Who of us doesn’t want to know we are aging gracefully and that robust health will be with us right up until the end? Such confidence is one of the marks of a life well lived. Below I want to unpack for you how a shift in thinking about how the body works changed everything for me when it came to developing the confidence to know I am going to age well.
Zooming Out to Zoom InOnce in a while, it’s just good for us to just bask in a sense of awe. You know what I mean? I’m talking about the rush you get when you leave a movie that took you through a rollercoaster of emotions, the sense of grandeur you get standing next to the ocean or Grand Canyon or when you look through a telescope and think about the vastness of the cosmos.
When was the last time you felt caught up like that? I know it may sound funny, but I get that way thinking about how crazy smart and organized the human body is. Imagine for a second a distant city large enough to hold trillions of people. Imagine further that the sole goal of these people is to live in harmony with each other—hard to conceive, right? Well, that’s not too far off what your body is…trillions of cells working together with one goal. It’s amazing!
The Smallest Perspective PossibleConsider the cells: you can’t help but wonder…how do they all know their place in the body? How do they instinctively understand how to help each other? Where did they learn to perform the countless functions they do every second?
While I don’t have all the answers to these grand questions, the subtle shift I made by considering this inward yet vast reality was simply by acknowledging the perspective of the cell, I could start asking better questions about where the roots of illness really lie. If we can think from their perspective, then my guess is we are well on our way to developing an approach to health and healing that will allow us to live life confident that our health will not be a stumbling block to a life worth living.
Your Cells as Citizens of…YouThink about this perspective of the cell for a second: Essentially, your cells are a community, several trillion strong, who work endlessly in interdependent relationships with the one goal of bringing about vitality.
From the bottom-up perspective, individual citizens organize into groups (organs and systems) who come together to serve a specific function within the city. Every citizen pays taxes in the form of a service designed to benefit the whole city. In return, the citizens can expect their homes to be defended from invaders, their groceries to be delivered, their trash will be taken out and the surrounding environment to be cleaned.
Looking at the city analogy from the top-down perspective, there is a group of cells that form the mayor (the brain and nervous system), whose role is to look after the whole city. The mayor listens to the needs of the citizens and delegates tasks to the public works department (the endocrine/glandular system) as well as all other branches of government (systems of the body). It’s a magnificent symphony with zillions of processes going on every second—a true marvel!
Just like any city, the body does not have a limitless supply of resources. Every day, the citizens of the body express their needs to the mayor’s office. It is up to the mayor to know what resources the city has available (including which reserves are being drawn upon), discern which requests are most pressing and allocate the city’s resources in a way that serves the greatest good. As long as city’s resources are sufficient, this process goes along smoothly and the citizens remain happy.
When the Citizens (Your Cells) Revolt!Like it often happens in relationships, we tend to find out someone’s needs are not being met when something starts to go wrong. Cells aren’t much different. If their needs go unmet long enough, they will eventually let you know about it. The way you find out they feel neglected is when you have pain.
When discomfort arises, it is, in a sense, a protest organized by a group of cells that they are being worked too hard and do not have what they need. We call it a symptom. If their protest is not dealt with in a timely manner, the group of cells may go on strike or stop working altogether. Once that happens, symptoms of their unhappiness begin to start affecting other systems that depend on the function of the cells that have gone on strike.
Learning to Play DetectiveOne further layer to add our understanding is that, just like people, health is dynamic—changing a bit from day to day. The ironic thing is, where you feel the pain (symptom) is often not where the problem started. You may have knee pain because you don’t eat enough fat and your joints can’t stay lubricated. Or, your knee may hurt because you stubbed your toe and the muscles in your foot had to reduce their working capacity in order to heal, thus the knee doesn’t have the support it needs from below. Whatever the source of the problem, the bottom line is, all the cells need each other and it sometimes takes a bit of detective work to uncover where a problem started.
Furthermore, the needs of given cell will vary depending on what it is exposed to and how hard it is asked to work. On days when the body is exposed to something uncommon or asked to work extra hard, it is going to need more resources to deal with the change in routine.
From this perspective, it is easy to see that having health is more of an adaptive art than it is a science. It is an art of learning to understand our bodies’ needs, daily supporting its functions, out-thinking future changes and fluctuating needs for resources, empowering it to fight its battles, and listening to the body when it alerts us we have missed something.
How to Shift Your Thinking About SymptomsThe point in all this is to help you begin to think more like a supplier trying to prevent (or make up for) a shortage, and think less like a first responder plugging along until an emergency happens. Instead of making it your first goal to shut down pain, maybe it would be a better goal to play detective and try to find its source.
Instead of looking at our bodies “scientifically” (with an eye for the smallest molecular variables we can manipulate—as medicine likes to do) or mechanistically (an assembly of parts that are removable or swappable), remember the perspective of the cells. They are smart little guys--smarter than we will ever know. Maybe, just like you, they don’t like being manipulated either?
At the end of the day, the questions I hope you take away from this chapter are:
What does my body need to function optimally?
Where am I getting in its way?
Your body is never uninterested in healing, but most of the time something we are doing (or not doing) is really the source of the organized protest.
Shaking off ComplacencyIf you can begin to think about your health the way I described in the sentence above, as opposed to wondering what technological silver bullet medicine has come up with to attempt to drug your cells into better order, then you’re well on the way to taking charge of your own health.
Whatever these humble words may stir in you, I hope they also leave you with an appreciation for how marvelous your body is and how you are in the driver’s seat of healing it a keeping it moving in a positive direction. Here’s to you and a few trillion of your closest friends.
Side note: Though I made it my own, I owe credit for the genesis of this city analogy to Dr. Howard Loomis and his fabulous work Enzymes: The Key to Health. His title does not do justice to the breadth of information he covers. Check it out if you’re looking for a helpful book on holistic health.