The iceman forcing scientists to rethink human physiology

I just listened to an episode of the podcast ‘Grow Big Always’ where the discussion revolved around the concept of mind control over body. The eccentric Dutchman Wim Hof first caught my attention a few years ago in a BBC documentary about ‘superhumans’, and in that episode, Wim was able to dive in the Arctic underwater in shorts for a considerable period of time, defying physiology as we know it. He has defied many odds since then, and we are only now beginning to understand how his physical and spiritual practices have enabled him to control his autonomic nervous system as well as his immune system, which is short of revolutionary. What to me, is even more amazing is the fact that his breathing techniques (somewhat similar to certain yogic meditation practices) combined with specific physical exercises and cold exposure can be taught to normal people with success.

For scientists, check out this article in PNAS from 2013, where Wim trained a group of people with his practice. To the researcher’s surprise, the training managed to greatly reduce the immune response (in a good way) to bacterial endotoxin. The ability to consciously control the autonomic nervous system and the immune response is truly revolutionary.

It is interesting to note how mute the response has been from the mainstream scientific community. This is not a study that has been obscured to some unknown journal or confined to some new age spiritual community, but instead this is a sound scientific study published in a prestigious journal. Yet very little has been reported in mainstream news, where sites like the BBC would instead constantly publish some new study on this or that new drug to cure cancer. The effects of oxygenation of the blood via deep breathing and increased alkalinity of the tissues as a consequence of the oxygenation on the immune system has been scientifically studied and validated. If preventing illness is really this easy, I wonder what the future of the medical industry (and preventive medicine) would look like…

When doctors stopped listening to their patients

I was once attached to a gastroenterology clinic, when an immaculately dressed but apprehensive looking elderly lady in her 70s walked in for her appointment. The lady, C, was referred by her family doctor due to some unspecific bowel problems. The attending physician looked at her notes, mumbled some things to her in jargon-filled language, one of which was the word ‘Crohn’s’. C became alarmed, and asked the physician if it was something serious. He mumbled some more, and told her to forget about it until she’s had further tests. Within 10 minutes, the consultation was over, and C, was ushered out the door.

An hour later, I walked out to make my way to another part of the hospital when I spotted C sitting in the corner of the patients’ waiting area. She saw me and I walked towards her. She seemed deeply troubled and so I decided to stop and talk to her. It turned out that her husband had recently died and she was very lonely. They had met during the war in Italy; he was an Allied soldier who was not well-off and she was a Napolitan girl from a respected background. She described that it was ‘true love’ till the end, and how she turned her back on her home and her culture to be with him. She also revealed how she had waited for a long time for this consultation with anticipation, and that she had been worried about her own mortality since seeing her husband die. The mention of Crohn’s disease mortified her and became a further source of anxiety. The speed and tone of the consultation left her with even more emptiness than before.

What I learnt from this experience was that doctors often, by focusing on the symptoms and not the underlying cause of illness completely miss the mark on how to truly heal another human being. The gut-brain axis is a well-known connection, where stress results in worsening or even the appearance of symptoms. The symptoms are real, in that they are physiological and not ‘in the mind’. However, by zooming in on the physiological manifestation alone such as the case of C, will probably result in worsening of her symptoms due to more stress and anxiety. What this lady needed, besides being investigated further, is a referral to social services and psychological counseling. Perhaps her symptoms may even be cured without medications. She did not get what she needed, because no one was there to listen.

Yet, I cannot blame the doctor alone for his actions. The medical system is broken and the doctor is simply part of this broken system. It is a system that works well as long as we narrow its usefulness for treating specific physical symptoms but restrain our expectations on making us feel better. It is not a system that is focused on achieving optimal health, as defined by the World Health Organization to be ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity‘. Medical students, prior to being unleashed into the healthcare system should be made aware of the shortcomings of the current system. Medicine is not the magic pill to solving people’s health problems. They should be prepared for a world where unsatisfied patients will question them and ultimately leave their care for that conferred by homeopaths or acupuncturists who are better listeners with more time on their hands. Why would this be so surprising anyway?

There is an unfortunate tendency to portray patients who are doubtful or distrustful of the conventional healthcare system in a patronizing light. In paediatrics, I remember being taught that no one knows the child better than the parents. Yet today, medical professionals seem to be completely shocked by the ‘irrational’ behaviour of parents who claim that their child has had an adverse reaction from vaccination. Rather than listening to the parents’ concern (pre or post-vaccination), doctors are quick to judge parents as being irrational and quickly dismiss their fears or observations, which is paradoxically an emotional, rather than a rational approach to dissecting a problem. Shouldn’t we at least try to understand why these parents are concerned? Have they all suddenly gone ‘irrational’ for no apparent reason? This is when, in my opinion, the medical system has turned into some sort of a religious sect with a belief system that masquerades as ‘evidence-based medicine’, and anyone who even attempts to question the prevailing assumptions is quickly being labelled as a medical heretic. For parents, there is nothing more demeaning than earning the title ‘anti-vaxxer’ by the medical establishment.

 Are we entering the dark ages of medicine?

Towards health 4.0

Obesity, Alzheimers, multi-drug resistant bacteria, allergies, autoimmunity, Ebola and pandemic flu; these are among the health challenges that our society face in the 21st century. The question is: how ready is our healthcare industry in meeting these emerging challenges effectively?

I went into the biological sciences because I believed that scientific progress could make life better for billions of people, especially the ones that are the most vulnerable. After more than a decade in academia and industry, I am sceptical that with the current setup, we will ever be able to come up with meaningful solutions to the current and upcoming health challenges of our time. It is astonishing that around 270 billion dollars per year is being spent on medical research, yet emerging diseases like diabetes keep increasing relentlessly in developed countries and preventable infectious diseases like tuberculosis continue to kill millions in the developing world. It is hard not to wonder if we, as researchers, are looking in the right direction to solve the world’s health problems.

If this trend continues, our healthcare industry will be crippled from the increasing burden of illness that threatens to swallow up resources that are getting scarcer. To face these complex health challenges, I believe that there is an urgent need to explore radical new directions for scientific discovery that are innovative and unconventional yet relevant for the health problems that we face today.

To do this, we need to abandon the safety of scientific silos, go beyond the existing scientific paradigms and reach out across different knowledge domains to make new connections that bring us to the next level of understanding the human body in the context of modern society and the environment that we live in. Equally important, we should treat negative results with the same reverence as positive results, even if this means that these results are not as appealing to prestigious scientific journals and for our scientific careers. At present, large areas of investigation are being neglected simply out of fear of going against the prevailing scientific establishment (which includes grant-funding bodies and university tenure committees) or perhaps out of perception that the topic is not fashionable enough for the community. This aspect of research culture, I feel, hinders our ability to truly discover solutions that make a real difference to people’s health and to society.

With this blog, I plan to look at issues in healthcare with different sets of lenses. I want to ask questions that are not usually asked and pick up on things that are not usually noticed. I will attempt to put healthcare issues in perspective by incorporating viewpoints from beyond the world of biological science and medicine. Stay tuned for more updates and I look forward to your comments!