Why the body is more like a car than you might think.
Like any machine, an efficiently and effectively functioning body needs maintenance. If you don’t service your car, it's not only more likely to breakdown but it also becomes less reliable, especially on long journeys. The body is not very different. You can perhaps get away with neglect for a couple of years. Problems might not be so obvious but, as the years go by, they manifest more frequently. Parts can be replaced but sometimes the scrap heap is the only option.
Luckily for us, the body has inbuilt resilience – providing we don’t abuse it. From the moment we are born, our bodies are in a state of constant change, chemical rebalancing, microbiome generation and loss, cellular birth, and programmed cell death. We interact with the environment we live in, and our microbes react within us and upon us.
But although we are a part of nature, we live in an age that makes us unaware of that deep connection. Electric lights have pushed us out of our natural circadian rhythm, rising with the dawn and sleeping at sunset. We buy our food from supermarkets. Feast and famine are no longer part of the western experience. Our children have largely become static creatures, addicted to computer games, and judged constantly by educational tests and social media. Many believe that they lack the emotional and physical resilience of older generations.
Playing with peers outside and away from parents used to be the norm. It had huge social and physical benefits. Running around and climbing, whether it be city walls or trees enhanced physical development. Movement improves bone structure and coordination. Being outside in all weathers builds resilience. Cuts and bruises educate the immune system by providing samples of the world we inhabit. Every scrape creates a library of adaptive immunity to protect us from disease.
Since the industrial revolution, the environment has changed faster than we have evolved to cope with it. Countless chemicals have been introduced. They are now interacting with each other, changing the ecology of the planet we inhabit and changing us. Our own ecology and that of our microbes must adapt to more unknowns than ever before. Chemical levels are tested for safety but not for interactions with other chemicals. We now live in a chemical soup of unknown ingredients. The introduction of a single species, the rat, had a devastating effect on Madagascar’s wildlife. The rabbit’s arrival in Australia caused similar devastation. In the UK, the introduction of Himalayan balsam is changing our countryside and wiping out habitats. Any new species always changes the environment.
So, our bodies must now try to cope with a murky soup of, hitherto unknown challenges. The bodies navigation system is always set to heal or rebalance.
Linking hands with our environment means recognising our place in it. This helps us to cope with disease and to become mentally and physically resilient. We have lived more with nature than without it; small stresses create stronger bodies.
Spending time in nature tunes us in to our ancestral habitat. A walk through a natural landscape without mobile phones, an iPod or any other form of chatter is balancing. Observing the sounds of the wind through trees, the myriad colours in grassland and the feel of the earth beneath your feet is a meditation that stills the mind and interrupts the stress responses that many of us have got used to.
But stress isn’t always a bad thing; its ok to be stressed! Stress allows the body to react to danger. It is an innate protective response that stops processes like digestion and the immune systems surveillance activities so that we can run or fight. Once danger has passed, the body returns to a state of calm and cellular regeneration, and digestion and immune responses carry on. Problems come when stress is constant. When that happens, the body struggles to take care of us.
So how does this apply to optimum body maintenance? Much of our immune system is housed in the hollow lumen of our gut. Our microbiome can work for us or against us, depending on what we eat, breathe in, and absorb. It can house a harmonious community of microbes that help us digest, generate vitamins and a healthy immune system or an angry mob that causes gas and bloating, weakens immunity, and dampens our mood. Our stress levels, the amount we move and the food that we eat all affects our gut community. More and more people take probiotics and there are a growing number of products on the market; proceed with caution. Like the rat in Madagascar that devastated birdlife, introducing microbes can do the same to your microbiome. It is essential know the characteristics of the microbe.
The key lesson here is to treat your body at least as well as your car; service it regularly and give it the appropriate fuel.
It’s not about just adding the latest superfood to your daily diet or going on a meditation and yoga retreat once a year. Nor is it making a trip to the gym, the only activity you do all day. It’s about regular daily adjustments that keep your engine ticking over nice