In Part 1 of The Higher Health we discussed the possibility that higher health was possible, reaching beyond our current conception of wellness. Such an advance depends on two things. The first, which isn’t new, is to comply with current prevention measures that too many people ignore. The words “diet, exercise, and stress management” roll off the tongue so easily that many have learned to ignore them. Yet recent research confirms just how crucial these lifestyle choices are.
For much of the recent past, prevention has been focused on recognized lifestyle disorders like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It is now it is becoming clear, however, that the body as a whole is being affected. For example, inflammation, which has long been known to be damaging to our tissues and organs, is now believed to be linked far more broadly to all kinds of possible disorders, including cancer. If you are not complying with prevention, there is mounting evidence that your choice to avoid exercise, ignore stress, and eat a diet high in calories and fat will lead to bad results over time.
The reason for this conclusion is more obscure than anyone ever supposed, and it leads to the second platform of higher health: working with your body’s intelligence. The notion of the body’s intelligence is more than three decades old, and it is based on the discovery of “messenger molecules.” These molecules are floating chemicals that interconnect the brain with various parts of the body. The average doctor and patient don’t think much about how cells communicate; yet, three decades on, we know with a certainty that the human body is a vast process, not just a structure. Every cell’s outer membrane is a kind of antenna that constantly monitors what the rest of the body is doing, feeling, thinking, and processing. As the messages shift, so does the cell. The result is holistic and dynamic, which is to say, every part participates in the whole and no change can affect one cell without affecting all the others.
Here lies the real frontier of higher health. If you look on your body as a feedback loop within which are thousands of smaller feedback loops, the system must contain the following:
– Messages in and messages out
– Senders and controllers of information
– balancing mechanisms
– Flexible limits for action and reaction
Higher health emerges from gaining control over these parameters. They sound like abstractions, but they are the basis for how cells live, eat, and breathe. Forty years ago, cells we didn’t believe cells did much else. But now we realize that cells are participatory — everything you do, they do. This includes your moods, beliefs, expectations, fears, and dreams. Your brain registers the subjective side of life, yet the inner world includes trillions of cells that do not speak or think verbally. They participate through the dynamics of biochemistry, non-verbally but just as present in the moment – or stuck in the past – as you.
In practical terms, when you take a bite of food or get on a treadmill, you are talking to your cells, sending messages back and forth. You are adding to a sense of control or subtracting from it (i.e., allowing random and habitual messages to dominate). You are going into balance or out of balance. You are becoming more flexible in your responses or less. Ultimately, you are responsible, at the level of self-awareness, for maintaining a complete world as it expands or contracts, goes in and out of crisis, confronts challenges, and so on.
The fact that every road leads to the body’s intelligence is crucial here, because it implies that you have more control (over input and output, balance and imbalance, flexibility or rigidity) than some mechanical agent like your genes or the involuntary nervous system. Because the body is a process, structures come second. This is a big reversal from the generally-accepted paradigm, as medical education has always been first and foremost about structures (cells, tissues, hormones). The goal of Western medicine has been to standardize diseases — fixing each one in a tight, isolated cause-and-effect scheme. But if you look at a key system like the immune system, once described as a battle ground between the body and invading germs, it becomes evident that all kinds of common things — being fat, losing your spouse, getting fired, having inflamed joints — are inescapably linked to how strong or weak your immune system is.
In short, holistic health has become inevitable. A piecemeal approach to wellness doesn’t fit how your body works. It is no longer “alternative” medicine that concerns itself with broad issues of holistic wellness. The need is universal, and the sooner we begin to lay down practical guidelines for living holistically, the closer we will come to higher health. In the next post I’ll cover some proposed guidelines.
Stay tuned for Part 3…