Green Medicine: Nature as Friend, Not the Enemy by Nicholas Gonzalez, M.D.
Having been trained as an academic immunologist who intended to spend his life in basic science research, I sometimes find it extraordinary that I should be practicing a completely different form of medicine than I was taught. Here I am, with my years of high-priced, Ivy League medical education, prescribing not drugs or bone marrow transplants – which my orthodox mentor, Dr. Robert A. Good, first introduced to the world – but instead organic foods, supplements and detoxification routines, so often to the disdain of my more traditional colleagues.
At times, I feel like I have been placed in some sort of medical “War of the Worlds,” with two competing models of health and disease fighting it out to the finish. Mine, a vision of “Green Medicine,” using the tools of nature to bring health back to those who’ve lost it, versus the slash and burn cosmology of toxic drugs and high-tech interventions that seek to manipulate even our very genome. At times, the warfare can be quite brutal, between proponents of a Green Medicine such as myself, and the conventional scientists and physicians who see little benefit from a gentler approach to disease.
It’s not surprising that the battles can be so high pitched. All physicians come to scientific maturity exposed to a particular reigning model of medicine, what I like to think of as the “Nature is the enemy” model. In this cosmology, scientists perceive the origins of disease in a rather frightening way, with we humans, vulnerable and helpless, susceptible to the ravages of both internal and external assault. From the outside, we’re the unsuspecting victims of dangerous microorganisms lurking just about everywhere, even in the food we eat, even on our very kitchen counters. Should we escape the horrors of infectious disease, we still don’t feel for a moment safe. We are seemingly and frighteningly randomly at risk to sudden internal derangements in our various cells and tissue, the unexplained roll of nature’s invidious dice that can provoke all manner of deadly degenerative diseases, too often for no discernable reason other than bad luck coupled with uncooperative genes. Here, think of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune diseases like lupus, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis – the list of such illnesses stretches into the horizon endlessly.
The “Nature is the enemy” model requires that we never trust Nature, ever, for she is the enemy. Successful treatment requires she be outsmarted at every turn through human ingenuity, applying the aggressive creations of our minds like antibiotics for infectious disease, and chemotherapy for cancer, synthetic chemicals that attack disease boldly, relentlessly, though too often ineffectively and nearly always toxically. The model requires other interventions of great near mystic power, radiation for malignancy, to smite it in its tracks, to vaporize it, in mini-Hiroshima like assault. We have more recently developed genetic therapies for any number of diseases, though the treatments still haven’t yielded much benefit but have killed people tragically, despite the good intentions.
This particular model – and it is just that, a model – dominates academic medical thinking even today, and certainly dominates all teaching in medical schools. Medical students scientifically mature in their education are exposed only to this model, which becomes imprinted in their minds fundamentally to the exclusion of all else. It becomes part of their scientific identity, their scientific being.
I remember reading the works of Konrad Lorenz, the great Austrian animal behaviorist, who popularized the term “imprinting” some three decades ago. In experiments with geese hatchlings, Lorenz showed that if the little birds were exposed to his bearded grizzled face after entering the world, rather than their true goose mother, they would accept him as their mama, not her. I remember so well the humorous photographs, of Lorenz’s geese marching in a line behind this distinctly nongoose eccentric human scientist, treating him for all intents and purposes as if he were indeed Mother Goose. To their graves, these geese considered him Mom, so strongly had the idea of him as such been “imprinted” in their neurological circuitry. No one could possibly talk these birds out of their Mama model, not with reason or with fact, (i.e., “for heaven’s sake, Konrad is a bearded human, he has no wings, he wears work boots, no self-respecting goose wears work boots ever!!!)” Didn’t matter, the geese apparently couldn’t care less about the work boots, to them, he would always be Mom.
To little medical student goslings, the “Nature is the enemy” model becomes imprinted, perhaps in a more sophisticated way than the Mother Goose scenario, with the razzle dazzle of biochemistry and pharmacology, but imprinted nonetheless, usually forever, following them right into their respective graves. It’s a tough thing to overcome, this imprinting.
But there is another medical model of course, one that developed outside the academic mainstream, one never taught in the bastions of medical schools, one not even largely known there. One never imprinted in the brains of students, the model that well, maybe Nature isn’t really the enemy, but our friend. This model is the very essence of what I call “Green Medicine.”
Long before I changed careers and began medical school, I read the works of the famed Rockefeller University microbiologist and Nobel Laureate, Rene Dubos. Prior to reading the books of this rather brilliant man, I had the usual, 1970’s American ideas about infection, that if anyone should be unfortunately exposed to some pathogenic micro-organism, you’re going to get sick. Fortunately, the brilliant men and women of the pharmaceutical industry had developed penicillin and related antibiotics that alone would save us from the plagues threatening us every day and everywhere. This popular view had been imprinted in my mind via the media, and particularly by our family doctor at the time who injected penicillin at the hint of a runny nose, without worrying about such minor considerations that most runny noses are viral in origin and don’t respond to penicillin. Not considering that we need to be concerned about drug resistance, the destruction of our healthy intestinal flora by the over-use of such drugs, etc. Nope, runny nose, penicillin injection, which elicited much fear and dread at least in my young mind.
Dr. Dubos had a somewhat different take on infectious disease. He demonstrated rather eloquently, microbiologist that he was, that the susceptibility to infection, and the severity of infection, really depended not on some random throw of the dice, but the underlying health of the individual. Of two individuals exposed to the same infectious agent, one might die in terrible distress, and one might proceed symptomless, as if nothing had happened. I remember reading in some book he referenced a discussion of polio, in my childhood, the most threatening, most frightening, penultimately evil infection that a human could suffer, causing children to be taken from the families, forced into iron lungs for years at a time, leaving its victims paralyzed, deformed, never to know joy or happiness. It was, as the media portrayed it, quite a scary concern, for a child growing up in the 1950’s, almost as terrifying as the Russian arsenal of nuclear A bombs aimed at our little heads.
When I read Dubos and his colleagues two decades later, I learned that prior to the development of the Salk vaccine in the early 1950’s, researchers had studied the incidence of polio infection in various locales, including population dense urban areas. To their very great surprise, they discovered that up to 90% of all children and adults living in crowded cities tested positive for the polio antibodies, meaning they have been exposed to the virus, but very few had developed overt disease and its devastating sequelae. For most, the infection passed unnoticed, with symptoms no more serious than a common cold. Only rarely did serious illness develop.
Apparently, for most, this debilitating deadly virus as it had been portrayed was neither debilitating nor deadly. The difference between those who survived polio infection intact, and those who did not, researchers believed, was the underlying nutritional status. In those well nourished, the virus did little, in those inadequately supplied with basic nutrition, the virus flourished unchecked. I remember reading this information with some astonishment, struggling against my own neurological imprinting. I previously thought if a single polio virus came within a hundred feet of your body, you’re done, but apparently, these scientists like Dubos said, that’s not quite the case.
How wonderful that you can relax, embrace Green Medicine as your friend, nourish your body with good, clean, healthy foods to strengthen your immune system and then you won’t have to panic about every virus that comes along.