By Gena Akers
For 19 days, writer Steve Hendricks fasts. No food. No vitamins. Just water. End result: he loses 25 pounds.
Chronicling his story and the history of fasting in February’s Harper’s Magazine, “Starving Your Way to Vigor,” Hendricks inevitably poses the question: why not fast? Why not fast and eat your vegetables too (of course at different times)?
Hendricks asserts that vanity wasn’t his only concern. “Fat, in our era, is disease, decrepitude and death. The odds of incurring diabetes or high blood pressure, respiratory or kidney failure, thrombosis or embolism, gout or arthritis, migraine or dementia, cardiac arrest or stroke, gallstones or cancer, all increase with one’s ballast.”
Through its history, fasting has been successfully associated by researchers to decreasing rates of obesity, seizures, diabetes and high blood pressure. In rats, which (I know…) are not humans, it has also been shown to decrease the growth rates of some cancers and mitigate the side-effects of chemotherapy. So why was I so surprised to hear about the benefits of fasting, outside of getting closer to God?
Hendricks writes, “… starvation, a remedy that cost nothing — indeed, costs less than nothing, since the starver stopped purchasing food — was abandoned whenever a costly cure was developed. Decades later, studies would show that fasting followed by a high-fat diet was as effective against seizures as many modern anticonvulsants… but Americans, then and now, preferred the promise of the pill over a modification of menu.”
And that brings me to back pain.
No matter who you are, there’s an 80 percent chance that, at some point in your life, you’ll suffer from back pain. Writing for January 2012 Wired, Jonah Lehrer reports in “Trials and Errors: Why Science is Failing Us” that at any given time, “about 10 percent of Americans are completely incapacitated by their lumbar region, which is why back pain is the second most frequent reason people seek medical care, after general check-ups.”
When doctors began encountering a surge in patients with lower back pain in the mid-20th century, they had few explanations. And why? Well, the lower back is exquisitely complicated; it’s full of tiny bones, ligaments, spinal discs and minor muscles. As a result, patients were typically sent home with a prescription for bed rest. This simple treatment plan was extremely effective. Lehrer writes that about 90 percent of people with back pain on the “rest” plan got better within six weeks.
This all changed in the 1970s, when magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was introduced as the diagnostic savior, generating detailed images of the body’s interior.
With MRI scans, back pain soon became correlated with degenerated discs. Rather than bed rest, doctors began administering epidurals for the pain or would surgically remove the damaged disc tissue.
Unfortunately, researchers discovered that people experiencing no back pain also exhibited “serious problems” with bulging or protruding tissue, meaning “normal” people could have even more troubling MRIs than those with pain. The 1994 study in The New England Journal of Medicine revealed that 38 percent of patients with “serious problems” had multiple damaged discs.
And where has this wealth of facts led us? Currently, doctors are encouraged to not order MRIs when making diagnoses.
So what does fasting have to do with back pain and vice versa? Fasting is and back pain can be relieved by no cost remedies. Both are important and telling stories in the history of why we have the health care system that we have. With the power and promise of drugs and technology to fix our problems, simple solutions (for some conditions) like fasting and bed rest have been easily forgotten.
Lehrer succinctly writes, “the larger point is that we’ve constructed our $2.5 trillion health care system around the belief that we can find the underlying causes of illness, the invisible triggers of pain and disease… If only we knew more and could see further, the causes of our problems would reveal themselves.”
I’m not a doctor or a certified anything, but the current push nationally for better diets, more physical activity… more purposeful living overall, gets us back to where we should have already been. Whether we like it or not, most of us are responsible for the decisions made about our health. At least in this community, you decide what doctor to see; you decide what food to eat; you decide whether to be a couch potato.
Concerns about the cost of health care aren’t going away. In an election year, the conversations will just get more heated.
However, like fasting and bed rest, some of the solutions to high health care costs are in your control and can’t be outsourced to better drugs and more expensive diagnostic tools. The toughest part of these solutions, and why they aren’t popular, is that there is no silver bullet. Unplug your expectations from the promises of modern technology. It’s cheaper to open up your fridge and peer inside.
Gena Akers is the project coordinator for SanLuisValleyHealth.org, an education and advocacy website dedicated to increasing access to health for all residents in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. SanLuisValleyHealth.org is a project of the San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center and funded through The Colorado Trust.