Mens sana in corpore sano

Life Before

I haven't had a full medical checkup since I was about 12. I like the idea of them - a sort of MOT for the body - but I don't need a medical degree to know what the results would be: "In need of complete overhaul - needs new starter motor, repair poor body work and get rid of spare tyre."

I don't smoke, rarely drink and, in my lowly opinion, eat a fairly healthy and balanced diet. However, I will admit to being on the wrong side of those body-mass readings that you can get in Boots. I'm 6ft 4in and heavy enough to be in the second row of the scrum when playing rugby. But that is the problem: I don't play rugby. Or football. Or swim. In fact, the only exercise I get, other than the walk to the station and back each day, is walking up the stairs at work (when the lift isn't working) and getting up to switch the TV off at night.

Whether they are related to my lack of exercise or not, I don't know, but the ailments I have had over the past 12 months are as follows: five colds, one cricked neck, one corn, dozens of light headaches and a suspected case of food poisoning. My drill for these kinds of minor complaints is simple. Pop into a dispensary and part with about £10 in exchange for a bagful of pills, powders and potions. I suffer from that peculiarly male aversion to visiting the doctor, so it would have to be an extreme case to get me down to the surgery.

My routine after getting a cold is a good example of how I will tackle any ailment. I buy a 10-pack of Lemsip Extra Strong, a box of menthol-infused tissues, some Vicks vapour rub, a small bottle of whisky and retire to bed for a couple of days until I'm over the worst. I will drink a Lemsip about every three to four hours then make myself a hot toddy before bed (hot water, fresh lemon juice, a cinnamon stick, some cloves, honey and a capful of whisky).

I am of the view that I am going to get colds whatever I do. It is just something that happens. So, like most men, whether out of laziness or indifference to my health, I don't do enough in the way of preventive measures - ie, exercise. I read all the reports about the importance of regular exercise in combating heart disease and certain cancers, and then file it under "Mañana".

The only area of my healthcare that I think I do pay enough attention to is my teeth. I have no fillings - my dentist says this is down to fluoride in the water, my mum says it is down to my lack of a sweet tooth as a child. I visit the dental hygienist every six months for a scrape and a prod. I brush my teeth twice a day and floss a few times a week.

Still, since Esme was born, we have talked more about improving our healthcare regime by doing more exercise (Jane does, in fact, do Pilates each week) and have rather fatalistic discussions about what we would do if one of us became seriously ill. So on this occasion, we were actually looking forward to the auditor's views.

The audit

The auditors: Hannah Berry, writer and researcher at Ethical Consumer magazine. Mike Childs, campaign director of Friends of the Earth. Renee Elliot, council member of the Soil Association and founder of Planet Organic shops

"Leo, I'm horrified by what I'm seeing," says Renee Elliott after opening our medicine cabinet. She picks her way through bottles and packets of pills, shaking her head. "Paracetamol, allergy-relief pills, cough syrup . . . none of these, nor indeed many 'medicines', actually restore health," she says. "They simply relieve your symptoms. Conventional medicine does not focus on curing your illness, but on suppressing the side-effects so that you feel better - not so that you are better. Your allergy-relief pills say they relieve allergies, but they really relieve the symptoms, such as sneezing, itchy eyes and runny nose. If you have a skin irritation and put a cream on it, you are treating the symptom, not finding out what the cause is and stopping that."

Hannah Berry believes that our medicine cabinet is normal for an average UK household such as ours. "It contains a fairly typical array of off-the-shelf and over-the-counter healthcare products," she says. "Painkillers are the most plentiful - there are two brands of paracetamol, as well as Nurofen and Anadin Ultra Ibuprofen."

Mike Childs is concerned that the cabinet is "worryingly full". I point out that the bottles are a collection built up over a few years. Mike, though, is somewhat cynical about why we are so stocked up: "It could be that you have an unhealthy lifestyle and get sick a lot - or maybe you are victims of pharmaceutical advertising and have fallen for the lie that the answer to every sniffle comes in a pill or a supplement."

Mike passionately believes that we have got our priorities wrong when it comes to healthcare. "The best way to keep healthy is to take a preventive approach, avoiding exposure to environmental risks, such as polluted air, contaminated food and dodgy chemicals in the home. A healthy organic diet and lots of exercise will help as well." He says that the fact that we live in a big, dirty city doesn't help, but it is still no excuse not to be exercising regularly and eating good, healthy food. "Of course, everyone can get sick occasionally," he says, "even with a healthy lifestyle. And occasionally, medical intervention is necessary."

And do we know what the companies behind these popular brand names inside our medicine cabinet are responsible for, Hannah asks. "Wyeth, which owns Anadin, was, like Pfizer, one of the top 30 funders of Bush's Republican party," she reveals. "Animal testers Procter & Gamble and Unilever have their inevitable presence in your cabinet in the form of Lemsip, Vicks Vaporub and Vaseline."

Renee suggests we abandon our pill-popping culture and get back to what our ancestors practised: "Alternative or complementary remedies support the body with vitamins, minerals, tissue salts, herbs or whatever is needed to help the body with the healing process, whether that means increasing your intake of antioxidants or supporting your immune system."

Hannah is also full of praise for alternative therapies and medicines. With their increasing popularity, she says, it should be easy to find replacements for our medicines. "To replace Vaseline, for example, there is petroleum-free jelly available through the Natural Collection catalogue - though beeswax makes this unsuitable for hardline vegans. The catalogue also sells, for example, headlice treatment free from organophosphates.

"There are plenty of herbal remedies that can replace petrochemical-based products from global corporations. Witch hazel is a natural antiseptic native to the UK, and arnica cream is great for aches and bruises."

I tell her that I am sceptical about alternative therapies and practitioners, but she tells me to just try a few treatments before I reject them. "When it comes to alternative health systems such as reiki, flower remedies or homeopathy, it is down to the individual to see what works for them.

"Remember that on the plus side they tend to offer ways of supporting local businesses and smaller, more sustainable companies rather than the often unethical pharmaceutical industry. Many big drug firms, for example, are still refusing to give in to pressure to make HIV drugs affordable to the millions of sufferers in Africa. Do you really want to be patronising these firms?"

Life after

Telling me to exercise more is like telling a child to tidy its room - a flurry of bluster and activity followed by a declining curve of disinterest and, finally, moody resentment. My trouble is that exercising for its own sake will never work in my case - I need to enjoy it. So I need to find a sport that has a purpose, but more importantly, is something I can do. This restrictive criterion narrows things down to tennis. I enjoyed playing it at school and there are public courts in my local park, leaving me no excuse to get out of it.

It starts well. I try to play once a week, but even with tennis, a sport I love, interest starts to wane. Then something happens that puts everything into perspective. Esme is rushed into hospital after a febrile convulsion - an extremely scary seizure for a parent to witness, but one that is, as we later discover, fairly routine to treat. When my child falls ill, the fog suddenly clears: I just want her to have the best drugs available, and right now.

Worries about the drugs' origins (which pharmaceutical giant made them? Was any animal testing involved?) evaporate when the paediatrician tells us what Esme will need to get better. I admit it freely: we entrust Esme's wellbeing entirely to the hospital's staff. If one of them had come up to me and said "I should inform you that over 1,000 rats died a painful death to allow this antibiotic to be here today," I would have said, "Fine, get on with it".

However, crisis over, I do find myself a few days later reading the label on the medicine and worrying that it contained the controversial sweetener Aspartame. But I conclude that when it really matters, in a life or death situation, conventional medicine is the only way forward.

This isn't to say I have rejected alternative therapies. Admittedly, I may not have any time for crystals and homeopathy, but I do believe there must be something behind the herbal remedies that form the basis of, say, Chinese medicine and other ancient practices. Nature seems to hold the answer for so many other things, why not medicine?

As the auditors suggested, I have tried to stop relying on my usual panoply of drugs when I get a minor ailment. Out goes the Lemsip and in comes lemon, ginger and garlic. If you think you are taking something natural as a cure it is amazing how restorative this can be just in itself - placebo or not.

But not everything meets with my favour. Despite near evangelical recommendations by others, arnica and echinacea have done nothing for me. But then, I suppose, neither did many of the pill-based cold cures I have tried before.

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