(By Grace Rollins, MS, LAc) This spring I’ve been having conversations just about every day with patients, friends and family about the COVID vaccines. Whether to get one, safety concerns, which one is better, even which arm to get the shot in. My studies of biochemistry and immunology only went so far, and I’m not qualified to offer specific advice on the subject, I tell people again and again. However, I do have some observations that may be helpful based on the way I see everyone grasping for answers.
Personally, I put a lot of thought into getting one of the COVID vaccines (which I did back in February). After all, they are brand-new, super-expedited, and let’s be honest, still quasi-experimental. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have felt compelled to get the jab until it had undergone a bit more testing.
Trying to keep an open mind, I read the entire tomb of Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver over the winter.
It’s a delightfully detailed history, full of the setbacks and triumphs of vaccine development going back to the first smallpox inoculations in the 18th century. It’s actually pretty fascinating, if you’re a geek like me. (Did you know Ben Franklin was originally an anti-vaxxer, a position he reversed later as the technology improved? That mercury enemas and extreme bloodletting were originally administered with the early smallpox inoculations--and may have made John Adams’ teeth fall out? That enslaved Africans and Turkish women were the first to introduce the concept of inoculation to Europeans?)
After reading the history it was even more apparent that the matter of vaccines is not black and white. Vaccines sometimes harm people and have been pulled from the markets after launch, even in recent decades. Vaccines have also given our society the luxury of amnesia regarding entire epidemics-- smallpox, rubella, polio, pertussis, to name just a few.
With any issue that’s complex, there are innumerable ways you can slice it. Is big Pharma falsifying data to make a buck? Are paranoid anti-vaxxers blaming unrelated diseases on vaccines and making vaccine development too much of a liability? Are governments intent on nefarious means of social control; are billionaires intent on evil vaccine empires? The lack of science education in our society doesn’t help-- it’s easy to imagine monsters in the dark.
Also, denialism about vaccine side effects doesn’t help. When bad things happen, like the cases of thrombocytopenia that led to pulling of the J&J vaccine here in the U.S. this week, and the Astrazeneca vaccine being taken off markets in Europe, it reinforces our worst fears.
Powerful medical technologies have upsides, and downsides. We can’t trick, bypass or reroute nature without some kind of consequence, be it small or large. There’s always cause and effect. This doesn’t mean we should never use technological medicine. Even acupuncture is a lower-tech form of technological medicine. We use a tool that’s the end product of advanced metallurgy, manufacturing and modern sterilization to effect controlled units of stimulation, and subsequent hormetic reactions, within the body’s structural, biochemical and electromagnetic fields.
Here's another thing: There's how strongly a medical technology rocks the boat, and then there's how easily the boat is rocked to begin with. Medical dosing is a challenging art, due to how uniquely different individuals react on the way to reaching the desired result. This is why we do so much to customize acupuncture sessions--what might be an overwhelmingly strong treatment for one individual might not be adequate stimulation for another to achieve the needed effect. It's also why it's very difficult to offer precise prognoses. Dosages of pharmaceuticals, or even herbal medicines, have to be highly refined based on the wide variability in individual physiology. Even in physical therapy, an exercise prescription for “low back pain” has to be highly individualized to account for the patient’s particular injuries, structural deficits, gait and postural habits, and lifestyle factors.
Having said all that, I wonder if one of the nuances with vaccines is that by nature they are impossible to dose differently for different individuals. Some people have an overly-robust reaction to the standard dose of vaccine (those that are sick in bed for days after getting a shot), while others may have none (that tiny percentage that the vaccine doesn’t confer any immunity to). The diversity of reactions to the COVID shots has given everyone a personal education in bioindividuality. Probably a more medically advanced approach in the future would involve gathering data on the individual patient’s immunotype that could match them to an appropriate vaccine type and customized dose.
For now, we have to do the best with the level of technology we have. As a practitioner of lower-tech, “natural” medicine I’m always an advocate of finding a way to improve our robustness through quality diet, movement, and connection with natural rhythms. At the same time I live in a setting that is no longer “natural” (as bucolic as Bucks County may seem). We’re in densely populated communities that are now fully globalized, and in an unprecedented way we are prone to epidemic diseases much more than our hunter-gatherer ancestors were. Perhaps we must lean on technological medicine to correct imbalances that are beyond the reach of natural self-correction. The COVID pandemic has had an affect on society like nothing in my own lifetime, and weighing the costs and benefits, to me it seems there’s a role for vaccines in helping us get out of this mess.
As a practitioner of “natural” medicine I’m still compelled, however, to advocate the contribution that health-oriented strategies can make in protecting our society from COVID-19. It can be a great relief when a vaccine steps in and offers a shield, but it’s worth understanding that the majority of those who suffered hospitalization and death from COVID had other, lifestyle-related diseases. A recent study found that 63% of hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the US could have been prevented if our society did not suffer from high rates of metabolic syndrome, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Many other studies (for example here and here) have found that Vitamin D status and lower Body Mass Index is correlated with improved outcomes and prevention of complications from COVID-19. The CDC published data suggesting that nearly 80% of those who were hospitalized or died from COVID-19 in the US were either overweight or obese. As of 2018, 42% of Americans were estimated to be obese (BMI> 25) and 72% to be overweight (BMI > 30)!
Black American communities suffer greater Vitamin D deficiency due to melinated skin, and greater rates of several other risk factors for COVID associated with suppressed socio-economic status, including obesity. Minority communities in the U.S. have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. Failure to emphasize public health approaches beyond vaccination is not just a missed opportunity, but arguably unethical and discriminatory.
I make a conscious, daily effort to opt-out of mainstream food behaviors that are detrimental to my health. As those who have tried know, it takes work because it goes seriously against the grain. Our food economics, delivery system and cultural milieu have trapped us into a pattern of conditioned hypereating by making sure that addictive, hyper-palatable foods are the easiest and cheapest to buy, everywhere you go. It’s a systemic, Matrix-level problem that needs a revolution. Our hospitals would not have been overwhelmed, our mortality rates would not have been this high, had we a healthier, more conscious and sustainable food system. I know that might sound like conspiracy stuff, but when over 70% of the population is overweight you have to take a step back and try to bend the spoon with your mind.
In addition, I can’t help but notice the contrast between the degree of our society's current vaccine anxiety and our cavalier willingness to embrace over-the-counter medicines that carry a high frequency of substantial long-term health consequences. Check out the label warnings for omeprazole (Prilosec) and ibuprofen (Advil) when you get a chance. Any NSAIDs can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke, slow bone and tendon healing, cause gastric and intestinal ulcers, and even induce kidney and hearing damage. Certain common antibiotics like Cipro and Levaquin can cause ruptured tendons, tendinitis and neuropathy. Flonase, a heavily prescribed nasal steroid spray, can suppress your immune system, cause nasal yeast infections, and increase the risk of glaucoma and cataract. This definitely isn’t conspiracy stuff; it’s FDA reported-and-known side-effects stuff.
The more mindfulness, and open-mindedness, we can bring to cost-benefit analyses of technological medicine, the more wisely we can benefit from it. I’d like to see more embrace of lifestyle-oriented approaches to health, and natural approaches to the chronic diseases of modernity like acid reflux, IBS, sinus infections, allergies, cardiovascular risk, and common aches and pains, so people don’t have to lean all the time on drugs like Prilosec, Advil, Cipro and Flonase (to name just a few). On the other hand when we’re backed into a corner without a safe alternative, there’s a role for technology. We have most certainly been backed into a corner, worldwide, since COVID arrived in 2020.
If you are inspired to embrace whole-body approaches to minimizing your risk of COVID complications, we at Bridge would LOVE to help you get healthier-- it’s what we do! Time and time again we have seen those with weak immune status regain their robustness with the aid of acupuncture, herbs, nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. Reach out to us any time, so we can all be part of the solution.
And don’t forget to get your Vitamin D status tested!
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