We all have an intuitive sense of knowing that comes from within and many of us access it to help us with daily decisions. However, when it comes to knowledge about the body and illness there has been a cultural shift in the past 200 years. Inner experiences and senses about the body are seen as less precise or unscientific and as a result we now privilege knowledge that comes from the outside, from various forms of diagnostic testing. Advances in lab testing in modern medicine can provide an astounding level of detailed information, but that information alone isn’t everything. Illness and healing are incredibly dynamic processes, which then need to be examined in a more dynamic way. We need to shift the paradigm so that we are participating more fully in our own health care, not only by doing our own research and being our own advocates but also by listening to the doctor within. Massage therapists have long used this idea with our clients, as our work is not easily measurable. We rely on our clients to access their body’s internal messages in order to guide the healing. Luann Overmyer, specialist in Ortho-Bionomy and Positional Release Therapy, writes about this concept of the Doctor Within beautifully in her book, “Ortho-Bionomy: A Path to Self-Care”. (This is the first book I recommend to clients for self-care at home.) She explains that the body will often tell us what it needs, if we can manage to learn to listen to it. This involves dialing into a very subjective type of language from deep within the self. This may not sound like anything revolutionary but put into a context of modern medicine, it seems wildly incongruent. Modern Western medicine has come to rely almost solely on the results of multiple types of lab tests. These tests are necessary and helpful, but also problematic in many ways and do not constitute the entire story. Test results are static and are subject to margin of error, inasmuch as they are interpreted by humans. They provide one piece of the puzzle, but the subjective experience is a large part of it which is increasingly ignored by Western physicians, who insist that the science is everything. I would argue that modern medicine is actually less of a “science” than it is a religion or a delicate form of art. To put it into its historical context, medicine was not considered purely a scientific endeavor until the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when lab testing became the norm. Herbal folk medicine gave way to empirical science. This would make sense as the Industrial Revolution was transforming broader cultural underpinnings from rural and religious to urban and commercial. What emerged in our cultural shift is the idea that science is hard truth.
A cursory examination of the trajectory of our “scientific truths” reveals that this idea cannot be fully correct. Let’s look at popular nutritional science, for example. In the 1950s, the science said that all calories were equal, so the prescription was to consume a certain number of calories per day in order to maintain weight, regardless of whether the calories came from fat, carbohydrates or proteins. In 1967, when evidence began to surface that perhaps calories from sugar might be causing a disproportionate number of cases of obesity, the sugar industry sponsored a Harvard study to prove that fats were indeed the problem. This widely circulated study helped to launch the low-fat food industry. For the next 30 years, dieters snacked on low-fat rice cakes and fat-free cookies. Everyone in my college dorm in 1992 was on the “bagels and fro-yo” diet, wondering why we were all getting so fat. In the last few years, the popular science has leaned toward sugar and processed carbs being the culprit of weight gain, and we are now encouraged to eat more fats. Personally, my body prefers this way of eating, but I am not attached to the hard science, as I know it might change in the next twenty years. When I listen to my inner voice, it generally tells me which foods I need to eat. In order to gain a better understanding, however, it’s helpful to partner with a good nutritionist who approaches the body holistically and incorporates client feedback. Again, the science provides invaluable insights but it needs to be used within a larger more dynamic context.
The good part is that complimentary medicine and biohacking are stepping into the spotlight to fill in these missing pieces with a more holistic approach. I attended Paleo f(x) this weekend, the largest Paleo conference in the United States. I got to hear talks given by some of the biggest names in functional medicine, genetics, and strength and conditioning. They all rely on data and testing in order to guide them in unlocking the body’s secrets, but almost every speaker was careful to note that the science isn’t everything. Paleo guru and biochemist Robb Wolf, in his “Experiments in a Quantified Self”, relies heavily on biomarkers determined through lab testing but was very clear that client subjective experience was just as important. One of the slides in his presentation literally said “Pay Attention to Your Feelings”. Functional Medicine practitioner Chris Kresser warned against the dangers of self-diagnosing, but even he approaches his practice with a healthy dose of skepticism for the science, admitting that the test is not everything. Another researcher, Dr. Andy Gaupin, explained the process behind reading MRIs and why the same test can vary widely in terms of results due to human error. Perhaps the most refreshing talk of the conference was given by biohacker Ryan Frisinger on his use of medical hermeneutics in his practice. (Full disclosure: Ryan is my boyfriend, but his talk truly was the buzz of the conference – this is not merely my biased opinion!) His point is that data is mute and that lab tests are but one text in the healing paradigm, along with the other texts he interprets: the client’s subjective reporting, genomic profile, data biomarkers, birth experience and the historical timeline of significant events in the client’s life. A practitioner’s job, as he sees it, is to weave a meaningful narrative out of these disparate texts. The foundations of his work privilege the client’s ability to access the doctor within as much as his thorough understanding of genetics and epigenetics. Rather than getting lost in the quantified abstraction of self, as often happens with traditional Western medicine, the goal then becomes encourage the client to tap into our sense of intuitive knowing and to feel empowered to participate in the healing process.
We all have an intuitive sense of what our bodies need. We have a sense of the stories contained inside ourselves, the markings of life on our bodies. The key is to listen to these stories and insights and to partner with practitioners who are willing to incorporate our own internal sense of knowing, our doctor within, into the various programs and treatments offered back to us.