What is Health?

What Is Health?

by Chris Kresser

Published on

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There’s no shortage of discussion about the factors that contribute to health and how to optimize and improve it. But what is health, really? How do we define it? And can the way we define health actually influence our experience of it?

A few weeks ago, I taught a seminar for clinicians in Pennsylvania. During the Q&A period, someone asked what I think is a very important—and underrated—question: what is health?

The concept of health is so familiar that many of us have never thought much about what it really means. That was certainly true for me prior to my decade-long struggle with chronic illness that began in my early 20s.

If asked, I suspect most people would define health as “the absence of disease.” And in fact, if you look up “health” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, you’ll find a very similar definition: “the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit; especially: freedom from physical disease or pain.”

Is health really just the absence of disease?

While this common definition of health certainly has merit, I think it’s too limiting and reductionistic.

Imagine someone (Person A) who is the picture of physical health: he has boundless energy, perfect digestion, a sharp mind, no chronic, inflammatory conditions, and rarely (if ever) get colds and flus. But in other areas of life, this person is a wreck: he has terrible relationships, he’s selfish and doesn’t contribute to the lives of others, he has no sense of humor, rarely has fun, and is miserable most of the time.

Now consider someone (Person B) that is in many ways the opposite of Person A: perhaps she has an autoimmune disease, she struggles with low energy, her digestion is weak, and she sometimes has difficulty sleeping. But unlike Person A, her life is incredibly rich and satisfying: she has deep, nourishing relationships with others, she does meaningful work that makes a difference in the world, she is full of joy and humor, and she loves to have a good time.

Which of these people is truly “healthy”? Both? Neither? If you had to choose between these alternatives, which would you choose?

Of course, there is another possibility: Person C. Person C is healthy physically as well as mentally, emotionally, and socially. This is certainly what most of us aspire to, and it’s a perfectly natural and valid goal.

The problem is that it’s not always attainable.

When “perfect health” isn’t possible

During the course of my long struggle with chronic illness, I had a lot of time to think about this question of what health is and what it really means to me.

At one stage in my journey, after trying everything I could possibly imagine to get well without a lot of success, I had a breakdown. I reached a point where I just couldn’t see the future I had always imagined for myself when I was a “healthy” person: a successful career, a family, and an active and energetic life. These things no longer seemed possible for me, given how sick I was.

This led to a period of deep depression and despair—and it was without a doubt the darkest and most difficult time of my life.

But as the saying goes, the darkest hour is just before dawn. At some point during this “dark night of the soul,” I realized that the depression and despair I was feeling was the direct result of comparing my actual experience with an idea of what I thought my experience should be. I saw that I was striving for an ideal of health that was—at least at that point—unattainable, and that this was the cause of most of my suffering.

How we define health has tremendous power

These realizations led to a profound shift for me. Up until that time, I had been focusing almost exclusively on figuring out the cause of my illness and “fixing” it: I saw doctors all over the country and the world, I took countless medications, herbs, and supplements, and did every special diet you can imagine.

But after this “dark night,” my focus began to shift. I continued to eat well, but I let go of “finding the answer” for a while. I stopped seeing doctors, taking supplements, and obsessively researching new treatments.

Instead, I focused on bringing more joy, pleasure, and meaning into my life. I spent more time with my friends. I took regular walks in the woods and surfed as much as I could. I volunteered to teach meditation at the San Francisco County Jail. I signed up for an improvisation class. I did a massage trade with a friend and got acupuncture once a week. And after a while, I decided to go back to school to study integrative medicine so I could use what I had learned to help others.

Several months after making these changes, the depression and despair were gone, and I was feeling more connected, alive, and hopeful than I had in a long time. But that’s not all that changed; my physical health started to improve as well. I had more energy, my digestion was better, my sleep was less interrupted, and I began to put weight on again (which had been impossible until then). These improvements rejuvenated me and gave me the boost I needed to continue searching for new treatments that ultimately led to further physical recovery.

This time in my life taught me a very important lesson: how we frame and perceive our experience has tremendous power—even the power to change it.

If I had continued to define health only as “the absence of disease,” what would my life have been like? A constant experience of disappointment, “not enough,” frustration, and failure.

But as my definition of health expanded and became more inclusive, new possibilities opened up. I was able to find ways to experience joy, pleasure, meaning, and ultimately, health—even in the midst of physical pain and discomfort. What’s more, the reframing of my definition of health didn’t just lead to more happiness, it ended up improving my physical health as well.

An alternative definition of health: the ability to live your dreams

Several years have passed since the period I described above, but I continue to think a lot about what health means to me. It’s a subject I am fascinated by and never stop learning and reading about.

In all of that time, I think the best definition of health that I’ve come across is “the ability to live your dreams.” This comes from a man named Moshé Feldenkrais, the creator of the Feldenkrais method (designed to improve human functioning by increasing self-awareness through movement).

I like this definition because it does not refer to the absence of pain, discomfort, or disease. Instead, it points more toward a quality of life and way of being in the world.

An example that comes to mind is my late Zen teacher, Darlene Cohen. She had rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune inflammatory condition affecting the joints, for more than 30 years. When the disease first struck her, she lost 40 pounds and was forced to stay in bed. She couldn’t dress herself, hold the phone receiver, or get up from the toilet unassisted. From her book:

In four months of deterioration, I lost everything that meant anything to me: reliance on a strong, young body; my achievements and the sense of self-worth they brought me; my pleasure in being a sexually attractive woman; my identity as a mother; and my ability to do the required practices and sustain myself in the community in which I lived as a student of Zen meditation. I became isolated from everyone I knew by my pain and fear and ultimately even by the consuming effort I had to make to do any little thing – like get up from a chair, pick up a cup of tea.

While Darlene eventually recovered from the worst of her symptoms described above, she continued to struggle with the severe pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility that many people with rheumatoid arthritis experience.

Yet Darlene never let her physical limitations stand in the way of living her dreams. She was one of the wisest, funniest, most joyful and vibrant human beings that I ever met, and she dedicated her life to relieving the suffering of others.

In my opinion, this is true health. Not boundless energy, or perfect digestion, or being able to run a marathon, or living until you’re 120, but the ability to live your dreams regardless of your circumstances.

Now I’d like to hear from you. How do you define health? What does it mean to you? How do you feel about defining health as “the ability to live your dreams”? Let us know in the comments section.

78 Comments

Join the conversation

  1. Hello i wouldn’t be writing this if i where not desperate and wholly dissappointed by the health system. I was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism 13 years ago; i had radioactive iodine. more than a half-stable thyroid is a chronic constipation that has generated into a cathartic colon hell after years of taking senna laxatives. Doctors never warned that it could damage my evacuation functions, I spend daily about 6-8 hours trying to go to the bathroom. The problem now is not just the constipation but the permanent urge to go to the bathroom ingrained in my intestine. I hope someone can help me. I have tried reducing the laxatives but i still have the urge to go all the time to the bathroom. Is there anyone who has overcome this same problem? Any recommendations, I am desperate. Thank you.

    • Hi John,

      sorry to hear of your circumstances. I wanted to give your comment a bump so somebody more informed than I might reply. Hope you find help soon.

    • John. I dont have help, but I want to thank you for posting. I also am hyperthyroid and Ive dumped 3 doctors so far who try to force radioactive iodine on me. I had not realized that “the urge” might be connected to hyperthyroidism, so thank you for that information. What I have learned is that my hyperthyroidism is really an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid. (Graves Disease) Gut fixing protocols might help with your problem. I understand your desperation.

    • Dear Gloria, Please read “Wheat Belly Total Health” by Dr. William Davis. I had similar issues and this book was an answer to prayer, life changing!

  2. I really like this question, what is health because it forces me to pause and reflect. I have 2 answers: one is that it’s multifaceted and encompasses physical,mental, emotional and spiritual health, which is a common definition of wellness. But, I think it’s also much more personal than that. For example, with weight loss, I let my clients tell me what their ideal weight regardless of what the chart says. I have learned that it is rare that 2 people with the same height and even weight have the same target weight. I have concluded that someone’s ideal weight can be very subjective because it involves issues of attractiveness, self-esteem, wardrobe, etc.

  3. I thought these findings from a 2014 report on the Burden of Stress in America (NPR/Robert Wood Johnson /Harvard School of Public Health) were relevant to how changing your outlook and/or improving your coping skills can make a positive difference.

    While about a quarter of Americans report a great deal of stress in the past month, one in seven (14%) report that they had no stress at all. When asked why they had experienced no stress, two-thirds (66%) said it was due to their personality.

    About half said reasons include the steps they take to reduce stress (52%) and not having any stressful events in their lives over the last month (51%). About four in ten (43%) reported their religion or faith is a reason they were not stressed over the last month.

    Those who experienced no stress in the past month are much more likely than those who were under a great deal of stress to see themselves as having control over their stress levels.

    Nearly three-quarters (74%) of those who say they experienced no stress in the past month say they have a great deal of control over the stress in their life.

    Many of those dealing with stress do not see stress as always having only negative effects. A majority (67%) of those with a great deal of stress in the past month believe that, at some point, stress has had a positive effect on some aspect of their life. About four in ten (41%) say it has had a positive effect specifically on their work life.

  4. Thanks Chris for sharing both your personal story and those of others who have faced debilitating physical struggles. They are inspirational. In spite of their physical limitations, these people refuse to have a limited mindset and intentionally have decided they can be positive, useful, and help others.

  5. I tell my clients they have achieved health when they:

    -Can sprint up a trail at their fastest speed
    -Sleeps soundly and wakes up feeling refreshed
    -Is able to laugh, cry, sing, smile and feel the variety of emotions
    -Can handle stress and change their perspective on it
    -Has plenty of energy for physical, mental, spiritual and emotional journeys

    Of course, there’s more, but these are some of the best goals we aim for.

  6. This is a very touching article and a very important topic. How i define great health for myself and with my clients is ADAPTABILITY. Our ability to ADAPT and find meaning and success in changing circumstances (environmental stressors, biochemical stressors, emergencies, missed meals, etc) is the truest marker of health, to me.

  7. Great Question! I am one who has pondered this one most of my life. Losing my father to cancer when I was just 10 years old taught me not to take my health for granted. In less than a year he was gone. The question of health can be related to fitness yet I see both quite differently. Health is a qualitative state. It is difficult to quantify much like happiness. it is a state of subjectivity and definition for the person asking the question. it becomes relative to one’s inclination to become self-aware and journey to understand what optimal health means for them.
    if a person has a disorder or even disease but isn’t focused on the condition(maybe not even aware they have a condition), are they any less healthy than someone who knows they are having problems and is having a stressful time with it. These two scenarios may not be as opposite as one might think. To a certain extent one gets what one focuses on. A situation where you might encounter this someone suffering with short term memory loss. Some of those folks can be as happy as a lark because they are less aware of what’s going on but can feel joyful, surprised, curious and I dare say it, Happy.

    I bring the question of fitness into my comment because I have seen Athletes who smoke. They may be fit for what they do because they have trained and trained and we would still consider these people healthy because they are doing something others may not be able to do. From this point of view, fitness is more static. One can be fit to run a mile under a fast time but if they engage life in ways that could compromise that level of fitness, could we say they are healthy?

    So Health is very qualitative to me while fitness is more of a static state of readiness mostly what one has trained for and can possibly be even detrimental to long term health from overtraining and less than optimal life habits. In the case of the woman in Chris’s article (Darlene) through sheer survival focusing on what her life could be rather than focus on what was wrong or unfair (or dealt) speaks volumes to the determination each of us have inside to become aware and act upon that awareness to make life more of a masterpiece (a work of art) rather than learning and practicing helplessness. Nonetheless, everyone at some point in their life perhaps more often than we admit needs help and support. From that viewpoint the right kind of help and support can add to the quality of life. This too could also contribute to healthy life.

  8. Thanks for this inspiring article, Chris. Like other people have said, it came at a perfect time for me. Thanks for reminding me about Darlene Cohen’s book. Reading it was a turning point for me in dealing with my own chronic health issues years ago. I got it out yesterday and am rereading it and finding it very helpful again.

    Thank you Chris for your commitment to learning about healing and your generosity in sharing what you learn.

  9. As an elder aged 69, I am amidst the decline of my body. I thot it wouldn’t happen to me since my lifestyle has always been healthy — but I still have many issues to deal with. I have found “How to Be Sick” by Toni Bernhardt to be a valuable companion on the journey. Toni has had an incurable, undiagnos-able disease for 10-15 years; she is primarily at home, in bed — and yet she lives a full and joyous life!! Quite amazing to me! She uses Buddhist techniques to maintain her sanity and her delight in the life she has… the book is not just for Buddhists, for these techniques are, like mindfulness, useful to all of us. Like Darlene Cohen, who Chris mentions in his article, Toni teaches how to joyously live the life we’ve got instead of bemoaning the loss of the life we planned…..

  10. Thank you for exploring this concept. I believe it is all about Balance. All my life all I every wanted was joy as I spent a life of being depressed. Even though I suffered from a poor immune system due to removal of my thymus gland at 6 months of age it was the sadness, feeling lonely and useless that plaqued me. I learned about nutrition and choose an attitude of gratitude.

  11. I love your work and your website, Kris, but I must say that as a philosopher of medicine I find this approach to health quite wanting.

    First, you set up the two examples with the assumption that health and happiness or personal fulfillment must be linked. It is possible that they are, but they need not be. Person A can perfectly well be considered healthy, but just living a joyless life, possibly due to circumstances beyond his control. Person B could still be seen as ill, but who has found a way to give her life meaning. These examples just show that health and meaning don’t fully overlap.

    Now, if the retort is ‘well, but the focus is on being ‘truly’ healthy’, then I think we’ve set the bar too high. If the assumption behind Person A is that he may fit the picture of ‘absence of disease’ but he isn’t ‘truly’ healthy, then you are not trying to define health but some ‘ultimate’ or ‘optimal’ health. In that case, almost everyone will fail to be ‘truly’ healthy. This is precisely the problem behind the WHO’s definition.

    Health as the ability to live your dreams is an interesting, though very American, definition, but it still conflates health and happiness. If Person B has that ability, yet is physically a wreck, then saying she is truly healthy seems to distort precisely what is of interest to physicians. The problem is that this definition just doesn’t really do the explanatory work that is needed from such definitions. It does not explain why and how health and disease differ. Is the inability to live one’s dreams a sign of disease? This would be an odd implication.

    Maybe a better approach would be something along the lines of what the philosopher Georges Canguilhem claimed, which is that health is being robust and flexible in the face of changing demands. Here, health is about being able to tolerate variations, stressors, and establish new ways of functioning in a given environment. It is both being able to weather the minor storms and to meet and overcome new challenges. This view does more work than the ‘mere absence of disease’, but it also provides criteria which can be fleshed out physiologically and psychologically (and even psychosomatically).

    Maybe Person A is not happy with his life, but if he is mentally sharp and physically robust, then he is at least capable of finding ways to improve his lot in life (such as reading this great blog). Person B may be mentally robust, largely due to her social environment, but she is still diminished physiologically and in need of treatment (she has autoimmune disease after all). Saying that B is sick in no way undermines the importance of maintaining her social environment.

    I would think that as doctors, of course the aim shouldn’t be merely the absence of disease, but it also can’t be so vague or inclusive that we no longer have a clear idea what health is. If the aim is rather something along the lines of being robust and flexible, something which varies from person to person and even from situation to situation, then patients will be given the basis from which dreams can indeed be pursued, but they won’t be pathologized if they happen to be disagreeable individuals or if they are going through a rough patch, and they can seek the needed medical help even if their lives are filled with joy.

  12. Good article. Perhaps I wasn’t thinking deep enough as “Health” to me simply put means the condition of one’s mind, body and spirit whether it be good, bad or indifferent.

  13. I try my best to transcend physical shortfalls, but in the end, my mental well-being will always revolve around my sense of physical well-being first and foremost, as without vibrant health, life is meaningless. After all, I still live with the body I was given. A good social network is great, but it alone is not a panacea. There is no joy and the dreams are on hold if the body doesn’t function quite right, period. Transcending that 100% is not realistic, not something I have been able to do nor am I interested. I cannot separate myself from my body. I can try, but it never works that well because it’s like trying to fool yourself that you don’t have to live in the physical realm which I do. If I feel like hell, then I will go to the source to try and fix it, not run away and distract myself by wasting time doing things that do nothing to fix the underlying issue. If I feel great, then vice versa. I own the world and can accomplish anything, but take away my health, and I am useless. In the end, one needs BOTH a balance of physical and emotional well-being, not just one, to reach a true state of wellness. Those centenarians who claim they ate processed foods, smoked, drank, etc. and were happy are genetic anomalies who have adapted to handle those toxins unlike the rest of us. I don’t believe it was all because they live a stress-free, happy life.

  14. What a fascinating question – to me health is ‘no conscious thoughts about health’ plus resistance / resilience to the environment we live in.

    Suffering through long periods of extreme fatigue in my life meant I would have to regulate activites based on how tired I was or would be. Even after recovering my energy the psychological shodow of “will this leave me exhausted” lingered in my mind for a few years to come. These days I can just do and the thoughts of will this make me tired don’t enter my mind. If I over-do it a days rest is enough to recover. This to me is a major part of the meaning of health.

    Great topic, great article.

  15. Love this post. My homeopath told me that my problem was not what I was eating that was the problem…it’s what was eating me. Spent so many years experimenting on the perfect diet and obsessing and overthinking what to eat, which supplements to take, reading, researching, etc….that I could not see the forest for the trees. I have learned which foods make me feel poorly…but I have stopped the madness. I love to eat, love to cook, and focus on whole food and limit sugar. Still have my health issues…but no longer let the fear and anxiety of what if keep me from being present. Love your balanced approach…I am a fan.

    • Net, I too have started to limit my sugar intake. I have als been on a gluten/dairy free diet for months now. I am still experiencing some throat pain. When did you get to the point where you are now, length of time?

      • Susan, it was a series of years for me of trial and error…but my real progress began when I started seeing a homeopathic doctor in 2012 (who found Lyme) and at the same time found a MD that learned toward holistic medicine. He did a blood test for gut permeability and came back positive. He gave me recommendations, but it was only when I went totally grain free that I would say within 6 months time I was feeling so much better. Some results were immediate, some still linger but are manageable. But please don’t measure your progress by anyone else…that is a mistake I also made. Progress is the small victories only you will notice… then eventually others because it can change your outlook. My heart goes out to you….keep pressing on!

  16. Hello! Thank you so much for your writings! I’ve found them very encouraging 🙂

    The ability to live your dreams seems to be a great working definition of health. I’d like to argue, however, that continuing to create and chase dreams once some have been realized may be a good idea…I’ll have to think on that one for a while!

    Thanks again,
    Jessi

  17. However simple, this article may just be the most profound and helpful sentiment I have come across in my 2.5 year journey to find health. I will be re-reading this daily until I really get it. Thank you, Chris.

  18. I can really relate to what you say, Chris.

    I had leukaemia 6 years ago and my treatment took about 18 months. I suffered quite a few side-effects from the treatment and ended up being diagnosed with moderate depression. All I wanted was to be “normal” again. It took a little while to realise what you say, that the important thing was that I was alive and had a wonderful support network. I still have my sense of humour and can see the funny side of everything.

    I think the turning point for me came when my husband started bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t the person he had married just 19 months before I was diagnosed. I gently suggested that we were both lucky that I was alive and that we should look at what we still had, rather than what we had lost. It was a mind shift for us both.

    Has it changed the side-effects? Not really. But I now just accept them as my “normal” and get on with living my life. I am now studying naturopathy and hope to use it to support other people who have been in that dark place I was in. So I hope something good will come from all of it.

  19. Best thing I have read in a long, long time. Thank you for aligning me once again to what true health is, Chris. More people need to read this – because you’re right – it is how we respond to our circumstances that defines the result, not the events that happen to us. Can;t control everything…sometimes we just need to simplify!

  20. Hi chris,
    I had a brain injury in 2008, I was a lap dancer, @ coming home on evening, i was on the wrong side of the highway, due to misleading signs,
    A drunk driver went into the side of me at 90m.p,h, i hit my head on the dash board, @ the car was spinning round @ round,
    Then i went into darkness, @ just remembering being cut out of the car, by the fire services, being taken to hospital, @ being in intensive care for many weeks
    Everybody was just amazed, how i actually survived ,the horrific accident.
    I had suffered a brain haemorrhage, @ even though all my cognitive skills was very much in tact, ( memory, thinking, speech e.t,c )
    It effected the left side of my body,
    Totally life changing i got very depressed, suicidal thoughts went through my mind every single day, i sank into depression, @ the isolation was unbearable.
    So i started to search for a cure / improvement, for years, years, i was emailing all around the worls, i must of emailed every single professor / scientist in the world
    NEVER, EVER GIVING UP ON THIS HOPE.
    On the 9th september, this year, i got an email from a robert zhou, from the ucla brain injury research center in los angeles, saying they are doing an upcoming T.B.I study for brain injury,
    So to cut a long story short, if i meet there criteria, i will be accepted to go on the study,
    I just cannot tell you for 1 minute, how happy iam feeling, going through my darkest times, i eat fish, chicken, ‘ loads of freshly steamed vegetables, I taken all my vitamins which i still do,
    But chris, most off all iam so excited, that i might be going on this study, It could change my life completly, @ give me back my life, that i have lost for nearly 8 yrars.
    I will definitely keep you posted, @ thankyoufor all your lovely emails every week i get of you, i do appreciate them so much.
    Bye for now thankyou

  21. Hi Chris

    Great piece. Good to read more of a topic you touched on in London last weekend – an absolute privilege to be in the audience and I know my fellow attendees all felt the same!

    Mind-body-spirit all one, all Tao

  22. I think you nailed it with that definition of health, Chris. It’s so easy to fixate on the ways our bodies are out of whack. I developed a little mantra years ago when I was really anxious about a hearing issue I was experiencing and some other issues (which finally eased with acupuncture) and it went like this: “Are there bombs falling on my head? Can I walk outside under the sky and do most of the things I want to do? What a lucky human I am!” I clung to that thought, repeating it to myself several times a day and it totally lifted my mood. In fact, I think it was key to my recovery.

  23. So thankful for ts article. For many years I have been trying to find out the ‘why’ and ‘what’ with little joy. To,the point I have felt like a hypochondriac – yet assured by medically professionals this is not the case. I live a very full life, and don’t let my current situation hold me captive in pity partying. However, I do suffer from acute episodes of anxiety, fatigue and other issues which when they occur cause me to feel guilty because I am unable to do the things I want to or feel that I should be able to do. I continually aim for the joy in life and often feel let down because I don’t actually feel it.

    I have considered depression as the culprit and have had two different medical opinions.

    Thanks to this article which gave me a great sense of what joy can be, I will seek to make each moment and experience count and appreciate my blessings more.

    Thank you Chris – very much.

  24. I’ve asked that same question of myself and came up with mobility.

    Funnily enough I have a Feldenkrais facilitator (teacher’s not the right word but not sure facilitator is either).

    I found myself telling someone I’m the fittest and most content I’ve ever been but I can no longer walk unaided 22yrs after a diagnosis of MS.

    ‘Know what your priorities are’ which I guess is a variation of being able to follow your dreams?

  25. Thank you for this Chris. I too have been suffering with an undiagnosed digestive issue for ten years. I was on the right track since I went gluten and dairy free earlier this year and had started to feel better. Sadly though I was diagnosed with breast cancer three months ago and since that time have undergone two major surgeries plus ingested many, many medications and anti biopics. I am now cancer free but my digestion is horrible. I was in such despair this morning from the reflux, constant sore throat and reoccurring headaches when I opened your post. It filled me with hope! I have a wonderful life and a loving, generous family who show me they love me daily. That’s hard to replicate. Your perspective has hardened my resolve to reboot and get my system back into working order but also to be kind to myself because health is many things.
    Thank you
    Susan

  26. Sixteen months ago something happened to my body that was so scary that I thought I had ALS. I was worried about falling, had trouble climbing stairs, and could hardly hold a newspaper because I felt so weak. The other symptoms were constant jerking of my extremities, tics, buzzing in the feet, and strange sensations over my entire body. These symptoms were relentless and I could not sleep. ALS was ruled out and I was then misdiagnosed with LEMS. While I am 95% better and back to running a few miles a day I cannot stop freaking out at times. I do not have a diagnosis but will not let a neurologist go on a fishing expedition to find out what is wrong. They cannot, and I just need to start living life more fully and happily. Thank you Chris for all you do.

  27. The last several weeks I have been rolling some form of this question in my head, and I am so glad you asked it, and answered it in a beautifully simple way. I think first of my own journey thru digestive junk, but then especially of our 8- year old daughter who has left-sided hemiparesis/cerebral palsy. Achieving full physical “health” for her will be near impossible (unless by a miracle), but please don’t tell that child she can’t do something! I will save this article and share it with her one day. Thank you!

  28. Thank you, Chris.
    Like many of you who’ve already chimed in, I live with chronic illness. I have experimented with “bio-hacks” (cutting-edge supplements; tests). I’ve probably clocked in 100’s of hours of deep reading these past years, too. Double-edged sword, as I am also a professional science researcher = Too much of a good thing is not a good thing! The result of obsessive researching left my emotional/psychological well-being hanging by a thread. I became a shadow of my more joyful, stable self.
    Gratefully, not all of the effort was in vain. The upside of my innate persistence is that I found a caring, competent naturopathic caregiver in my region. He treats me like a human being, and models the behavior he desires for his patients.
    A wake-up call in the form of a car wreck in January, which set my health back 2 steps, compelled me to get very clear on what my body/mind needed to heal. No more long hours reading scientific papers on HPTA-axis dysfunction or health blogs. As per Chris’s wisdom, I decided to reorient my attention back to the things that nourish me: a yoga practice (my lifelong Muse), a 10-minute morning meditation, and cultivating once-stagnant friendships with a few extraordinary souls. I also began volunteering 2 hours a week at a local hospice center– talk about eye-opening!
    A big part of creating harmony at home with my boyfriend involved taking a look at my tendencies born from the obsessive health-research. During mealtime, I now pay close attention to my tendency to “geek out” on the health benefits of the meal’s ingredients. To him, it can be a joykill. I now chose to simply imbue the meals I prepare with positive energy. I reserve this “database” of whole food benefits for curious friends or acquaintances who *want* to geek out with me.
    Life is much sweeter now, even on not so good days.

  29. Anytime I see any definition of health, there is no mention of intergenerational health (i.e., passing that health on to the next generation). It is if it assumed that this will happen–though we know this not to be the case. Diets that can support adults are not necessarily diets that promote health and good form in developing humans (i.e., infants, toddlers, and children). While having a body that is capable of celebrating life is important, so too should be the ability to produce healthy and well-formed children (i.e., those with our ancestral form that have broad faces that have room for their tooth and broad pelvises, etc.). I consider this to be the highest standard by which a diet (and lifeway) can be measured. Healthy and well-formed children requires more than just food (which was alluded to here), it requires a community of healthy people living on a healthy landscape. Thank you for the article.

  30. Hi Chris,
    I really enjoyed the article. I have been where you were in the aspect of thinking there was always another goal to reach. I realize now that I already am healthy and have the important things that matter in life. Thanks for the information.

  31. Thank you for this post! I am a nutrition coach and the more people I work with the more concerned I have become about their mental and emotional state while trying to find root causes to their health issues. We become so wrapped up in the details of the what and why and the restrictions and symptoms that we forget to nourish not just the physical body, but the whole self. This post is very encouraging for me and my clients and I plan to keep asking this question daily.

    • Thank you so much for your definition of health. And thank you for helping me understand that there are ways to improve. I went grain free 4 months ago because of my digestive tract. I have done so much better since then. I found that the inflammation in my system has subsided. I used to have a gum cyst that recurred every few days or weeks. My dentist told me that it was caused by a fractured tooth root and I would need the tooth removed and a tooth implant. However eating no grains I think has reduced my body’s inflammation. No more recurrent cyst. Plus I have lost over 10 pounds of fat around my middle. Thank you so much. I believe health includes balancing an individual’s food requirements, emotional well being and finding a physical activity you love. I have an eye condition that runs in my family. I found a study about black seed currant oil that gives me a glimmer of hope. Current medicine has no cure. I will continue to be my own single case design. I am persistent.

  32. I can deeply relate. I am 42 and got sick after getting pregnant at 25. I have since been diagnosed (at 39) with pathogenic gut infections, Sjogren’s Syndrome (which has led to 20k + in dental work), Lupus SLE, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and Fibromyalgia. It’s hard to need to avoid ‘triggers’ all the time, others don’t understand how food or sun can hurt you, how some days you can look healthy but feel horribly and it feels so isolating to constantly feel some shade of bad for so long. That said, it’s true, you have to make the most of your life/time/experience and even if in pain, struggling, or not getting a cure, life IS worth finding joy in.

  33. Health is about balance of mind, body and spirit. Once balance is achieved you can live your full potential, follow your dreams and overcome any obstacle that life throws against you.

  34. Have had fibromyalgia for over 25 years, and have Hashimoto’s, a.fib, restless leg syndrome, arthritis, pseudo gout, and, at the moment, a bad flare of achille’s tendonitis. But if someone should ask me how healthy I am, I would say I am “pretty healthy”. I had to fill out a questionnaire for when I began my P.T. for the tendonitis, and found out I was “65% disabled”. Didn’t enjoy hearing such a quantified measurement.
    Here’s the thing. I learned a long time ago when I went to a support group for the fibromylagia that you can define yourself by your ailments, or by other aspects of yourself. Most people who know me do not know the long list of ailments I deal with on a daily basis. I live my life in a way to try and manage the chronic conditions, and keep them from interfering too much with my day to day life. I eat well, and my mental and creative energy are high. My physical limitations are real, but they do not have to mean I can’t do. My husband and kids sometimes encourage me to do less, but I push back against that at times, knowing my limiting too much, I start to lose capabilities. The less I move now, the less I will be able to move in the future. I rest more than many around me, but I also make sure to move often.
    Thank you for this post. It sums up well what few people can understand about how being healthy and having a chronic illness can coexists under terms that are complex but real.

  35. Thanks for the article, Crhis. This is something I have been thinking about, and how I need to re-orient my life as a 75 year old person. How to be “healthy” as you age. I notice negativity creeping in, that I didn’t have time for before. Ive always been healthy (no diseases) and a person of positive energy, so I have no tolerance to those Labels brought up in the doctor’s office. Diabetes. Thyroid. Recently, I went to the doctor. He pronounced: “You are going to die!” I was stunned. What does he know that I don’t know? It turned out he wanted to do a radioablation of my thyroid gland. It has taken me a few months now, but I have decided I can stay a lot healthier if I stay away from doctors, and focus instead on doing what I want to do each day: woodworking, gardening, growing my own non-toxic food, projects in my ‘old house’. Doctors are apt to give you labels that will make you sick. I think the key to a healthy lifestyle is to live without labels, and instead work for goals you can accomplish each day. That means exploring a healthy lifestyle–whatever that may mean for me–whatever makes me smile.

    • Gloria, this may interest you:

      http://jeffreydachmd.com/the-thyroid-nodule-epidemic/

      My lifestyle is very similar to yours. After diagnoses of autoimmune connective tissue disease, degenerative disc disease and arthritis, and cervical spine surgery, I realized it was what I was doing or not doing, not what the doctors were doing or not doing, that was the problem. Now, disabled at 62, with more exercise and a paleo diet, I’m off meds and healthier than before. The trick now is to find things I can still do without hurting myself (no strain on the neck, wrists, ankles, shoulder). I went from seeing numerous specialists, undergoing painful nerve conduction studies (useless – I drew the line when the neurologist thought maybe I had MS and wanted to do a spinal tap!) etc to now not having seen a doctor in over five years. I do my own blood tests through Life Extension and a glucose meter. I purchased my own thyroid pills (Stop the Thyroid Madness – highly recommended.) No one cares about your health and quality of life as much as you do. It’s time we just say NO to the medical industry and learn to take care of ourselves. I used to be one of those who got annual checkups with both an obgyn and a PCP, got the mammogram and the PAP, etc. etc. No more. These tests don’t prevent anything. My diet, exercise, supplements and research do. Best of luck to you. The library is a great resource.

      • JJ. Thanks for the link. I wonder how many “cancers” are just labels, with people dying from the treatment. I guess my next target is to try to open research sites that are blocked, so that people can do their own research.

  36. I am into oral health (because I am a periodontist who has been in practice for 41 years), overall health (because I am also a Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner), and ancestral health (because I incorporate ancestral diet and lifestyle into my treatment for my patients and for myself). I even have enrolled in Dr. Kresser’s ADAPT program (because I want to learn more and more and more). But, this article about HEALTH by Chris is the best definition of health and the goal that makes the most sense to me. Well done Dr. Chris Kresser!

  37. Chris! This article couldnt have landed in my inbox at a more perfect time. I am reaching 30 and have spent most of my 20’s trying to figure out why i felt so crappy. I have a naturopath, have had a lot of labs done over the years, and am now on another round of supplements, with great success in some areas and little if any in others. It can be overwhelming as I try to take on big goals that I was too weak or scared or confused to take on in my 20’s. I just recently got genetic testing done and found out that my body doesn’t detox properly and suspect i may have CIRS….. which would explain SO much! Yet, It’s overwhelming as hell. And i often find myself comparing myself to other healthy people and quickly becoming a victim, which serves no one.

    Your blog actually made me cry a little from feeling so acknowledged and related to. You are such a gem. Thank you!

    • Kymber, change your 30 to a 60 and the rest is about the same for us. Have Numerous marathons and half marathons and used that bulldog determination to hack my way through feeling lousy for over a decade. In 2011 diagnosed with Lyme. Finally 90 days of IV antibiotics in 13 more than likely killed the suckers. But I’ve had a huge negative inflammatory response. I have the dreaded 4-3-53 HLA. Been so focused on what’s wrong with me… This article could not have come at a better time! Hey , I learned how to eat really well and I’m doing Bikram yoga three times a week so, on the bright side, I’m the best looking 60-year-old guy in our ZIP Code! LOL! IMHO! I feel better today than I have felt in months! Thanks Chris!

  38. Thank you for the wisdom shared in this article. I think in the quest for energy and balance I’ve been focusing most of my attention on the few things that are wrong and not on the many things that are great. This focus on the negative (trying to fix what’s wrong all the time) is a killer of joy. I’ve decided to pay attention to my blessings, the love and kindness and health that I enjoy even if not perfect. There is no perfect! I thank God for speaking through you to me today Chris!!

  39. As a Chiropractic student, I tend to believe a lot of the same principles that you wrote in your article. The way I look at it is through now how the person feels or how well they’re eating, but how their body is functioning. At the base of all bodily functions, you need properly functioning nerves to supply all of your organs.

    Although nutrition and positivity is a huge portion of the equation that many people are lacking, what if the stomach isn’t able to digest all of the good foods? We like to look at the nervous system and how those factors as well as tension on the spinal cord affect the output of the machine that is our body.

    Great work, by the way. I’m not discounting anything, but I think that proper nerve flow is a huge part of the equation. Keep it up and I look forward to your next post.

    Sincerely,
    Cody

  40. Thanks for this article Chris. I was at your talk in London on Saturday, and you mentioned this idea, and it was great to hear then too. I came away thinking about the amount of pleasure and play in my life, and that I definitely need a shift in my focus on how healthy I feel I am. When you have digestion problems and are constantly doing food diaries it is hard not to become obsessed with food and symptoms throughout the day. I have now stopped noting things down and I feel so much lighter because of it. If you have felt ill for a long time, it really affects how you see yourself. I have felt like an unwell person for the last 10 years due to food intolerance and histamine problems. I can keep things manageable with diet, but it was only when I got some test results recently and my nutritionist said ‘your adrenals are fine’ that I felt I had some energy! It’s all about perspective, and I am now trying to ‘think’ myself healthy and remembering to be grateful, and smiling lots. Seems to be really helping. Thanks again for sharing your experience Chris.

    • Dear Katie,
      Google “Folate not Folic Acid” by Dr Ben Lynch. If your histamine levels are playing up then I’m pretty sure you have a MTHFR polymorphism effecting your methylation cycle. IF this is the case, folic acid, in loads of cereal based foods, is going to be unprocessed in large quantity in you, jamming up your methylfolate cell receptors.
      This means even if your diet has plenty of methylfolate it is going to struggle to make it inside your cells. It’s like a starvation process of this vital nutrient.
      Ben Lynch is a pioneer in these issues.
      Good luck. I’m in the UK too, NE of London.
      Sam

  41. Hi Chris Thanks for coming to London and your two talks, I don’t know how you kept up your energy! I have been writing up the notes I took and trying to live well and have a balanced life. This is so difficult in an unbalanced world. Trying to find something pleasant about crammed London tubes arriving home late to try and cook beautiful food from scratch. But I am so happy and grateful to you for your inspiration, my aches and pains from an ageing body are small in comparison.

  42. Chris – you give an excellent insight into how important perception is and the way our minds can fundamentally alter our experience of life.

    Too many people are constantly focussed on illness rather than seeing the joy in what positive aspects there are in daily life.

    When we are I’ll, we forget to appreciate the joy of a smile, a sunset, an act of kindness or whatever.

    Letting go of defining ourselves as ill is an important part that is necessary to enjoy feeling well.

  43. I feel the most important aspect of health is the absence of mind clutter. Useless thoughts cluttering the mind and causing
    An overflow of thought activity.
    As soon as you watch your thoughts, you identity them as the villains. Just watching is enough not judging as judging or commenting forces the same clutter to begin. If you are mind
    Free you are in bliss and activity or non activity keeps you healthy. No movement is necessary if the mind is not moving. Only the big mind clutter forces one to try and move the body as in vain trying to unhinge the garbage in the mind. Pure watching and witnessing, like watching a movie, but not identifying is health.

  44. The answer is….. Person A doesn’t exist actually. Personally I have never seen anyone who is perfectly healthy and miserable. That just doesn’t work that way. People aren’t miserable because they want to be. They are, because they’re suffering from something. Many times they’re suffering from poor health, and they may not be aware of that at all. It’s all about accepting it which is very difficult. I myself have actually screwed my health by trying to get into perfect health. Guess what, I took probiotics, and….. boy, do I regret it. I was a pretty normal person with some minor skin issues, difficulty falling asleep, and not the most energetic. But now, I cannot even go for a walk, because I’m always cold, severely fatigued, I have heartburn, difficulty swallowing, tachycardia, mild pericarditis, constipation, SIBO, I lost a lot of weight, can’t eat anything, and failed numerous treatments(herbs, antibiotics, elemental diet) and it’s ALL THANKS TO PROBIOTICS, and trying to achieve health and also later more crap from naturopathic doctor (NAC, L-carnitine, herbs) which screwed my esophagus so bad, to the point where I just don’t know how to live anymore. So, if you can live, eat and walk, LIVE YOUR LIFE AND STOP BIO-FUCKIN-HACKING your health.. I wish I knew that 2 year ago..

    • Those were extreme hypothetical examples to illustrate a point. You’re correct: if someone is miserable, it’s extremely unlikely that they will be perfectly healthy physically because despite our Cartesian dualistic language, there is no separation between “body” and “mind” and all illness is psychosomatic, in the sense that there is not mental/emotional dysfunction that won’t affect physiology or vice versa.

      That said, I have indeed met people that are quite well physically but many other aspects of their lives are severely out of balance. And as you can already see in the comments, sometimes pursuing the last 5% in the name of “optimal health” or “biohacking” can cause more harm than good.

      I’m sorry to hear about your experience with probiotics. That’s extremely unusual, and strong reactions like that are a red flag for intestinal permeability, SIBO, or other more fundamental gut problem in my experience. I hope you are able to find support.

      • You’re right Chris. Excellent article by the way. In terms of probiotics, that may have been in part because of PREbiotics that were in them. The product is called Theralac and it is said on their website that it contains some kind of very speacial prebiotic which feeds bacteria much better than FOS and such. That being said, I have found that yougurt with L. Rhamnosus also makes me feel really bad, in no time, as you said, likely because of intestinal permeability, but I believe even more because of esophageal permeability (which I learned about in your wonderful article on leaky esopagus), so it’s not only PREbiotic problem for sure, because milk doesn’t do that(both are lactose-free).

  45. Pause for thought. Thank you Chris, this article that you have shared is so enlightening.
    I notice that I am always focusing on what is “wrong” with my physical being at any given moment – a tight head, low energy, stiff finger joints….and then berating myself for having caused it, and deciding to have more will power to fix it.
    But your article demonstrates a shift from that focus.
    Maybe there’s more to health than perfect willpower…and perfect body feel.
    You’ve reminded me to get out there an live a little!
    thanks,
    Apple.

  46. Thank you so much for sharing your view on this topic Chris. This resonates so deeply with my own experience of “what is health”. Taking away that pressure of trying to achieve a ‘perfect’ health actually makes it easier and possible to get closer to attaining it. Thank you again for your wisdom. Love your work.

  47. I had a relationship with a chap who was a raw food vegan – nothing wrong with that, I became very physically healthy – but he was a food nazi! Controlling, joyless…my spirit began to die. Your example above gave a wonderful description of what I realised at the end.

    I also note the shift away or further nowadays from the old paradigm of “ill health is because of Bad Karma”, (Spiritual awakening and learning from Eastern practices) or “it’s because of your parents” (the need to protect children from violence and abuse) or basically, it’s your own fault! (self responsibility). Remember when meditation would ‘fix’ everything? Or primal or gastalt therapy? Maybe as we humans as a whole become increasingly aware, we have now perhaps reached the issue of food and toxins in our environment and possibly it takes physical illness to raise this awareness? i.e. we are on an ever expanding ripple of increasing awareness and environmental damage/food toxity is the ripple we are up to? (bringing along all the other ‘ripples’ of awareness too of course). Not wanting to dismiss anyone’s struggle in any way.

  48. Thanks for this post, Chris.
    The ideas you’ve mentioned here are why I’m very turned off by the “biohacking” phenomenon that’s all the rage right now. It’s one thing to experiment with things here and there, but when a substantial amount of time and money are spent chasing optimization for the sake of optimization, will there ever, *ever* be a feeling that one’s life is “good enough?” When is one healthy “enough,” or energetic and mentally sharp “enough?” I think some folks out there are chasing some sort of perfection, when we don’t even know what that looks like. Exactly what level of trigycleride? Exactly how many HDL particles? I mean, come on. At some point, I think it works *against* wellbeing to constantly tinker. The endless pursuit of more, better, faster, shinier, fancier…how much does that take away from our enjoyment of the simple pleasures in the moments we’re engaged in right now, wherever we are.

    More relaxing, less stress. More smiling, less perfectionism. MORE LIVING, LESS CALCULATING, TRACKING & MEASURING.

  49. Thanks for this awesome article, I really needed to read that right now !

    I recognize a bit of myself in your story : I’m in my 20s and I’ve been struggling with bad health for years, and recently I felt different after shifting my focus from “fixing my gut” to “enjoying life”. However I’m afraid to go too far down this way because I am very weak and when I get a little to active (like taking more than a 10 minute walk), I feel it puts a strain on my body and my abdominal pain increases, and after a few days I am sick, I get joints pains, light headed, and I feel sick like if I had a cold. Should I go further and trust my body’s ability to “adapt” ? I’m afraid because I fear that I feel sick because living a normal life does more damage than my body can deal with, which seems unsunstainable. I’m planning to try and see what happens, but any advices are welcome.

    • I feel the exactly the same Mat. I’m also in my 20’s and can’t even go for a walk most of the time, the more I do, the more I suffer for doing too much….

      • Mat and Simas, you weren’t born to feel the way you do. Investigate the Mediator Release Test. I think it identifies which of about 150 foods and additives cause allergy and autoimmune response. I would also get my DNA tested with http://www.23andme.com and feed the results into one of a number of analytical tools that help interpret this data. Methylation problems due to MTHFR gene polymorphism are common and have fundamental effects on over 200 metabolic pathways. I am sure Chris would guide you more specifically. Otherwise, Dr Jack Kruse is another man who has done some astounding work understanding how we operate and interact with the laws of physics and chemistry from which biology emerges. Look at his website too. i wish you both better health. Sam

        • Thanks for the tips Sam, I take methylfolate and MB12 monthly, it never fails to improve my overall health by 20% each time (then I slowly lose this progress over the month). There are a few side effects but it’s still one of the greatest things I’ve tried.

      • I read your other comment, my story is similar to yours, except I’m not sure if it’s the probiotics or some other element of the GAPS diet that pushed me into a downward spiral of health. I personally do not regret it because I feel a lot happier with myself, before the diet I had bad mental health, depression, I had OK energy but I was extremely unhappy and everything I tried, including the medication I was prescribed failed to do anything.
        I’m sorry to hear nutrition has failed to get you better. Do you think your body could be detoxing ? I’m pretty sure that’s the case for me, I think it explain why I react badly to “healing” food : the better my health is, the more my body heals and moves toxins around, push them into my intestines.
        Like I said in my first comment I tried focusing on something else my symptoms and it makes them quieter. The challenge is finding something interesting to do with no energy. Internet or anything o nthe computer didn’t worked for me, it wasn’t enough distracting to make me forget my symptoms . I tried gardening today and it feels it worked. Strangely it’s the most boring stuff that keep me focused lol.

  50. I loved reading this from you this morning. It really uplifted me. I have been dealing with Sibo for 2 1/2 years now and I do find myself getting really down. It is such an anti social illness as our lives before revolved around food and getting together with people over food. I have tried to get into hobbies that I love like sewing and crafts which definitely helps but not being able to find anyone in NZ to talk to or that knows anything about Sibo does get you down. I don’t stay down for long though and I know that finding some joy definitely helps you to feel better

  51. Thank you for sharing this viewpoint on health. I am that person you were years ago, on a mission for perfect ‘health’. It’s stressful to be perfect and I feel selfish because I am taking time away from my family – obsessing over treatments and special diets, wasting money on supplements and doctor visits, scouring the internet for hours to find new information on my symptoms!! It’s time for me to take a chill pill and just live life. I do have other interests (at least I think I do – it’s been so long…..). I am so much better than I was 6 years ago when I got really sick and maybe this is as good as it will get. I can live with that, I feel pretty great most of the time. After years of trial and error, I know what to do now to keep my energy up and the pain and discomfort down, enough. I probably dont need think about what I can do to improve my health all day every day now. The last doctor I saw a few months ago told me the same thing and it has been on my mind ever since. It’s nice to hear it again from a trusted source.

  52. A big part of health is the absence of pain. At least the pain should be so that I can sleep at night (digestion problems) and can close my hands (got arthritis, too). I much prefer having enough energy so that I don’t fall into bed at night totally exhausted.

    Health is also not having to deal with doctors so often and getting grief from them because I don’t do what they want.

    And lastly health is having friends and family not dying of heart attack or cancer way to early in their lives. For some friends is already too late. One family member is in the middle of her fight against cancer.

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