A few weeks ago, friends invited Kathleen and me to dinner. They live out in the country and have a neighbor who has a small farm, grows vegetables, and sells them to lucky people who live nearby. We were served cooked spinach that night that tasted like something new to me. It was deep green, velvety, rich and satisfying in a way that surprised me, especially in comparison to some I had a few nights earlier at one of my favorite restaurants.
I remember beginning to get a new kind of tomato in the grocery store 30 years ago. This was a tomato that was bred to survive long trips in big trucks in any season without going bad. It tasted like cardboard in comparison to the juicy delicious taste of the vine grown and ripened tomatoes of summer. My body instinctively said “not good for you.” Since then, in retrospect, I’ve observed a slow and steady decline in the quality of the food we buy.
Readers of Whole Medicine will know of my belief that the body takes good care of itself. Given good food and the ability to rid itself of toxins (both environmental and the kind we create from misbehaving), the body thrives and we then have the capacity and energy to respond to life’s opportunities.
I see many kinds of illnesses in my practice—mostly the complicated kind that don’t fit neatly into the pigeonholes that our medical training likes to resolve people’s symptoms into. Sometimes real people have real illness that is not psychiatric but defies a diagnosis. These are the patients I mostly see.
Of course I try to understand. Mark Hyman calls it “the practice of why.” My explanations usually fit into this category: “for reasons I don’t fully understand I don’t think you’re properly nourished and I don’t think your body is doing a very good job getting rid of toxins and, oh, by the way—what about this stress you feel?”
I have a friend who spent a month in France last year. He lived on a vineyard and the mistress of the farm called herself “a steward of the soil.” She believed that her life’s work of growing grapes and vegetables for the dinner table was completely dependent on the care she took tending the earth. Jock told me the fresh vegetables they were served for their meals were mouth-watering.
There is increasing evidence I find compelling that many long-term illnesses in this country are a consequence of nutritional insufficiencies. Within the last month or so there have been a number of news reports about the billions of dollars that could be saved each year on health care costs if everyone took a good multi-vitamin, fish oil, and vitamin D. Every time I turn around I see a new story on the benefits of certain vitamins.
Is the loss of good-tasting fresh vegetables related to the rising rates of cancers, obesity, inflammation, heart disease, dementia, and autoimmune diseases? How might this work? Jock told me that the mistress of the vineyard believed that repeated harvests of the soil depleted it of trace minerals, healthy bacteria and other organisms that help to break down and recycle nutrients. She felt that past uses of insecticides and herbicides and possibly other environmental contaminants robbed the soil of its life. She was on a long-term mission of resuscitating the soil—to the benefit of the grapes and radicchio and chickens and ultimately the diners at her table.
Some of my patients are faculty at NC State. These folks work in animal husbandry, soil and crop science. They consistently express surprise to me that human health scientists perpetuate a dismissal of the role of nutrients in disease causation.
Plants are good for us to eat, good to the extent that they are healthy and adequately nourished. Plants have nutrients in them (minerals) and they make nutrients (vitamins) if provided adequate raw materials. They make many nutrients that we can’t make. A possible and plausible explanation for many people’s illness is that vegetables are not as healthy as they used to be and thus we are not. Is this a lack of nutrients, toxin exposure or something else?
As I work with clients and we try and find a way out of chronic illness I can tell you an important secret to this work: eat your vegetables. And since some of the vegetables are sick too, look for the healthiest ones you can find. And, oh by the way, you probably need some vitamins and fish oil since so many of the vegetables are sick.
Dr. Michael Sharp grew up in East Lansing, Michigan and received an undergraduate degree from Amherst College and a medical degree from Harvard Medical School. He spent 24 years on the faculty of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. He has intensely studied Traditional Chinese Medicine, social support, nutrition and metabolism, doctor-patient communication, and spiritual aspects of healing. He was also the Medical Director of Plum Spring Clinic for seven years.