Defend or heal: fighting the ‘flu

A time to kill, a time to heal…a time to build up, a time to break down” Turn, turn, turn The Byrds (from Ecclesiastes 3.3)

At the cellular level you can either heal or defend, but you can’t do bothDr David Comely, my magical mysterious health adviser (in Wellington, NZ). This struck me as extremely profound. When animals (like us) feel safe, and loved, we heal or repair better; we can put all our energy into healing instead of defending.

Epigenetics, the switching on and off of genes, occurs at the cellular level. Google “genes are not your destiny” and you’ll find its whether you turn the genes on. Lifestyle (sugar, fasting, microbiome, activity) affects whether or how often genes are expressed.

Cell signals are complex Heath Robinson affairs; a signal hits the outside of the cell, there’s a secret handshake to get through the cell membrane and once inside, like a marble knocking over a switch pulling a string that lights a candle…. a cascade of signals changes a switch to “on” or “off”. That switch says to your cell “unwind that gene, and use it to stamp out copies, until you get another signal that says enough!”.

The complex chain of signals often end in a simple yes or no (on or off). They’re not open-ended choices, more like a game of 20 questions: Animal, vegetable or mineral? It’s the axis of opposites that I posted about: inflame or calm, store or release, break down or build up. Panic stations, you’re starving: turn down the thermostat, scavenge and recycle broken bits. Ample food, relax, crank up the heat, build new bits. And so when you’re ill, whether its the ‘flu or measles or the common cold, you want to know how to switch from defend to heal.

Sick baby monkeys in skin contact with their mothers produce many times more white blood cells than isolated baby monkeys, get well more quickly and have higher survival rates. Defend or heal; a baby without adult protection diverts its resources to defence. Immediate survival calls you to fight the tiger now; fight the ‘flu later (if you survive the tiger). So here’s the kicker – sending your body fear signals when there is no tiger takes your cells’ attention away from healing. And this is what we do in modern life.

Compared to our ancestors (say, out on the icy lake with frozen extremities, fishing for dinner), our lives are paradise. We can well afford to relax and play. But many of us live in a state of anxiety, fighting imaginary tigers 24/7, with no let-up.

Do you sense an underlying, existential angst? Perhaps unworthiness, a need to justify your existence, insecurity, fear or just thinking you’re a loser. You tell this to your body (slumping shoulders, tight jaw, churning stomach), and it sets your cells to “defend”. Martha Beck relates a client felt one step from homeless destitution so had a goal of $20m; on reaching $20m still felt unsafe and revised it to $40m. Moral of the story, it was never about the bank balance, it was an emotional state. Which of your tigers are imaginary, when they all feel real? And what can you do about it?

Our ancestors lived a daily cycle: heat, light, activity and stress; then cool, dark, quiet, and relax (see circadian rhythm). This is a daily cycle of “on” (defend) and “off” (heal). Our modern daily cycle is more often work-stress then play-stress (social media ‘status-anxiety’, action-horror-thriller shows, or outrage-based clickbait that passes for “news”).

Here’s a thought. In the old days if you hadn’t found any berries or caught your antelope by sundown, you had to down tools. When the light faded, you had to stop. If we stress in the day and relax at night, we can cycle between heal and defend. Relaxing and smelling the roses feels good, and is vitally important to your health and wellbeing at a cellular level. It’s not ‘wasting time’. When you’re sick, try it out. What rituals make you feel safe, cosseted and protected like those baby monkeys?

I’m trying out a radical old idea; being more aware of seasons, light and weather. When the sun goes down this is my cue to stop eating (early dinner), contemplate safety, do quiet, relaxing things. My lights are dim and phone and computer screens are orange, (f.lux or Twilight). When you’re feeling low, I invite you to join me at sunset to down tools and relax, for sanity and to boost healing.


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