The canary in a coal mine is a highly illustrative metaphor that I frequently use with my clients to explain susceptibility to certain illnesses due to inherent sensitivity, reactivity and responsiveness. It conveys a message about when weakness can be a strength.
The metaphor comes from coal mining days gone by when the miners used to take a canary in a cage down into the tunnels with them. They did this because the canary is a physiologically sensitive creature. It would alert them to the presence of toxic gases while they were mining before they felt the effects. It would either stop singing or die and thus would give the miners time to don their gas masks and leave the area before they too succumbed.
Modern progress has provided a safer environment for miners through gas sensors and sophisticated ventilation systems and thankfully spared the poor canaries… the metaphor however has lived on.
The canary in a coal mine metaphor is used in many different fields such as politics, economics and health care often heralding warnings of doom and gloom. It is frequently used by Functional medicine educators to describe the vulnerable populations which are more prone to certain chronic illnesses and which are rightly sensitive and reactive to toxins and other stressors in our environment.
And that is the context in which I first discovered myself as a human canary almost a decade ago. The ‘diagnosis’ came as both a relief and what felt like a death sentence until I learned to work with my innate sensitivity as a strength and not purely a weakness.
Human canaries also provide an early warning signal to others who are less sensitive. This warning can actually guide all of us to better health if we choose to acknowledge it as such. Many people with chronic health issues like allergies, autoimmunity and fibromyalgia to name a few, are often examples of human canaries. Even though these patients may have a hard time being taken seriously and are often overmedicated to keep them quiet (which often makes things worse and not better), their complete healing and recovery are possible if one removes the toxic, stressful triggers and focuses on the personalised repair, maintenance and appropriate lifestyle strategies.
I have expanded the metaphor to include the reality of being a human canary in our modern-day context as a teaching tool for my clients and followers. We are all exposed to many potentially stressful inputs of modern living such as processed junk food, exposure to pesticides, herbicides, plastic derivatives, water, air and noise pollution, a host of man-made chemicals and many mental/ emotional stresses.
The canaries in our modern coal mine are not as well equipped to handle these or become more quickly overwhelmed and present earlier with illness. These are individuals who are highly sensitive and when subjected to a toxic and adverse environment get sick first, develop chronic illness and can potentially die before others who are constitutionally more robust.
Functional medicine acknowledges and cautions certain vulnerable population groups. These are people with inflammatory or autoimmune chronic conditions because they have an inherited tendency to low-grade inflammation and/or epigenetic challenges. I have found using epigenetic tests most insightful especially when biochemical markers are within normal ranges in the presence of both subjective and objective suffering. When people seek help for symptoms but their blood tests come back normal, Functional medicine teaches us that one has to look more holistically and dig deeper to find the root cause(s) of their dis-ease.
Epigenetics gives us the emerging science to support these insights. There are certain single polymorphic nucleotides (SNPs) that can predict sensitivity and confirm susceptibility to certain diseases way before they present as full-blown pathology. When these ‘weak’ SNPs or challenges are upregulated, illness is often expressed. When these same SNPs are downregulated, it is as if they are put to sleep and the risk for the associated disease is reduced or eliminated.
Through testing, I discovered that I (and a number of family members on my mother’s side of the family) have certain epigenetic challenges that I now believe ‘make’ us human canaries. IN particular, this results from the presence of the Apolipoprotein E4 (APOE4) SNP and a Glutathione S-transferase M1 (GSTM1) deletion. Read all about my GSTM1 deletion in my previous article ‘When less is more… science, alchemy and cabbages’.
The APOE4 form shows hyper-reactivity to both unhealthy and healthy inputs such as alcohol, smoking and a diet high in fat, especially saturated fats. It has been investigated and thought to contribute toward a significantly increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. E4 individuals have a greater antioxidant requirement which means that we may benefit from eating an organic, plant-based diet rich in colourful fruits and vegetables. We may also benefit from reducing saturated fat intake, alcohol intake, smoking cessation, and losing that extra weight.
So the sensitivity of the human canary is by no means a death sentence. In fact, this hyperresponsiveness can also work to our advantage. Given the right nutrients, lifestyle and environment, human canaries can respond faster and thrive better than their less reactive counterparts. It does however require dedication to a clean and healthy lifestyle which in this day and age feels like swimming upstream.
As the toxic load has increased over time, and we are living longer in our modern world where chemicals are ubiquitous, excessive toxin accumulation and overwhelm is a reality for most of us. Epigenetic challenges like the ones mentioned above indicate to me that some of us were clearly designed for living in the pristine natural environment of preindustrial times when the air was clean and the food chain unadulterated by man-made foreign chemicals in such abundant amounts.
This is my perspective. It shows that certain population groups (myself, many family members and the majority of my client base included) have an extra propensity to develop chronic illness in our current modern world. But this is not purely problematic because it can also be viewed as a potential strength. The canaries in a modern coal mine have heightened responsiveness to both negative and positive interventions. Take away the toxins and stresses and often health flourishes. Our sensitivity and ill health give the early warning signal for everyone else’s health and the condition of our planet. Epigenetic test panels bring emerging science into preventative healthcare and in many cases, much-needed explanations to solve the chronic disease puzzles of those seeking health.
Oh boy have we got our work cut out for us! To the little bird whispering in my ear…Tweet tweet!
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