Chronic Disease: A Slow-Motion Plague That Conventional Medicine Can’t Cure No ratings yet.


Standard medical treatments work amazingly well in emergency situations. You and I both know this.

  • Broken arm?
  • Heart attack?
  • Cracked skull?
  • Not breathing?
  • Blood clot?
  • Burns?
  • Poisoning
  • Bowel obstruction

Chronic disease? I would run the other direction.

Standard medicine frankly sucks at helping those trying to overcome chronic disease.

  • Autoimmunity
  • Skin disorders
  • Infertility (most often)
  • Inflammatory bowel disorders
  • Addictions
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Food intolerances
  • Histamine intolerance

Just how badly does standard medicine fail with chronic disease?

Let’s take a look at some facts.

Let’s look at the research and reports from the CDC.

It’s very interesting to put facts behind something we generally already know.

It makes it very apparent.

More importantly, it wakes you up to stop using standard medicine to try and help you.

Chris Kresser has helped create some clarity around this important subject.

Take it away, Chris:

We’ve all heard of bubonic plague, or the “Black Death,” as it was called in the 14th century. It struck Europe between 1347 and 1350, and in just three years between 30 and 60 percent of the population was wiped out. Nearly 75 million people died in Western Europe alone, with an estimated 100 to 200 million deaths worldwide by 1350.

Today, in the industrialized world, acute, infectious diseases like the plague are much less of a concern—thanks to vaccines, antibiotics, and sanitation. But we’re now facing a much different threat, and it’s one that conventional medicine is completely unprepared for: chronic disease .

Chronic disease is unfolding over a much longer time frame than the bubonic plague did in the 1300s, but it already affects a similar percentage of the population. One in two Americans now suffers from chronic disease, with one in four suffering from multiple chronic diseases. (1) Adults are not the only ones affected; 27 percent of children now have a chronic disease, up from 13 percent in 1994. (2) Chronic disease does not discriminate; it strikes people of all ages, races, ethnicities, social strata, and economic classes.

Chronic disease may not be the immediate threat to our lives that the bubonic plague once was, but its consequences are still severe. It’s destroying our quality of life, overwhelming our healthcare systems, bankrupting our governments, and threatening the health of future generations.

Chronic disease is common, but it’s not normal

Despite these facts, we don’t tend to see chronic disease as the emergency that it is; we just see it as our life. Since most of us are directly affected by chronic disease—we either have one ourselves, or our partner, parents, or children have one—we’ve come to see it as “normal.” But there’s a big difference between common and normal .

How do we know this? By studying contemporary hunter–gatherers, who share most of our genes but have far lower rates of the chronic health problems that plague us in the industrialized world.

For example, the New York Times recently published an article about the Tsimané. They’re a subsistence farming and hunter–gatherer population in Bolivia who still follow their traditional diet and lifestyle.

Researchers went to Bolivia to study heart disease in the Tsimané.  They found that the Tsimané’s rate of heart disease is about one-fifth of the rate observed in the UnitedStates.  Nine in ten tribal members had clean arteries and faced no risk of heart disease.(3)

It’s tempting to assume that hunter–gatherers like the Tsimané don’t develop chronic conditions like heart disease because they don’t live long enough to acquire them. However, many individuals in the Tsimané population live well into their 80s and 90s, and an 80-year-old in the Tsimané group showed the same vascular age as an American in his mid-50s! (3 )

And while it’s true that, on average, we have longer lifespans than both contemporary hunter–gatherers and our more distant ancestors, these averages don’t consider the much higher rates of infant mortality and premature deaths from trauma, warfare, exposure to the elements, and complete lack of emergency medical care. Anthropologists have found that w hen hunter–gatherer cultures have access to even the most rudimentary form of emergency medical care, like a clinic half-a-day’s hike away, they live lifespans that are roughly equivalent to our own , particularly if they’re living in a relatively secure, peaceful environment. ( 4 ) The difference between these contemporary hunter–gatherers and us is that they reach old age without acquiring the plethora of chronic modern diseases that we suffer from in the industrialized world.

There is no single “cure” for chronic disease

Conventional medicine has been remarkably successful in addressing acute disease and other emergency medical needs. Fantastic advances have turned what was previously limited to the realm of science fiction into reality: we can restore sight to the blind, reattach limbs, and even clone human stem cells. We absolutely need oncology surgeons who can remove cancerous tumors and gastroenterologists who know how to perform a colonoscopy.

But conventional medicine’s track record with chronic disease is far less impressive. Today, chronic disease causes seven of every 10 deaths in the United States and is responsible for 86 percent of healthcare expenditures. ( 1 , 5 ) Chronic disease will generate $47 trillion in healthcare costs globally by 2030 if the epidemic is unchecked. (6) That’s more than the annual GDP of the six largest economies in the world!

What’s the cure for this slow-motion plague?

It’s not going to be a single drug or a magic bullet. This is why conventional medicine has failed to address chronic disease. Treatment of acute problems is relatively simple: the doctor removes the gallbladder or appendix, sets the broken bone in a cast, or gives the patient medicine for an infection. One problem, one doctor, one treatment.

But unlike acute problems, chronic diseases are difficult to manage, expensive to treat, and usually last a lifetime . They don’t lend themselves to the “one problem, one doctor, one treatment” model that worked well in the past. Today’s patient has multiple problems, sees multiple doctors, and requires multiple treatments that go on for years, if not decades.

We need a new approach, before it’s too late

Another reason conventional medicine hasn’t been successful with chronic conditions is that it focuses on suppressing symptoms rather than addressing the underlying cause of disease. Imagine you’re in a boat, and the boat is leaking. You can bail water from the boat to make it sink more slowly, but if the leaks are still there, you’ll have limited success. Conventional medicine is focused on bailing water out of the boat without fixing the leaks. Wouldn’t it make more sense to prevent the leaks from happening in the first place, and then fix them completely if they do occur? We might still need to bail some water initially, but if the leaks get fixed, the boat is steadied. Eventually, there’s no more bailing required, and the sailing—or living—can resume.

This is what Functional Medicine is all about. It’s a framework for medicine that guides clinicians to seek out and treat the underlying cause of disease (to plug the leaks), rather than just suppressing symptoms with drugs (bailing water).

What does this look like in practice?

Consider a patient with high blood sugar. In the conventional model, he’ll be given a drug to lower it with no investigation into why it is high in the first place. The doctor might make some vague diet and lifestyle recommendations, but our healthcare system is not set up to support patients in making those changes, nor do insurance companies reimburse patients for them.

In a Functional Medicine approach, the doctor would spend time identifying the root cause of the patient’s blood sugar problem. Is it related to poor diet, lack of physical activity, not enough sleep, an undiagnosed autoimmune condition, or something else? Once the doctor identifies the cause, she can address it by making diet, behavior, and lifestyle recommendations and then providing the patient with the support required to adopt new, healthy habits.

Spending more money to develop expensive “silver bullet” drugs may benefit Big Pharma, but it will only worsen the healthcare crisis. We need to shift our entire paradigm if we have any hope of reversing the slow-motion plague of chronic disease, remaining financially solvent as a country, and protecting the health of future generations.

Chris Kresser is the author of Unconventional Medicine: Join the Revolution to Reinvent Healthcare, Reverse Chronic Disease, and Create a Practice You Love, a book for healthcare practitioners and the general public that proposes a bold solution to the chronic disease epidemic. He is also the founder of Kresser Institute, an organization that trains healthcare practitioners in applying Functional Medicine and an ancestral diet and lifestyle in their practices; the creator of (one of the top natural health websites in the world); and the New York Times best-selling author of The Paleo Cure .


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Comments 5

  1. Cannot disagree with any of this, but one thing I object to in virtually all holistic/unconventional medicine writings is the almost complete lack of political content. Without serious political action to change our food system, the quest to stamp out chronic disease one individual at a time is doomed to failure, or at best minute progress at the edges.

    The naturopathic movement seems almost exclusively committed to serving the rich and upper-middle class. The cost of seeing naturopaths, who are never covered by insurance, is beyond the financial capability of a majority of Americans. Eating the diet recommended by naturopaths is, due to its expense, out of the question for the majority of Americans. Buying the supplements recommended by naturopaths is often not financially feasible for most Americans.

    None of this is the fault of naturopaths, but this is not an unavoidable state of affairs. Why are corn and soy granted immense subsidies by our federal government, making corn syrup and soybean oil cheaper than healthier options? Why is our food supply dominated by a handful of enormous corporations who exert monopolistic control over our food supply and who impose on the country an unsustainable, soil-depleting, pesticide-heavy, fossil fuel-driven, monocropping agricultural system, utterly annihilating the possibility of large-scale, sustainable, organic farming? Why does the federal government allow Monsanto and others to patent life forms (in the form of GMOs), arresting any farmer with the temerity to save their seeds from previous years, and stifling all scientific agricultural innovation by granting them proprietary possession of all their research findings? Why are GMO products not labeled as such—not necessarily to indicate any negative health effects of consuming GMO food, since there appear not to be any, but to inform consumers that they are buying and supporting an ecologically devastating, pesticide-drenched, multinational-corporate-controlled form of agriculture? Why must factory farms be protected from scrutiny by first-amendment-shattering “ag gag” laws that prohibit anyone from revealing the horrid conditions inside their facilities? Why is it legal to feed such an enormous amount of antibiotics to farm animals—over 80% of all antibiotic use in the U.S.—in order to speed their growth, fostering antibiotic-resistant, human-killing superbugs in the process? Why are fossil fuels subsidized, and why is there not a carbon tax so that the price of fossil fuels represents their true cost to society, which would give a tremendous leg up to organic and small-scale farms, who burn far less carbon? Why are junk food companies allowed to advertise their quasi-poisonous products to children, unlike tobacco companies? Why are our school lunches so unappetizing and unhealthy, and why must they seemingly be designed as a dumping ground for the surplus products of agricorporations? Why is it even legal to include any amount of trans fat—more harmful than many banned substances—in any food product? Why does the USDA repress studies such as the one showing that “longer [crop] rotations produced better yields of both corn and soy, reduced the need for nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides by up to 88%, reduced the amounts of toxins in groundwater 200-fold and didn’t reduce profits by a single cent”?

    None of these things are inevitable, and they could all be changed by dedicated efforts to inform and mobilize people. But I can barely recall any of them being mentioned, let alone focused on, by any naturopathic writers. As long as naturopaths and their comparatively wealthy followers remain narrowly focused on individual efforts to the exclusion of any collective mobilization to bring broader change, any decrease in chronic illness is destined to be vanishingly small and confined to an already privileged sector of the population, while those most in need of the things naturopathic medicine has to offer—i.e. the poor and working class—are left to flounder in a sea of cheap junk food, be misled or completely neglected by a profit-maximizing health care system, and endure unnecessary suffering, all because of the unconscionable policies implemented by our governments—at the behest of their grasping, amoral corporate paymasters. The refusal of the vast majority of naturopaths to “get political” and act to counteract this sordid system smacks of elitism and moral cowardice.

    1. Post

      Ryan –

      Your statement is very slanted and incorrect.

      Many naturopaths do accept insurance and do serve the communities at large – not the rich and famous.

      Many naturopaths are political – and by being a naturopath we are political by default.

      It takes the consumer to shift corporations and government subsidies – blaming this on naturopathic doctors by not being political is ludicrous.

      You do it by supporting those who are against GMO, vaccines, processed foods – …

      1. In defense of Ryan, much of the world live in rural areas where we do not have access to organic foods… we do not a choice. I live at a high elevation and growing my own is not practical. When I go to the city I can shop at a whole food or natural grocer but fresh food does not keep long. In our schools we have organizations like Future Farmers of America who preach GMO’s and dirty pest control. It’s all about produce more for less money. It would really help if all Doctors would step up and say maybe our kids are falling behind in education because of our food is a chemistry experiment. The over load of toxins must stop.

    2. Ryan: Few people are aware of any of the information you expressed in your comment. I don’t know ANYONE who is. Many people have children and grandchildren sick from chronic diseases and they themselves are sick with cancers or some other chronic disease. Somehow they seem to think it’s normal. The media keeps the American people misinformed, uninformed and their attention diverted. We are taught our chronic diseases are our own fault. Try informing people, and they don’t believe you. We are taught that facts are opinions. Naturopaths would be labeled quacks and a medial smear campaign would be waged against them if they were political. I have no idea how to go about informing the public with the media owned by corporations, and with our government run by corporations.

  2. Extremely well said Letta! I give my all to try and enlighten people on the truth and reality of our delusional and corrupt healthcare system and they think I’m the crazy one! Meanwhile they truly believe that sickness is “normal”.
    I don’t allow myself to get upset anymore, I just shake my head and walk away.

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