Published March 26, 2017
My favorite late night television host of all time was David Letterman. He was on the air for 33 years,...
— William Wilberforce
The very first thing I did with my brand new Christmas knives was to cut the tip of my finger off… not enough to maim me permanently but enough to slightly change the shape of said finger. I watched in horrified fascination while copious amounts of blood ran down my hand and family members rushed up with towels and silently worried about whether there would still be corn bread stuffing.
Eventually, the bleeding stopped and I soldiered on, using my old, just sharp-enough knives. Over the next few days, the finger began to mend itself: First, there was just a thin slick of a protective coating, fragile and prone to reopening, then gradually the layers of skin began to re-form from the bottom up, each one building upon the one beneath.
I marveled as I watched the transformation, as even my fingerprints rebuilt themselves, until just a few days ago I realized I wasn’t completely sure which finger had been injured. It was a vivid reminder of the old adage that, left to itself, the body will gravitate toward healing and health.
That natural drive toward healing may be at the crux of the “disconnect” between true health and the mainstream medical system: Modern physician training essentially removes overall health from the picture and focuses instead on treating symptoms. Often that leaves patients feeling both powerless and helpless, as if healing from injury or illness is some sort of magic that only a powerful physician can wield.
Certainly anyone who has spent time in a hospital, whether as patient, visitor, or advocate for a loved one knows that health is not the focus of a hospital. Rather, it is managed, efficient, and well-documented care of the condition at hand. That is not to denigrate hospital caregivers; I have only rarely encountered a doctor or nurse who doesn’t truly care about their patients and believe in their protocol, but in the well-oiled machinery that is the modern hospital system, the goal is to move that patient out. To treat the next symptom, set the next bone, cut out the next tumor.
The reliance on machines to read heart rate and blood pressure, on pills to clear infection, on technology to answer questions about what’s going on inside a patient’s body has driven a wedge between the caregiver and the patient. I once had an annual “routine physical” during which I sat, fully clothed, across from the doctor, who looked down at her tablet during my whole visit, charting my answers to her questions, and ultimately handing me a sheaf of instructions for various medications, blood work, and other diagnostic tests, along with an admonition to decrease some of my stress. She never touched me.
Despite the fact that people in the United States continue to live longer than previous generations, evidence shows that as a population, we are less healthy overall than ever before,1 with 47% of adults living with one or more chronic diseases.2 As discussed in an analysis of data showing increases in life expectancy do not reflect improvements in health, “There have been increases in the prevalence of many diseases, both diseases that are important causes of mortality and those that are less related to mortality.”3
These statistics highlight the importance of looking at the bigger picture, taking responsibility for our own true health, and remembering that, in most instances, our bodies are able to stay healthy or return to good health, if we only treat them right and, essentially, stay out of their way. There’s a word for this principle of gravitating toward health and balance: homeostasis.
The idea of homeostasis is among the most fundamental concepts to the continuation of life itself. Derived from the Greek “homeo” meaning “same” and “stasis” or “static,” meaning “stationary” or “still,”4 the term homeostasis was coined in 1926 by physiologist Walter Cannon to describe the elegant processes by which body systems keep in balance5: Fluids move in and out of cells, body temperature is regulated, internal and external changes are communicated to the brain, which in turn sends the signals to the appropriate receptors to respond to those changes and restore balance.
Anything that disrupts the smooth, harmonious routine of the healthy system is considered a stressor, whether it’s a change in external temperature, as when moving from the heat of summer to air-conditioned indoors; or encountering a known or unknown pathogen, as when challenged by an infectious agent or a vaccine; or a physical trauma, as when a finger is cut with a sharp knife.
In an article for Scientific American, Professor Kelvin Rodolfo explained that in the healthy system, stressors are easily and automatically dealt with.6 If the environment is too hot, for example, the body sweats, making surface moisture available to evaporate and cool the skin surface. If it is too cold, the body shivers, burning up calories or tissue to produce more heat.
Thinking about all the many things that challenge the natural drive toward health and balance, it is impressive that the human system works as well as it tends to. Beyond the necessary adjustments the body was designed for and is totally capable of making to survive, the modern world adds a myriad of unnatural stressors: Newly chemical-laden environments, consequences of unhealthy habits like cigarettes and alcohol, chronic lack of sleep and exercise, exposure to unfamiliar foods and goods from across the globe, and overheated or over-chilled indoor spaces, just to name a few.
Added to all of that, of course, is the barrage of medical interventions from antibiotics to chemotherapy to toxic vaccine ingredients, all purposely designed to alter or thwart the body’s native coping methods. A medical toolbox that includes antibiotics and insulin certainly has its place in maintaining or regaining health, but it’s not hard to recognize how the cumulative effects of unrelenting external pressures might impact a body’s natural ability to maintain homeostasis.
In many instances, health and balance may be better served by supportive practices including unprocessed food, exercise, healthy sleep patterns, and being careful with knives.References:
1 Crimmins EM, Beltran-Sanchez H (NCBI). Mortality and Morbidity Trends: Is There Compression of Morbidity? J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci January 2011.
2 CDC. Chronic Diseases: The Leading Causes of Death and Disability in the United States. Aug. 26, 2015.
3 Crimmins EM, Beltran-Sanchez H (NCBI). Mortality and Morbidity Trends: Is There Compression of Morbidity? J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci January 2011.
4 Greek Latin Derivatives: Prefix and Suffix Starter List.
5 Brown T, Fee E (NCBI). Walter Bradford Cannon. Am J Public Health October 2000.
6 Rodolfo K. What Is Homeostasis? Scientific American Jan. 3, 2000.