Chronic Disease: A Slow-Motion Plague That Conventional Medicine Can’t Cure
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?
- Bowel obstruction
Chronic disease? I would run the other direction.
Standard medicine frankly sucks at helping those trying to overcome chronic disease.
- Skin disorders
- Infertility (most often)
- Inflammatory bowel disorders
- 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 ChrisKresser.com (one of the top natural health websites in the world); and the New York Times best-selling author of The Paleo Cure .