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.

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The power of meditation

One of my favorite gurus is Osho… a controversial figure. He dared speak the truth even to the face of his placiddetractors. He blurted blistering opinions on almost anything from the medical establishment, to corporations, to schooling, to meditation. He was a witness to the fusing of two worlds, the West and East worlds, a fusion he deemed necessary because he didn’t seem the split that characterized the world would help us go forward.

We hear often that we live in a free world, but this is just a sweet chimera. Half of the world has been and continues to be under more or less obvious oppressive regimes. This has being going on for centuries. And the West… well, just look at the media reports on the NSA surveillance and now the more recent New York Times’ report unveiling how the AT&T has a deal with the US Drug Enforcement Administration, to which it has provided with 26 years of phone call records. Privacy has gone through the drain.

Osho understood freedom and the illusion of freedom very well.

“The freedom from something is not true freedom.
The freedom to do anything you want to do is also not the freedom I am talking about.
My vision of freedom is to be yourself.”

In “Autobiography of a Spiritually Incorrect Mystic,” a compilation of nearly 5,000 hours of Osho’s recorded talks, we learn not only about his life but also about the importance he gave to meditation.

Meditation, he said, is the only thing that can give us freedom. It will free us of the mind.

Psychoanalysis and psychosynthesis, he said, work on the mind and make us more conscious of the mind. Instead, meditation makes us observe the mind and to the extent we stop identifying with it, we transcend. Transcendence IS freedom.

Osho encourages dynamic meditation and practicing it alone… if you feel comfortable with it. The group, according to Osho is for people who have grown uncomfortable with their egos. They can “dissolve” into the group and forget about their egos for 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?