‘Medicine is not set up for health, it’s set up for disease’
Mainstream medicine is designed to treat people who are already ill, not stop them from getting ill in the first place. So says Dr Harrison Weisinger – a man who is highly qualified to comment, on both a personal and professional level.
A family doctor in his native Australia, Dr Weisinger is also a university professor who lectures on topics such as nutrition and neural development, and has published dozens of scientific papers on the complex physiological effects of the food we eat.
His academic credentials are impressive, but his personal story of illness and recovery is perhaps even more remarkable.
By the time he was 40, he had undergone stenting for a blocked coronary artery, been admitted to hospital dozens of times for Crohn’s disease, resulting in multiple bowel surgeries, undergone a hip replacement, and had radiotherapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Quite a sickly sort, then? Not from what I can see. Now aged 48, Dr Weisinger is an obsessive cyclist who trains 14 hours a week and fits his busy working schedule around gruelling road races. He has no business looking so young. When I meet him, his healthy outdoor glow and enthusiastic handshake betray his Antipodean roots before he even opens his mouth.
The health problems began when he was still at school, when bowel disease left him “often doubled over in agony and so painfully thin I couldn’t buy a date”. He missed exams and fell behind, but soon more than made up for lost time. After finishing a neuroscience PhD and working in medical research he went on to qualify as a doctor. It was then that he discovered from the inside that the medical profession’s focus is too narrow.
“It’s not really set up for health, it’s set up for disease. It’s really good at fixing sick people, but it’s not great for preventing sickness,” he told my Healthy Beast podcast. “It’s getting better – there is some recognition that we’re not going to operate or prescribe our way out of the problems that we’ve got with society’s health. With diseases like diabetes, we have to do something to prevent it, or we are screwed.”
Dr Weisinger is very clear about the things that modern medicine does well. The bowel operations he had as a young adult saved him from the worst agony of Crohn’s disease. And when he suddenly felt a strange sensation in his throat, his medical training told him it could be angina, when the onset of coronary artery disease restricts blood flow to the heart. He went straight to the doctor, who confirmed his diagnosis and fitted a stent to open the artery.
If it hadn’t been for his training, Dr Weisinger concedes with typical Aussie matter-of-factness: “I think I’d have ignored it, would have had a heart attack and probably died.”
Rather than let a brush with death hold him back, it was actually this episode that got him into cycling. He’d been recovering from a hip replacement after years of playing competitive basketball meant his hip degenerated to the point where “every single step felt like I was being stabbed”. Once the imminent danger of further heart problems had passed, the cardiologist suggested cycling as a way of staying in shape without putting too much pressure on the recovering hip.
Dr Weisinger didn’t go into it gently and within a few months was grinding out more than 200 miles a week. His personal story, as well as his nutritional expertise, has got him known locally as a go-to doctor for athletes who want to understand more about the often-complex process of recovering from injury and getting back to training in the right way.
He has also become the reassuringly stethoscoped frontman of supplements company, Truth Origins. This was after he was researching nutritional supplements for his own recovery and found that “nobody else was doing it right”. Curcumin, for example – the anti-inflammatory compound in turmeric – gave great results with his back pain. But curcumin is not absorbed by the body in its natural form, so Truth Origins had to find a way to make the compound water soluble. Otherwise, as Dr Weisinger says: “Most people who take curcumin are simply turning good money into expensive urine.”
No matter how qualified Dr Weisinger is personally or professionally, however, he does find that some nutrition myths are very difficult to kill off.
“The fallacy that ‘fat makes you fat’ is one that just won’t go away. I can’t get my parents to see it any other way. It doesn’t matter how many degrees you’ve got. When you eat fat you powerfully supress your appetite and you don’t invoke such an insulin response as when you eat carbohydrates. And insulin is responsible for a lot of the problems [with heart disease and type 2 diabetes].”
But as well as the type of food we eat, quantity is still the biggest issue.
“This period of food abundance is a new thing. This is not how we evolved. We evolved to deal with scarcity. That’s in the human genome. Our physiology is set up to store energy really well and access it in periods of scarcity … [not] three square meals a week plus snacks. This the challenge of our times. I struggle to stay lean, and I’m training 14 hours a week. If I don’t watch what I eat I’ll gain weight.”
But as much as nutrition is vital, so is increasing the amount we move. Sitting at a desk or behind a counter for hours a day is “extraordinarily bad for us”, Dr Weisinger says, yet it is something many of us do, and “still we are expected to have the energy to come home and be mentally and emotionally available for our family”.
There are many things beyond our control, Dr Weisinger concedes, citing his own family history of heart disease as an example of how hereditary factors can play a part. But we need to take charge of the things that are within our control, like nutrition and exercise, because by the time the medical profession gets involved it may be too late. Some people are luckier than others, but that is life. As Dr Weisinger simply puts it: “We all have to play with the cards we are dealt, even if the hand we have isn’t awesome.”