responsibility in health

A Question of Responsibility in Health and Disease

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Self-responsibility is much needed in the quixotic culture that surrounds us today. It should begin to be acquired even in infancy as we learn to navigate life. The difficult job of parenthood, perhaps the most important one of all, has to be undertaken without previous experience or training. In former years the wisdom of grandparents was sought avidly when families tended to remain in the same locality. Geographic separation has caused them to be largely discarded.

This post states that there is no more important example of self-responsibility than in maintenance of health. When we are struck down by disease, we have been taught that it is purely an act of nature: that it has nothing to do with our own actions. It is regarded as bad luck or an inevitable effect of genetic predisposition. We have also been taught that when we get sick, whatever the cause may be, that the wonders of modern medicine will take care of it. We accept a prescription as a birthright, often without seeking why it is being prescribed or how it is expected to cure us. Is that really how we want to live?

Self-Responsibility is Critical to Health

When I emphasize dietary indiscretion as the harbinger of ill health, some readers will say, “oh yes, we’ve heard all that stuff before. It is so boring”, not even bothering to read further. So let us use an analogy that I have used before in posts on this website. You have bought a car and the owner’s manual tells you that the engine uses regular gas. However, a friend has told you that high octane gas increases acceleration and makes the car livelier. You have decided that the feel of the car with high octane gas appeals to you, even though you have also been told that it increases the wear-and-tear on the engine, possibly leading to an eventual breakdown. With that knowledge, you are faced with a choice. If your decision is to continue using a fuel for which the engine has not been designed, it might be referred to as indiscretion, or even lack of self-responsibility. When the forecast of breakdown becomes a reality you might even blame the car maker. Cursing the necessary expenditure, you might expect a skilled mechanic to repair the damage, even forgetting that it may have been your own fault. Could this be compared with dietary indiscretion? Of course, you need to have the knowledge of how and why the “wrong choices” do, in fact, result in health breakdown. If you persist in making those “wrong choices”, are you in fact exercising self-responsibility towards your own health?

Natural Sugars versus Sugary Sweets

However we arrived on the face of the earth, we could not have survived if the fuel had not been available to us. Anthropologists tell us that our ancestors were “hunter gatherers”. The food (fuel) was provided by Mother Nature in the form of nuts, seeds, roots, leaves and fruits. In particular, there was no such thing as sugar in a free state. It was locked up in the fruit and leaves. There are at least 40 or more nutrients in natural food that are mandatory to the maintenance of health and many may not even have been discovered yet. None of them are contained in the highly processed, heavily sweetened substances we call food.

Where did we go wrong? Believe it or not, sugar is the villain. We can now go on the Internet and are told repeatedly that it is more addictive than cocaine and yet 80% of the artificial foods on the shelves of a groceries store contain sugar. In fact, these “foods” would not sell unless they were sweet to the taste. People are so bored with hearing this that it is virtually ignored. Because the characteristic symptoms develop slowly and do not produce abnormal conventional laboratory studies, the connection is almost invariably lost. When symptoms do emerge, they are often mistakenly diagnosed as psychosomatic, for which the standard treatment is a prescription for one of the many tranquilizer pills. Self-indulgence as the cause is never considered by patient or physician.

Of Different Fuels

Let’s try to keep it simple by turning once again to analogy. Gasoline in a car engine has to be ignited. The explosion that occurs represents a union of gasoline with oxygen. The resultant energy has to be captured in a cylinder in order to drive a piston. This connects with a flywheel that transmits the energy to the wheels through a transmission. Our bodies have exactly the same problems but the mechanisms are widely different. Glucose, derived from simple sugars, is the primary fuel of our cells, particularly in the brain. It is “ignited” by uniting it with oxygen and this is done by means of an enzyme. In order to function properly, this enzyme requires the presence of vitamin B1 (thiamine) and magnesium. You could say that thiamine and magnesium “ignite the glucose”, releasing energy in the form of electrons. The energy from electrons synthesizes a kind of energy currency known as ATP. This works a little like a battery. Chemical energy derived from “burning” (oxidizing) glucose must be transduced to electric energy for physical or mental function. If those nutrients are not present, the sugars remain unprocessed, free to evoke the host of modern disease processes that fall under the rubric of Type 2 diabetes.

Returning to our engine analogy, many car owners will remember that they had to use a mechanism called a choke when starting the cold engine. This resulted in a temporary high concentration of gas. Perhaps it will be remembered that if and when the choke was not released or discontinued when the engine had warmed up, the engine would run distinctly badly and black smoke would emerge from the exhaust pipe. The black smoke represents inefficient combustion of the gasoline. Therefore, there should be a much lower ratio of gasoline to oxygen when the engine has warmed.

Cellular Engines Need Fuel

Each of all our cells have “engines” called mitochondria that generate energy. They work constantly, do not have to be started like a car engine and are always warm. They do not need a choke. When we take an excess of calories that do not contain the necessary vitamins and minerals, it is exactly like choking our mitochondria, creating inefficiency of energy production. This is particularly true of sugar that overwhelms the ability of vitamin B1 to “ignite” it. Inefficient combustion (oxidation) gives rise to organic acids that are the equivalent of black smoke in the car exhaust and they can be found in the urine. This inefficiency of energy production affects the part of the brain that is responsible for our ability to adjust ourselves (adapt) to the changes that occur in our environment. We develop functional changes such as “brain fog”, palpitations of the heart, unusual or excessive sweating and “goosebumps” may appear on the skin. We may have a drop in blood pressure, associated with a fainting attack. Because the standard laboratory tests are normal, it is concluded that the symptoms are psychosomatic.

I remember the case of an adolescent whose diet contained a lot of “junk foods”. He climbed a rope in the gymnasium, entailing the consumption of energy. When he came down he passed out and was removed to the nearest hospital. Without knowing that he had vitamin B1 deficiency, they gave him intravenous fluids containing glucose. He had eleven bloodstained bowel movements and died. Giving sugar to somebody who is deficient in vitamin B1 is extremely dangerous and the trouble is that ingestion of sugar leads to vitamin B1 deficiency. There is considerable evidence that dietary indiscretion of this nature, continued over years, may eventually give rise to a brain disease that is given a name. Alzheimer’s, senile dementia, Parkinson’s disease and other well-known scourges may well be the legacy in your later years.

What We Eat and Drink Matters

In light of this discussion, who is responsible for the current health crisis? While it is tempting to blame others, and certainly the food and pharmaceutical industries benefit greatly from our incessant need to indulge, the blame ultimately must reside with each of us. We have abdicated our responsibility to manage our own health. Like the car owner who ‘likes the feel’ he gets from his car with high octane gas, we like the feel we get from when we eat sweets and other junk foods. Ultimately though, without the correct fuel, engines clog and sputter. Whether those engines reside in our vehicles or in our bodies, absent the correct fuel, damage accrues. It is a relatively simple equation, but one that requires a modicum of self-awareness and responsibility. Unfortunately, I am afraid self-responsibility seems to have disappeared from modern concepts of health and disease. I suspect that until it is found and embraced again as core human value, diseases of consumption and indulgence will continue to flourish.

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Image by Tumisu from Pixabay.

This article was published originally on December 7, 2016.

Dr. Derrick Lonsdale passed away on May 2, 2024. He will be missed. 


Derrick Lonsdale M.D., is a Fellow of the American College of Nutrition (FACN), Fellow of the American College for Advancement in Medicine (FACAM). Though now retired, Dr. Lonsdale was a practitioner in pediatrics at the Cleveland Clinic for 20 years and was Head of the Section of Biochemical Genetics at the Clinic. In 1982, Lonsdale joined the Preventive Medicine Group to specialize in nutrient-based therapy. Dr. Lonsdale has written over 100 published papers and the conclusions support the idea that healing comes from the body itself rather than from external medical interventions.


  1. Dr. Lonsdale, I agree wholeheartedly! Self-responsibility in health, as well as other areas of life, is definite the cause of many issues that plague modernity. Thank you for your well written article! And thank you for your continued hard work educating us on the importance of Thiamine. You’re work is a tremendous gift!!!

  2. Beautifully written Dr Lonsdale, loved your illustrations, and the interweaven clinical anecdote. I hope one day to to meet you in person, your passion and dedication for one of the largerest deficiencies causing the domino effect on so many metabolic deseases is truly amazing.

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