The intelligent immune system

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Living healthy can prevent almost any illness. Healthy environment, diet and stress reduction strategies are key to health.

Fifty years ago, we knew little about the immune system. Back then, only a handful of illnesses were classified as autoimmune conditions where the immune system doesn’t recognize proteins normally present in the body and attacks its own cells. Today, researchers have found that autoimmune responses explain about at least 10 percent of the diseases that affect the planet’s population; among them, diabetes (type I), lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, to name only the most common ones. But other conditions such as ulcerative colitis and even schizophrenia are possibly linked to autoimmune responses. Furthermore, coronary disease has been related to the efficiency of the immune system in clearing up plaque deposits in the arteries of the heart.

By the end of the 19th century, when vaccines were invented, Louis Pasteur discovered germs as the cause of many illnesses and later bodily reactions to specific microorganisms, like the tuberculosis Koch’s bacillus, were identified, confirming the existence within the body of the immune system. Initially, immunity was conceptualized as a defense army in charge of destroying an enemy, concept that reflects a predominantly martial mentality in society. Mainstream western medicine still holds this concept. However, a holistic approach will more accurately reflect the amazing immune system.

Researchers Koch and Pasteur inaugurated a craze where most illnesses started to be explained as caused by germs. In the early 1940s, viruses were found capable of generating illness, and the sixties and seventies saw a great boom in virology, when researchers tried to establish a causal relationship between viral infections and cancer. This causal relationship has however not been confirmed. In some cases, like the infection by papilloma virus (HPV) there seems to exist a strong correlation to cervical cancer in women. However, scientific evidence points to chronic inflammation (not the viral infection) as the precursor of cancer. Take into account that inflammation is modulated by the immune system and that our inflammatory response depends on our lifestyle.

Science has advanced  a great deal. Studies have established that human bodies continuously produce cancer cells but thanks to an immune system capable of recognizing misbehaving cells, cancer can be prevented. By isolating, reeducating and/or destroying those crazy cells, the immune system can keep us cancer free. A clear relationship between cancer and the immune system has thus been established. When the immune system is not working optimally, cancerous cell growth might go out of control.

Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, investigators have plunged into studying what exhausts the immune system, contributing very interesting insights into its multiple functions.

Beyond this concept of the immune system as an army that chases, confronts and destroys invaders, the immune system is a self-governing network that participates in the body’s learning process, and is responsible for both its molecular identity and the biochemical communication between organs. That’s why author Fritjov Capra deems it our second brain.

Different from other bodily systems, which are confined to a precise anatomic location, the immune network penetrates each tissue of the body. It is made of a number of tissues and organs (lymphatic organs) and specialized cells (lymphocytes and macrophages or white blood cells) that swim back and forth along the circulatory system during surveillance missions, gathering data to ensure the organism’s accurate functioning.

This extraordinary system learns and evolves with experience! From the moment we are born, the immune system learns how to react to unfamiliar agents. It learns to discriminate which molecular features typify bacteria that are usually not present in mammals. It also recognizes the body’s idiosyncratic proteins. Vaccines are developed based on the immune system’s capacity to memorize how to react to alien proteins.

There is also a kind of natural selection taking place in the thymus, where only T-cells (a specific kind of immune cells) that have learned to unite harmoniously with other cells in the organism can survive.

The thymus is one of the most important organs of the immune system. It is a small gland situated behind the breastbone (sternum) and is fundamental in shaping the way in which the body responds to infections. Half of the white blood cells, which originate in the bone marrow, go directly to the blood stream and interstitial fluids. But the rest of them have to go through the thymus where they become T-cells. These have three main roles: to stimulate the production of antibodies and other lymphocytes, to stimulate the growth and function of phagocytes that ingest and digest viruses and bacteria, and to identify foreign or abnormal proteins.

Many immune system organs function as gatekeepers. This is the case of the lymph nodes (in the neck, armpit and groin), the tonsils and the Peyer’s patches in the intestine. The lymphatic fluid, or lymph, goes through these customs checkpoints where lymphocytes capture particulate matter and microorganisms and decide if they should be granted admission to the system or not. Another lymphatic organ, the spleen, is in charge of recycling old and dysfunctional cells.

This amazing system only uses its defensive resources when facing a massive invasion of foreign agents.

Recent research shows that the brain, the endocrine glands and the immune system cooperate and share functions. Moreover, the borders that science had delineated between these systems start to blur, bringing opportunities for new understandings of the body’s functioning. Candace Pert used the term net to describe these systems, because their function encompasses a constant exchange, processing and storage of information. Most substances in charge of transmitting information in the body are peptides, and recent research has shown they are multifunctional; they accomplish different functions for different systems.

For example, the brain produces neuropeptides that are antibacterial precursors; the immune system has perceptual functions, and the endocrine system produces substances that work as neurotransmitters. Initially deemed exclusive to the nervous system, the neurotransmitters have also been found in the bone marrow, where the immune system cells are produced.

The three systems are thus, multifunctional. They form a network that exchanges, stores and passes on information, using peptide molecules as messengers. But, also, our physiology is modulated by emotions. Popular wisdom, which results from observations transmitted from generation to generation, has always correlated emotional stress with vulnerability to illness, and science has proven that our thoughts, mood and emotions influence the functioning of the nervous, endocrine and immune systems.

In a nutshell, science is telling us that we can regulate the production and efficiency of our inner messengers (peptides) by adopting healthy lifestyles. It’s telling us to eat healthy, have fun (to reduce stress) and exercise.

If we don’t pay attention…

natural remediesFor years, I have repeated as a mantra, once and again, that we need to regain body wisdom. I even wrote a book on this topic, the English translation of which is entitled, precisely, REGAINING BODY WISDOM. I truly believe that our health, physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, depends on staying connected with our Source and with all that is. I have learned that when we’re not connected we worry, experience fear and uncertainty and the body starts giving symptoms of dis-ease.

It took me 17 plus years of practicing as a medical doctor until I realized that I was not paying attention to my body. I confess it… I was a totally inconsistent healthcare practitioner. I prescribed diets and lifestyles that I considered were only for the sick and not for us, the healthy people… In the process, and while I was a family and a community practitioner, I learned a good deal about nutrition. Even though I was familiar with the diets that needed to be prescribed to the people suffering from cardiovascular, renal or digestive diseases, I knew very little about how to promote the intelligence of the body with sound nutrition, exercise or contemplative practices.

I owe the mothers of the little children that came for consultation who were always asking about the best way to feed their babies and who encouraged me to go beyond what I had learned at the medical school. I enjoyed researching the topic. Nutrition became one of my specialties.

But it wasn’t until a few years after I quit medicine to become a psychotherapist that I had my quantum leap. I had a healer lay hands on me. I knew very little about energy healing, I didn’t believe in hands-on healing, but I was curious. Interestingly, at that time, I was clueless about why I was feeling so exhausted even though I was a heavy smoker, drank many cups of coffee a day, didn’t exercise, ate poorly and worked too much.

Why couldn’t I connect the dots?

When I visited  this medical doctor, who was also practicing some form of energy medicine, my motivation to introduce some changes in my lifestyle was high. Nobody changes without true motivation. And even though it was curiosity, more than anything else, what took me to consult with him, I was at that time concerned about the deleterious effects of smoking and tired of the tiredness.

Well, suddenly, just a few hours after he laid hands on me, my cravings for cigarettes were gone! In just a few days, I had also become a vegetarian and was exercising daily.

I went from being totally oblivious of my body to loving it. In just three months, I felt – and looked – like a different person, happier, healthier, full of energy. And to this day, 21 years later, I continue to follow a healthy lifestyle, but most importantly, I have become aware of the signals released by my body and, usually, I respond to them.

When I say body, I mean the whole multidimensional body-mind-spirit complex that we are. And when I mean aware, I signify not only experiencing, feeling, noticing symptoms or discomfort but also being conscious of how stress, worries and fear go along with being disconnected from our Source.

I can’t say that in the past 20 some years I have been free of accidents or symptoms. But I have certainly not used any medications at all. I have become very wary of putting any chemicals into my body. Colorants and preservatives in the food, prescription medicines and even supplements can affect the functioning of our intelligent physical body. Medications should only be used when strictly necessary.

We age though. Our bodies wear and tear with the pass of time. We are not immortal and would not become immortal no matter how good is the care we provide to the body. However, it’s worth to make our best effort to arrive to old age as whole as possible.

Enough is enough: no more lies about vitamins and antidepressants

AntiDepressants-FE01-wide-horizontalI was not surprised when three recent studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggested people are wasting their money on multivitamins and minerals to no avail.

“In conclusion, β-carotene, vitamin E, and possibly high doses of vitamin A supplements are harmful. Other antioxidants, folic acid and B vitamins, and multivitamin and mineral supplements are ineffective for preventing mortality or morbidity due to major chronic diseases (…) supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful. These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough.” (Annals)

Pharmaceutical companies such as Baxter (Oneaday multivitamins) or Pfizer (Centrum) haven’t precisely proven impeccable ethics or that they truly work for the benefit of their clients.

Instead, they have excellent lobbying, public relations and marketing skills. They have pushed vitamins on us for decades, convincing the public that they are essential for our wellbeing. And they have also convinced us that if we’re depressed we should take their antidepressants. But now, we finally listen to information that has already been available since the 1970s: some vitamins, minerals and antidepressants are actually deleterious for your health.

Bluntly said, pharmaceutical companies pursue profit, not health.

Under more rigorous studies, it has become clear not only that they have deplorable side effects but also that antidepressants are actually no more effective than placebo and certainly no better than good psychotherapy.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI) such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Luvox, Celexa, and Lexapro, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Serzone, and Remeron are associated with serious side effects including suicidal thinking, abnormal bleeding, and seizures. The FDA has issued warnings about the use of Fluoxetine (Prozac) in pregnant women since it has been associated with birth defects.

In patients who are using other medications for common conditions (aspirin, ibuprofen, or other drugs for depression, anxiety, bipolar illness, blood clots, chemotherapy, heart conditions, and psychosis), ventricular arrhythmia or sudden death can occur.

Several class actions have been filed against Eli Lilly, Pfizer, and GlaxoSmithKline, the manufacturers of Prozac (fluoxetine), Zoloft (sertraline), and Paxil (paroxetine), respectively, to compensate for suicides or homicides by patients in the first few days or weeks after they were prescribed one of these drugs.

What’s the matter with researchers who have failed to see this?

We have become a pop-a-pill culture. We’re looking for fast solutions instead of getting ready to do our part in having a healthier life. Problem is also that we have become more focused on illness than on disease. More money is invested in commercials that promote pills than in commercials that promote healthy lifestyles or for that matter, little money goes to produce uplifting movies. I even wonder if the increased rate of depression in the United States could be related to the depressing content of what we see on TV.

The good news is that in recent years, contemplative practices such as meditation, mindfulness, hypnosis, Reiki, TaiChi or Qigong have proven to be more effective to treat cases of depression than medication. These practices return health matters where they belong… to our own hands. Regular exercise and a diet that restrict the intake of carbohydrates have also proven to have a positive impact on mood. Let’s not allow pills to take the power out of us. We have come to believe that solutions to our problems reside outside of us. We depend on the expert, the pill, distractions. We’re not invested enough in taking control of our own lives. It’s time to regain body wisdom and take good care of ourselves.

Everything is so aseptic

The first time I had a notion that this country had an obsession with hygiene and asepsis (the absence of bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms) came when, many years ago, I heard of a girl who visited my country of origin, contracted hand washinghepatitis A and died from it.

I’d seen many of my friends becoming a little yellowish, nauseous and feverish for a few days and then getting better after just resting, following a low-fat diet that consisted mostly of sweets (“melado”) and fat-free cheese. How could it be then, I asked myself, that somebody would die of that kind of very benign hepatitis? My mother said that it was because the “Americans” were so much into disinfecting everything, that they didn’t have a very strong immune system. And maybe she was right.

After living in the U.S. for about 15 years, I have seen people wiping their hands with sanitizer (washing hands is better!) after and before  they walk into the supermarket, after somebody sneezes or after they have visited a friend at the hospital.  New moms won’t allow anybody to touch their babies. There are warning signs everywhere recommending not to sneeze into your hands but on your arm instead, etc. People in the U.S. have grown fond of  chlorine and disinfectants. Just visit any supermarket and see all the different brands that offer sanitation, disinfection and germ-free options. Hand-sanitizer breaks have become a routing in schools, and children are taught to cough or sneeze into their elbow, God forbid! not into their hands. It’s illegal to serve uncooked meats at a restaurant or to sell raw milk.

Another consequence of the germophobia is excessive vaccination (which has turned out as a wonderful business for Big Pharma). The U.S. children are among the most vaccinated children in the world. While in 1953, the CDC recommended 16 doses of 4 vaccines (smallpox, DPT) between two months and age six, presently it recommends 49 doses of 14 vaccines between day of birth and age six and 69 doses of 16 vaccines between birth and age 18.

And other businesses also profit from the germophobia: disposable hospital stuff, napkins, forks, plates and cups… We’re turning the whole planet into a dump because of this disposing mania.

I am not of course discussing the benefits of cleanliness or prevention of infectious diseases. Hygiene is very important. I am aware of stories such as that of Typhoid Mary, who in the 19th century was identified as an asymptomatic carrier of Salmonella (bacteria that causes the potentially lethal Thyphoid fever) and presumably infected 50 people during her many years as a cook. Thus, yes, I want at least the cooks and other people to manipulate my food to wash their hands after they go to the bathroom.

However, it puzzles me that while a person might wipe her hands once and again with sanitizer – to the point of absorbing enough alcohol that I bet you they would get a “legally intoxicated” reading in the breathalizer – this person might not be inclined to keep a neat living space… I’ve seen their undone laundry piling up and their kitchens brooding roaches, ants and rodents.

Now, people have extended their obsession with asepsia to their mental and spiritual dimensions of their beings, but that would be the subject of another piece.

Pain management: Listening to the body

ImageMonths ago, as I started a new radio show and we were pre-recording two back-to-back programs, my focus was totally on my back pain! 

Since the producer was leaving for vacation, I didn’t dare cancel our appointment, even though I had strained my back at the beginning of the weekend and had spent three days biting bullets at home.  Interestingly, that day’s topic was precisely about pain and its management.

I don’t take analgesics (painkillers) and always advocate for natural health approaches, while listening to the body’s inner wisdom.

The morning had started very promising for me, with a little stiffness but no limiting pain. I drove the 20 minutes on the interstate and then carried my computer to the second floor. Mistake. I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t listen to my back alerting me not to carry weights. Soon my back started to resent those few pounds I lifted.

When I started to talk into the microphone, I realized that even without any medication circulating through my blood, I was feeling quite groggy. I knew my whole body was invested in repairing the damaged tissue, and not enough energy was left to brighten up my mind so that I could focus on producing a quality program.

What an incredible paradox. The program was precisely about pain and I couldn’t step out of script to describe to the listeners how I was feeling. I was afraid of sounding inconsistent or of lessening the strength of the message I wanted to convey. But now I think it would have made it livelier. People out there suffering from pain could have related to my state of mind.

Somatic pain is not just a somatic experience, I felt vulnerable, tired and distracted. I felt kind of incomplete, split into pieces, and susceptible. Like if my angels had flown away. Like if my Hun (Chinese term for Heavenly spirits) had deserted me and was now traveling to more pleasant places.

I was left feeling lonely in my flesh and I felt the pulse of this pain with such intensity that the walls of the recording room seemed to contract and expand with the throbbing.

This was not the first time I’d hurt my back, I knew the pain would go away. I knew that Reiki, insights, anti-inflammatory foods, Complex B supplements, Vitamin C, and QiGong exercises would, in just a few days, bring me back to normal, optimal function. This hope and certainty calmed me down, helping me withstand the pain, understanding it was an alarm, a signal, a call from my body asking me to accept that I need rest. I opted to listen, slow down, rest, and eat healthy.

This experience made me feel very compassionate towards all those who suffer chronic pain. I think I understand why when you suffer any kind of chronic pain the hope for relief may have left leaving in place a kind of desperate resignation where the days are counted slowly, one-by-one.

Still, I believe that pain brings us an opportunity to look into things from a different perspective. We need to take the pain to another dimension and examine it under a spiritual kind of microscope. It might give us the opportunity to face dormant emotional pains that are still unresolved. It might give us the opportunity to look at our lifestyle and ponder if some changes in how we eat, the way we move, relate or balance activity/rest need change.

As a mental health counselor, I have found that many people in chronic pain receive support and friendship only when their lives are miserable. Pain can in this way play a trick on us and subconscious needs for care and love may invite pain to stay in the body.

But pain might also give us the opportunity to reach out, openly express our needs, let others know that yes, we’re also vulnerable and would like support once in a while.

Our inner healer

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Mainstream Western medicine is starting to pay heed to a principle that has been endorsed by other cultures for centuries: Our body is a self-regulating organism that contains what we could call an inner healer. This healer, which is not limited to instinctive reactions as it has been understood under a Newtonian paradigm for the last few centuries, is in charge of surveillance and communication, storage of information, evaluation of what is going on in the body at any given moment and organization and expression of the body as a whole.

The inner healer is also responsible for providing suitable solutions to adaptive challenges imposed by the environment. It draws on information the body has memorized and learned in order to perform its functions and therefore, we can call it an intelligent healer.

Each one of our skin cells lives for about 36 days. When one cell dies, another replaces it. How else could we explain that our skin lasts a whole lifetime? Our red blood cells live up to 119 days. However, the number of red cells remains constant in the blood.

We totally renew our body every seven years. It happens without our intervention, although, of course, we need to guarantee the raw material. Because our tissues are made up of materials that come from the nutrients we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe, the quality of our tissues will depend on the quality of our food, water and air.

Who or what instructs our body to do the regeneration and repairing jobs? How does the body know that it has to build skin cells in the skin and red blood cells in the blood?

We have to assume that there is intelligence imprinted in our organism. There is some sort of software in our energetic (subtle) bodies and in our genes as well, that maintains our life. Some kind of blueprint within and/or around our cells must mediate the communication system in the body, granting regeneration and reparation of our tissues, and therefore, survival.

Stress is what defeats this inner healer, which resides in our subtle bodies as well as in the depths of our entrails; stress breaks the balance and generates dis-ease.

Excessive and cumulative stress is the result of the lifestyle we have chosen according to cultural, social, and financial factors. Among these are the roles that we play in society, the quality of our interpersonal relationships, the preference for processed food over natural produce, our nutritional habits, the way we exercise and breathe, the level of our self esteem, our sense of safety, our spiritual life and positive or traumatic experiences. All these elements affect the way in which our body responds to stress, which is a constant in our ever-changing lives.

A certain amount of stress in life is unavoidable and even stimulating and healthy, and the body is fully equipped to deal with it. However, excessive stress has a cumulative effect that ends up compromising our body balance, hindering the body’s capacity to respond to stressors. Our capacity to respond to stress varies in each state of our life cycle, weakening us or helping us develop resiliency.

Health professionals who have chosen to practice in the fields of family medicine, public health and rural medicine know well the role that lifestyle plays in maintaining health. This is also well known to refugees and displaced people, populations affected by violence or disasters whose most common ailments won’t probably show up on x-rays or MRIs because they are just the result of mounting stress, deprivation and detrimental life conditions.

At the same time that technology feeds our ability to wonder, old basic truths about health and illness are resurfacing and being endorsed by scientific research. These truths speak of the human body as a marvelous system of systems, multidimensional (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social and cosmic) with an immense capacity to preserve, regenerate and repair itself.

How long will we continue to deceive ourselves by accepting a medicine that forces the laws of nature? Why continue in this path if there is clear evidence that by modifying our nutritional habits, exercising, reducing toxicity and stressors, we can in most cases avoid disease or keep symptoms at bay?