If you want to stay healthy for life, you need to take care of yourself. That's the conventional wisdom. It's a frequent guilty reminder when we look in the mirror and realize that we aren't in the best shape. "I've got to start taking better care of myself."
But the real secret to lifelong good health is actually the opposite: Let your body take care of you. I'm not being contrary. The human body consists of hundreds of billions of cells that function perfectly, and if we were single-celled creatures, immortality would be normal. An amoeba or blue-green algae keeps on living indefinitely by constantly dividing in two to produce the next generation of cells. Absent death from external circumstances, such as being eaten or drying up in the sun, one-celled organisms exist in a state of perpetual well-being.
Instead of being disadvantaged by having many cells instead of one, the human body has made tremendous evolutionary leaps. Our cells have perfected special functions for each organ and tissue. They've learned to cooperate with one another by staying in constant communication. An immune system keeps watch on threats from the outside world, and if an injury or disease occurs, the healing system rushes in to repair it.
Modern medicine, for all its advances, knows less than 10 percent of what your body knows instinctively. Humbling as it is to realize, a doctor doesn't heal his patients. He facilitates the body's healing system, adding whatever is lacking when self-healing falters. By the same logic, everything you and I do to take care of our bodies is actually just an adjunct to letting our bodies take care of us. Our active role is quite secondary. Yet there is no doubt that it is vital.
What makes it vital is the brain and nervous system. They send a constant stream of messages to the rest of the body, creating a feedback loop of information. One side of the feedback loop runs automatically. The other side supports free will and choice, which means that what you decide to do with your life enters the body's feedback loop, gets communicated to every cell, and has repercussions. If you ran your body entirely on its automatic processes, you'd be in a coma. As long as you are awake and alive, making choices, you are adding to the feedback loop.
This picture is simple but not simplistic. Despite the incredible complexity of the brain and nervous system, it forms an information highway teeming with messages, and these are either positive (enhancing your health and well-being) or negative (injurious to health and well-being). Your body will take care of you for life if you maximize the one and minimize the other. I doubt that anyone would seriously disagree with that proposition, but then we reach a fork in the road. Modern medicine looks at the body's feedback loop almost entirely in physical terms. The subjective world of thoughts, feelings, hopes, wishes, and dreams is discounted. If that world intrudes, as it does in depression, for example, the conventional solution is still physical -- take an antidepressant.
The other road is holistic, which doesn't deny the physical but refuses to discount the subjective world. The body doesn't recognize that there is a fork in the road. A chemical signal sent from the brain fits into a receptor site in the outer membrane of the cell wall. The entire feedback loop runs on that mechanism, and as far as the cell is concerned, there is no difference between a message that began as an emotion or mood and one that began as growth hormone or estrogen. Your body couldn't survive a single day without being holistic.
Fixating on the physicalist approach, modern medicine has constructed a map to health that puts almost the whole emphasis on physical measures. Exercise is physical, obviously, but so is proper nutrition. Although we take it for granted, sanitation is a physical measure that has probably done more to increase human life span than any kind of drug or surgery. Avoiding toxins is physical, and beyond not smoking and overusing alcohol, there is a growing awareness that environmental toxins we take for granted because our exposure is minuscule may still have harmful effects. (These include pesticides, herbicides, and hormones that are routinely introduced into the food chain.)
But if you adhered rigorously to the entire physical side, as beneficial as the results might be, you are not really letting your body take care of you. You are basically minimizing risks. A risk-free life is far from being a healthy life. To begin with, the very word "risk" implies worry, and people who worry about every bite of food, sip of water, the air they breathe, the gym sessions they have missed, and the minutiae of vitamin doses, are not sending positive signals to their cells. A stressful day sends constant negative messaging to the feedback loop, and popping a vitamin pill or choosing whole wheat bread instead of white bread does close to zero to change that.
To let your body take care of you, two things are vital:
1. Create a matrix for a positive lifestyle. You can't make positive choices for the rest of your life without an environment that makes those choices easy, natural, and enjoyable.
2. Create the best inner environment for your brain. The brain processes every experience you have, and it must function well in order for the real controller of your life -- the mind -- to make its best intentions known.
In the next two posts we will cover these two vital areas in detail.
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