What causes disease? What can we do to improve our health?
Modern medicine’s answer to these questions lies in its understanding of the human body as a complex machine. Like any mechanical contraption, the body is bound to break down. Doctors serve as specialized mechanics who wield sophisticated tools and procedures to address our malfunction. They can numb our pain, carve out and radiate our cancers, trigger or suppress our immune systems, recalibrate our neurotransmitters, and they may soon be able to retool the genetic flaws thought to be the progenitors of disease.
Compare this body-as-machine philosophy to the traditional medicine practices of our ancestors that looked to the natural world as a guide toward health. These old philosophies may seem primitive in comparison to the high-tech industry of modern health care, but they also hold an understanding that today’s doctors and scientists are still working to comprehend: that our bodies possess the power to heal themselves.
While it sounds a bit mystical, there is objective evidence of this self-healing characteristic. Ji talks about the “immortal thread within our stem cells” to describe the body’s amazing regenerative ability. One example is an entire category of stem cells released from the bone marrow called endothelial progenitor cells, which are constantly at work to heal the damage caused to the lining of our blood vessels.
“We really are this miracle that we can barely explain,” Ji said.
His book falls in line with those interests and relies heavily on research to tell the tale. But for Ji, the story is personal. He came into the world a sickly infant and grew into a depressed, overweight, and asthmatic teen. Over the course of his young life, he was examined by at least a dozen doctors. They performed surgeries and prescribed an ever-increasing regimen of pharmaceuticals in an effort to suppress his symptoms. But Ji said the treatments he received were more traumatic than helpful. As his hope of healing dwindled, Ji believed he was doomed to a short and miserable life.
Ji’s health finally began to turn around during his first year of college when he discovered a new kind of medicine—one that traded the surgery and drugs he had known his whole life for a more natural approach. Decades later, Ji has become an outspoken advocate for natural medicine. Despite his sad and sickly youth, today he runs marathons, feels stronger than ever, and hasn’t taken any pharmaceuticals in years.
“I wouldn't be alive today had I not discovered natural medicine,” Ji said.
But how is this possible? A core belief of modern medicine is that it has the most effective treatments ever developed, far superior to anything our ancestors relied on for health. So how did Ji create vibrant health with some of the oldest forms of treatment—herbs, diet, and lifestyle changes—when modern medicine failed?
While ancient medicine practices are based on things like tradition and observations of nature, with lessons passed down to future generations who verify that knowledge through their own observation, modern medicine demonstrates its worth through science. Peer-reviewed studies and medical journals show proof. This is what is known to the modern health care system as “evidence-based” medicine.
But Ji says the science for much of what our evidence-based system stands on isn’t as strong as we’re led to believe.
“It's eminence-based medicine. It sounds like evidence, but it's really eminence-based, or science-by-proclamation. It's all based on smoke and mirrors, and belief structures. When you look at the literature and tease it apart, and you look at funding sources, rarely do you ever see anything of value,” Ji said.
“The critical biomedical literature is so contaminated with influence, money, and bias,” he said. "They’ll fund a 100 trials on a drug and try to convert one of its many adverse effects into a therapeutic one. So they publish the one finding that shows maybe a little relative risk reduction. Then, with a semantic sleight of hand, describe it as an absolute risk reduction.”
Food as MedicineWhile modern treatments are described as evidence-based, natural remedies are routinely dismissed as “unproven,” even when there may actually be science to support it. This is why Ji founded GreenMedInfo, the world’s largest open-access natural health database.
“For me, it was an activist passion,” he said. “I would constantly find studies that were so amazing, like research on aloe curing different diseases. I was so excited to find it, and I knew no one would be talking about it in the mainstream media. I never thought it would become such a popular site.”
They may not be as respected, well funded, or widely promoted as drug studies, but natural remedies have been proven to have regenerative and disease-fighting properties. Just getting an adequate amount of B vitamins will directly affect whether you can silence certain key genes necessary for health. The process is known as methylation, or the attachment of one-carbon tags to DNA molecules that effectively turns off certain expressions of that gene.
Food as medicine is a concept known since ancient times. The basic premise is that eating the right foods (and cutting out the wrong ones) can enhance your body’s self-healing capabilities. The word “recipe,” for example, comes from a Latin root that originally meant “take.” Recipe was used in the Middle Ages to mean a medical instruction or prescription, inspiring the pharmaceutical abbreviation Rx.
Healthy food is derived from living beings (plants and animals) that naturally have their own self-healing and regenerative mechanisms. In fact, our bodies resemble plants in that our susceptibility to pests and infection escalates when we don’t get enough key nutrients, our environment is poisoned, or we don’t get enough sun.
“Why is there more influenza in places with higher latitudes? Because of lack of vitamin D due to sunlight deficiency. That's a more valid explanation than flu vaccine deficiency, obviously,” Ji said.
And the effect of food goes deep. With every bite we eat, we can deliberately choose which messages we send to our genome, and designate whether we strengthen or weaken our immune systems.
Compare the messages of food to that of pharmaceuticals. While drugs are often based on compounds found in nature, drug makers create synthetic variants in the interest of patent exclusivity. Drugs can certainly change our physiology, but they act in a different manner than food. Pharmaceuticals essentially force the body to respond a particular way, rather than enhance its own capacity for healing. Plus, drugs are composed of ingredients we wouldn’t normally ingest.
Rise of the New BiologyJi suggests that it isn't just corruption that undermines the modern medical model. He says its very philosophy stands on shaky ground, and new research proves it.
But perhaps the biggest factor that has turned the modern medicine philosophy on its head is the microbiome. The discovery of this colony of bacteria that lives inside of all of us at around the turn of the millennium has been nothing short of a biomedical revolution.
“It was a total eclipse of our previous state of awareness,” Ji said. “Because none of the previous 29 million citations on Medline accounted for the role of the microbiome in any of the research. In a way, it non-validated all of the previous literature—the whole total sum of human knowledge in the realm of biomedicine.”
The old paradigm of germ theory—an idea where microorganisms are identified as the root of infection—no longer holds true once we discovered that our bodies are not only ridden with bacteria and viruses, but our physiology depends on it.
Ji calls this new understanding the “new biology.”
“The new biology helps us understand that we are infinitely more powerful and self-sufficient than anyone ever believed,” he said. “We're totally self-healing and we don't have to be dependent on a global medical-industrial complex to experience joy.”
Ji isn't a doctor, but a growing number of medical professionals are embracing the philosophy of the new biology he discusses. It’s called “functional medicine,” and its followers include MDs, naturopaths, osteopaths, acupuncturists, nurse practitioners, chiropractors, and nutritionists. Some may still occasionally prescribe drugs, but functional medicine practitioners are more likely to choose natural remedies and lifestyle changes that truly address the body’s own capacity to heal.
In the functional medicine model, the doctor is less a mechanic and more of a coach or teacher—helping patients to understand the vital role they play in their own healing. Compare this to the conventional medical system, where health and disease are considered too complex for the average person to grasp. When only a doctor has enough know-how to address our health problems, how can we take responsibility for our own well-being?
Ji says that just realizing how much we can control our capacity to heal with the choices we make is like a medicine in itself.
“Unless we believe we are capable of healing or overcoming some diagnosis that we were saddled with, we won't take the action to make it happen,” he said. “The faith in the healing ability of our body is indispensable for it to happen. That gives us a lot of power that a lot of people don't want. But some do, and they embrace that fully."