First, from a Western perspective, let's look at the biology of chronic disease. At first glance, there may not seem to be a link between all the chronic illnesses that plague us. Certainly, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and obesity are often seen together, but what about the others? Digestive disorders, chronic pain, arthritis, Alzheimer's, asthma, depression? It may not be obvious, but there is a common thread.
Disruption of cellular function on a molecular level can be due to chronic inflammation, oxidative stress (the by-product of biochemical processes within the cell), and shortened telomeres. Telomeres are noncoding DNA sequences that are found at the ends of each chromosome. The telomeres protect the coding DNA from damage during cell replication. Telomeres and their associated enzyme, telomerase, were discovered in the 1980s by Drs. Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostak, who share a Nobel Prize for their groundbreaking work.
Dr. Blackburn likens the telomere to the plastic bits on the ends of your shoelaces that prevent the shoelace from fraying. During each chromosome replication, the telomere shortens and then is rebuilt by telomerase. This is how telomeres protect the essential information within your cells, and it seems that the longer your telomeres, the greater the buffer you have against cell death. Chronic inflammation leads to oxidative stress and telomere shortening. Soon, the damage is too great, and the cell cannot recover. At that point, the cell initiates a "self-destruct program" called apoptosis.
Inflammation in and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact, inflammation is a critical process in healing. It is the body's normal response to acute injury or infection. If you scrape your knee or catch pneumonia, white cells within your blood release certain chemicals. These are called inflammatory markers. These markers tell your body to increase blood circulation to the affected area. Your knee, for instance, will start to look redder and feel warmer following the injury. These are signs that your immune system is responding correctly. The greater blood circulation will bring more nutrients and infection-fighting cells to the damaged part of your body.
If you could not mount a proper immune response, you would die. You would succumb to the first viral or bacterial infection that came along. However, it seems that something has gone awry on a very large scale. It has been discovered that constant low-grade inflammation contributes significantly to chronic disease because the immune system starts to attack normal tissue throughout the body.
Your gut is particularly vulnerable to chronic inflammation. Continual low-grade inflammation in the GI tract may set off a series of events that leads to wide spread inflammation affecting many organ systems. This sort of inflammation, dubbed "meta-inflammation" or "whole-body inflammation," is not a response to acute injury or infection but rather is induced by our lifestyle habits. While it is true that environmental toxins can also cause inflammation, we can still reduce our risk for chronic disease by making better decisions.
Our choices surrounding food, alcohol, cigarettes, exercise, sleep, and stress management heavily influence our immune systems. By continually making poor choices, we overwhelm our bodies. In computer parlance, there is a saying: "Garbage in, garbage out." From a Western perspective, chronic disease is the logical result of long-term input that promotes inflammation and tissue damage.
Eastern medicine looks at chronic illness in much the same way. Good health is regarded as a natural consequence of balanced living. Blood and qi flow easily through all the channels of the body. Essence, energy, and spirit are in harmony. All this is primarily achieved through moderate diet, exercise, sleep, and meditative practices. While acupuncture and herbs figure prominently in Eastern medicine, it is adherence to a healthful regimen that is the cornerstone of this healing system.
When your diet is poor, when you do not get enough sleep and exercise, or when you are under stress, your body becomes vulnerable, slightly weakened, and energetically unbalanced. From an Eastern viewpoint, diseases arise because of such imbalances. These disturbances can have an external or internal source and could involve not only the body but the mind and the spirit as well. The symptoms may be subtle, at least from the point of view of a Western practitioner who may not be trained to elicit or acknowledge these indicators of impending disease.
One of the strengths of Eastern medicine is the recognition that particular patterns of symptoms and signs may indicate imbalance. If left uncorrected, these energetic dysfunctions will lead to disturbances of qi and blood circulation and ultimately organ disharmony. In using the word "organ" we are referring to not only the anatomic structure of an organ, but its physiology, its function, and its areas of influence throughout the body.
In Eastern medicine, nothing exists in isolation. A disturbance in one channel or organ will affect all the others. This is an elegant explanation of the neurological, immune, and endocrine systems at work. Your gut and metabolic health is dependent upon these systems functioning harmoniously. After so many years of trying to reduce the human body to the smallest component, cutting edge science is bearing out the concept that the intricate interplay between larger systems determines a person's state of health.
Now, you are probably asking, "Can anything be done to reverse this epidemic of chronic inflammation and subsequent illness?" What with all the chemicals in our water and air, all the unhealthy additives inserted into processed food, and all the stressors of modern life, good health seems like a lost cause. But you can take control of your own well-being. Decreasing inflammation in the GI tract is imperative for decreasing inflammation in all other organ systems.
The best and first step is to eat more plants. Even if this is the only change you make, your health will improve significantly. If you eat a healthy diet based on plants, you could decrease your chance of developing a chronic disease by at least 60 percent. You do not need to become a vegetarian, but you need to make fruits and vegetables the mainstay of your diet. More and more Western biochemical research has determined why fruits and vegetables are essential for good health. Western doctors are returning to the wisdom of their forebears, like Hippocrates, who said, "Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food."
Of course, practitioners of Eastern medicine have never forgotten this basic tenet of healthy living. They have always stressed the importance of eating plants. Why can eating plants decrease your risk for chronic disease? Because the nutrients within plants act like medications that reduce inflammation. These compounds act on specific biochemical reactions in the body and have many beneficial effects. Aside from supplying high concentrations of vitamins and minerals, plant proteins, like certain legumes, nuts, and seeds, are rich in healthy fats (omega-3 fatty acids) that have anti-inflammatory effects.
The above is an excerpt from True Wellness for Your Gut: How to Combine the Best of Western and Eastern Medicine for Optimal Digestion, Glucose Metabolism and Weight Control by Catherine Kurosu, MD, LAc and Aihan Kuhn, CMD, OBT, Published by YMAA Publication Center, Pub Date October, 2020, ISBN: 9781594397455