What does MS have to do with climate change?

Last September I was diagnosed with remitting-relapsing multiple sclerosis after a first—and frightening—attack. Despite the grim news I was intrigued by the elusiveness of the disease, and I started my journey of searching for answers and solutions to the question of how to best prevent or delay further attacks. I’ve learned a lot—and been reminded of a lot along the way.

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a strange disease, characterized by so many different symptoms that some call it the disease with a 1000 faces. Little is known about the causes and consequently all approved therapies and medications aim at reducing symptoms, not at addressing a cause.

Yet, one thing most experts agree on is that there is likely a very strong environmental component to the disease. It is generally considered an autoimmune disorder —that is, the system that ordinarily protects one’s body from infections and other threats goes haywire. The autoimmune system attacks the body.

MS was first noted at the onset of the industrialized age at the end of the 19th century. There is no previous record of its incidence. Its occurrence has increased dramatically since and mostly in the developed richer nations. Significantly, the increase is most prevalent in nations that eat mostly a “meat and potato” diet, rather than a more Mediterranean or asian cuisine.

Changes in lifestyle over the past century (active/outdoor to sedentary/indoor), environmental factors such as increased toxins in air and water, and a shift in nutrition characterized by high animal fat intakes and highly processed food supplies are broadly suspected to be a significant part of the problem.

It’s been months since my diagnosis—during that time, after a lot of research, I made a decision to pursue a nutritional path to managing the disease over medication. Since that decision, the world has changed quite a bit for me for the better.

I found that the suggested causes and remedies were somewhat related to what started to look like an energy balance for a building. My systems had seriously gotten out of balance on every nutritional and lifestyle level! It’s become clear that my lifestyle for the last 10 or so years has systematically depleted my resources! I was running on fumes.

I felt somewhat consoled and excited by the fact that I knew something about rebalancing a system. I was accustomed to working on getting first to a balanced state through conservation and then eventually to a positive energy balance through consequent repletion. My thoughts were, if you can build a passive house you can rebalance your body, right? And here I went.

I began seeing real parallels between our efforts in the passive building community to rebalance resources with my individual efforts to rebalance my intakes. In each case, the goal is to assure that the taking and the giving is brought back into balance. A global society that constantly over-consumes and dumps tons and tons of carbon into the atmosphere as a result will eventually overwhelm the system and cause its collapse—just like my constantly depleting lifestyle depleted my body—and led to its attack on itself.

We live our lives by constantly going into debt with the planet’s resources (our body is a planetary resource) and think if we can just pay the minimum payment each month it does not matter how big our total balance is. Over-consuming and getting further away from being in balance and zeroing out our account, our modern lifestyles suffer from a similar effect.

I’ve read extensively about the interplay of ultra-busy but sedentary lifestyles and the perils of fast/processed food, factory farms and antibiotics, toxins, and increases in food allergies.

I’ve concluded that both MS and climate change are symptoms of excessive in-debtness with ourselves in the name of a convenient modern life style based on consumption, a life out of balance.

Ten years ago I made a resolution as an architect to work exclusively on passive buildings to take responsibility for my share of the rebalancing act. After my MS diagnosis, I made a similar resolution to rebalance my body and lifestyle instead of treating the symptoms with expensive medication and its own side effects. I soon found myself calculating an energy balance for my body, counting all different kinds of fats and oils and balancing them appropriately.  Every day I eat 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables, multiple grain servings and watch out for a whole set of other interesting nutritional factors to strengthen the brain, rebuild the nervous system, the autoimmune system and the cardiovascular system. I have not been so clear headed, focused and energetic in years. I have lost 30 pounds without trying…but I still have work to do on my exercise regimen.

All this has dovetailed with my professional mission: my carbon footprint has significantly improved! I’ve almost entirely eliminated meat, and I forgo gluten, dairy, processed grains, and other packaged food products (all energy-intensive foods). I buy organic and pastured chicken, local if possible.

In a way it was easy for me to make that decision—MS is a powerful motivator. I always wanted to eat this way but never was able to maintain it because I managed to justify the modern shortcuts of fast food, pizza and beer in the name of convenience, helping me to de-stress and save time and work more.

But I’ve learned that equation doesn’t add up in the end, and that this type of diet is broadly recommended to avoid the most common diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other autoimmune diseases. All of these diseases are on a disturbing upswing. Just as the consequences of climate change is.

MS and climate change: they are similar looming invisible threats to our quality of life. Once an attack subsides things appear to be normal again and one is tempted to go back to business as usual and ignore the problem. But leaving the causes unattended will debilitate again, destroying quality of life, or life itself.

Here is my resolution: I don’t want to take any chances, neither with my body, the only one I have–nor with the planet, the only one I have. My body is an extension of my family, my house, my community, my city, my country, my planet.

MS and climate change are opportunities: they are second chances for us to end our follies and fix what we broke so that we may once again live in balance and peace. And that’s what I intend to do. And I think being in the passive house community puts me in terrific company. I’ve had terrific support, and I thank you all.

Meantime, there’s more to say about all this, but I’ll save it for a second installment….

Katrin

 

 

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