Mar 192010

Continuing the conversation in this week’s series on looking at the intersection of religion and health care regarding the current and proposed responsibilities of government, health care professionals, and individual citizens in managing our health – let’s look at the role of Asclepios.

Healer-priests and physician descendants of Asclepios, such as Hippocrates of the temple at Cos, used the arts of surgery, medicine, prayer, dreams, diet, mineral baths, and songs to heal patients. Asclepios’ temples were the first hospitals.

Asclepiosian Medicine: Combining traditional and alternative medicine and adding a spiritual component

Surgery, medications and diagnostic tests and devices are at the forefront of health care in the USA. We are continually advancing the research into these areas they receive the lion’s share of funding and attention. In application, the cost to a sick individual can (literally) kill you. As for the costs of health care in general, I’m going to stay away from that topic in this series as much as I can because I believe there are too many other topics about health care that are ignored.

In the USA, as in many countries, we are experiencing a shortage of Primary Care physicians. This shortage is projected to get much, much worse, in the coming years for a variety of reasons. One possible solution would be for the government, at either the state or federal level, to step in and provide Primary Care to all citizens through tax dollars. As a libertarian, my fingers almost burn while I type that. But the reality is that the private market is abandoning this service sector and so it is not as great of an intrusion for the government to step in. This would not be unlike the State and private supported temples of Asclepios. The State supported the basics of many temples, private benefactors and patient offerings for specific healings filled in from there. Sometimes it was the other way around.

Herbalism, chiropractic care, acupuncture, aromatherapy, and meditation are a few examples of non-traditional or alternative medicine. Complementary and Alternative medicine is beginning to gain some scientific recognition and main stream acceptance, but that is happening slowly. What is happening even slower is for traditional and non-traditional health care to be combined in a comprehensive treatment plan. Traditional health care professionals are often not familiar with alternative health care practices and vice versa. This disconnect can result in sub-optimum health care and increased costs. Does the patient need a prescription, acupuncture, or meditation to deal with chronic pain? Or a combination of all three? What would be the most effective with the least side effects? Should a back injury be treated with surgery or chiropractic care? Would a change in diet lower your cholesterol and bring your diabetes under control or would medication work better? Both? When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. By working together and having at least a working knowledge of traditional and non-traditional medicine, our health care providers would have an entire tool kit to draw from.

Diet can be a sensitive subject for people since weight and self-esteem are so tightly bound, but there can’t be a discussion about health unless we also talk about diet. Like exercise, diet is one of the most important ways we can positively affect our health. According to the CDC, obesity is now ranked as our leading contributor to disease and death in the USA today. Each year obesity-related conditions cost over 150 billion dollars and cause an estimated 300,000 premature deaths in the US. Those are very sobering statistics.

While weight does not always equal health, maintaining a healthy weight certainly helps.  The good news is that changing your diet is something everyone can do. The bad news is that there is no easy trick or fad diet that works long term. The great or sucky news, depending on your view, is that the consensus opinion among dieticians and health care professionals is that a healthy diet is one that has little or no processed foods in it.

“…whole, real, unprocessed food is almost always healthy, regardless of how many grams of carbs, protein or fat it contains.”

Of course, we do have to limit our portion sizes, which are out of control in the USA.

Health care professionals can advise us on a diet that can maintain our present good health, help manage an illness or injury we experience, and can assist with weight. They can’t buy the food and they can’t make sure we stick to it.

Our government has a limited role that it can play. They do provide money and food for low or no income citizens through programs like WIC and Food Stamps. It’s an extremely small amount and that can make it challenging to not only feed you, but to do so in a way that is healthy.

The most effective role the government could play in helping Americans eat a healthy diet is to education people on how to do exactly that. They could provide (more) classes on how to cook your own meals since fewer Americans know how to cook from scratch. Classes on how to get the most food value for your dollar when shopping would be immensely helpful. For example, a tomato in August and a tomato in January cost very different amounts. Don’t buy fresh tomatoes in January. Bags of dried beans are cheap, healthy and versatile. Classes and free cookbooks on how to prepare low cost, healthy meals should be made available. Think of all the recipes crafted from the harsh necessities faced during WWII that are being lost as our grandparents die. Simple food growing classes would help people have a ready supply of greens. Even if you live in a small apartment, you would be amazed at the amount of food you could grow. At the very least, if you have a jar, a window, and some seeds you can grow sprouts. Personally, I think all those classes, along with basic finances should be part of High School curriculum and offered through Community Education.

Spirituality – The Temples of Asclepios were, obviously, religious centers. Prayers and offerings were made to the God by those who were ill or a family member and dream incubation was a primary way of consulting Asclepios. Equally obvious, our government is barred from promoting a religion. Our health care providers’ religion and practices may not be the same as ours. If it is, you may be one of the lucky few who receive prayers along with your treatment.

Generally the spiritual component to health and healing rests with us, our family, and our religious community. The studies are sometimes at odds, but I firmly believe that prayer can assist with healing. I know in my heart that appealing to Asclepios can work wonders. Since He isn’t a “jealous God” I appreciate immensely prayers said on my behalf from people of different religions. Prayer has eased my pain and helped me calmly face upcoming medical procedures. Dreams and omens have reassured me that everything would be fine.

My religion has encouraged me to lead a more healthy life. As I’ve noted before, I hate exercise. Many times, I would much rather eat pizza several nights in a row rather than take the time to cook a meal. Especially if I am tired and it is getting late. Yet it’s much easier to eat a few pieces of cheese and an apple for dinner than it is to order a pizza. We act on what we consider a priority. We make time for what is important and make excuses for not doing what we know should be important to us, but really isn’t. I’m no different. I can come up with some sincere sounding excuses to not do yoga in the morning. I’ve been known to blame a project deadline as the reason we are eating Taco Bell again. By seeing my health as an integral part of my religious practice, I am inspired to do better. Exercise is an offering to the Gods and a time of prayer and meditation. Growing some of my food is an act of devotion that helps me grow closer to Demeter, Kore, and Dionysos. Shopping for and preparing a healthy evening meal for my family is an act sacred to Hestia. A bit more indirectly, my spirituality also opened my mind to going to an herbalist. Liz, who sets up shop at Magus Books and Herbs in Minneapolis, is has the true Asclepiad spirit.   Such an amazingly talented woman. In so many ways, Hellenismos has caused me to look at my place in the world differently. I’m part of the cycle and am both affected by it and I can affect it. This includes my health.

Next blog post: Hygeian Medicine – Physical and mental health, sanitation

Mar 172010

Much of the conversation regarding health care in our country revolves around cost and what the government’s responsibility is towards the citizens in providing health care.  Sprinkled throughout are bits about greedy doctors, litigious lawyers, and rich taxpayers.  Very little is said about the role that you and I play in maintaining our health.  We are looked at as helpless consumers, too immature to do or understand simple things to keep ourselves healthy.  If we are unwilling to take even the most basic of steps to maintain our health, how we can we castigate doctors and government for not doing enough to help us?  Just as I look to Hellenismos for inspiration on how to manage my finances, I’ve also found wisdom in how to be an active partner in maintaining my health.

In Hellenismos there are several gods that attend to health and wellness because it is such a complex and interconnected issue. Apollon could bring plagues or avert them.  Young men spent hours at the gymnasia, exercising as a devotional offering to Apollon, honing the body along with the intellect.  Healer-priests and physician descendants of Asclepios, such as Hippocrates of the temple at Cos, used the arts of surgery, medicine, prayer, dreams, diet, mineral baths, and songs to heal patients.  Asclepiops’ temples were the first hospitals.  I won’t name all of Asclepios’ divine children, but Hygeia was often worshiped along side Her father.  Hygeia helped patients with prevention of sickness and the continuation of sound physical and mental health.  She encouraged good sanitation practices.

Basic sanitation, surgery, preventative care, diet, medicines, mental health, exercise, prayer and divine intercession, public health initiatives, and what we call alternative medicine are related and interconnected through Apollon’s divine family.  Government, Doctors and Healer Priests, and Citizens all had roles they were expected to play.  Back then, more of the burden was shouldered by individual citizens than by doctors or the government.  Today, almost none of the burden lays with the citizen.  Perhaps it’s time to combine the best of the old with the best of the new?

Apollonian Medicine: Immunizations and Exercise
Immunization: The government should offer free immunizations to all citizens.  Health professionals can either be employed or reimbursed by the government to administer the immunization.  Citizens have a responsibility to get the immunization.

Exercise: This, along with diet, is the number 1 area that Americans need to work on to improve their health and it’s not something that the government or doctors bear much responsibility for.  It’s all on us. Even walking for 15 minutes just 3 days a week can yield remarkable benefits and costs us nothing. How many of us do even that little bit to manage our health? How can we ask others – such as the government, fellow taxpayers, and health care professionals – to spend time, money, and skill to help us when we show almost no desire to help ourselves.   As Nick said in a comment to my previous post about health care, “healthy eating and frequent exercise cost less, and do more good, [than] heart transplants.”

Seven out of ten Americans don’t exercise regularly.  We know the benefits of regular exercise to both our physical and mental health we just don’t do it.  To name a few of those benefits:

Lack of regular exercise not only hurts our health, it hurts our pocketbooks. Physical inactivity, overweight, and obesity were associated with 23% of health plan health care charges and 27% of national health care charges.  In 2000 an estimated $117 billion in health care spending in the USA was due to inactivity and obesity.  To bring it to a personal level, the average active 75 year old female with no physical limitations spends just over $1900 per year on health care costs. The average inactive 75 year old female with no physical limitations spends just over $3,200 per year on health care costs. That’s a difference of $1300 per person per year.

I have a confession to make.  I hate to exercise.  After I got out of the military I swore that the only way I would ever run again would be if someone was chasing me with a knife.  But I do stay active.  I see it as part of my duty to myself, my family, to my community, and to the Gods to stay fit.  Most every morning, I do 12 Sun Salutations while chanting prayers to Helios.  That’s not a huge effort in time or energy, but it it does the job.  Like my coreligionists from long ago, I dedicate this exercise as a devotional offering.  Also like them, reciprocation plays a large role in how I live.  I give so that I may receive.  I receive improved mental health from some quiet, meditative time before the chaos of the day starts along with improved physical health.  I certainly receive more than I give.  But first, I have to be willing to give.  We all have to be willing to give.

Hail Apollon Akesios!

Next blog post: Asclepios Medicine – Combining Traditional and Alternative medicine with a spiritual component.