Vitalism Signs

By Rebecca Koch

Well, as they say down home, butter my butt and call me a biscuit (meaning “I’m astounded”). I’ve just discovered that I’m an intuitive genius of health care philosophy! I could try and pass myself off as the lone voice of common-sense Vitalism, crying out from the back page of this magazine, in the wilderness of modern medical healthcare—but I couldn’t get away with it with you, my vital-voiced reader. Because if you have ever let your children swim in the creek, crawl on the ground or run barefoot, all while eschewing the use of antibacterial soap, disinfectants and hand sanitizers, chances are good that you’re an intuitive health care philosophy genius, too.

The wonder of it is, it seems the medical profession is catching the drift of what vital health is really all about, and I’m just two years behind on hearing about it. The trouble is, the rest of the world probably still hasn’t heard too much about it, either. It seems one well-respected medical school has seen the light enough to design and carry out a longitudinal study that turns previous thinking about early childhood exposure to pathogens on its ear. Northwestern University published a study in 2009 that indicated the regular, repeated use of antibacterial soaps in early childhood and the lack of exposure to infectious agents and animals may lead to a host of ills associated with the inflammatory processes that are thought to just go along with aging later in life.

The Northwestern study compared Filipino children with high levels of exposure to infectious microbes from their third trimester in utero to age 22, with a similar cohort of comparatively 
hyper-hygienically raised American children. They then compared their levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), the agent thought to be responsible for inflammatory illnesses like cardiovascular disease. Guess what? The Filipino group had CRP levels at least 80 percent lower than their American counterparts.

Now, did the Filipino children contract fewer infectious diseases during childhood? No, as a matter of fact, they had more of them. But, the upshot is that, from the vital health perspective, the Northwestern study suggests that it’s actually healthier in the long run to be “sick” with childhood illnesses and steeped in the stuff of life.

Medical science has developed the notion that because patients fared better when doctors washed their hands before sticking them inside patients they were going to cut open, a sterile environment is somehow the standard to set and is always preferable to a non-sterile environment. As it turns out, they were if not dead-wrong then at least unhealthily-wrong. The medical philosophy that developed from the germ theory of disease is so flawed that it’s created an ongoing and concerted effort on the part of medical healthcare to think of a sterile environment as a healthy environment; to think of the absence of sickness (or symptoms or pathogens) as the presence of health. The philosophy of vital health argues that’s a fundamentally flawed view of the living, evolving universe and human beings’ place in it.

It’s possible that no other word describes the underlying attitude of medical healthcare better than “hubris.” It’s not a word you hear much anymore, and we’ve largely forgotten its origins in Greek tragedy. According to the World English Dictionary, within the context of Greek mythology and literature, hubris means “an excess of ambition, pride, etc., ultimately causing the transgressor’s ruin.” It also referred to pride in human endeavors and knowledge so excessive as to presume greater understanding and accomplishments than that of the gods. Many Greek heroes were brought down by their presumption that they were greater than the gods who created them and the universe they lived in.

I found a great quote by author N.K. Jemisin from “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” that expressed the idea of hubris in medical healthcare quite well: “We can never be gods, after all—but we can become something less than human with frightening ease.” I would argue that the desire to “create” environments, diets and lifestyles that are removed ever-further from connectedness with the messiness of living is indeed making us something less than human. We’ve become prey to our own medical hubris.