Today I was reflecting with wife Ginny about the immune system. My cancer treatment last year involved getting very large boosts to my immune system, and a number of things about my body have responded, beyond the cancer’s retreat. When I combine that with the much-studied interaction between the mind and the immune system, I saw this pattern: “The immune system’s way of being is ‘I am, and I have a right to be,’ and it fights anything that says ‘No you’re not’ or “No you don’t.’”
So the question arises, what has the brain be on one side or the other of that tug of war?
I assert that one factor – a big one – can be the presence of an affirming community that says “Yes you are.” My own blog community during my 2007 cancer experience was a big boost to my sense that I matter to people, and I have no doubt that boosted my sense that I deserved to survive.
About the mind-body connection, years ago I read that in a very real sense, the immune system is a sixth sense, bringing information to the brain about what’s going on in the “corners of the empire” and carrying instructions back. Googling leads to some similar items here (“the nervous and immune systems use a common chemical language for intra and inter-system communication”) and here (“the immune system [serves] as the sixth sense that notifies the nervous system of the presence of entities, such as viruses and bacteria, that are imperceptible to the classic senses”).
The New York Times “Well” blog has a conversation with Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food.I am no nutritionist but this makes sense to me:
My favorite brain author is Robert Ornstein. I heard him speak once, and he too puzzled about all the talk about not ingesting fats, when (at that time) there was no evidence at all that changing your intake made any difference in what showed up in your blood. Rather, he said, "What about the salutary effects of enjoying a great meal?" Shortly after, he published Healthy Pleasures. (If this concept interests you, check other mind/health books he's co-authored.)
Americans are a people so obsessed with nutrition yet whose dietary health is so poor. That strikes me as a paradox. We worry more about nutritional health, and we see food in terms of health. Yet we’re the world champs in terms of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and the cancers linked to diet. I think it’s odd. It suggests that worrying about your dietary health is not necessarily good for your dietary health.
I think health should be a byproduct of eating well, for reasons that have nothing to do with health, such as cooking meals, eating together and eating real food. You’re going to be healthy, but that’s not the goal. The goal should just be eating well for pleasure, for community, and all the other reasons people eat. What I’m trying to do is to bring a man-from-Mars view to the American way of thinking about food. This is so second nature to us — food is either advancing your health or ruining your health. That’s a very limited way to think about food, and it’s a very limited way to think about health. The health of our bodies is tied to the health of the community and the health of the earth. Health is indivisible.
I personally have a strong sense that our beings - our physical beings and our metaphysical ones, be they "souls" or something else - do resonate with each other, and there's something about the very nature of being well that's worth looking at. And it includes having a strong, supportive community.
More about this in future posts, I expect. For now, think about it, and if you have personal experiences to share, post a comment (at the link below).