2,800 million people living with less than US$2 a day – Could you call it progress?

Progress is defined as a concept including the improvement of human condition, “the development of an individual or society in a directpoverty_146592980ion considered more beneficial than and superior to the previous level” (Thedictionary.com). However, many people equates progress with modernization. That is why construction, road projects and in general, technological advances plus a wider access to such advances are used to measure the “progress” of a group, region or nation. But I consider this is a limited view of what  true progress is.

A holistic concept of progress should include not just the material but the immaterial aspects of life. I would see it as progress if I saw more joyful people on the streets, fewer anxious people, less rush. I would believe it is progress when more people had access to preventative physical and mental health. When fewer people had the need for consuming alcohol and other substances as prescription for fun… or to relax. When there was more compassion and real team work and cooperation; more of a sense of collectivism and less individualism; less greed and more detachment.

But when we look around we find that in the midst of astounding advances there are still homeless people in the streets (only 18 states reported decreases in the number of people living in unsheltered locations): on one end of the spectrum we find a little more than a handful of billionaires, while on the other end about 1,200 million people live in extreme poverty, trying to survive with a fixed income of a dollar a day (according to the WB) and lacking shelter, food, access to health or education. The World Bank calculates close to 2,800 million people living with less than US$2 a day. And when we look at this reality, could we really talk about progress?

To calculate progress, statisticians use comparatives, like, “How did people live two centuries ago?” “How does the quality of live in different countries or regions compare?” The first thing we find is that social inequality has grown exponentially. The gap is enormous. By the beginning of the 20th century, the statistics show, the difference in the per capita rent between rich and poor countries was 10 to 1. Today it is 60 to 1. The concentration of wealth shows us there is a large section of the world population left behind when a few others are becoming extremely rich.

And the above numbers refer only to income. Add to that picture a lack of access to clean sources of water, education or health services.

And, could we truly talk about progress when depression and anxiety multiply as mental health symptoms of unhappiness? About 75 per cent of Americans have taken antidepressants and/or meds for anxiety sometime in their lifetime. Some of them unnecessarily, just because they were feeling sad or anxious, not necessarily depressed.

How could we talk about progress when the number of suicides in a country considered the kingdom of opportunity, one of the most industrialized countries, with a commitment to the “pursuit of happiness)” with no wars in its territory, increased a 25 percent in the past 15 years (according to CDC)?

When preventable conditions have skyrocketed, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes, could we claim we’re progressing? I don’t think so; these conditions clearly point to a deterioration of our lifestyle… as we move away from nature, our diets are less organic, more artificial; our air and water are contaminated; our exposure to electromagnetic fields and x-rays increases with the risk of illnesses.

It cannot be progress when the percentage of deaths due to opioids and codeine have tripled in the past 15 years. But the most telling symptom against the idea that we are progressing is that we live in an era where terrorism is rampant and racism and discrimination are starting to bloom again.

Maybe we should include among our New Year resolutions to adopt healthier lifestyles, waste less and be more compassionate, empathetic and friendly.

Happy holidays!

 

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.

On Mothers, patriarchy and false expectations

When, many years ago, I read Funerales de la Mamá Grande by Nobel Prize García Márquez, the figure of the ‘Big Mama’ the “absolute sovereign of the Kingdom of Macondo” didn’t sound like a hyperbole to me. I had already lived in Colombian towns where mothers were idolized and motherhood overrated to extremes.

Idolization of the mother figure, presented as a glorification of the feminine, is rather an inheritance from patriarchal times. Overstretched images of female beauty or saintly motherhood, a strategy used to cover up oppression, has contributed to patriarchy burying women’s voices and dominating social action to the benefit of men and detriment of women.

The more I traveled and met people, the more I witnessed how among Hispanics, moms respond to the supermom myth by overdoing their maternal role. We don’t have to go very far to find the overprotective, the intrusive, the co-dependent or the abusive mothers. And maybe, because we were immersed in such culture, all of us bear at least traces of each of these. Mea culpa! I confess my sins.

Many Latino mothers’ lives revolve around their offspring, and their ‘care’ can become asphyxiating. Which explains why it’s not infrequent to find awfully dependent adult children in our culture.

We also often find mothers overwhelmed with guilt, blaming themselves for their children’s shortcomings, feeling pushed to behave up to impossible expectations about what motherhood ‘should’ be.

If we were to be totally truthful to ourselves, Mother’s Day could each year be the perfect timing to examine unfinished business with moms, assess our current relationship with them and even quit seeking the impossible ideal of a mother that only has existed in our minds.

‘Good-enough’ mothers

To help average moms overcome guilt and shame about not being perfect, English psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott coined the term “good-enough mothers” in 1953.

Those were the days when psychology research started to support earlier Freudian thoughts that interactions between mother and child during the early years were central to the development of the child’s inner world. Mothers, paralyzed with uncertainty about the extent to which their deficits could affect their brood, flooded pediatricians’ offices.

Providentially, psychology also discovered that it’s the frustrations stemming from mother’s impossibility to attend her child’s every need what challenges the child’s forcing him to adapt to reality.

So, in a way, what Winnicott was telling moms was: dare to err. Your children might even learn to appreciate those mistakes as opportunities to mature and grow!

I’ve seen mothers doing sacrifices that children should acknowledge and praise. Many mothers proffer unconditional love; their hearts healing from wounds caused by insensitive accusations or blaming by their offspring, made in a moment of rage.

No doubt. Exemplary women, who forgive faults that only their mother’s heart could forgive, also exist. And, yes, many moms are available when things go oops! for their children.

But there are also dark sides to this story.

‘Good children’ and ‘not good-enough’ mothers

Let’s take the times of the infamous Colombian narco Pablo Escobar, when sicarios justified horrible crimes as means to meet the terms of their ‘duties’ as good sons. They were determined to take their moms out of poverty. Sadly enough, many of these mothers gladly and gratefully or at least silently received dirty money not even asking where it came from, as if ignoring the truth would made the misdeeds right!

Studies showed that most of the above moms were awfully permissive. It’s difficult to believe that Pablo Escobar’s mother herself never thought of his son as a criminal.

History offers many cases of mothers who used their children for profit. Far from being ‘good enough’ mothers, these moms – maybe forced by poverty and lack of methods for birth control -exploited their children. This was common in the early days of industrialization, when parents gave up their 5-year-olds to sweatshops for survival. These children worked 16 hours in a row; tied with chains and whipped to force them work beyond their capacity.

Even to this day, millions of children are exploited or neglected and abused in the world.

Not all moms are created equal

It’s easy to see that motherhood is in no way the same for all moms. While some rave on their experience, others may have trouble bonding with their child.

Many women decide to hand on their child’s care on to another person so they can carry on with their careers. Some openly neglect their children out of lack of knowledge about their parental role, lack of energy, mental illness or deficient love. And there are even moms who consistently say and do terrible things to their children, scarring their lives forever.

But in all truth, we have all been marked in some way by our mother’s mistakes. Moms are human! They will never be up to our idealistic expectations.

The consequences of prizing maternity too highly

I wish that we could from an early age understand that mothers can’t (won’t) be perfect.

Myths about mothers that continue lingering in our society, on one hand promote adoration of mothers and on the other hand allow for all the blaming mothers take for the weaknesses and shortcoming of their offspring.

Another troublesome aspect of valuing maternity too high is that women who decide they won’t have children tend to be seen as unsuccessful by their peers. Pressure comes from their families and friends. The choice of not having children seems unbelievable in a world that thinks a woman finds realization in maternity.

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.

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?