The Intelligent Divorce

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Are "Natural" Products Really Better For You?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s legacy

Have you ever wondered what’s really natural?

You go out to eat and ask for an all natural meal. You get vegetables, soy protein, fish and fruit for dessert. It’s delicious. But is it natural? The fish may have been farm raised; the vegetables may have been genetically altered. Twenty years from now, we will find out that it doesn’t matter, or maybe it will matter a lot.

Eating Naturally:

Is meat natural? Well, why not. We are omnivores after all. But, we are also able to subsist on an agrarian diet. So, maybe we should give it up. What is more natural, eating meat because we can, or abstaining from meat because it’s beastly to kill when it’s not required?

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What is really natural? The whole question is a bit misleading.

Truth be told, the suspicion of civilization is actually part of civilization.

If you ask many, progress is good no matter what. Cars, global warming and GMOs are just part of our collective march to better the human state. But, many disagree, and they have a hero.

The underbelly of the love of progress comes from the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 –1778), the eighteenth century French philosopher. Rousseau tells us to appreciate nature and be wary of civilization. We owe him a lot.

The Suspicion of Civilization:

Rousseau invented the country home and even our admiration of "less advanced" cultures. The character of Tarzan may not have been his invention, but Jean-Jacques would have approved. He loved the idea of a man of the wild. Such a man would naturally be superior to his counterpart. It may be a stretch, but our superheroes with a wild side, like The Hulk or Wolverine, are cut from the same cloth.

So, the idea of natural is a centuries old distinction. It is not just about GMOs, global warming, or cancer prevention. Natural products have their origins in a cry against civilization itself.

But, we also like civilization.

It's not natural that you are brought back from the dead by a surgical procedure. It's not natural that you have Botox, or a hip replacement or, simply color your hair. We want the good side of civilization. But, who defines what is good? The jury is out.

The Case of Lithium:

Patients want to be treated naturally. Talk therapy is the most ancient form of counseling. Elders have been doing it since recorded times. But, Shamans and early doctors prescribed herbs and medicinals to help with many ailments. Foxglove has an ingredient – Digoxin – which is still useful today for heart disease. Willow Bark has a form of Aspirin and Valerian Root helps with insomnia. They are all natural, aren’t they?

What about Arsenic or Snake Venom?

You can die from either one of these. And, both are quite natural. A pack of wolves attacking you in a forest, or a tsunami, for that matter are natural as well. You see, the word "natural" is quite misleading.

Lithium is a naturally occurring substance; it’s an element in the periodic table! Yet, many patients will tell me it’s not natural to be on Lithium. What is more natural than an element?

Is Oxygen not natural as well?

Is it better to take Prozac, a manufactured agent, or St. John’s Wart, an herb that is usually less effective?

Don’t get me wrong, I am a critic of the pharmacological industry. They often work hand in hand with the insurance companies to support medicine instead of therapy. It’s often cheaper.

Yet, I am not averse to using manufactured drugs if a patient is really suffering. Is it natural? I don’t think that manufactured agents are natural. But, is that what really matters? Maybe a doctor’s compassion is the natural ingredient that’s sometimes required, and then let Rousseau’s hated civilization – and its medications or surgeries - do their magic.

Advertising Natural Products:

Like so many things in America, the word, natural, has been co-opted by advertising agencies and food producers. Everything from shampoo to our furniture to our food is deemed natural, versus what? Unconsciously, the advertising agencies tell us that we are not natural enough. We are too civilized, meaning not healthy.

As we define natural more clearly, we end up with Organic or, in our current century, Non-GMO or, perhaps, a smaller Carbon footprint. Natural is defined as a product or a process that's environmentally friendly; and it's wary of civilization. It may, in the end be a useful distinction. Civilization has its holes. It makes mistakes and we pay. Think about the unnatural fallout from Love Canal or Chernobyl. Civilization is by no means pure.

The true natural movement that Rousseau would have supported means throwing off the toxins created by civilization. He just assumed that they were there.

The Value of Natural:

Rhetoric aside,I think Rousseau gave us a gift. We are suspicious of the unrelenting value of progress. We are attentive to Global Warming and GMOs. We wonder if we can do better than we are doing. It's all to the good.

As we progress forward with longer life spans, artificial everything and medications for every ailment, just know that what makes us human is eternal, and it’s natural.

  • Do you have someone to love?
  • Do you feel that your life counts?
  • Do you feel alive and vital today?

What makes life meaningful is still the most natural of things. Relationships cannot be prescribed. Faith or a vibrant agnosticism is not something you get for free. Building a meaningful life means sacrifice and time well spent. Do it right and you feel the power of a life well lived.

Rousseau probably felt it.

With or without pharmacology, I hope you can feel it too.

 

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Mark Banschick, M.D., is a psychiatrist and author of The Intelligent Divorce book series.

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