Ignoring the Obvious
Hippocrates made significant contributions to modern medicine in 5th century BC Greece. He may have been the first physician to base his medical treatments on an analytical study of the human body.
Rather than appealing to the celestial bodies for divine intervention, Hippocrates cut right to the chase and focused on studying and observing the human body. You know, the place where disease actually exists.
Everybody recognizes Hippocrates for the Hippocratic Oath, the “Do no harm” oath that new doctors swear to. However, medical historians doubt that it was Hippocrates who wrote the commitment.
Furthermore, the oath was sworn initially to various Greek healing gods who no longer hold much sway in the modern operating room.
The pithy maxim that I find most closely expresses a rational philosophy of health, also attributed to Hippocrates, is “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.”
Again, the historians are not sure that Mr. H wrote those words.
Author’s note: Does it bother you that we all go around repeating these old sayings for years, only to find out that we’ve been giving credit to the wrong guy or gal? I am hereby removing all those magnets with famous quotes on them from my refrigerator door.
As for who actually penned the “medicine = food” phrase, it would still be perfectly pertinent, even if it came from the mouth of Ivan the Terrible. That said, I propose updating it to say, “Let diet and exercise be your medicine, and let medicine be your diet and exercise.”
The list of diseases here in the U.S. that have some proven relationship to food and lack of exercise is exceedingly long: heart disease, strokes, some cancers, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, and even depression and eating disorders.
After the last couple of years, we are all tired of hearing about pandemics. But these are deadly diseases that we can do something about through our own choices in life.
So, and this is a question for the medical community at large, why do some doctors fail to bring up the topic of diet and exercise as a disease prevention strategy to their patients?
In all honesty, I can remember only a few consultations with a doctor in which the role of diet and exercise was discussed in any meaningful way. Yet, it is evident that lifestyle choices weigh heavily in preventing or mitigating many diseases that plague western society.
In all fairness, doctors are so busy that they are limited in the time they can spend with any given patient. Yet, the importance of a patient’s lifestyle is incentive enough for health professionals to use any opportunity to encourage changes that will benefit the patient’s health over the long run.
Dinner with a doctor
When I arrived at the home of James W. Bullard, M.D. and his gracious wife, Beth, she was out working in the garden, and Jim was up to his elbows in grease repairing the PTO on his tractor.
Jim, now retired from practicing medicine, is 86-years-old and Beth is – well, a year or so Jim’s junior.
As we walked back to the house, Beth was carrying much of the evening’s dinner in a woven basket. There were long leaves of Swiss chard, kale, broccoli, tomatoes and eggs from their chickens.
She was getting ready to prepare a dinner of items that author Michael Pollan would call real food. He once said, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother would not recognize as food.”
(The above quote is certified to be from Michael Pollan and not Hippocrates or Homer Simpson.)
To say that Jim and Beth are active people is an understatement. Their lives were spent volunteering in third-world countries. They have experience trekking, backcountry canoeing, skiing, and Jim is a world-class mountain climber.
They still hike and attend fitness classes twice a week at the Wellness Center in Marlinton. Jim and Beth know the long-term value of a healthy lifestyle, and it shows in all respects, physical and mental.
I waited until we were seated at a table covered with dishes such as sautéed kale, black rice and shish-kebabs of grilled cubes of lamb. Then I asked Jim several questions about where we may be missing the boat on health maintenance.
Jim explained that the current epidemic of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems are most certainly affected by the American diet.
“The absolute best thing we can pass on to our children,” Jim said, “is a lifestyle that includes lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and a moderate intake of meat.
Strict adherence in avoiding processed foods and regular sustained exercise goes a long way in the prevention of most of these diseases.”
Beth told me that she was delighted when she learned that red wine has many health benefits if consumed in moderation. These include lessening the “bad” cholesterol, antioxidants, regulation of blood sugars, reduction of certain cancer risks, and benefits for the heart.
Just look at the health statistics of people in the Mediterranean; they are, by and large, a healthy lot. I propose a toast to the wisdom of the Greeks.
Proof of Jim’s advice can be found on the Greenbrier River Trail nearly every day of the year. There, one can find people of all ages walking, biking, running and cross-country skiing.
If you do not have a bicycle, skis or care to run, no problem – walking is one of the best exercises we can do, and requires no special equipment beyond a pair of suitable walking shoes.
At some point in human development, we came down out of the trees in Africa. From there, we gradually developed into a primate that walks upright. When we walk, we are doing the very thing that we were designed to do.
Walk a little or walk a lot; every step we take leads to better health.
Maybe we, meaning doctors and patients, rely too much on medications and surgical procedures. Perhaps we just don’t fully appreciate the value of developing healthy lifestyles. And maybe this ambivalence is the very root of the problem.
Have you ever noticed the apparent fitness of most of the people seen in the old black and white photos provided by B.J. Gudmundsson in the Preserving Pocahontas section of The Pocahontas Times?
Our ancestors didn’t need exercise programs – they performed hard physical work from dawn to dusk. As for dieting, the concept was totally foreign to them. In fact, getting enough food on their plate was often a challenge in days gone by.
But what they did eat was what they grew themselves: vegetables, fruits, squash, beans, corn and other whole grains.
Our world is different. We live in a time of highly processed foods with little to no nutritional value. Not to mention the unhealthy amounts of salt and preservatives used to extend shelf life.
The number of tobacco smokers has been dramatically reduced in the last half-century through education. Stepping up to take the place of cigarettes as a recognized health hazard is the time we spend sitting in front of a screen.
One campaign to encourage people to get up and walk around regularly states that “Sitting is the new smoking.” A fair warning!
So, take advantage of the great places we have here in Pocahontas County to walk, bike and hike. Start walking with your friends, neighbors and colleagues – live longer and live stronger.
And the next time you see your doctor, tell him or her you would like to discuss diet and exercise. They may be pleased to know that you are concerned. And it may just save your life.
You are apparently one of the dozen or so people who actually read this column.
So, dear reader, if you are not already doing so, I urge you to start an exercise program today. And make it a daily habit to eat lots of fruit and vegetables and avoid processed foods.
We can’t afford to lose discriminating readers like you.
“Walking is a man’s best friend.” Hippocrates – or maybe not.
P.S. My dogs, Bongo and Daisy, take issue with the above assertion.