Posted in Book Review

Anatomy of an Illness Review

Every now and then I come across a good read that captures the essence of what it means to be well and gives credence to the powerful capabilities of our body. In Anatomy of Illness, published almost forty years ago, the author Norman Cousins writes in a way that keeps his perspective on health, relevant. Cousins highlights the power of mind, continuous activity, purpose and the effect those factors have on our body’s response to illness. 

A common theme throughout the book is holism and the importance of not viewing pills as the sole answer to pain or sickness. This remains especially prudent during an age of over prescribing antibiotics and opioid analgesics.The author does not shy away from criticizing the culture of drug dependence and the plight many prescribers face with med seekers preoccupying a great deal of time. He goes on to discuss the placebo, presenting studies and emphasizing how our brain can manipulate our physiological responses for better or worse. In one case, Cousins describes a sample size of post-operative patients in recovery. One group was given morphine for pain while the other received a placebo. In the end, 77% those treated with a placebo had a significant reduction in pain compared to individuals receiving morphine. He also explains a flip side of the placebo, almost humorously presenting examples of the mind’s ability to create symptoms. In a few cases, people manifested symptoms so severe from taking a placebo that anaphylactic shock occurred. Reading at first glance, much of these situations seem hard to believe, however, Cousins does a fantastic job backing these claims with data.

In regards to living a healthy life and achieving longevity, Cousins reinforces the vitalness of exercise and a positive outlook. Those who maintain a lifestyle of activity did just as much if not more for the body than anything else. What I appreciate is that he used a very intimate example, drawing from his own experience of ill health and recovery. About ten years before writing this book, doctors diagnosed him with heart disease and predicted he would not live more than a year. However,  he did not resolve himself to bed riddance but rather lived more willfully. Having no restrictions on fitness or work, he felt determined to maintain function while keeping close with family.

Many years later he describes the emotional encounter with one of the physicians who made the ominous prognosis and the amazement in his eyes.  He then goes on to say “I decided that some experts don’t really know enough to make a pronouncement of doom on a human being.” This statement carries a powerful chord, not only for the tone of his remark but also the message it sends to those who sadly conform to the limits some doctors place on patients. I believe that as a health community we have gotten better at making medicine more of an art than a science but much can still be improved. Empowering patients, relinquishing the practice of liberal opioid dispersal and awareness of our mind’s effect on the body can all work in producing effective clinical outcomes. Norman Cousins does not fall short in illuminating these factors by any stretch of the imagination.

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