A Rising Epidemic Tells Us Much About Ourselves, And Offers Clues to Effective Treatment
There is an old Sufi story about a man who loses his keys in his house and decides to look for them under a street lamp on a nearby corner. When a neighbor passes by and asks his friend what he might be looking for, the man replies that he has lost his keys.
“Where did you lose them?” the neighbor asks.
“I lost them in the house,” the man replies.
“Than why are you looking for them out here on this corner?” the neighbor asks.
“Because the light is better out here,” the man replies.
This humorous story tells us a lot about stubborn thinking, which leads inevitably to failure.
A similar problem exists in the medical science today. Scientists and pharmaceutical companies are searching for chemical solutions to diseases that are caused by diet, lack of exercise, and emotional distress.
Examples of this phenomenon are everywhere, but they include the epidemics of overweight, obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and several forms of cancer, just to name a handful. Instead of addressing these illnesses at their cause, the medical and pharmaceutical establishments search for chemical treatments — drugs that temporarily ameliorate the symptoms, but allow the causes of the illnesses to flourish.
This reminds me of that quote from the American bank robber, John Dillinger, who, when asked by a reporter why he robbed banks, replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”
As any pharmaceutical representative will tell you, the money is in treatment, especially in the kinds of treatments that do not cure, but keep people coming back for more. There’s no money preventing a disease (that only reduces the market), and there isn’t much in curing it, either. Which explains why so few illnesses are being cured by medical science today, and why that trend will only continue.
Unfortunately, the approach to health care that’s based exclusively on the short-term profit motive is leading us all to disaster. If the current population of sick people doesn’t shrink, and more sick people are added to the health care system, eventually the system will be overrun with patients. And that is exactly what is about to happen in the next thirty years, as hundreds of millions of obese, cancer-stricken, heart-diseased, Alzheimer-ridden, diabetics overwhelm hospitals, medical offices, nursing homes, and extended care facilities. Symptomatic medicine is about to meet it’s Waterloo.
These well-known epidemics challenge to the limitations of medical thinking. But one disorder presents medicine with an even more perplexing set of mysteries. That disease is asthma.
We cannot even begin to understand asthma, much less heal it, if we adhere to medical science’s small definition of human life, which insists that basic biochemistry is all that matters when it comes to medicine and health care.Asthma exists outside of these boundaries. It is rooted in the messy interplay among human psychology, emotions, biology, and inherited constitutional strengths and weaknesses. In other words, it clearly involves all aspects of our humanity, which is why there’s so little understanding of the disease.
Clues to a more accurate understanding of asthma, and a more effective set of treatments, do exist in the medical literature. The problem is that these studies are largely ignored because they lead us into realms that reductionist scientists and doctors do not want to enter.
Asthma is the consequence, indeed the side effect, for how we cope with negative emotions, internal conflict, and beliefs about ourselves. When we find a cure for asthma, we’ll have found the cure for modern life.
Like many other answers, that cure is out there, awaiting our discovery. The question is, Are we willing to find it?
Asthma: Immune Reactions Block Oxygen
Asthma is a chronic condition that limits the afflicted person’s ability to breathe. Periodic attacks of asthma can be so severe as to be fatal. The incidence of asthma is rising throughout the world, but especially in First World nations.
Currently, there are approximately 300 million people worldwide who suffer from asthma, and that number is expected to skyrocket over the next few decades. The disorder is especially widespread in the U.S., Great Britain, Western Europe, and Australia. The number of Americans afflicted with asthma (now 24 million) has doubled since the 1980s. In Great Britain, ten percent of children and eight percent of adults have asthma. On the other hand, it is virtually unheard of in many African nations.
The underlying condition that creates asthma is inflammation – in other words, an immune reaction that causes the airways inside the lungs to become swollen and inflamed. As the tissues within these tubes swell, the passageways become smaller, and thus reduce air flow to the lungs.
Most people who suffer from asthma usually contract the condition in childhood, but the illness can arise at any age and it is common among many adults. On the other hand, many children who contract asthma discover that the illness passes when they reach adulthood, or becomes less severe.
Symptoms And Medical Treatment
The symptoms of asthma, which vary in both severity and type, include difficulty breathing, wheezing, sweating, rapid heart rate, great emotional distress, fear and anxiety. During an attack, the skin can become pale and the lips can turn blue. For many, sleep is disturbed, shallow, or shortened.
Like all chronic conditions, asthma attacks rise suddenly, become acute, and then recede. They can be triggered by an array of possible catalysts, including mold, animal dander, house dust, dust mites, cigarette smoke, air pollution, cockroach droppings, and certain foods, such as milk and milk products, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish.
Because asthma is an autoimmune disease – meaning the person’s own defenses turn against the body – most of the treatments are designed to suppress the immune system, which in turn reduces the inflammation in the bronchioles. Among the drugs commonly used are albuterol (administered through an inhaler); corticosteroid drugs; and pharmaceuticals that can be taken Intravenously (such as aminophyline).
Medical doctors state that there is no cure for asthma. Moreover, there are no methods for prevention. Treatment is focused primarily on asthma attacks, which is extremely important, given that people can die from an asthma attack. On the other hand, little effort is paid to preventing it, perhaps because there is so little understanding of the illness. Perhaps that is why worldwide numbers keep going up.
If we open up our view of ourselves, and find a way to join modern science with ancient wisdom, we begin to gain insights into the causes and the cures of asthma. We also begin to see more deeply into our own humanness.
Asthma Is An Emotionally-Based Disorder
Somehow, we in the West decided that emotions are somehow irrelevant to health care. Common sense tells us otherwise, but we’ve been blinded to that old fashion faculty. Which may explain why so much of the research that shows that asthma is directly tied to anger, depression, and fear has been dismissed by clinicians and researchers alike.
In any event, the case for linking the onset of asthma, and asthma attacks, with our emotional life is a strong one.
For example, in a study published in the medical journal, Thorax (October 2006; 61(10:863-8), researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health examined the effects of anger and hostility on lung function of 670 men. The study was a prospective experiment, meaning the researchers measured the degree of anger and hostility in the men first, and then determined the effects these emotions had on their lungs. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that anger and hostility significantly reduced overall lung function, narrowing airways and contributing to the overall decline of the lungs.
“This overall association between higher hostility and reduced lung function remained significant after adjusting for smoking and education,” the researchers found. “Higher hostility was associated with a more rapid decline in lung function and this effect was unchanged and remained significant…” Not only did anger and hostility reduce the ability of the men to breathe, but these emotions also contributed to the decline of the lungs over time.
In a similar study, German scientists from the University of Hamburg studied the effects of emotions on asthmatics and non-asthmatics. The Hamburg researchers showed two groups – one composed of people with asthma, and another composed of non-asthmatics. They showed both groups photographs depicting emotionally charged imagery. Each photograph was meant to evoke a different emotional state. After showing these photographs to both groups, the scientists measured the effects of these emotional states on the air passages in the lungs. They also were able to measure the effects of mood on breathing in both groups during everyday life.
The photographs that evoked negative emotions, such as anger, fear, and hostility, reduced the lung function in both groups, but more severely in the asthmatic patients.
“Unpleasant mood is associated with decreased respiratory function in asthmatic patients in everyday life and in laboratory assessments,” the scientists concluded.
But the fact that these images affected both groups is worth noting. It’s possible – even likely – that most of us experience some degree of lung dysfunction after experiencing or witnessing an unpleasant event. But the lungs in some of us are more sensitive to trauma, and thus more vulnerable to an asthmatic reaction.
Stanford University researchers examined the effects of different moods stimulated by watching films in the laboratory. The results showed that not only did negative mood and emotional states significantly reduce lung function, but positive emotions also lowered lung function as well in the asthmatics, though not as much as the negative emotions. Moreover, the Stanford researchers found that the asthmatics in the experiment were particularly susceptible to depression.
The researchers, who published their study in Psychosomatic Medicine (November-December 2000; 62 (6):808-15), concluded that, “Pulmonary function of asthmatic patients is negatively affected by strong mood states in daily life. Airway effects of negative emotion…particularly depression, can predict changes in pulmonary function in response to negative mood…”
The reference to depression is important, because other researchers have found that many asthmatics are particularly susceptible to depression. Mexican researchers studied 85 children with asthma and found that “100 percent of the evaluated asthmatic children and adolescents showed