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Author: Keith Pearce
Title: Food and/or Medicine - the Biochemical Conundrum

Reading Lawrence Durrell's 'Black Book' I was prompted by a description of a Tibetan stirring butter into his tea to ponder the nature of body biochemistry and how we unconsciously and increasingly consciously manipulate it.

You are what you eat. This saying has permeated our culture in recent decades with positive and negative proponents. Well, we eat many things most of which we call food, but some of which we call medicines or supplements. Our image in doing this eating is that our body needs materials to sustain itself and grow. We often don't consider other major ingestions such as air, water and electro-magnetic energies, let alone emotions and subtle energies.

Foods have chemical impact on our bodies as do medicines. That is their point, to 'feed' the chemical factories which are our cells and organs to produce materials and energies to keep our bodymind in good repair, in working order, to provide the materials and energies to replace worn out tissues, to repair damaged tissues and to continue the process of growth and development which we know as life.

Foods are everyday medicines the remedies we need to get by when living our normal lives. Sometimes we choose to eat particular foods because we believe they are particularly good for us, specially healthy, those foods which promote good digestion. Often we choose to eat foods we like, those which feed our neediness our desire for comfort and pleasure. Sometimes we choose not to eat foods which we believe are bad for us, which tend to cause damage to our body; but often they are the ones we like best.

Medicines are food we choose to take when we are sick, to try to make us better. Generally they are unpleasant and we wouldn't choose to take them unless we felt sick. They are foods in the sense that we eat them, put them inside our body, add them to the biochemical cocktail which is continuously being processed by our organs. Diet is a much used word. Its most common use in western media is in the context of controlling food intake, limiting it in quantity (calories) or quality. This is the point at which food and medicine overlap. Most diets are medicinal in the sense that they are more or less voluntary limitations on food consumption with the aim of improving health. They often require the eating of more of the less liked foods and less or none of the most liked.

The biochemistry of food and medicine consumption has been extensively studied by scientists. It is a very complex area which is only partially understood. The number of possible interactions between substances is so huge that only a very small proportion has been studied in detail using the full scientific methods. Consequently most decisions about food and medicine consumption whether taken by people themselves or by their expert advisers are taken on the basis of gut feelings about what is good and what is bad. Every time we choose what we eat we are making a kind of decision. What do I feel like eating at the moment? Often the decision is complicated by the thought, what should I eat!

The modern medicine tends to be a man-made chemical which has been expensively designed and researched to be more precise and controllable in its effect on the body's biochemistry. Often this technical process has begun with a food substance or other natural material which has been observed to have a certain effect by generations or Centuries of experience. The isolation of the active ingredient and its incorporation into a medicine with inactive carrier substances is one of the principle methods of turning food into medicine.

Science fiction and to some extent science fact (eg space travel) has led to the extreme version of this as food pills being the only required consumption. A major spin-off from this medicine industry is the supplement industry. On the basis that modern diets are not balanced and modern scientific understanding that we need a balanced diet to remain healthy there are a whole host of biochemical theories as to what kind of balance we need and what chemicals we need to restore that balance. A huge 'health food' industry has grown on this basis and many people perceive it as part of the complementary health/medicine industry.

Further overlaps between food and medicine occur in the field of recreational substances - things people ingest to alter their experience of the world. Drugs is the general term for these substances, often subdivided into tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs. Differing only in the degree and legal definition from medical drugs to extreme foods - chocolate, cream, sweets, and on and on - these mind altering Substances (or mood altering) also have a clear biochemical impact on the body.

Yet more complexity has recently been added to this minefield of health and illness. We now have the lifestyle drugs such as Prozac, Viagra and their less well known companions. These are legal substances to alter the mind and body in ways which can equally well be defined as for health or for recreation - or just for living. One person's lifestyle is another person's hell.

In the context of a review of Health Services what is important is to see the continuum of labelled areas of life which overlap to form the complex area we call health.