Whenever I hear, “Doctor, why did I get sick?” , I am reminded of the last words of famed microbiologist, Louis Pasteur. In the late 1800s, Dr. Pasteur’s scientific insights into microbiology pioneered great strides in public health and food safety including pasteurization. Pasteur felt that bacteria and other microbes were the all-powerful factors in causing disease — and for good reason. The terrible tissue destruction caused by the staphylococcus and pneumococcus bacteria which Pasteur observed and described, are rightly feared by physicians and patients everywhere. We now know that even smaller particles such as viruses, can be agents of scourges like smallpox and encephalitis, as well as of influenza and the common cold. Pasteur believed that conquering these invading organisms was the key to maintaining health.
However, Pasteur’s academic rival, physiologist Dr. Claude Bernard, felt that whether infection actually would occur was determined not by the presence of microbes, but by the health of the body’s tissues. The classic duel between them was Pasteur claiming the supremacy of invisible bacterial assailants, while Bernard championed the resistance of body tissues in saying “the terrain is all.” Much of modern medicine’s campaign against disease has focused on developing antibiotics to thwart bacteria-caused infections. However, the truth of Dr. Bernard’s assertion of the primacy of the body’s natural resistance to infection has become clearly evident.
As my professor of internal medicine told me in medical school, “People don’t ‘get’ diseases — they ‘earn’ them . . .”
Getting sick is easy. The recipe for depressing your body’s resistance to disease and thus inviting illness to set up housekeeping in your system is well known:
- Short-change yourself on sleep (averaging 4 or 5 hours per night, for several nights in a row, usually does it for me).
- Diminish your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Increase the intake of sugary or fatty junk foods.
- Spend too much time breathing in smoke-filled meeting rooms, exhaust-choked traffic jams, or other chemical ambushes.
- Top with a layer of life stresses (assignment deadlines, financial worries, relationship difficulties, traffic tie-ups, etc.) and — voila!
Your throat gets scratchy, your nose begins to run, every muscle in your body begins to ache, and the readings on the fever thermometer begin to creep up. The next thing you know, you feel terrible, and you know you’re in for at least a few days of bodily miseries.
If the feeling of being too ill to go to work or function normally in your daily life lasts more than 48 hours and/or does not respond to fluids, rest, and pain relievers, you should contact your physician.
The old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is certainly true, and since this article is about not getting sick in the first place, here are some tips:
1. Get enough sleep. Babies grow while they sleep and adults heal and restore their immunity while they “get their Zs.” Consistently short-changing yourself of needed sleep is a great way to lower your immunity and open the door for infections — and worse. Often, you can help abort an infection in the early stages by going to bed early, taking an afternoon nap (snooze at lunch instead of eating or put your head down on the desk for ten minutes during a “coffee break,” etc.), or otherwise increasing your sleep. Sleep around the clock if you need to.
2. Drink enough pure water. When we don’t keep up with our water needs — while losing hydration with every breath, through our perspiration, each time we urinate or defecate, etc. — the normal mucus secretions of the lungs, throat, intestinal tract, etc., become thickened. Antibodies in these viscous secretions do not protect us as well, and thus we lay out the “microbial welcome mat.” To stay more hydrated and healthy, drink a glass of water, fresh vegetable juice, or something else liquid and healthful every few hours.
3. Keep your diet clean. Plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables (preferably organically grown) have anti-oxidants, bioflavonoids and other phytochemicals that strengthen our immunity. Vegetarians are often at an advantage here because of their generally higher intake of high-quality produce. Refined sugars, hydrogenated oils, and other chemicals in processed food, weaken our immunity and here, “junk food vegetarians” lose their healthy diet advantage. In addition, specific foods in a vegetarian diet, especially dairy products and wheat, have been associated with increased allergic reactions and mucus flow — possibly factors that facilitate infection. A trial without these foods for a few weeks or months during your “sickness season” — and especially at the first sign of illness — may be quite beneficial.
4. Assure vitamin and trace mineral adequacy by including lots of dark, green leafy vegetables, legumes, and small amounts of nuts and seeds. Vegetarians take note: a healthy immune system requires sufficient zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fats, nutrients that can be scarce on a completely plant-based diet. Be sure your diet includes foods that supply enough of these nutrients — zinc in whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, etc. and omega-3 fats in walnuts, flax-seeds, leafy greens, etc. B12 is not found in plant foods, so if you are not consuming any fortified foods (i.e., fortified soy milk, rice milk, etc.) you will need to consider taking a B12 supplement. If you do not get enough sunshine or consume any fortified foods and test low, you may need to take a vitamin D supplement.
5. Walk every day — “Rev up the engine” through gentle exercise. (Even walking back and forth in your living room, taking some deep breaths, helps.) Gentle exercise increases the heart rate which forces more blood through the liver and kidneys, resulting in more rapid removal from the blood of bacterially-derived proteins and other waste products of infection that keep you feeling ill.
6. Finally, don’t worry — be happy! It is well known that when we are under stress (it could be anger, worry, jealousy, depression, etc.) our entire body reflects the dysfunction. Stress makes us more prone to infections, cancers, autoimmune diseases, and other health problems. Fix what you can fix and release the rest with blessings and a smile.
If late nights, sleep deprivation, fast foods, smoke-filled rooms, and other immune-depressing factors are common to your lifestyle, they are probably part of the assault on your immune system. 5. Walk every day — “Rev up the engine” through gentle exercise. (Even walking back and You need to compensate for them with afternoon naps, a produce-rich diet, frequent walks outside for fresh air, and other strategies that could benefit you.
Louis Pasteur finally realized the truth in Dr. Bernard’s assertion. Pasteur’s last words are reported to have been: “The terrain is all . . .” His lesson to us is that if we keep our mind, spirit, and body’s tissues healthy, the bacteria will be far less likely to gain a toehold (or tentacle-hold, or flagellum-hold, or whatever microbes hold on with). Take care of your precious terrain. Salud!