The concept of synergy underlies everything I am about in my therapy practice. Having good health is not merely about identifying a single problem or finding a single solution. Health is about synergy: the interactions between two or more variables, which result in effects that are either bigger than or different from the additive value of each of the individual variables.
Our modern scientific methods are not well designed to examine synergy. We are pretty good with problems that have single or even a few variables. We much prefer to examine one variable at a time in order to be certain of our results. So the idea of including synergy in studies rarely occurs to most of the folks who are running the lab coat shows. Synergy doesn’t lend itself to a well-designed research study.
But the problem is that life doesn’t happen at the speed of one variable at a time. Health is a context that includes everything in our lives and the manner in which all of those things affect each other. It may be that synergy has more to do with your health than any one particular health principle.
I observed a problem recently in a study that examined antioxidants in food. The author discussed what happened when the researchers extracted the antioxidants from food, put them into pills and administered them to humans. The researchers were surprised that the antioxidants didn’t work as well as they had expected, based on how well those antioxidants had previously worked in the lab. So the study author concluded that, instead of antioxidants, there must be some other thing in the food that created its good effects.
What if it’s the synergy created by foods—real, whole foods—that’s good for us?! What if we can’t ever reduce this synergy to a list of active ingredients because what’s going on is ten-thousand variables’ worth of synergy? What if the way we eat and digest food interacts with the way we prepare our food, as well as with the way our bodies have been interacting in the world for the past day, week, month and decade? What if all of those variables, plus the way the food was grown, harvested and marketed, affected our health outcomes? Happily, I see that some researchers are indeed coming to such conclusions.
Synergy is an essential part of holistic thinking. Context is everything.
Here’s an example: You feel as if you’re coming down with a cold. You reach for help from the herb Echinacea. But, perhaps Echinacea is not going to work for you this time, not against the context of the rest of your life. You see, the use of Echinacea can be very complicated. Spring harvesting yields five times more of some of the beneficial ingredients as compared to fall harvesting. The root and leaf have different effects. If you start to take Echinacea the very moment you begin to feel sick, this early treatment makes a difference. If you’re eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) that includes a high percentage of processed foods and antibiotic-laden meats, that SAD context may overwhelm the power of Echinacea.
So if a study attempting to determine the usefulness of Echinacea is carried out on people who carry a large burden of effects from the contexts they live in (i.e., diet, pollution, stress, etc.), that study may not show any positive effect of Echinacea. Lack of results here might mean more about context than about the value of that particular herb.