The huge industrial sector that presently supports the medical establishment, namely the pharmaceutical and vaccine industries, obviously doesn’t like us making healthy, natural choices that prevent us from getting disease, even at a ripe old age. If we all did that, the present business model would collapse.
You might think there’s nothing much more natural than a mother breastfeeding her child. Baby’s passage down the birth canal, for those not being born via c-section, provides inoculation of a range of bacteria that primes the baby’s immune system and provides the basis of the gut flora (microbiome) that will provide invaluable services for a lifetime. When baby is then detached from the umbilical cord, and is exposed to the outside world, nutrition from the child’s mother’s milk provides an incredibly sophisticated system of nutrition that is customised to the needs of the individual. Not only that, the quantity and quality of nutrition and associated immune factors provided by breast milk is varied according to the time of day and the nutritional needs at given periods of development. None of this means that those who choose, or are forced, to bottle feed should be stigmatised. It’s just the way nature made it – over the millennia of evolution.
But – guess what? A paper[i] published in April 2016 in one of the world’s leading scientific journals targeting paediatricians, Pediatrics, is calling on health professionals and public health organisations to stop praising breastfeeding as the ‘natural’ way to feed infants. The reason? Well, the authors elaborate two main reasons. Firstly, the authors suggest that the term ‘natural’ might imply that breastfeeding is better than bottle feeding infant formulas. Secondly, the association of breastfeeding with ‘natural’ may conflict with other public health objectives. Which public health objectives, you may ask? The authors aren’t shy here. They tell it straight: childhood vaccination is top of their list of concerns.
The authors go on and discuss the slippery slope. Their concern is that if ‘natural’ is promoted as good in relation to breastfeeding, breastfeeding mothers may not only want to breastfeed exclusively for six months, they may want to help their children develop their immunity naturally without vaccinations. They may also want to prefer organic foods and reject GMOs or — horror of horrors — choose natural birthing or home schooling.
Drs Martucci and Barnhill proudly claim to have “started a public campaign to end the positive use of the word natural, claiming that it is associated with such “problematic” practices as home birth, homeschooling and the rejection of GMO foods, and that natural parenting movements are interfering with vaccination efforts.”
In a separate blog piece intended for a lay audience, published in Philadelphia’s Inquirer[ii]around a month before the Pediatricsarticle came out, ironically, on April Fool’s Day, the scientists state that, “A search for ‘natural living’ turns up a variety of sites devoted to natural parenting. Parenting blogs and natural news sites often discuss practices and ideas ranging from home-birth and consuming the placenta after birth to home schooling, breastfeeding, and homeopathy.” But central focus for Martucci and Barnhill’s concerns once again returns to the thorny subject of childhood vaccination.
If we accept that it’s okay to associate the term ‘natural’ with healthy things like breastfeeding, the scientists are deeply concerned this will encourage other ‘natural’ behaviours that they have decided they don’t like, namely “complementary and alternative medicine, skepticism of institutional authority, and a strong commitment and interest in health knowledge, autonomy and healthy living practices.”
This is a somewhat astonishing position to hold. It is at least for someone like myself who values fundamental rights and freedoms, believing these are intrinsic to what we like to think of as democratic societies. The scientists have not cited cigarette smoking as problematic, despite the tobacco plant being natural and its being accepted by scientific consensus as one of the single biggest preventable causes of death known.
What about autonomy and healthy living practices? Drs Martucci and Barnhill and have lumped these in their ‘bad’ category. Their assumption is that high rates of childhood vaccination are always good, regardless that we’re tending to vaccinate children ever younger, with new vaccines, the full effects of which won’t be known for years to come. The HPV vaccine is a good example. The science that weighs the risks and benefits of vaccination is nothing like as straightforward as it is for cigarette smoking. Even here, the causal relationship took over three decades of intensive research to establish conclusively. That’s why there’s no longer a smoking debate, and why there is an ongoing vaccination debate, despite some very heavy pressure from governments and health authorities to silence those who choose to rely on natural immunity.
For me, what is so deeply concerning about Drs Martucci and Barnhill’s proposition is that autonomy in health choices, assuming it is based on solid scientific foundations, and “healthy living practices” are central to any sensible public health policy for the future. We actually need people to do more to manage their own health, and to elect for healthy life choices. That’s because our healthcare systems, as they presently stand, simply cannot handle the likely burden of chronic diseases along with an increasingly top-heavy age distribution. The system is close to breaking point as it is. Eating right, exercising, managing stress, sleeping well — are all healthy living practices. The more we understand about these aspects of diet and lifestyle, the more we realise they affect the outcome of an individual’s future health more profoundly than any other known factor. This doesn’t just benefit the healthcare system and society as a whole, it also affects our quality of life. If you make careful, often natural, health choices, it seems you’re more than likely destined for a longer, healthier life than choosing what might be described as unhealthy living.
The huge industrial sector that presently supports the medical establishment, namely the pharmaceutical and vaccine industries, obviously doesn’t like us making healthy, natural choices that prevent us from getting disease, even at a ripe old age. If we all did that, the present business model would collapse. There are definitely forces at work that have an interest in preventing us from keeping healthy by ourselves, but, let’s face it, it’s the most natural thing in the world and I, personally, feel that we need to tell it how it is. ‘Natural’ is about doing things in ways that preceded, over eons, the industrial revolution. It’s about working with the systems with which we were endowed prior to the development of new-to-nature chemical technologies that exploded during the second half of the 20th century.
Going natural doesn’t mean stepping back in time. Quite the reverse, it means moving forward. The emerging science of ‘epigenetics’ provides the perfect scientific backdrop. This field upholds that our health at any given point of time is really a function of our genetic expression which is, in turn, dependent on interactions between our genes and our environment. This sophisticated relationship between our genes and our environment, in which our food represents the most intimate interaction with our environment known, has changed little over the last 20,000 years. That’s why adverse reactions to new-to-nature pharmaceuticals are somewhat more of a problem in society than our reaction to natural foods.[iii],[iv]
My hope is that we don’t get forced, for the sake of a particular view about what should represent public health policy, to remove words that are meaningful to us about how we manage our bodies. I don’t see a movement that is pushing healthcare systems to stop using the term ‘healthcare’ when actually ‘disease management’ or ‘pharmaceutical management of disease’ might better describe the predominant activity of our mainstream healthcare systems.More than this, ‘natural’, while meaning different things to different people, is still something the vast majority of people can relate to. It has meaning to them, to us.
Above all, science is beginning to show us that living naturally, in the manner of the traditional lifestyles found in the five‘Blue Zones’[v]of Okinawa (Japan), Ikaria (Greece), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica) and Loma Linda (California), help us to live more healthily and longer than those living less natural lives.
You can rest assured that the people of these cultures don’t have their elders telling them that breastfeeding shouldn’t be promoted as ‘natural’!
Robert Verkerk PhD is the founder, executive and scientific director of the non-profit, Alliance for Natural Health International (www.anhinternational.org). Through his work over the last 30 years in academia, commerce and the non-profit sector, he has been an outspoken advocate of working with, rather than against, nature. His work has spanned the fields of agriculture, healthcare, energy and the environment.
[i]Martucci J, Barnhill A. Unintended Consequences of Invoking the “Natural” in Breastfeeding Promotion. Pediatrics. 2016 Mar 4. pii: peds.2015-4154. [Epub ahead of print].
[ii]Jessica Martucci and Anne Barnhill, “Does it hurt to call breastfeeding “natural”?” March 4, 2016, The Inquirer newspaper, Philadelphia, USA:
[iii]Verkerk, R. “Natural health products ultra-safe and drugs as dangerous as war”, 11 July 2012: http://anhinternational.org/2012/07/11/anh-exclusive-natural-health-products-ultra-safe-and-drugs-as-dangerous-as-war/
[iv]Verkerk, R. “Official EU data indicate lightning more likely to kill than herbs or vitamins”, 15 August 2012: http://anhinternational.org/2012/08/15/anh-exclusive-lightning-more-dangerous-than-herbs-or-vitamins/
[v]Blue Zones Project website
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