I’d like to try to explain why lifestyles can’t be regulated.
You might be a bit puzzled by this assertion, given that’s exactly what government is bent on doing, as it moves rapidly to regulate not just tobacco and alcohol, but also fat, sugar, salt and junk food.
All I say is that tobacco and alcohol and fat and sugar and salt aren’t the principal components of a lifestyle. They aren’t even significant components of a lifestyle. Because a lifestyle isn’t just made up of what people eat, but of every single thing they ever do. It’s made up of countless billions of acts. Eating and drinking is a tiny component of a lifestyle. It’s the visible tip of an iceberg, of which 99.999% is out of sight.
I’d like to explain with an example from my own life. Three or four years ago I found that my left leg was becoming increasingly numb, and when I took a hot bath I found that my left foot was looking very pale by comparison with my right foot. I wondered if it might be because I smoked too much and drank too much. But I dismissed this suggestion on the grounds that I was smoking and drinking as much as I always did. Nothing had changed there. If my lifestyle was causing the numb leg, then I had to look at some change in my lifestyle. I had to be doing something differently. I began to study what I was doing, trying to see if the numbness was consequent on doing particular things.
My first candidate for something I was doing differently was the way I drove my car with my left foot cocked over the clutch pedal. I’d noticed that after driving for any length of time, my calf muscles got sore. Maybe having calf muscles flexed for long periods restricted blood flow?
It looked like a winning candidate, but gradually I began to think it couldn’t be this, primarily because I seldom drive very far. And when I do drive any distance, I soon get tired of holding my foot just above the clutch pedal, and put it on the floor next to the clutch pedal.
And also the evidence wasn’t that my leg was numb after driving: the evidence was that it was most numb after I’d been sitting in front of my computer for long periods. But how on earth could that make one leg go numb, and not the other? I began to study how I sat.
And then one day I made the breakthrough. I noticed that quite often when I was sat at my desk, I’d automatically cross one leg over the other. And it seemed that I usually preferred to cross my left leg over my right leg. And when I did this for any length of time, the left leg would gradually become numb.
And there was a simple explanation for why this was new. About 4 years ago I moved into a flat full of chairs and tables. And I don’t really like chairs. For most of my life I’ve sat cross-legged on a bed or a cushion, without either leg going numb. But now that I was regularly sitting on a chair, the weight of the left leg pressing down onto my right knee was constricting blood flow (and maybe nerve transmissions) in my left leg.
The prescription was simple: Stop crossing your left leg over your right leg! And so I’ve now forbidden myself from doing that. And I’ve also made sure that my clothing doesn’t constrict my left leg. I don’t allow anything to compress or squeeze that leg.
And, guess what, in the two years that I’ve been doing this, my left leg has gradually stopped feeling numb. And when I take a bath, my left foot is now the same colour as my right foot. It’s still not perfect, but it’s almost as good as it gets.
Now crossing my legs is just one single, tiny component of my lifestyle. It’s another thing I do, just like I drive with my left foot cocked over the clutch. And it had taken me a long time to gradually home in and find that it was this tiny habit that was causing me the growing numbness problem.
But what doctor is ever going to advise people not to cross their legs? If I’d gone to a doctor, I’d probably have been told to stop smoking, and handed an expensive prescription. Because a doctor can’t possibly know whether people cross their legs, or ride the clutch, or anything else as apparently equally insignificant. The only person who is able to consider my entire lifestyle, and look at everything I do, is me myself. No doctor can do it. Because no doctor has access to my complete lifestyle, and everything I do. It’s stupid for anyone to even begin to imagine that they know everything about someone’s lifestyle if they know whether they smoke or drink. It’s like knowing whether a car engine has clean spark plugs and new engine oil: the problem might not be there at all.
There’s a corollary to this, which is that anyone’s best doctor is first and foremost themselves. They’re the only people with access to all the facts, to the complete lifestyle, because they live that lifestyle all day every day. What point is there going to a doctor who has none of that hands-on, day-to-day experience of actually living your life?
I’m not saying that doctors are useless. They are (or were) pretty good at treating diseases which aren’t caused by lifestyles, like a great many of the transmissible diseases, and with accidental injuries like those sustained in car crashes. But when it comes to lifestyles, they’re completely out of their depth. They don’t really know anything about lifestyles, and what’s more they can’t know.
Lifestyle regulation can’t possibly work because the medical profession doesn’t have access to real lifestyle information, and can never have access to any. Knowing whether people smoke or drink is of no use whatsoever, if the real problem is that people are doing something as simple as crossing their legs. It wouldn’t even help if every home was equipped with CCTV to watch what people were doing.
What has to happen is for people to be encouraged to be first and foremost their own doctors, and to only consult the medical profession as a last resort if they’re completely stumped. People ought to be trained to think like detectives, gradually ruling out suspect causes. But at the moment, as far as I can see, as soon as anyone has the slightest twinge or giddy spell, they head off to see a doctor. No wonder the NHS is being stretched to breaking point! And also, no wonder that there’s an epidemic of everything, because the advice that lifestyle doctors hand out (“Stop smoking”) is almost certainly the wrong advice.
Doctors are going to have to hand responsibility back to their patients, where the responsibility always lay anyway. Doctors are going to have to learn from their patients. I’m sure the best ones always did anyway. Doctors are going to have to become assistants to their patients, learning from them rather than lecturing them.