The complexity of the human body has fascinated medical science, and every new discovery leads to a new level of complexity. Now it is no longer possible to talk about depression, for example, as a general disorder or cancer as a single disease. It may be that the brain of each depressed patient is depressed in its own unique way, and the leading research on cancer is heading towards personalized drugs targeted to each patient's highly specific genetic variation of cancer.
Does increasing complexity actually clarify things? The traditional disease models taught when I was in medical school are fraying around the edges, and some disorders, such as schizophrenia, have no localized cause. There is no known cause for schizophrenia. The general public thinks that you catch a cold because of exposure to the cold virus. But in fact direct contact with the cold virus gives only a 1 in 8 chance of catching cold.
If we try to make sense of this confusion, it turns out that almost every disorder is enveloped in a cloud of causes. In this cloud swirl a number of factors that can make you prone to illness:
- Genetic predisposition
- Immune status
- External pathogens such as bacteria and viruses
- Psychological deficit (e.g., depression, brief, loneliness)
- "Control by host"
The last thing, control by host, is a kind of X factor that explains, all things being equal, why one person gets sick while someone else in the same circumstances doesn't--our bodies have an invisible means of fending off sickness or giving in to it that is unexplained.
The cloud of causes is easy to list, which puts medical knowledge far ahead of where it used to be. But it was much easier simply to assume that germs or genes cause illness. With simple explanations now undermined, we're stuck with a gamble of risks. Too many causes--none of them being absolute causes--makes the whole picture fuzzy. It doesn't make sense that our own bodies should be a mystery to us.
The body will only start to make sense when certain basic facts are accepted:
1. Body and mind are not separate. They should be considered as one thing, the bodymind.
2. The body isn't a thing. It is an ongoing continuous process.
3, The healthy state of the bodymind is dynamic balance, known as homeostasis.
4. Homeostasis is so powerful that it takes chronic imbalance to throw it out of whack, over a long period of time, years before any symptoms appear.
5. The chief causes of imbalance are stress and chronic inflammation.
These facts are beginning to sink in over the past decade, and one result has been the rise of the self-care movement. Doctors are in the business of diagnosing symptoms and then proceeding to offer a remedy. The actual causes of disease start affecting us years and sometimes decades before symptoms appear. Each of us has to tend to self-care. Certain ways of doing this are well known, such as a diet of natural whole foods, avoiding alcohol and tobacco, and taking regular exercise.
What has been missed is that the bodymind has priorities. If you exercise and turn it into work as you grind out each gym session, if you feel stressed at work, and eat fast food on the run, which of these things is good or bad for you? A stressful workout session is still stress. A diet high in fat and sugar leads to inflammation. Unless you know how to prioritize the same things your bodymind prioritizes, you are gambling with your own wellness in the long run.
In The Healing Self my co-author Rudy Tanzi from Harvard Medical School and I delve deeply into the whole issue of lifelong wellness, but the upshot is that the whole cloud of factors turns on the same pivot point which is consciousness. The human body will only make compete sense when it is seen as a mode of consciousness in physical form. I know this can sound alien to the typical view of the body as a kind of complicated machine, but in practical t terms, if you want to maintain lifelong wellness:
1. Tend to stress by reducing it and removing undue pressure from your life.
2. Increase your sense of safety, security, and belonging.
3. Learn to trust how you feel.
4. Stay away from toxic work environments and personal relationships.