Why Do We Get Sick?

There have been many different answers to this question since the dawn of civilization but it wasn’t until the work of Louis Pasteur that science started to see the connection between microbes and human diseases. The application of the germ theory to public health eliminated many diseases in the Western world as we began to develop sewage disposal systems and clean water supplies. Today, less than 1 percent of American and European lives are claimed by all the infectious diseases combined.

It is hard to believe that there could possibly be a downside to this accomplishment but there is. A concept as powerful and successful as the germ theory often blinds us to other causes of disease. A competing idea during Pasteur’s time came from the physician and researcher, Jacques Antoine Bechamp. Bechamp felt that the overall condition of the "host" determined the course of a disease. He felt diseases were multifactorial, the manifestation of many variables that were unique to each individual.

Pasteur and Bechamp started a debate that is still being carried on today - the germ versus host debate. This century old ideological division has created two camps, modern Western (allopathic) medicine and Complimentary and Alternative medicine (CAM). Even though the debate still continues, we are starting to embrace the idea that both scientists were right. The diseases that now plague us in the 21st Century are multifactorial, a consequence of our genetics, environment and lifestyle.

Medical researchers are rapidly uncovering the genetic intricacies underlying our individual disease susceptibilities. All of us are born with genetic variations that can eventually lead to a disease state if they are not nurtured properly. What that means is that our lifestyle matters to our overall health - how and what we eat, drink and breathe, whether or not we exercise regularly, and how well we handle the many stressors in our lives.

The stressors in our lives can be categorized as psychological, biochemical, environmental and structural but it is easier to just think of them as nurture while your genomic/genetic status is nature. During the 20th Century, the scientific argument was which was more important nature or nurture. It has now become very apparent that they both matter so the phrase "Nurture your Nature" or "Nurture your Genome" will hopefully become the 21st Century’s new medical mantra.

How we think about disease and its cure is still locked into a single cause and a single cure and that is the downside to the germ theory dominance of Western medicine. When we think of genetic diseases we usually think about single gene disorders that are passed down from our parents or grandparents. Currently around 6,000 genetic disorders are known, with more being discovered yearly. Most disorders are quite rare and affect only one person in thousands or tens of thousands.

Genetic disorders may also be complex polygenic conditions. This means that there are most likely many genes involved in combination with lifestyle and environmental factors. Multifactorial disorders include cancer and heart disease, autism, obesity, diabetes and many more. Although complex disorders often cluster in families, they do not have a clear-cut pattern of inheritance. This makes it difficult to determine a person’s risk of inheriting or passing on these susceptibilities.

Complex disorders are also difficult to study and treat because the specific factors that cause most of these disorders have not yet been fully studied and identified. It is becoming quite clear, however, that all diseases have a genetic component involving many genes. The ability to quickly and accurately measure the activity of these genes will allow physicians to more precisely diagnose the stage of the patient’s disease, and more accurately predict their responsiveness to specific drugs and the likelihood of adverse side effects.