The Symptom Lie
Claire - Wednesday, January 30, 2013
One of the ways we measure health is to assess physical symptoms. Things like fevers, vomiting, diarrhoea, coughs and runny noses are all associated with sickness, but is that really the best way to determine how healthy we are?
Is there a time when we can have no symptoms, but be very unhealthy?
A study from Duke University Medical Centre in 2009 ascertained that between 40-60 % of all heart attacks are completely "silent" meaning there is no pain or any other symptom until the person collapses.
Another example would be cancer, it is rarely the case that cancer is picked up early because of symptoms. The onset of symptoms for cancer often don't begin for weeks, months even years since the first abnormal cell was produced.
Both heart disease and cancer are our biggest killers in the developed world, yet both can have little or no noticeable symptoms.
On the flip side:
Can you have loads of symptoms, but actually be really healthy?
Imaging you come home from work late one evening, it has been a long day with no breaks and you are ravenously hungry. In the fridge is some leftover tuna mornay from a few nights ago. You give it a quick zap in the microwave so it is no longer fridge temperature, but you are too hungry to wait for it to heat up much more than that. Along with the tuna, pasta and white sauce you inadvertently consume a couple of billion pathogenic bacteria.
An hour later your stomach starts to rumble, another 30 mins after that you are having a close encounter of the porcelain kind. You start to sweat and eventually you aren't sure which end you should point at the toilet.
Your symptoms list is growing; nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, headache...
But this is a healthy response, your body is working desperately hard to rid itself of that which could kill you if it became septicaemia or was able to attack organs such as your liver. Anyway it can, your body will flush out the pathogen and create a hostile environment for it to multiple (fever). Without these responses, you would be facing a dire health crisis that could quite easily end in death.
So if we are not measuring health by symptoms, how can we ascertain how healthy we are?
The main way to gauge health is to look at all the ways you cope with daily life:
Do you sleep well?
Do you wake up energised and happy?
Do you find you have plenty of energy to achieve all you want in your day?
Do you rarely get sick and if you do, do you bounce back to full health in a day or so?
Do you have a good relationship with food? (No cravings etc.)
Does your body feel good? (No chronic pain)
Do you recover easily from exercise?
Are you able to cope and recover from things that are emotionally challenging?
Do you have good posture?
These are all really good indicators of great health and answering yes to these questions is much more helpful than trying to gauge your health from a lack of obvious symptoms.