Sunday, September 24, 2006

Only you can heal you

To array a man's will against his sickness is the supreme art of medicine.
- Henry Ward Beecher, preacher and writer (1813-1887)

The human body, especially the brain, has been likened to a sophisticated computer where the brain performs functions that operate machinery in the rest of the body. This analogy is simplistic, but easy for a child to understand.

When something goes wrong with a computer, we always call on a human to set it right again. True, predictions call for computers in the future that can repair themselves. If these ever come about, they will almost certainly perform the way the human body does. In fact, many of the components of these computers may be biological.

The human body repairs itself. Doctors and other medical experts merely prompt the brain to do whatever is necessary to heal the problem area of the body.

Let's take the example of cancer in a body. Our immune sytem normally detects and eliminates cells it does not recognize as part of the "self" using its own attack army of T-cells. This helps us to avoid many illnesses. The reason why cancer cells are so hard for our immune system to detect is that they closely resemble other human cells. Cancer cells disguise themselves in such a way as to be invisible to the immune system.

The brain can do nothing about this because it would not normally attack itself. There are a few autoimmune illnesses in which the immune system turns against itself, but these result from chemical or genetic problems, not invading cells.

Medical science today is tryng to find a way to help the brain (immune system) to detect the subtle differences between cancer cells and healthy body cells. Once it learns how to teach the immune system the difference(s) it can reprogram the immune system to detect and eliminate cancer cells.

Call it genetic engineering, but if your life were at stake, you might favour getting rid of your own cancer.

Meanwhile, doctors prescribe all sorts of medicines that do not cure us but instead prompt our bodies to repair themselves. An antibiotic, for example, prompts the immune system to produce more bacteria fighters to kill invading bacteria. The few existing antiviral medicines prompt the immune system to detect and wipe out whatever viruses they can find.

Only treatments such as chemotherapy actually kill anything themselves. The way this therapy ravages the body is not pretty.

The reason why some antibiotics work to defeat invading disease bacteria while others don't is that some tweak the immune systems of some people properly and some don't. We differ in how we react to medicines and therapies. Sometimes only experimentation will find the right one. Recently, antibiotic-resistent bacteria have evolved, which makes tweaking the immune systems of some people very difficult.

Over the past century, medical science has become very good at fighting problems that used to kill our ancestors. It still has a long way to go, further still if we take into account poor people in any country who can't afford therapies that would cure their counterparts in rich countries or communities.

Your doctor should be trying to get you to cure yourself. If he or she prescribes a medication that turns out to be incorrect, remember that prescriptions are often a matter of trial and error. We may not like that, but it's a reality of medicine.

More importantly, your doctor should be trying to encourage you to eat and exercise in ways that would help you to fight off any invading microbe and to avoid having your body organs break down. In theory, your doctor should be trying to put himself or herself out of business. It never works that way because there are always people to fix.

This doctor-prompted healthy lifestyle change does not happen often enough. Consequently, the responsibility falls to us to find out what we need to do to make ourselves healthy.

Living a healthy lifestyle is not always popular or fun. However, we need to keep in mind that what we do today may well determine what our life is like 30 years from now. Strong bodies often take that long to react to abuse. But when it happens, it's wretched, as many aged former professional athletes could tell you.

In the final analysis, your body heals itself. Therefore it's up to you to keep it fit enough to be able to do its job.

Being a sickly, wasted old person is not something you would wish on yourself.

Bill Allin
'Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems,' striving to teach everyone how to lead a healthy and active old age.
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