Chapter 4: The Illusion and Reality of Self-Repair
Repairing a human body is usually not very difficult as long as the repairman and the human body in question are the same. This is self-repair, the subject of this book, and we do it all the time. When another technician – such as a doctor – needs to be called in, things rapidly become problematic. Self-repair is simple because the human genome within nearly every one of the body’s trillions of cells contains not only a complete blueprint, but a full set of repair manuals.
In nature, self-repair is taken for granted. The halobacterium living in the extreme salinity of the Dead Sea, six times saltier than the ocean, because of the extreme hostility of its environment, has evolved highly elaborate repair enzymes. You can mince its DNA with radiation or intense UV light and within a few hours the bacterium has made itself whole and is ready to reproduce.13,14
Salamanders sacrifice a leg and grow another at will. And you can lose a good part of your liver and regenerate it without visualization, affirmations, organic groceries, healthy lifestyles or stopping smoking.
Repairing a human body is especially easy if that body is youthful and the breakdown acute. An inventory of the various repair contracts my not so youthful body has taken on any given summer day shows just how easy it really is. A splinter from working the garden and calluses from the shovel are no problem. An abrasion from surfing a rocky reef plus the sore shoulder muscles from all the paddling are brief annoyances. A hint of athlete’s foot from not drying my feet. Sore, red gums from eating steaming corn on the cob. Even more miraculous is the ease with which my body deals with imbalances of which I remain blissfully oblivious: eliminating an overdose of chai, neutralizing the free radicals in my retina from staring too long at my monitor. My body intuitively knows how to scavenge the foamy, oxidized cholesterol deposited by a second helping of chocolate cheesecake that I impulsively decided not to forego. My body is fortunately much more brilliant a physician than I could ever hope to be, and a better parent, caring for and nursing itself after I repeatedly subject it to both physical and emotional abuse.
Repairing a human body generally begins to get problematic when the instructions in the genetic repair manual are insufficient to compensate for the degree and duration of the overdose, underdose, misuse or injury. At some point, the body goes beyond simple imbalance and enters into the ill-omened territory of chronic disease, which is the subject of this book.
The Doctor Within
I remember the moment I entered that inauspicious domain of chronic disease, still in my twenties. I had enjoyed a sunny March morning pummeling my quads while skiing on a steep, bumpy run. Getting off the lift with joy in my heart for a last run before lunch, I became aware of a vague ache in a knee that seven years previously had lain wide open on an operating table prior to the era of arthroscopy.
Having personally experienced how remarkably efficient a youthful body can be at the difficult task of self-repair, I had always assumed, or perhaps hoped against my better judgment as a first year medical student, that acute trauma was simply something I naturally recover from, given a day or two off and a few tablets of ibuprofen. Looking down the hill and feeling a faint fullness and twinge in my knee, I knew my life had changed forever. What once was a trick knee would now always be my bum knee. I thought, “I’m not yet thirty and I have arthritis!” I sensed the rest of my days would be encumbered with its repair, in contrast to the much simpler job of prevention. Deciding that I’d better start to acquire some common sense, and realizing that pain had a purpose, I chose the less traumatic way down the mountain.
Learning the lost art of self-repair implies a process of giving your body’s intelligence an opportunity to function in a different mode than the one that brought it to its current state.
In states of extreme disease, however, sometimes the body is too smart for its own good. For example, an unstable, arthritic knee initiates a process of building osteophytes, calcifications that help to stabilize the joint. Unfortunately, they eventually also decrease its range of motion, impose sharp spines into the joint space and promote more irritation.
In response to a weakening heart, the body activates many hormonal and muscle responses that stretch, dilate and thicken the heart’s walls to compensate. This strategy works up to a point. After that, the same compensatory responses, which initially helped the heart cope, begin to sabotage its wall’s motion. Too much stretch makes it weaker, as in blowing up a balloon the thinning walls become easier to fill.
The ideal response to a chronic process is not always intuitive to a diseased body. The goal of Vedic medicine is to enliven the best of the possible responses inherent in the genome in reaction to a stress, an imbalance or disease.
Each patient carries his own doctor within. They come to us not knowing that truth. We are at our best when we allow the doctor who resides within each patient a chance to go to work. Albert Schweitzer
The Illusion of the Physical Body
The ancient art of self-repair, the secrets shared by the ancient Vedic physicians and their disciples, eerily envisages the nonlinear perspective about biology discovered by modern science over the past fifty years. This non-linear paradigm from quantum mechanics, molecular biology and psychoneuroimmunology has been largely ignored, neglected and dismissed in clinical medicine.
Quantum mechanics understands matter not as a solid substance, but as a wave function or probability on one hand, or as a kink in space-time on the other. In essence, your body is nothing material. It is a song. Depending on your perspective your body is a quantum mechanical wave function, recurrent waves of a repetitive sequence of genetic information, or the cosmic embodiment of Veda. “Reality is an illusion,” said Albert Einstein, “albeit a persistent one.”
Whatever this nothingness is, cell turnover studies have shown it is in constant flux. Your tissues renew themselves on a regular basis. You shed your skin every 28 days – unless you have psoriasis and turn your skin over in 7 days. You make new red cells every six months, breaking down the old weak ones in your soles as you walk and excreting them in your stool. Your white cells have an even shorter life, from a few days to a few weeks. The cells that line your stomach are replaced in a matter of hours. In short, you are a nothingness in progress. Carbon-14 dating of genomic DNA, which has the lowest turnover rate of all the molecules in a cell, has shown that most tissues are much younger than your body.15 Your intestinal tissue (except the lining which you shed every few days) is 11 years old. Skeletal muscle is 15 years old. Your brain’s neurons are the most stable. This study suggested that the average age of your tissues is seven to ten years. You literally urinate out your bones as soluble calcium as you replace them with this morning’s yogurt, and exhale the lymphocytes of your spleen as carbon dioxide and water as you build new ones from the burrito at lunch.
Molecular biology has demonstrated that your physical essence is not its material components, but the software, the biological intelligence flowing from the gene sequences of DNA that program you. If you are indeed a nothingness in progress, you are not even a material nothingness, but a nothingness of information, consciousness in motion, a wave function.
These modern insights have profound implications for chronic disease because most people, including physicians, feel that most disorders have rigid anatomical consequences that cannot be modified: torn cartilage, growth of osteophytes, thinning of intestinal walls, brittle bones. If a good part of your calcium will be exchanged over the two years before your next bone density measurement, why should it not happen in a more positive way than heretofore? In two years, you will examine your most recent scan showing that you have the bone density of a seventy- year old while your driver’s license reads only fifty. You may think, “Same lousy, brittle, old hip!” The reality is that you do not have the same old hip at all. In those intervening two years, you have literally exchanged a new hip for the old one. The only factors that remained the same were the software (your DNA) and your lousy old habits, which are mere memories (“I hate walks, veggies and dairy, but I love coffee.”) Much of chronic disease is but memories and information, mostly smoke and mirrors.
Your Brain and the Repair Response
A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones. Proverbs 17:22
Psychoneuroimmunology, a new discipline studying the interface between our nervous and immune systems, has added other insights to dispel the idea that the body is but flesh with feelings. In 1982, Robert Ader performed a remarkable experiment, feeding saccharine to one set of lab mice while injecting them with the immune boosting drug interferon.
He gave the other set saccharine while it was injected with the potent immune suppressant cyclophosphamide. When he gave the saccharine alone, the immune system was either stimulated or suppressed depending on the animal’s previous experience.16 Humans respond in similar ways. Depending on our past experience a stimulus like the smell of a box of chocolates or the lilacs blooming can make us remember happy times or sad.
This also implies that every thought and emotion is accompanied by its own neurochemical mix – the neurotransmitters and neuropeptides such as serotonin, endorphin, GABA, vasopressin, epinephrine, and acetylcholine. These neurotransmitters are involved not only with signaling and synapses in the brain, but with the regulation of the immune system, gut, circulation and other vital functions. The body’s glands, intestines and bone marrow appear to be a part of our memory bank, storing and exchanging information with the brain mediated by these neuromessengers. Depending on what we think and feel, we can have heartfelt feelings or heart attacks, strong immune defenses or a series of colds.17 Dhanvantari is self-interaction. Your every thought, emotion and perception, including what TV shows you watch and the company you keep, affect your health.
The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts. Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become. Heraclitus
The connection between the nervous and immune systems can also be extended to a culture. Sociological studies have shown that poor people have worse health than the rich. Only a small fraction of that difference can be explained by access to doctors, hospitals, medicines, good food, better hygiene, more leisure time and exercise. Good research suggests that one of the main determinants in this disparity is the shame, anger and frustration that come with the perception of being comparatively poor.18 In the US where even the poor have mobile phones, televisions, cars, microwaves and reasonable access to hospitals, we rank 25th in the most important measures of health. This is well below many countries that are much poorer than ours, including some countries where the necessities in life are truly marginal and where there is little disparity between rich and poor. Could it be that a person creates within herself a culture of wealth or poverty, regardless of her actual financial status, together with the emotions and corresponding neurochemistry of health or disease? Perhaps the quantum physicists are right and the body is but a song, a tapestry of harmonics and rhythms, a field of all possibilities with a flavor of its own. Can you turn your family’s culture into one that promotes self-repair?
13 Grant W.D., Gemmell R.T., McGenity T.J. (1998) Halobacteria: the evidence for longevity. Extremophiles 2:279-287
14 McGenity T.J. et al. (2000) Origins of halophilic microorganisms in ancient salt deposits. Environmental Microbiology 2(3), 243-250
15 Spalding KL, Bhardwaj RD, Buchholz BA, Druid H, Frisen J. 2005) Retrospective birth dating of cells in humans. Cell. 122:166-43. The authors correlated the carbon-14 content of the atmosphere, which is declining since above ground atomic tests of the 1950’s, with the content in human cells, beacuse humans incorporate plants and plant-eating animals which fix atmospheric CO2.
16 Ader R, Cohen N. Behaviorally conditioned immunosuppression and murine systemic lupus erythemotosis. Science 1982; 215:1534-6.
17 For a more detailed discussion of this topic, see Quantum Healing, by Deepak Chopra, MD; Random House, 1989
18 Health and Wealth. Transcript of a talk on Alternative Radio. Stephen Bezruchka. Seattle, WA, 9 Dec. 2003.