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  • John B. Symes, D.V.M.

    We Have Met the Enemy...and He is Us

    John B. Symes, D.V.M.
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    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

      Journal of Gluten Sensitivity Summer 2008 Issue. NOTE: This article is from a back issue of our popular subscription-only paper newsletter. Some content may be outdated.

    Image: CC BY 2.0--jurvetson
    Caption: Image: CC BY 2.0--jurvetson

    Celiac.com 09/25/2020 - New research into the origin of our medical woes has revealed something startling: As it turns out, we are our own worst enemy.  

    Yes, the Pogo quote of yesteryear found in the title of this article is quite accurate when applied to our medical lives.  We love to discuss those things that we call “causes” of diseases even though we often have little knowledge of how these things really cause illness.  Even medical professionals can have difficulty grasping the true cause-and-effect.  But that becomes understandable once some insight is gained into the true nature of medical training.

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    One would think that we are exposed to the gamut of current medical knowledge in medical school.  But in fact, we gain limited knowledge as to the true workings of pathogens, parasites, and chemical insults.  Sure, we are often taught which virus or bacteria causes a certain disease state and are then shown the established/accepted mode of therapy.  But most of us never gain an appreciation for the circumstances that led to that illness or why one individual has the condition while the next person remains healthy.  

    We are also not told why many of these “pathogens” are ubiquitous in the environment and yet only cause clinical syndromes in a relatively small percentage of individuals.  We refer to “immunity” but don’t delve into the fine points of why one pet or person lives to a ripe old age while the next one develops cancer or some other catastrophic illness at a much earlier age.  We usually point to the old standby of “genetics” for the explanation.  

    As many of you know, I love to discuss “genetics”.  Now, I do not claim to be an authority on the subject, but I do love kicking it around.  I like to ponder the logic behind scientists’ referring to certain diseases as “genetic” without offering a good explanation for why these “genes” wait so long to manifest.  

    Do genes wait?  Do the genes that code for our brain, liver and kidneys to form properly wait for 6 months or 6-60 years to do what they do?  I get a kick out of reading how genes “mutate”, as well.  Certainly, we do get true genetic mutations at times (e.g.  one arm, one kidney, two heads) but thankfully these are relatively rare when compared to the number of “genetic mutations” that have been reported to cause disease.

    Here’s a door-opening key: Researchers now estimate that up to 45% of the genetic information in our DNA is viral information, some active and some extinct.  Have you grasped the importance of this yet in relationship to the preamble above?  Think about it for a moment before proceeding.  Got it?  Can you now see that our DNA not only contains the information that makes you who you are phenotypically (outward, observable appearance) but also has information encoded in it that can govern the outcome of your medical life.  Yes, your double-stranded DNA is a little virus hotel and the guests can get a bit rowdy.  I love to tell people that if I could do a Star Trek type of scan on then and give them a print out of all of the viruses in their body, both “genetic” and acquired, then they just might take better care of themselves.

    But here is the good news...the really cool news...the new “medical gospel”.  We have much better control over our medical lives than most think or have been told.  In fact, it is phenomenal how much control we have over whether we live a long, healthy life or a brief, afflicted one.  How can that be, especially if these “culprits” are in our very DNA?

    Ahhhh! There is the amazing thing to see.  They are not culprits.  Viruses are residing in our body for a purpose and a good purpose at that.  Viruses are responsible for two critically important functions in nature: Variation and adaptation.  Yes, it is the virus that is behind much of what is termed “evolution”.  Many viruses can change in response to alterations in their environment, sort of like a chameleon or a flounder.  (How do they do that, anyway???) 

    How did we end up with soooo many variations of butterflies?  As many of you know, I am a creationist and wholeheartedly believe in God.  But I also see how He could have used viruses to facilitate the wide array of appearances among the different species of insects, animals and plants.  There are numerous species of butterflies.  However, they are all butterflies.  In order to prove his theory of evolution, Darwin himself said that finding numerous inter-species would be required.  Have we found them?  Would he now believe in his original theory?

    But the focus of this medical discussion should be on the adaptability of the virus.  Yes, they are quite adept at this maneuver.  And that is to our benefit more than it is to our detriment.  Viruses exist throughout nature and our individual bodies in order to facilitate our adaptation to this ever-changing environment.  If we could snap our fingers and take all of the viruses out of nature, the entire ecosystem would collapse, including this amazing thing we call a body.  They are busily working away to help us cope with daily challenges such as air pollution, malnutrition, hormonal variations, and other microorganisms.  They sense the change in their surroundings and react- and appropriately, I might add.

    “But what about the ‘diseases’ they cause?” you might be asking.  Well let’s use my favorite example called cancer—nearly everyone’s biggest fear.  We have demonized the virus in those forms of cancer that have been publicized as being “caused” by the virus.  (I believe that most of you will hear in your lifetime that all cancer is viral.) In reality, the virus would not have caused the cancer without being goaded into it by what we call carcinogens.  And, the cancer would not have developed had the immune system not failed in its duty.  So, we suddenly see that cancer, like so many other conditions, is a “syndrome”, with multiple factors coming together to produce the result.  

    Now, let’s dissect that premise for a moment.  Viruses are in situ, doing what they do, adapting to changes and insults that are thrown our way.  Along comes a “carcinogen” and the virus forms a tumor.  Now whose fault was that?  I mean, can we blame the virus for making a cocoon for itself and the cell it was charged to protect?  (Do you see how I tried to just quickly slip that past you?) But seriously, I now look at tumors as the ultimate adaptation of the virus that we know “causes” the cancer.  Once the insults are bad enough, the viruses goes into survival mode, telling the cell to replicate itself in order to survive the caustic insult we call a carcinogen.  Is that too far-fetched?  

    Again, this process does not occur until one more thing of vital importance takes place, which is the failure of the immune system to do its job.  Yes, as some love to point out at cocktail parties, we are all fighting cancer as we speak...hopefully.  As long as we possess a competent immune system, we are successful in our battle to keep cells that are being challenged with carcinogens (that we face every single day) from turning into cancer.  However, once our immunity wanes, we are subject to these ongoing processes.  Thankfully, there is an intermediate stage called “immune-mediated disease” where the immune system does housecleaning to rid our bodies of these revolutionaries that are gaining an upper hand in the face of our deteriorating governor.  

    A number of wise doctors have said that cancer is the end game of immune mediated diseases, meaning that cancer often follows long bouts with “autoimmune*” conditions (*a term I no longer use).  And they are right IF we survive the immune mediated attack.  But how do we treat “autoimmune diseases”?  Yes, we use immune suppressing drugs.  Oh,oh! The term “pretzel logic” comes to mind.  This is in the same vein as using carcinogens to treat cancer.  Kinda sorta doesn’t make good sense.  So whose fault is it when we fail with our current mode of therapy in the treatment of autoimmune diseases and cancer?  “Darn those viruses and carcinogens.”

    So why is there so much variation in the age of onset and severity of cancer?  I think we should all be gaining some insight into this conundrum by now.  Cancer, like so many diseases, is a spectrum disorder, meaning that we have individuals ranging from the “best of the best” to the “worst of the worst”.  The best live to be over 100 years old and experience a relatively disease-free life.  The worst don’t survive the time in the womb.  We see brain tumors and leukemia in the very young and in the aged.  We also see age spikes in the cancer rates that are quite logical, accompanying concurrent stresses such as adolescence and “the wall” at age 40, while observing a meteoric rise after age 65.  

    I used to call cancer viruses “opportunists”, applying to them the connotation of being malicious or even “evil”.  But now I see that categorization was inaccurate and downright unfair.  They are not waiting around to cause cancer or other diseases; they are FORCED into it by us.

    We are the ones supplying the carcinogens.  We are the ones eating diets that are filled with potentially damaging proteins (gluten, casein , soy, and corn), chemicals, trans fats, and food additives.  We are the ones who are trouncing our immune systems through poor diets, lack of exercise, improper sleep, and crazy lifestyles.  We are our own worst enemy! 

    We are quite accomplished at the blame game when it comes to shirking our own responsibilities in this process.  But, in all fairness, it is not completely the patient’s fault.  Look at the current medical and pharmacological approach to the symptoms we experience.  “Got a fever?  Not anymore.  We have a pill for that.  (Forget that fever is essential in the proper immune response.)”  “Got heartburn, IBS, headaches, fibromyalgia, insomnia, or depression?  Not anymore.  We have lots of pills for those.  (And you no longer have to worry about what causes them because “these medications can be taken for life”.) So, whose fault is it when those symptoms go away and the next and more severe set arise?  I tell people, “If you don’t like these warning signs, you’re really not going to like the next set.  And if you don’t like those, you’re really not going to like what they are warning you of.”

    What’s the bottom line?  We need to wake up!  We need to realize that our bodies are an amazing entity with the ability to withstand serious insult- repeated, ongoing insults.  But, there is a limit to what it can take.  Thankfully, that limit is quite gracious.  But there will come a time when our bodies and those incredible little viruses in them say enough is enough.  The phenomenal thing to see is that we have the vast majority of the say in when that occurs.  We simply have to stop doing the harm that we are doing to these downright miraculous vessels that we have been given.  It is that simple.  It is not necessarily easy, but it is that simple.

    Are we our own worst enemy?  We don’t have to be.  Now that’s great news!

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  • About Me

    John B. Symes, AKA “DogtorJ”, DVM is a veterinarian who has been practicing veterinary medicine for over twenty-five years.  He graduated with honors from Auburn University in 1979 and followed that with an internship at the prestigious Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston.  You can read Dogtor J.'s blog.

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