Tag Archives: the autoimmune epidemic

Countdown Reason # 8: How Did We Miss This Chronic Disease Epidemic?

Laurie Edwards book
Laurie Edward's excellent book on the history of chronic illness in America, due out in April

How did we miss the chronic disease epidemic now facing America? And why are we so behind in meeting the needs of the 1 out of 2 adult Americans who suffer from them? I wanted to find out the answer to that question.

So I reached out to Laurie Edwards, author of the upcoming book In the Kingdom of the Sick: A Social History of Chronic Illness in America (due out in April). Laurie teaches writing for the health sciences at Northeastern University. She blogs about chronic illness, health care, and writing at A Chronic Dose.

I asked Laurie, “What has caused us to be so late out of the gate in meeting needs of patients with chronic illness, and in utilizing the new brain body science?

Here is what Laurie had to say:

“By and large, patients with chronic illness still navigate a medical system dominated by the biomedical model of disease, where patients are diagnosed, treated, and dismissed. This strategy is only effective with acute illness; after all, chronic conditions are treatable, but not curable. While many examples of a growing shift from this model exist—more centers with integrative care, or technology that allows patients and doctors to better collaborate in care, to name just a few—much work remains.

Another reason we’re slower to meet the needs of those living with chronic illness is that we get hung up on a limited view of prevention – the idea of preventing illness. For many patients who face chronic conditions, prevention is more about slowing down disease progression.

We need to be realistic about what the chronically ill population looks like. It is tempting to focus more exclusively on conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease when we think about chronic illness; after all, the seven most common chronic diseases are estimated to cost a staggering $1 trillion annually.  But this is an incomplete picture. Some 50 million Americans live with autoimmune disease, and a disproportionate number of these patients are women. An estimated twenty-five percent of the population lives with chronic pain and again, women suffer in higher numbers than men.  So many chronic conditions are “invisible illnesses”  – and this invisibility shrouds the physical realities that millions of people live with daily.

The gender gap also plays an important role in why chronic disease has been underacknowledged. Research shows female patients’ reports of pain are taken less seriously, treated less aggressively, and they are more likely to be characterized as emotional or psychogenic. Sex-based research into pain is one step. Already, emerging research suggests differences in the ways men and women perceive pain.

Chronic illness is incredibly complex, and these complexities feed into the delay in utilizing new brain-body science.  As you write in THE LAST BEST CURE, for so many patients, Western medicine has done all it can. Patients live with ongoing symptoms, try all sorts of lifestyle interventions and alternative therapies, and wonder if this is as good as it will get. While many recognize a fundamental mind-body connection, the idea that the brain itself could hold the key to healing is an enormous paradigm shift. Hopefully, science can give us more answers, and increased collaboration between patients and provides can help us put those answers into practice.”

I thank Laurie for her response to my question. I think it’s spot on. We’re late to address the skyrocketing problem of chronic illness in America, for all the reasons she cites. We have much to do. I hope that THE LAST BEST CURE helps us to better understand the emerging scientific answers and to put those answers into practice.

Countdown Reason # 9: It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

graphic from Penguin
Here's a graphic on the growing American Stress Crisis, based on a recent APA study of thousands of Americans

Today I was listening to NPR as I was driving. The discussion centered on new approaches to addiction — and the fact that addiction is now being classified as a “chronic brain disease.” Experts said that 22 million American’s suffer from it. (Add this to the 133 million Americans suffering from a range of other chronic diseases and the tally rises to 155 million Americans facing chronic health issues.)

And guess what one of the successful new treatment strategies for this newly labeled “chronic brain disease” turns out to be? What do practitioners who treat patients with addiction feel is critical for patients if they hope to return to a state of well-being?

“Manage their thoughts,” said both experts being interviewed. The phrase kept coming up: “Managing your thoughts plays a role in recovery.”

Manage the negative Floating Brain.  Monkey Brain. The constant chatter of worry, the laser focus on what’s wrong with whatever is happening, or wishing for something else to be happening. Nursing anger, frustration, fear, anxiety, resentment, regret. Ruminating. Getting caught in those states of mind that are linked to setting forth a toxic cocktail of inflammatory hormones and chemicals from brain to body to cell.

During the NPR show there was a pause for a commercial for an upcoming discussion about another rising health condition, the “disturbing rising rates of heart problems in young people.”

We know that heart conditions are related to chronic and acute stress.

Listening to this I thought we just have to find a way out of this American Stress Crisis and what it’s costing us. We just have to.

In my year-long journey to find a way out, to find THE LAST BEST CURE, I test drove everything I thought might help the 155 million Americans who have chronic conditions. Everything that scientists know activates the healing responses of the brain. So that we can walk away from Monkey Brain, and live with a newfound sense of well-being.

I also wanted to help the 145 million who don‘t face chronic health worries — and who don’t want to.

I put every skill I possess as an investigative science journalist to use in the process. And when I listen to the radio for twenty minutes in the car and hear about the range of pain we face, whether from this emotional struggle or that health challenge, I find myself feeling, very deeply in my heart, how much I want to be part of the change.

I hope THE LAST BEST CURE can help pave the way for change. Because it just doesn’t have to be this way.


Countdown Reason # 10: Turtle Wushu, Anyone?

A week ago I wrote this at the end of a blog on joy, memories and the brain (see Countdown Reason # 19: Why Emotional Memories of Joy Matter so Much):

“I’m going to think of how to make a joy memory today. I’ll let you know how that works out on an icy, windy Friday evening in a house with with two tired working parents at the end of the week and two teenagers.”

I promised I would let you know how that went.

Confession. It didn’t happen that Friday night. We unexpectedly had a house full of 14-year-old girls (who happen to be naturals at making joy happen). And then the week flew by in a blur of activities, work, events, homework, doctor’s appointments, and all that jazz. But this evening things were comparatively quiet and I asked my daughter if she’d help me get “the guys” (her dad and brother) to join us in a game of Turtle Wushu. We’d come across a video of it online and when we watched it we couldn’t stop laughing.

Laughter is really great for our cells, and laughter is joyful. And a joyful state of mind activates what scientists call the “positive floating brain;” those juicy good chemicals that set out from the brain and travel through our organs and cells, helping to protect us from inflammation. Moreover, it protects us from the “negative floating brain,” that state of Monkey Mind — where our inner chatter raps on about what’s going wrong, what we have to get done, what we’re angry or frustrated about, the things we’re afraid of — causing our brain to send forth a constant slow drip of inflammatory hormones and chemicals.

Here's how the game of Turtle Wushu begins...

Okay, here is the video (short at 1:42) on how to play: Turtle Wushu.

(We used small crackers instead of plastic turtles. It was even more fun because the dogs “played” too in hopes of getting the spoils.)

If you have teenagers it can be hard to find a game that everyone wants to play, but we were “all in” at our house for Turtle Wushu. A half hour of chasing, turning, sly maneuvers around the kitchen island, sock sliding across the floor and whirling around the breakfast table, and we were laughing pretty hard. Later, I caught my son and husband playing “Wushu” in the kitchen, just the two of them, laughing.

I got “Wushu-ed” a LOT (aka I kept losing!) so the dogs really stuck by my heels in hopes of getting those flying crackers. But I got something better — a silly and wild half hour with my family, away from homework, dishes, laundry, tomorrow’s to-do list, taxes (argh), and Monkey Brain. And that felt like winning.

Countdown Reason # 12: The Number of Kids with Chronic Conditions is Skyrocketing

I’ve written about how chronic pain is on the rise, as are rates of chronic disorders. But two new studies extend our knowledge about the prevalence of chronic conditions among Americans into an area that’s quite troubling: America’s children.

One study, published in the journal PAIN found that “recurrent chronic pain is overwhelmingly prevalent in children and adolescents, with, 11% to 38% of kids reporting pain.” Study authors looked at headache, back pain, abdominal pain, muscle pain and generalized pain. Rates depended on the sort of pain being reported. For instance one in four youth reported having regular headaches.

Girls generally experience more pain than boys. Which is not surprising since women suffer from more chronic conditions than men in adulthood.

What is most concerning, say investigators, is this:

“… prevalence rates of childhood pain have increased over the last several decades.”

Stress is most certainly playing a role.

The second study, published in the journal Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that children and teen’s chronic pain is associated with that of their parents. The more chronic pain parents experienced — especially mothers — the more their children reported chronic pain:

“…clear associations were observed between maternal pain and pain in adolescents and young adults…”

As adults, we need to look at managing our own sense of joy and well-being not just in terms of our own health, but that of our children. Every step we take to move past “stressed-out living” and reclaim joy in our life not only enriches us, it allows our kids to see how that’s possible. And that legacy is priceless.


Sara King, Christine T. Chambers, Anna Huguet, Rebecca C. MacNevin, Patrick J. McGrath, Louise Parker, Amanda J. MacDonald. The epidemiology of chronic pain in children and adolescents revisited: A systematic review. PAIN, 2011; 152 (12): 2729 DOI: 10.1016/j.pain.2011.07.016

(Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. Published online November 19, 2012. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.428.

Countdown Reason # 13: The American Stress Crisis

A new study released today by the American Psychological Association found, after studying 2000 Americans, that the day-to-day stress the average American is living with surpasses healthy stress levels.  Americans say their daily stress is at a 3.6 on a 10-point scale. Just think of that for a minute in terms of the physical “pain scale” you fill out when you go to the doctor’s.  If you are experiencing physical pain that is almost a 4 out of 10 (with a 10 being as doctors say, “the worst pain you’ve ever experienced”) that’s painful.

Ditto with emotional stress.

Worse, for many Americans, stress levels are on the rise — 35 percent of all Americans say their stress increased this past year, and two-thirds of U.S. adults who report living with “high stress” say their stress levels have risen.

Yet 53 percent of Americans say they receive little or no support for stress management from their health care providers, and that stress management is not discussed at doctors’ visits.

APA CEO Norman B. Anderson, PhD. says, “Unfortunately, our country’s health system often neglects psychological and behavioral factors that are essential to managing stress and chronic diseases. In order for our nation to get healthier, and lower the rates of chronic illnesses…we need to improve how we view and treat stress and unhealthy behaviors that are contributing to the high incidence of disease in the U.S.”

When it comes to stress management and wellness, says the APA report, “there is a gap between what Americans want from their health care system and what they actually get.”

I’m hoping, with all my heart, that THE LAST BEST CURE will help to fill that gap. 13 days.

Countdown Reason # 14: The Autoimmune Epidemic Was Just the First Half of the Journey

THE LAST BEST CURE will be in stores, on Amazon, Indiebound, and everywhere else in two weeks. I can hardly believe it.

Many of you are fans of The Autoimmune Epidemic (now in its 5th printing!). Which, as you know, talks about all the environmental stressors and toxins we encounter in our lives that add up to inflammation and illness. I call it the barrel effect. Our bodies can handle just so much in the barrel, and then, one day, there is that one more “hit” and it spills over, leading to chronic conditions too numerous to count (well, if we are counting, 133 million adults suffer from at least one chronic condition, and the numbers are skyrocketing). I wanted you to know everything researchers know about how we can decrease what’s overfilling our barrel, both by being aware, and by knowing how to eliminate what we can.

After I finished writing The Autoimmune Epidemic, I encountered a great deal of emerging research on how the chronic and acute stress we feel also acts on our immune systems exactly like a toxin. How our state of mind can overflow the barrel, or, conversely, help to protect the immune system.

To our bodies, it doesn’t matter if the “hit” is viral, toxic, or stress. It looks the same. Stress and anxiety can cause our “barrel” to overflow in just the same way.  And so, I set out to research and write the “sequel” to The Autoimmune Epidemic. I’d talked about how to eliminate all the triggers we could to bring our immune system back to health, and why it was so important to do so.

I felt I owed it to you to talk about the one thing in our “barrel” that is most under out control: reversing the inflammation-promoting agitation, fear, stress, pain and anxiety we all encounter and experience in our lives, which leaks, like a toxin, into our barrel. Thousands of researchers have been studying how to best use scientifically studied methods to do just that. And how to activate instead, the healing secrets of the brain.

I would like to think my last two books form something of a health equation:

The Autoimmune Epidemic      +      The Last Best Cure 

Reclaim Your Body, Your Joy, Your Well-being, Your Life.

The Last Best Cure cover
My new book, The Last Best Cure -- out in two weeks!
cover image
My last book, The Autoimmune Epidemic, 2009

Countdown Reason # 15: YES, True

my holding Christian at the waves at Bethany
My son and I when he was two, deciding how far to brave his way into the waves.

I don’t know why I thought of this today. Maybe because as I walked past my son’s room this morning it hit me, ping (really, I guess the word is pang), how empty his room will be when he leaves for college. Standing there, with my hand on the door, I had a sudden flashback. How when he was very little I made up a song to get him to sleep. It’s a little embarrassing but among the lines were these:

“…know this is true, no matter where you go, no matter what you do, I’m going to love you your whole life through. Sometimes you’ll say I love you too much, sometimes you’ll say I don’t love you enough. But no matter where you go, no matter what you do, I’m going to love you your whole life through…”

(Full disclosure here: part of the reason I wrote my own lullabies for my kids was because I really can’t sing. Really. So, I figured, if a song and the tune are mine, I never have to worry whether I’m singing it right or how off key I might be…)

Sometimes when my son (or a few years later, his little sister) was tired, or cranky, or had a scraped knee, he’d give me one of those leg squeezes that toddlers give you when you’re holding them on your hip and they want you to move in a certain direction. And he’d point and say, “rocking chair!”  I was happy to rock in “rocking chair” because sometimes I got tired and cranky too. And I’d sing our own personal Top 10 hit lullaby, “Know This is True.” It was a kind of mom and babe meditation.

But, back to my story. My son didn’t chat a lot when he was a young toddler, though he had plenty of words. He was just… circumspect. When he started really talking he spoke in thinking-out-loud sentences. I remember once, we were in “rocking chair” and near where we then lived workmen were bulldozing a small forest for a new neighborhood. And my son put his hand on my lips and said, quietly, “Mommy I don’t like the sound the trees make when they hit the ground.”

He always seemed to be listening to the world around him, as if reading a book that no one else could see. One day we were in “rocking chair” and I was singing my made up song, “...know this is true…” and he put his fingers on my lips.

“Mommy, how come it’s ‘NO this is true?’  Is it YES true you’re going to love me, or NO true?”

I stopped rocking. It took me a minute to understand what he was thinking in his little toddler brain. And then I got it. He didn’t understand that I was saying the word “know” instead of the word “No.” And he wanted a little clarification. No true, or yes true?

I brought his face up to mine. “YES true,” I remember saying. “YES true, I’m going to love you. YES true, your whole life through.”

I stood there this morning with my hand on the door of my 18-year-old son’s room, as that memory went through me in a hold-your-breath-and-you’re-back-there-again-in-the- rocking-chair whoosh. I think it came back to me, really, because of what I’ve been blogging about this week. Bless, bless, bless. Gratitude.

YES true. That’s how we love the people we love. YES true, your whole life through. How many people can you bless, bless, bless today (in the grocery store, on the beltway) and say YES true to in your own living room?

Countdown Reason # 16: And Gratitude Helps with Pain

I have a good friend, a dear, dear friend, really, who I’ll call “K.” “K” suffers from an autoimmune disease. In the past five years she’s gone from daily injections of a multiple sclerosis drug that packs difficult side effects to taking no meds at all. She carries the most grateful, compassionate outlook of anyone I know.  I’ve watched her devote herself over the years to exercising more, getting a three-wheeled bike when she realized a two-seater wouldn’t work and toodlling around her neighborhood, building a strong social community, and training herself to think, as she puts in, “on the better side.”

I heard an interview on NPR today with an American vet from the Iraq war who just this week had two new arms transplanted onto his torso at Johns Hopkins — in a first of its kind surgery — to replace the two he lost in Iraq several years ago. He’d also lost a leg. He was amazing. The interviewer asked, “How do you feel?” He said, “I was pretty happy before the surgery, my life was pretty good, but yes, this definitely just makes me even happier.”

Think about that. “I was pretty happy before.” Despite losing three limbs in the war. I suspect his transplant surgery has a good chance of succeeding. Gratitude is not only good for our relationships, it also helps with healing. Studies show it helps us to better deal with pain, suffering, illness, grief and loss. Patients who keep a positive mindset prior to even a relatively simpler surgery, such as total knee replacement surgery, and who “recognize within themselves the ability to ensure that things will be okay,” say researchers, consistently report less pain and disability after surgery and recover faster.[i]  Older people who have a positive take on life are less likely to fall – suggesting that the risk of falling among the elderly is tied to one’s view of the world.[ii]

There are dozens of studies like this. We know it’s true. So why is it so incredibly hard to live, as my friend “K” would say, “on the better side?” I write about that too, in The Last Best Cure. What’s getting in our way. And really, how to get out of our own way.


[i] Public release date: 17-Feb-2011.  Healthy lifestyle, positive attitude can help improve patient outcomes.  American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. [ii] BMJ 2010; 341:c4165 doi: 10.1136/bmj.c4165 (Published 20 August 2010) Determinants of disparities between perceived and physiological risk of falling among elderly people: cohort study, Stephen R Lord, professor et al.

Countdown Reason # 17: Grateful at Home

holding hands with Zen in the woods
I like holding my husband's hand. Maybe that's another way of showing appreciation, like a hug. When we feel quiet, and have no words.

A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology evaluated the relationship between how much partners felt appreciated, and how likely a marriage was to last over the years. They found that appreciation and gratitude between two people spirals up or down; the more a partner shows gratitude, the more their partner shows them appreciation, and so it goes, back and forth, improving the relationship over time. (I don’t really need to describe the downward spiral do I?) Likewise, the more appreciation you show to your partner, the more likely you are to feel that your own needs are being met.

This makes perfect sense to me.  A decade-and-a-half-ago, I worked closely with psychologist and mathematician John Gottman, PhD, who ran what was known as the “Love Lab” in which he observed couples interact. Gottman could predict, almost flawlessly, who would be divorced in five years, ten. His main litmus test: how many positive comments did each partner make for each negative one? The magic number was 5 positive comments to each negative one. Below that ratio, relationships start to break down.

Downward spiral or upward spiral — we have a choice. We humans are not static. Either we’re growing in our ability to interact with the world around us with resilience and grace, and becoming more creative, more alive, or we’re reinforcing our bad habits, becoming more stagnant, less alive both within ourselves, and within our relationships.  We reach the tipping point in imperceptible increments — via the split second, blink-and-you-miss-it decisions we make about how we interact with the people we love.

Other research shows that that 5:1 scale works pretty well with everyone. Gratitude is the superglue in the intimacy bond. And we know, as you’ve read in earlier posts, that when we show gratitude, compassion, and bless, we feel much better about who we are.

I’m grateful to my husband for coming out to join me while I was walking the dogs when he pulled in. For stopping to get eggs. For cutting up all the vegetables for dinner. For clipping me two articles from the newspaper. And these were all just in the last hour. I’m going to post this, and then send a copy to him.

Countdown Reason # 18: Bless

just one thing book cover rick hanson
Rick Hanson's wonderful new book, Just One Thing

Recently, Stanford researchers put folks into two groups. One group went through a 9-week compassion course, the other didn’t. Afterwards participants who had taken the course were not only found to be more compassionate to others — they had more compassion for themselves. They liked themselves better by learning to be more compassionate to those around them.

When I read this I couldn’t help but think about a practice called bless that neurobiologist Rick Hanson, Ph. D., author of  Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, suggests we all practice. Hanson doesn’t use the concept of bless, which means to see what’s tender and beautiful, in a religious sense. He talks about it as showing “compassion, kindness, appreciating, honoring, non-harming, cherishing . . . helping rather than harming, giving rather than withholding …wishing well rather than ill, delighting in rather than finding fault… [seeing others’] goodness, efforts, hopes, suffering, and what’s neat about them… You can express good wishes with actions – a touch, a door opened, …or inside your heart alone.”

I want to live more like that. Bless, bless, bless. Rather than rush, rush, rush or grrr, grrr, grrrr. Don’t you?

Rick Hanson's book, Buddha's Brain