Lissa Rankin, MD, New York Times bestselling author, on Is Medicine Killing You at TEDxFargo – Transcript
Lissa Rankin, MD
Is modern medicine killing you, or saving you? The very idea that we should have to ask that kind of question is, is so upsetting to me as a doctor.
I was called to medicine the way many are called to the priesthood as a sort of spiritual calling. My whole goal is to help you heal, not to harm you. And yet, when you look at the causes of death, preventable medical error is the number three cause of death according to the Center for Disease Control and the Institute of Medicine. And it’s not just medical error. It’s the whole nature of our pill popping medical culture that’s been adopted by patients and doctors alike.
Now, we know according to the Center for Disease Control that 90% of doctor’s visits are the result of stress. And yet, as a doctor, I wasn’t taught to help you deal with your stress. I was programmed to believe that it was my job to medicate you or to operate on you, so that you could go back to the status quo of your stressful life.
And yet, I started to rethink that in the research that I’ve been doing lately. And what I’ve come to realize is that as doctors, it is our job to help you address the fact that stress is one of the biggest killers among us, and that maybe instead of medicating you or operating you solely, maybe we need to help you address the issues that might be predisposing you to illness, or exacerbating your illness, like the toxic relationships from your life, or soul-sucking job that’s draining your life force, or financial worries, or social isolation and loneliness or a pessimistic worldview. All of these things have been scientifically proven to predispose you to illness. And yet, when was the last time your doctor suggested that?
Our health care system is so broken, because we are in the business of symptom relief, not symptom prevention. Dr Andrew Weil says, “We have a disease management system, not a health care system”. And we’re blind to this – we’re sort of turning a blind eye to this, I think, because we think chronic stress is just an inevitable part of life. It’s just how we have to live. And as doctors and patients, we are turning a blind eye to this, because it’s too hard to face. We don’t want to realize what it would take in order to alleviate our stress, to predispose us to longer healthier lives.
So we’ve made this collective agreement that I won’t talk about it, you won’t talk about it. You know stress is bad for your health. As a doctor, I know how many of my patients are showing up in my office because of the stress in their lives. And yet, we’ve sort of agreed not to talk about it.
But I’m here to illuminate that for us, because the idea that medicine could be killing us is just anathema to me; I can’t live with that. Because I have a dream of a healing health care system, one in which we bring the best of modern medicine, everything that we’ve learned about pharmaceuticals and surgical interventions and such and we marry it with what it means to be a true healer, what I was called to do as a doctor. Where not only am I putting a Band-Aid on the symptoms that are the result of your stress but I’m also putting a soul back in you.
This soul medicine I think is so much of what we’ve lost in modern medicine today. I dream of being able to replace that, of reclaiming the heart of medicine and of reminding you what it means to be a whole healthy human being. This is essential because our current health care system just isn’t working. We all know it, doctors and patients alike, yet it’s broken people. This is breaking my heart. Because when you look at the data, we spend more on health care than any other country in the world, and yet, 32 countries have longer life expectancies than we do.
Patient dissatisfaction is rising. 90% of hospital patients didn’t even know the name of their doctor at the time of discharge. It’s not just doctors. It’s not just patients that are dissatisfied. Doctors are just as dissatisfied. Nine out of 10 doctors would not recommend becoming a doctor. And 70% of Americans take at least one prescription drug; 20% take five or more.
So I want to show you something here. These pill bottles have a month’s worth of medication in them, and I’m going to show you there’s approximately 500 of you here. I’m going to show you how much medication it takes to medicate all of you for just one day based on these statistics.
Now we’ve been trained in our system to think about medicine the way a doctor would think about a football player in football games. You know, the football player gets injured. So we bring the injured football player out of the game and we fix the ankle. And we set the bone or we inject the joint and we do everything we can to send the football player back out into the game. But what a lot of people aren’t talking about is perhaps the best thing for the football player is to get the football player out of the game, right?
And yet, it’s not just the doctors’ fault. What do we do when a star football player says, “Doc, just do anything. Do anything you can to get me back in the game. So we can win the Super Bowl”. That’s what many of you as patients are doing. You are asking us, as doctors, to fill you with pill so that you can go back to the game of your stressful life. And I am here because it’s breaking my heart that we’re having to do that, and I want to change the game. I want to suggest that maybe there’s a different way of doing this.
So I wrote a book called Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You can Heal Yourself. And it’s all about the scientific data that proves how stress affects our bodies. And this was really revolutionary to me as a doctor. I didn’t know — I didn’t know anything about this four or five years ago. And it was shocking to me to study the data. Because what I came to realize is that stress is not what we think stress is. You know, I think in this culture we have this concept that stress is like a badge of honor. I’m stressed, therefore, I’m busy and worthy and important. But to the body, stress is very different.
Stress is anything that triggers the amygdala in your brain to turn on what Walter Cannon at Harvard called the stress response, also known as the fight or flight response. So anything that turns on your fight or flight response puts you into the sympathetic nervous system and fills your body with cortisol and epinephrine and other very poisonous stress hormones. Now, this is good if you’re getting chased by a tiger, or if you’re about to be in a car accident because it helps to protect your life.
But your amygdala doesn’t know the difference between getting chased by a tiger and negative thoughts, beliefs and feelings that originate in your mind, that turn on those stress responses.
Now what I didn’t realize and this was my big aha is that the nervous system has two operating systems. There’s the fight or flight stress response — sympathetic nervous system. And there is the parasympathetic nervous system or what Herbert Benson at Harvard called the relaxation response. And this was my big epiphany.
Your body is beautifully equipped with natural self-repair mechanism. Your body knows how to fight cancer, how to prevent heart disease, how to fight off infection, does this every day. But those natural self-repair mechanisms are deactivated every time your body is in stress response.
Now, what is stress? Stress, as I said, is getting chased by a tiger. But stress is also social isolation and loneliness. Stress is selling yourself for a paycheck. Stress is a pessimistic worldview. Stress is fearful, anxious, worried thoughts. Stress is toxic relationships. Stress is money worries. Stress is knowing that you have a song within you that you have yet to sing. Stress is feeling out of touch with your life’s purpose. Stress is negative beliefs about your health. Stress is overwhelm. Stress is feeling like nobody really gets the real you. Stress is pretending to be something that you’re not. Stress is feeling disconnected from source.
On average, we have more than 50 stress responses per day in modern culture. And every time the body is in stress response, your body’s natural self-repair mechanisms are disabled. And what kills me about this is that as doctors, by not acknowledging that, by not helping you recognize that, by not identifying with you what might be activating those stress responses in your body, we might be doing the unthinkable. We might actually be killing you. We might be reducing your life expectancy, the quality of your life and your whole life span and that is not OK.
What we need to reclaim is we need to reclaim the soul medicine. That medicine we used to have. You know, several hundred years ago, we were much better at the soul medicine part of this. We think that chronic stress is an inevitable part of our lives. But we can learn from what scientists call Blue Zones around the world — these parts of the world where people have a greater than average percentage of people who live to be over 100. These people know what soul medicine is.
So what is the medicine that we really need? Medicine is being loved just as you are. Medicine is helping those in need. Medicine is expressing your creative genius. Medicine is always seeing the glass half-full. Medicine is the unconditional love of animal. Medicine is laughing out loud. Medicine is speaking your truth. Medicine is knowing that you belong. Medicine is communing with nature. Medicine is nourishing the body with real food. Medicine is tapping in the source. Medicine is being unapologetically you.
I’m not suggesting that you won’t need other medicine. Thank God for modern medicine. Thank God for modern medicine. Over the past century, we extended our life expectancies by 30 years. 30 years, that’s remarkable. Because of the advent of things like antibiotics and vaccinations, and remarkable advances in pharmaceuticals and surgical interventions. Thank God for modern medicine.
My husband cut two fingers off his left hand with a table saw. Yes. So thank God for Dr Jones who spent eight hours in surgery with a microscope, putting those fingers back on, so that my husband has 10 fingers today. And my friend — my 42 year-old friend just had a stroke. Thank God for TPA, the clot buster so that several days later he was discharged from the hospital with almost no residual deficit.
I’m not suggesting that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. But what I am suggesting is that those remarkable advances that we’ve made in modern medicine, we’ve taken the biochemical approach to medicine too far. And we’ve forgotten what it means to be truly healers. And this breaks my heart.
Now I know that — what I’m saying here that, that you need to look at the stress in your life, and that you need to get the medicine that you really need. I know that this isn’t what many of you want to hear. And honestly, I was having a meltdown on the plane yesterday coming out here. Because I was thinking, I don’t want people to misunderstand me, and this is — you know, don’t kill the messenger. It’s not easy to look at these parts of your life.
I was thinking about this woman, Katie Smith who I met on my book tour. And she’s a young mother with brain cancer. And she just had surgery yesterday, and. I was thinking about this talk and I’m thinking, I don’t ever want Katie to think that I’m blaming her for her brain cancer. I’m not. I’m praying for Katie. And I think about my doctor, Kim, who is one of the best doctors that I know and I know it hurts her when I criticize medicine. If I even suggest that medicine might be killing us, this breaks her heart. She has a planet sized heart, her intentions are so pure.
And I think about Susan Mathison who’s one of the organizers here. Susan is one of the doctors in a program that I’m leading called the Whole Health Medicine Institute where we’re teaching doctors to practice this kind of medicine. These are some of the most amazing doctors on the planet. I’m not trying to throw them under the bus. What I’m saying is that, you know, I was thinking about this and I thought this is my tough-love TEDx talk.
I’m saying this because I love my profession so much that it breaks my heart what has become of us. And I love each of you so much that I can’t bear to see you squander even one more day of this beautiful life that you have the opportunity to live. And I don’t want to see you accepting chronic stress as a natural part of our lives. We don’t have to live this way because life can be so beautiful.
I mean, imagine this. Every morning you wake up and you’re so excited about all the possibilities that lie ahead, because anything could happen. And you’re surrounded by people who love and know the real you, not the mask that you put on to try to fit in but the real you underneath. And you’re living your purpose, finding and fulfilling your calling. You’re expressing the divine spark within you. And because you are, the bills are paid because the universe takes care of those who are living in alignment with their divine nature. You laugh often. You love often. You get laid often. Yes, these things are good for your health. All of these things, you guys like that, I should talk about sex more. All of those things have been scientifically proven to reduce stress responses in the body and activate relaxation responses and help your body’s natural self-repair mechanisms heal you. And that’s what I want for you.
Now, I know this is hard because I’m not just a doctor, I’m a patient. By the time I was 33 years old, I was taking seven medications in order to stay in the game in my life. And I had such a stressful life. But I was told that those seven medications were going to be something that I was going to have to take for the rest of my life. And I was the doctor. And my doctor professors were telling me this, so I believed them.
I didn’t realize that what I had to do — the medicine I really needed was to get out of the game of my life. And when I realized what I was going to have to do I was terrified. Because it meant I had to leave my abusive marriage. And it meant I had to quit my job in medicine. And I spent 12 years training to do this work. And it meant I had to take my entire life savings and invest it in following a dream so that I could be here talking to you about things like this today. And I’m now down to half the dose of one of my medications. And this is possible for you. I would love to be able to tell you how you can have this for yourself. But unfortunately you’re going to have to write the prescription for yourself.
But what I can offer is one question that I’ve asked many patients that has helped many people healed. And it’s this: What does your body need in order to heal? Now I know that the answer that may come up can be very frightening and change is so scary and uncertainty can be paralyzing. But what I’ve discovered on my own personal journey is that the flip side of uncertainty is the possibility of anything being able to happen.
So I’ve discovered that if you want big miracles, you have to take big risks. And if you’re looking for smaller risks, you have to be willing to accept smaller miracle. And it’s OK if you’re not ready to take those risks. But I encourage you to do whatever you need to do in order to give your body the medicine that it really needs.
So I ask this of you. We are in this together, I have a dream of healing health care. And it’s going to take a grassroots effort. You and me together. And I’m going to have to do this with all of you — empowered patients and conscious health care providers uniting together to reclaim what is rightfully ours.
And I want to close with a question that Mary Oliver poses: Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life. Let yourself, give yourself the medicine that you really need.