our ancestors successfully surviving diseases. In addition to that main process, nursing care (shelter, warmth, food, water and cleanliness when we are incapacitated) delivered by family members, clans and tribes is a secondary, “social animal” factor for getting us through significant illnesses over the millennia.

In addition to these two main and significant evolutionary benefits, our very recent and modern evidence-based medicine (since the 1870s), clean water and reliable nutrition are responsible for nearly doubling our life span.

So, we get well because we are the survivors of millions of years of evolution, the actual “survival of the fittest” process in action. However, this cyclical nature of disease, that is, our natural ability to heal ourselves and survive, opens the door to all manner of non-scientific, folk medicine “cures” and “snake oil” salesmen masquerading as evidence-based medicine.

The usual process is that as our bodies naturally heal, some “cure” or magic pill is presented to us, and we convince ourselves through false associations and confirmation bias that the magic pill or procedure made us better — even though our bodies were getting better on their own. Due to this typical false association, which continues to recur in every generation, the only way to know that one event causes another is to do repeated, double-blinded, placebo-controlled experiments.

Instead, people tend to associate notable events before an illness as the cause and notable events toward the end of an illness as the cure. “I got a flu shot and it gave me the flu” is an often heard refrain. We remember the flu shot (a notable event), but we cannot sense when the flu virus actually entered our body and subverted our immune system, so we blame the notable event. Flu shots contain dead cells, so it is impossible for the shot to cause the flu. As our body naturally fights off the flu virus over several days, we might try high doses of vitamin C, aroma therapy or homeopathic dilutions and falsely associate that those procedures were responsible for healing us. But we were getting better anyway.

So with all these biases, false associations and placebos cluttering our decision-making landscape, what is the best method for making decisions about our health? The process of getting sick naturally causes us to focus on getting well, and the sicker we get the more focused we become on getting better. This process of being sick and getting well, repeated many times during our lives, puts us in a very vulnerable position and susceptible to believe in just about any placebo that promises to cure us and make us healthy.

The history of medicine through the ages is about believing that just about any strange practice will cure us and make us better. Even today, the equivalent of modern-day shamans and “healers” scramble to benefit from our disease cycle of getting sick and then naturally getting well. Bloodletting is still practiced as a folk medicine, invisible body parts are claimed to channel life energy, the body reacts to special vibrations of substances that cause harmony, magical water and sugar cures us, psychic surgery removes toxic substances, cranial massage and therapy realigns our biofields, aromas, auras, ear candling, moxibustion, chelation therapy and even magnets heal our body. These practices, which take advantage of our suggestibility when we are sick, are individually described in the Skeptic's Dictionary.

Most unfortunately, last year Steve Jobs fell prey to this typical false association pattern: “In 2003, Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which further tests revealed to be an islet cell or pancreatic neuroendrocrine tumor that is treatable with surgical removal, which Jobs refused. ‘I really didn’t want them to open up my body, so I tried to see if a few other things would work,’ he later admitted with regret. Those other things included consuming large quantities of carrot and fruit juices, fasting, bowel cleansings, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, herbal remedies, a vegan diet and a few other treatments he found on the Internet or by consulting people around the country, including a psychic. These other things didn’t work, and in the process we find the alternative medicine question, “What’s the harm?” answered in the form of an irreplaceable loss to humanity” (Michael Shermer, Skeptic Magazine, July 10, 2013).

So, if the recurring “disease” of humanity is an overactive suggestibility to placebos when we are sick, then the cure, most certainly, is science-based medicine. It can’t cure everything, but it’s not a placebo, not a patient generated effect and it has the distinct advantage of not being invisible or using magical and undetectable forces.

— Victor Dominocielo, a California-credentialed teacher for 36 years, is the human biology and health teacher at a local middle school. The opinions expressed are his own.

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