One could arguably say that I grew up in a more “natural” household than most. In the days before eating organic became popular, my parents were making everything from scratch, getting groceries from the health food store, keeping me away from preservatives and sugar (the only candy we had in the house had to be sweetened with honey), and, much to my dismay, juicing everything under the sun (that may be a slight exaggeration but it sure felt like my childhood reality). In an age when it seems that medicine is only more recently coming to fully understand the effects of food on our bodies, our health, and our wellbeing, I have known for quite some time the wisdom of my mother’s practice of eating as close to the earth as possible. I also know the backlash that this approach can cause, however. As a kid, this all natural approach to eating left me feeling deprived and, as soon as I had free time and disposable income, I gravitated toward as much sugar and as many preservatives and food colorings as I could possibly get my hands on (it is truly hard to beat a cheese puff out of a 4 gallon sized tub, let’s be honest). Now, as an adult with my own kids, I have settled in the middle but tend more towards my mother’s way of doing things. If it didn’t swim in the oceans, crawl upon the land, grow out of the ground, or fly above us in the skies, we tend not to eat it. Unless, of course, it is an Oreo. I’m not a monster!
But isn’t “natural” always better?
So, the “natural is better” approach I completely understand. Breast feeding is one of the best things we can do to boost our children’s early and developing immune system. We should steer clear of chemicals as best we can. We should not have hormones in our milk or treat our cattle with antibiotics. Letting our kids play in the dirt and bury their noses in dog and cat fur is good for them. But even nature has her limits when it comes to our health. There are plenty of natural things in the world which are NOT good for us and some natural things that, while not good for us in large quantities, are necessary to our bodily and earthly ecosystems. Exposure to these are an unavoidable consequence of being a citizen of this earth. To get away from them, we would have to leave the planet.
While “natural” options are often the best options, “natural” does not always equal “good”. I would dare say that, while tetanus is a “naturally” occurring infection, contracting it and suffering the severe muscle spasms that are strong enough to break bones and stop our breathing is anything but good. Chicken pox is “natural” but the encephalitis it can cause (an inflammation of the brain which can result in permanent brain damage or death) is terrible. And the “natural immunity” gained by having and surviving a chicken pox illness puts us at risk of developing a horribly painful and debilitating condition later in adulthood called Shingles. If you’ve ever had Shingles or known anyone with Shingles then you know that the pain, which can unfortunately last for years, can be devastating. While seizures and loss of limbs and death may be a “natural” reaction to getting a “natural” meningococcal meningitis infection, I’d dare say it’s hard to come out with a stronger immune system on the other side if you’re dead. In these cases, “natural” is far from “good”.
Even those “toxins” are natural – it’s the quantity that counts
The argument that vaccines are not “natural” because of some of the ingredients they use to boost the immune response, kill off the active viral or bacterial particles, and other functions in production of vaccines is also somewhat misguided. Mercury, aluminum, formaldehyde… all of these things are naturally occurring on the planet. While I would agree that large quantities of these things can be harmful, in small doses they pose no threat and in some cases are even necessary to our cellular function. Methyl mercury can be toxic to the nervous system. However, it is not Methyl mercury but Ethyl mercury that is the ingredient in Thimerosal, a preservative that was used to prevent bacterial and fungal contamination of vaccines until 2001 (it is now only contained in the multi dose vial of influenza vaccine). Ethyl mercury is not the neurotoxin we think of when we think of “Mercury”. Aluminum is a chemical element found naturally occurring in our earth’s crust and, because of leaching into soil and water, is present in trace amounts in most of our food. It is used in everything from building materials to aluminum foil, deodorant to cookware, baby formula to shampoo. Even breast milk contains more aluminum over the first 6 months of life than infants get in 6 months worth of vaccinations. Formaldehyde is that substance we typically think of as present in embalming fluid – that can’t be good for us, right? But it is also naturally occurring in fruits and other foods. While we wouldn’t want to expose ourselves to large doses, our bodies have the ability to process small amounts and our cells actually manufacture formaldehyde for use in synthesizing our own amino acids (you can’t get more “natural” than that). The organic apples and pears we feed our kids contain significantly more formaldehyde than what they are exposed to in vaccines.
Vaccines allow our immune system to do its “natural” thing
While it is undoubtedly beneficial to one’s health to live a more “natural” lifestyle, eating fruits and vegetables, avoiding preservatives, and getting regular cardiovascular exercise in the fresh air, for example, vaccines offer us a way for our own immune systems, our “natural” defense against illness, to develop memory cells against a killed or weakened form of a vaccine-preventable disease, permitting our bodies to prepare a defense “naturally” against future attacks. And what is more natural than seeking to defend yourself against a threat, in this case a threat to your health? Humankind’s “natural”, god-given intellect has allowed the scientific and medical advances which now give us some measure of control over disease. I would argue that to deny the benefits of medical advances to our children and ourselves is what we should consider “unnatural”.