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An Overview of Health and Healing




Excerpted from
Eight Weeks to Optimum Health
By Andrew Weil, M.D.

English Conversation About A Health...
English Conversation About A Health Problem

Health is wholeness and balance, an inner resilience that allows you to meet the demands of living without being overwhelmed. It you have that kind of resilience, you can experience the inevitable interactions with germs and not get infections, you can be in contact with allergens and not suffer allergies, and you can sustain exposure to carcinogens and not get cancer. Optimal health should also bring with it a sense of strength and joy, so that you experience it as more than just the absence of disease. I designed the Eight-Week Program to lead you to that experience and show you how to maintain it.

Perfect health is not possible: beware of people and products that promise it. Health is a dynamic and temporary stare of equilibrium destined to break down as conditions change, but most of the breakdowns need not be major. The point is that health is not static; it is normal to lose it periodically in order to come back to it in a better way. Whenever the equilibrium of the body breaks down, your healing system attempts to reestablish it. In other words, healing is an automatic process activated by any breakdown in health. When you cut your finger, for example, you do not have to pray for the cut to heal or seek out a finger healer. As long as the wound is clean, and no underlying chronic illness is present, the cut heals by itself. That is an example of spontaneous healing, mediated by the healing system.

The healing system is a functional system of the body, not a structural component like the nervous system or the musculoskeletal system. Western medicine focuses more on structure than on function, with the result that conventional doctors learn a great deal about the body's structural systems and less about functional ones. Of course, in some cases-digestion and circulation, for example-structure and function are synonymous, but because the healing system does not correlate neatly with any one set of body structures, I cannot provide a line drawing of it in the way that I could of the digestive system. The function of healing depends on the operation of all the systems known to Western medicine; it also draws on the mind and other nonphysical components of our being.

To see the difference between looking at the body as a set of associated structures versus a set of interdependent functions, it is instructive to contrast Eastern medical science with Western. Traditional Chinese medicine developed thousands of years ago it] a sophisticated culture that pioneered the discovery and orderly use of medicinal plants and invented a unique therapeutic modality-acupuncture - that is now widely practiced throughout the world. For a variety of cultural reasons-one being the unthinkability of dissecting a dead body-Chinese medicine also developed without detailed knowledge of the internal structure of the human body. Instead, it concentrated on identifying body functions and clarifying their relationships to one another.

One key function, identified long ago by Eastern medical science, is defense-that is, the body has the need and ability to defend itself against threats to its equilibrium, whether they be physical, emotional, or energetic. Having noted and studied the body's defensive capabilities, Chinese doctors then explored the natural world to find ways of maintaining and enhancing them, and they discovered a number of ways to do so, including the administration of herbal remedies. Among these remedies are ginseng, astragalus, and several mushrooms that grow on trees, such as Ganoderma lucidum (known to the Chinese as ling chili and the Japanese as reishi).

Chinese doctors knew little of the nature of the organs that Western medicine now considers parts of the immune system; they did not connect tonsils, adenoids, the lymph nodes, appendix, thymus, and spleen with the body's defensive sphere of function; but that lack of anatomical knowledge did not obstruct their practical ability to improve the health of their patients. On the other hand, Western doctors described the structural nature of the immune organs but had no idea of their function until very recently; for much of the twentieth century, they labeled most of them "functionless," "vestigial," or "unimportant." Even when I was a student at Harvard Medical School in the late 1960s, it was commonplace for surgeons to remove tonsils and adenoids from most children who had frequent episodes of tonsillitis. Until very recently, many patients who entered the hospital for abdominal surgery-gallbladder removals or hysterectomies, for example-had their appendix removed routinely and without their consent, often not finding out that the removal had taken place until they got their hospital bill.

In the 1950s, doctors in leading medical centers recklessly injured the thymus glands of children with X-rays. These physicians invented a disease, thymic hypertrophy, that every child had, and pronounced it curable by shrinking the gland with X-ray treatments. A hypertrophic organ is one that is too large. The thymus is large in childhood because it is doing vital work for the developing immune system: programming lymphocytes to recognize foreign antigens. Doctors in the 1950s did not understand that function. They believed the thymus was a useless organ whose large size in childhood indicated some disease process.

Here is a stark contrast between a functional versus a structural view of the human body. Western medical structuralists carelessly destroyed immune organs, whereas Eastern functionalists developed practical methods to improve their operation. Research on the effects of the Chinese medicinal mushrooms in animals and humans shows them to stimulate immune function. For example, Ganodernta increases immune destruction of tumor cells and virus-infected cells, effects that are especially desirable in view of Western medicine's relative inability to treat cancer and viral infections successfully.

When I look at the body from a functional perspective, I see that defense is actually one component of a superfunction that I call healing. In Spontaneous Healing I tried to convey a sense of the manifold operations of the healing system, pointing out, for example, that even at the most fundamental level of life-the DNA molecule that encodes genetic information and directs all cellular processes-it is possible to observe an inherent ability to recognize injury or malfunction, to remove damaged structure, and to regenerate intact structure. If a strand of DNA is damaged-say, by an energetic ultraviolet ray from the sun-the molecule identifies the point of injury and repairs it, by manufacturing specific repair enzymes to do the job. The healing system operates from that fundamental level up to the level of cut fingers and into the mental realm, where it helps us adjust to emotional shocks. It operates continually, keeping most of us in good health most of the rime despite all the agents of illness and forces of disorder that surround us constantly, and it is always at the ready to help us deal with serious threats to health when they arise.

To illustrate the potential for healing-a subject that conventional medical teaching, research, and practice largely ignore, by the way-I presented a number of cases in Spontaneous Healing from my experience with people who underwent dramatic reversals of life-threatening diseases like aplastic anemia and metastatic kidney cancer as well as more commonplace conditions like arthritis and back pain. Since the publication of that book, I have gathered many more healing stories, some from people who roused their healing systems to action by following the kinds of advice presented in the Eight-Week Program that is the subject of this book. I will recount some of those tales throughout this book to help motivate you to undertake the program and follow it through to its conclusion: a new and improved lifestyle that will increase your chances of enjoying optimum health into old age.

I also continue to scan the medical literature for evidence that my profession is beginning to take an interest in this type of healing. For now I see just the merest beginnings of movement, but I did come across a remarkable report in the July 1996 issue of the journal Nature Genetics that I want to share with you.



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