A Systems Approach to Wellness

Our bodies have a tremendous ability to heal, if just given a chance.

In conventional medicine, the primary function of the physician is diagnosis, i.e., identifying which disease a person is suffering from. This disease-diagnosis orientation leads to the disease-treatment, symptom-relief system that dominates health care in our country. As discussed in Chapter Two of Total Wellness, this system is failing. We need a different kind of health care thinking and a different kind of physician. If we want to be healthy, it’s up to us. We must become more aware of our bodies, learn how they function, understand what makes us healthy or sick – in short, become our own best physician.

Being Our Own Best Physician

Daunted by the prospect of self-diagnosis? Indeed, it is an almost impossible task to determine which one of several thousands of different diseases you may be suffering from. Physicians with thousands of hours of sophisticated medical training and years of practice frequently make inaccurate diagnoses where specific diseases are concerned. However, I believe the name of the disease is not what we need to know to get well. The necessary diagnosis is actually much simpler. In fact, our cultural obsession with complex diseases not only blinds us to the real causes of illness but disempowers us and gives over control of our health to doctors in a system that often relieves only symptoms. It’s as if we spent all our time and resources hiring highly skilled specialists to repair a crack in the ceiling with spackle and paint when the root of the problem is a structural weakness in the building’s foundation.

Consider the following:

  1. We are often quite capable of treating ourselves without resorting to physicians. In 70 to 90% of all episodes of disease, we recover without seeing a physician.1

  2. Our bodies have a tremendous ability to self-heal. When we go to see a physician, we, of course, expect to receive an effective therapy. The current “gold standard” for determining the efficacy of a therapy is the double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study, where neither the patient nor the physician knows if the patient is receiving the drug or the placebo. However, research demonstrates that 35 to 70% of the time, the patient gets better on the placebo! While a somewhat larger percentage get better on the drug, they also suffer the consequences of its side effects and expense. Even more interesting is the observation that the placebo patients in double-blind studies who comply with their therapy, that is, religiously take the placebo as directed, exhibit far more favorable results than those who do not comply with the therapy. Clearly, our beliefs profoundly affect the healing process.

  3. Focusing on the pathology obscures recognition of our inherent healing power and disassociates us from understanding our body’s signals. For example, in one study of the efficacy of a particular drug as compared to placebo in the treatment of endoscopy-documented stomach ulcers, 27% (12 of 45) of those whose ulcer had healed continued to have symptoms, while 55% of those whose ulcer had not healed became asymptomatic, no matter what treatment they had received.2 In other words, the therapy focused only on the pathology, which, while recognizable, was not the only or even the primary factor causing the patients’ symptoms.
    Disease orientation is focused on end-stage pathology, whereas much of symptomatology, i.e., what we actually experience, is actually due to either the body’s efforts to heal or messages that the healing process needs assistance. The challenge then is not to diagnose which particular end-stage pathology has developed, but rather to recognize the impediments to healing. I believe the very best physicians are those who understand the body’s healing processes, recognize what the body needs to facilitate the healing processes, and encourage in each patient the belief in his or her ability to heal. I also believe each of us is capable of developing this understanding of our own body, and that ultimately, each of us can be his or her own best physician – if taught how.

After many years of extensive medical practice, I have come to believe that relatively few causes or imbalances underlie most diseases. However, recognizing these imbalances takes careful study because most people suffer from several such causes or syndromes. In addition, most diseases are caused by a combination of syndromes; sometimes the same disease can be caused by different syndromes. The actual symptoms or disease a person manifests is determined by his or her imbalances/ susceptibilities, the lifestyle he or she chooses, and the environmental challenges he or she experiences.

While this may appear complex at first, the symptoms we experience give us important, understandable messages about our susceptibilities. A step-by-step approach, starting with the most severe symptoms, allows us to recognize and focus on the susceptibilities or imbalances causing us the most trouble. Reestablishing balance in one area or syndrome may then more clearly reveal another, which can then be resolved, allowing us to progressively improve our health.

The Manifestation of Disease

The actual disease a person manifests is determined by the balance between his or her genetic susceptibility, lifestyle, nutritional status, toxic influences, and any previous damage or abnormality. For example, at the beginning of winter, many people develop upper respiratory tract infections. Why then, why there, and why do some escape? As can be seen in Figure 3-1, a respiratory infection develops only after four factors are in place: (1) heating buildings in the winter produces dry air that irritates the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract; (2) deficiencies of vitamins A and C (crucial for production of the mucous, which protects the membranes from irritants) allows the dry air to damage the respiratory tract; (3) consumption of excess sugar suppresses the white cells’ ability to fight bacteria; (4) leaving the system vulnerable to pathogenic bacteria.

Figure 3-1 The Manifestation of Disease

The signs and symptoms of the above syndromes are fairly easy to understand, and most of the causes can be recognized and taken care of. The process is often complicated by the unfortunate fact that most of us suffer from more than one imbalance, and some of the signs and symptoms overlap. Clearing one underlying syndrome may therefore reveal another, which must then be resolved.

It is relatively easy to utilize drugs (and sometimes herbs and nutrients) to clear up the symptoms of disease, but as long as the underlying imbalances or impairments to healing continue, ill health will simply resurface again and again as either the same disease or as another disease that shares the same underlying syndrome(s). A far more effective approach, and the only one that will control health care costs and lead to improved health, is to recognize and control the underlying syndromes. Rather than focus on the disease, we need instead to focus on the individual and what is needed to improve his or her health, through dietary and lifestyle changes and the use of supplemental health-supporting nutrients and herbs that take into account our own unique biochemistry.

Many diseases have multiple causes. This highlights another reason why our current disease orientation is ineffective; it leads to the belief that each disease is an isolated problem rather than the end result of multiple insults to the body.

Finally, for a disease to actually manifest, there needs to be not only susceptibility but also a trigger. For example, in the case of an infection, the trigger (a bacteria or virus) is easy to recognize. But while removal of the trigger (e.g., with antibiotics) is easy (and the basis of our current disease-treatment system), resolving the susceptibility, i.e., improving the weakened immune system, is far more important and virtually always ignored.

The Routes to Total Wellness

Seven underlying, health-sustaining systems of our body must function effectively to ensure our well-being, prevent disease, and allow a full life: the immune system, the detoxification system, the inflammatory system, the metabolic system, the regulatory system, the regeneration system, and our life-force (or spirit). Weakness in any of these seven systems results in susceptibilities that allow most common diseases to develop. Follow the recommendations below, strengthen all of these seven systems, and total wellness is yours.

Strengthen the Immune System

Pathogenic bacteria are always on our skins and in our throats and intestines. We are exposed to new pathogens every time we contact others, eat, or breathe, and every day, our bodies produce about 300 cancer cells (more if we are exposed to carcinogens). The healthy immune system quickly and effectively recognizes and destroys invaders (viruses, bacteria, fungi) and abnormal cells (cancer). When the immune system is not working well, however, the result is frequent or chronic infections, chronic fatigue, and, eventually, cancer. Optimal immune function can be attained by recognizing and eliminating those factors that damage the immune system and by strengthening it with specific nutrients and herbs. If an infection does become established, many natural therapies are available to help fight the infection. Chapter Four discusses the immune system in detail.

Decrease Toxicity

Not only are we exposed to a large amount and wide variety of pollutants in our environment (especially in cities), but our regular metabolic processes produce toxic metabolites as well. Normally, the liver and other detoxification processes efficiently neutralize and remove these poisons before they can cause damage. However, excessive exposure, incomplete metabolism, and a dysfunctional detoxification system result in toxicity. When toxic, our bodies build up inappropriate or excessive levels of chemical poisons or incompletely processed metabolites, microbial toxins, heavy metals, and other adverse influences (e.g., electromagnetic radiation, radon, and so on) in cells, tissues, and fluids. The build-up of such toxins manifests as toxic headaches, chemical sensitivity, chronic fatigue syndrome, and acne, and contributes to most chronic diseases. Lifestyle changes, special detoxification diets, hydrotherapy, and other detoxification procedures combined with herbs that strengthen the liver will progressively eliminate the toxic burden. In addition, some nutrients directly neutralize toxins before they can cause harm. Chapter Five explores toxicity in depth.

Normalize Inflammatory Function

Inflammation is a crucial part of the process by which the body removes damaged cells and tissues and begins the repair process. In addition, inflammation is used by the immune system to attack pathogens and cancer cells. For most Americans this system is out of balance with a tendency to an excessive inflammatory reaction to damage whether that damage is physical, immunological, or chemical. This can be due to overly sensitive inflammatory mechanisms, inadequate inflammatory controls, or excessive inflammatory stimulation. Problems with the inflammatory response commonly manifest as allergies and chronic inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and eczema. Dietary changes and key nutrients will normalize the inflammatory response. In addition, once an inflammatory process is well-established, several herbs can be used to quell the inflammation and help the body restore normal balance (see Chapter Six).

Optimize Metabolic Function

All the metabolic processes of the body are run by enzyme systems that are determined by our genes. Enzymes require micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to function. Maldigestion, malnutrition, and weak enzymes all contribute to the other imbalances and directly cause many chronic diseases. Maldigestion can manifest as bad breath, foul-smelling stools, diarrhea, constipation, and food intolerance. Common metabolic diseases include asthma, diabetes, atherosclerosis, and eczema. Enzyme and herbal aids can improve digestion, and high dosages of specific nutrients will improve the function of enzymes that are weak due to genetics. These treatments are discussed extensively in Chapter Seven.

Balance Your Regulatory Systems

Our hormonal systems maintain a delicate metabolic balance throughout the body. Both under- and over-activity of any of the hormonal systems cause widespread dysfunction. Hypothyroidism, hypogonadism, and hypoadrenalism manifest as chronic tiredness, obesity, loss of sex drive, excessive muscle wasting, and so on. Even a normal process such as menopause can cause unpleasant symptoms. Special foods, nutrients, herbs, and hormone precursors can be used to reestablish balance, which is the topic of Chapter Eight.

Enhance Regeneration

Almost from birth, our bodies are replacing cells and tissues as they wear out. However, when damage is excessive, or the normal repair and regeneration processes are impaired, degeneration results. Imbalance between “wear and tear” and the ability of the body to repair and regenerate manifests in such diseases as receding gums, osteoarthritis, chronic fatigue, depression, and premature aging. Anti-aging nutrients, improving blood supply to the heart and brain, and herbal regenerators all help slow, and in some cases, reverse the aging process. In addition, some herbs (called adaptogens), through mechanisms we do not yet understand, appear to strengthen virtually all of our functions and increase our ability to maintain health through stress and environmental challenges. Chapter Nine explains in detail how to enhance regeneration.

Live in Harmony with Your Life-Force

Our beliefs, spiritual values, and family life have a profound impact on our health. Our society has trained us to suppress many mind/body signals. Emotional imbalances, stress, unhealthy beliefs, lack of meaning in life, and dysfunctional family life fundamentally impair our body’s healing mechanisms, significantly decrease the quality of our life and the lives of our loved ones, and contribute to chronic disease. Each of us needs to become more aware of the activity of the vis medicatrix naturae (life-force) deep within us. There are many aids to developing this awareness. Chapter Ten reviews those with the strongest historic and research support, a surprising amount of which documents the powerful impact of prayer, meditation, beliefs, and family and friends on health.


Each of us is our own best physician, we just need to learn how. By understanding how our own body works and how to listen to our symptoms, we can fundamentally improve our health. When disease does occur, we can use self help and natural therapies to reestablish our health. By taking personal control over our own health, we can utilize licensed health care practitioners as resources rather than giving them complete control over our bodies.

The goal of improving all of our health-maintaining pathways is to improve our resilience, making us able to both improve our health and increase our ability to function well in our increasingly stressful environment.

The two bodily systems of the utmost importance are the immune and detoxification systems. Maintaining an active, even aggressive, immune system and ensuring that toxins are eliminated from our bodies as efficiently and quickly as possible are discussed in the two largest and most detailed chapters and should be studied first.

Finally, please be patient. Real change, as opposed to alleviating symptoms, takes time. We are not talking here about eliminating symptoms as quickly as possible. We are talking about changing the fundamental course of your health, about establishing total wellness. This will take time and perseverance. Once a system gets way out of balance, reestablishing full function requires careful and rigorous control initially. Once full function is established, maintenance is much easier.


1. Kleinman, A., Eisenberg, L. and Good, B.: Culture, illness, and cure: Clinical lessons from anthropologic and cross-cultural research. Ann Int Med 88:251-58, 1978

2. Peterson, W.L., Sturdevant, R.A., Frankl, H.D. et. al.:Healing of duodenal ulcer with antacid regimen. NEJM 297:341-45, 1977

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Written by Joseph Pizzorno ND