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What Is Health?


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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?

what is health
The concept of what it means to be healthy is important to define. deathtothestockphoto.com

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.

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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.

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Join the conversation

  1. 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.

  2. 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:


      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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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!

  5. 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!!

  6. 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.


  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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).

  12. 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!

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. Thank you.
    I never thought of health this way.
    This was an eye-opener.
    I’m going to start living!

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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

  19. 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.

  20. 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.