America is in the midst of a health care crisis. Medical costs continue to soar, while the number of families who have access to affordable health insurance is in decline. Across the nation, people are waiting to see what reforms President Barack Obama and Congress plan to make to our current system, while some states, like Colorado, have explored initiating changes on their own.
Many Americans hope to see a single-payer system put into place, but the ideas coming out of Washington, D.C., include disappointing options such as taxing employer health benefits to help fund an expansion of government health care programs; requiring every American to buy health insurance; and increasing private-sector competition among health-insurance companies.
These are options that attempt to preserve our current health care system, health-insurance industry and all.
So far, the debate on health care reform, which seems to be making little progress, centers on one question: who is going to pay for health care?
Meanwhile, Americans, worried about pesticides, E. coli and the cost of produce, are growing their own food. Seed sales are up across the country 20 to 30 percent, as families replace part or all of their lawns with vegetable gardens. The term "victory garden" has been resurrected from World War II Americana and now stands for a much more personal kind of victory — one involving lower monthly food budgets and knowing how one's food has been grown.
What if Americans were to quit waiting for the federal government to act and take a "victory garden" approach to health care reform?
Are there things we can do to reform our own health care, striving for increased self-sufficiency and lowered medical costs?
That's the question asked to Dr. Charley Cropley, a Boulder naturopathic physician, author and an oft-featured presenter on the subject of "self-healing." In response, Cropley shared five key things we can all do to take our health care into our own hands in order to improve the quality of our own lives, decrease our need for medical treatment and thus reduce our dependence on the health care system.
Some of his suggestions are controversial. Cropley doesn't believe in immunizing children. He thinks people's health would be improved if they stopped seeing conventional doctors. He doesn't believe in taking medications or dietary supplements. For Cropley, health is about bringing your life and body into balance.
"You hear it all the time," he says. "Eat well. Begin a regular program of exercise and rest. Reduce your stress. In truth, that's largely what it comes down to."
But that's not the whole picture.
"Here are five huge challenges," Cropley says. "Implementing any one will improve your life more than any medicine."
5. Breastfeed your babies
In the United States, more than 70 percent of babies are breastfed at birth. But by three months of age, only 32 percent are exclusively breastfed. By six months, only about 43 percent are still getting any breast milk at all, and only 12 percent are still receiving exclusively breast milk. By 1 year, only 21 percent of mothers are continuing to breastfeed.
And yet the benefits of breastfeeding both for mothers and babies are numerous and well documented. Breastfeeding releases oxytocin, which not only helps mothers and babies bond, but also helps the mother's uterus contract to its pre-pregnancy size.
Mothers who breastfeed may have lower rates of certain breast and ovarian cancers, while babies who are breastfed have better digestion and enhanced protection against diseases and infections.
"I like to see mothers breastfeed for at least three months," Cropley says. "Breast milk is what colonizes the digestive tract of the infant with its natural flora that it will have for the rest of its life. Our ability to digest depends on this healthy flora, which also protects the intestines against colonization and growth of pathogens or foreign flora. This floral imbalance then creates significant digestive problems that, in turn, poison the liver and contribute to myriad health problems."
Colostrum, produced by the mother the first few days after her baby's birth, is key to helping establish healthy digestion in a newborn, and also contains immunoglobulins that prevent illness and help the baby's immune system to develop. Breast milk continues to provide infants with antibodies as the baby grows.
Babies who are breastfed are less likely to get sick with common ailments like middle-ear infections than bottle-fed babies. They're also less likely to be overweight. The benefits to both women and babies are such that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, while the World Health Organization recommends continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.
By insisting on breastfeeding their babies — even to the degree of requiring their employers to accommodate their needs — mothers will set up their children and themselves for healthier lives both short- and long-term.
4. ID your food allergies
"I consider food allergies to be about as destructive as smoking," Cropley says. "Do a 30-day trial period without wheat, milk or soy.
You will be amazed. Currently, about 70 percent of us are allergic to one or more foods, and that number is growing. Our population is growing sicker. Our damaged, underdeveloped immune and digestive systems — both due, in part, to not being breastfed — combined with the devitalized foods we're putting into our selves, are making us sicker."
Untreated food allergies and intolerances can result in a variety of different symptoms, including upper respiratory problems, nausea, stomach pain, heartburn, gas, diarrhea, cramping, headaches, irritability and anxiety.
"If these symptoms are treated with medicines and the allergic foods are not eliminated, they continue to poison the system, just like cigarettes, and lead to more serious illnesses, such as cancer, arthritis and multiple sclerosis," he says.
3. Get a good suntan
"More than 90 percent of skin cancers are basal cell carcinomas, which are largely innocuous," Cropley says. "Basal cell carcinomas almost never metastasize. The only thing they do is to grow locally. When you don't like the looks of them, you get them removed.
They are a cosmetic problem, hardly on the level of other cancers."
While we've all been taught to wear sunscreen and limit our sun exposure, Cropley insists that sunlight is not only not harmful, but essential. Sunlight does, however, age the skin, he says.
"Sunlight enables the skin to produce Vitamin D, which affects almost every system and function in the body. Check out Dr. [Joseph] Mercola's articles on sunlight and Vitamin D on the Web. Or read Dr. [Zane R.] Kime's book, Sunlight."
Mainstream medical researchers have shown that exposure to full-spectrum sunlight can cut a woman's risk for breast cancer markedly. One study found that sunlight exposure lowered the risk of breast cancer by 30 to 40 percent. Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine conducted a 10-year epidemiological study that exposure can prevent breast, colon and rectal cancers.
Other studies have suggested that lymphomas and some kinds of dementia are positively impacted by sunlight, as well.
"There is even debate going on as to whether the most dangerous kind of skin cancer, which is malignant melanoma, is not actually benefited by sunlight," Cropley says.
Cropley is quick to say he's recommending natural sunlight, not tanning beds.
"That's not to say there's no use for tanning beds, but when I'm talking sunlight, I'm talking natural sunlight," he says. "Human beings are made to be in the sun. A society that is afraid of the sun is a sick society."
2. Deal with addictions
Our common addictions include coffee, alcohol, smoking, marijuana, television, media, sex, porn and gambling.
"Addictions produce suffering and regret — period," he says. "They destroy your body, mind and relationships. Nobody would wish their addictions on their children. In our hearts we long to be free of them. Listen to this voice of healing."
The most common addiction Cropley says he sees is addiction to carbohydrates: bread, cereals, pastas, pastries, sweets. His challenge: for 30 days, stop eating all carbohydrates except vegetables and fruit.
Eating carbohydrates tells the body to convert food to fat, he says.
"Carbs increase our insulin levels, and insulin causes the carbs to be stored as fat. This then makes us hungry again so that we eat more carbohydrates and again store them as fat. Carbs are designed to keep us eating them so we will become fat in order to survive the food scarcity and rigors of winter."
Carbs naturally abound only for three months of the year in most climates, but we now have easy access to processed carbs and sugary treats all the time.
The impact of too many carbs and too much sugar on the body is devastating, he says.
"In addition to weight gain and obesity, it is associated with the most prevalent diseases in our civilization: high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, Type II diabetes, depression and the most common cancers."
1. Sleep like a baby
Stop using an alarm clock. Go to bed early enough that your body awakens naturally.
"Sleep deprivation has roughly the same effect on you as overeating sugar," Cropley says. "It sets an array of biochemical imbalances in the body. It elevates insulin, and insulin creates cravings for sweets. It also causes weight gain. One of the best things you can do to lose weight is to get enough sleep."
Sleep deprivation is also proven to raise a person's level of the stress hormone cortisol, which can affect the immune system and cause weight gain. Sleep deprivation is associated with obesity, high blood pressure, Type II diabetes, breast, colon and prostate cancer, as well as depression, cardiovascular disease, irritability, decreased reaction time, impaired immune system and several forms of dementia, Cropley says.
Caffeine, stress, medications, illness and physical pain can decrease a person's ability to get enough sleep. But there are also lifestyle issues. Watching television can lead to people staying up later than they intended. And then there's the relatively new factor of electric lights.
"If we went back 2,000 years and it was December, how much of the day is darkness?" Cropley asks. "When the sun goes down, the body starts converting serotonin to melatonin, and you get sleepy."
But electricity has enabled people to surround themselves with bright light at any time of the day or night, and light has an impact on people's ability to sleep, he says.
Cropley recommends the book Lights Out by T.S. Wiley for those interested in looking into the issue of light and sleep and the role that lack of sleep plays in modern health problems.
"The simple change of getting sufficient rest balances a biochemical cascade that affects the foods that we crave, not to mention the feelings of fatigue and all these patterns of illness that come out of that," he says.
Lack of sleep can also make it difficult for a person to manage his or her addictions, as a feeling of fatigue leads to cravings for caffeine, sweets and other stimulants, he says.
The big picture
"People who want to have self-sustaining bodies need to recognize that doctors are part of a cultural system that produces the very sickness they claim they are trying to cure," Cropley says. "Commercial food production, education and media, the FDA and insurance industry are all expressions of the same sick system. This system has produced such sickness that, as a culture, we literally cannot find a way to pay for it. It is sick to the point of dying. Get yourself out of it. Stop eating corporate food, believing conventional education/propaganda, and relying on corporate medicine."
Overall, Cropley believes the goal ought to be to find the deeper causes for your health problems. Sure, you have the flu. But what about your lifestyle weakened your immune system to the degree where exposure to the virus led to illness?
"Illness has causes," he says. "If you don't have a health care person on your team who encourages you to search for the causes in your personal life, you will continue to repeat the self-harming behaviors that are causing your headaches or your high blood pressure. These actions will continue to destroy your body in other ways. Taking a pill for it doesn't address the real causes at all.
"Our conventional way of looking at our health as something for which someone else is responsible is the very thinking that has led to our present health crisis. Genuine health reform must be founded on a reformation in our understanding of the causes of illness.
"We must refuse to accept as the total answer that our health problems are due to diseases, genetics and other factors beyond our control. Our personal health, just like the health of our environment, is our responsibility."
Pamela White is editor of the Boulder Weekly, where this story first appeared.