Illness: Are We Talking About War or About Change?

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By: Philip Incao, M.D.
Living in a materialistic age, we live under materialistic conceptions of health and disease. In them, illness is always damaging, harmful and abnormal and should be eradicated at any cost. Also, infections are invasions by hostile organisms that need to be destroyed. The doctor’s role is to wage war against these harms and abnormalities. Given these understandings, the practice of medicine is naturally directed towards two aims: to relieve symptoms and to conquer disease. Even many alternative health practitioners share these materialistic views, simply promising and offering so-called natural means to perfect health, boundless physical vitality and endless youth.

There is another view, based on a more spiritual understanding that illness has to do with the fact that we are growing, changing and evolving beings. In childhood, where change is most rapid, the frequent inflammatory illnesses mark milestones in the child’s growth and development. For adults, too, illnesses can be analogous to the shedding of skins by reptiles. If we see the human body as a vessel for our consciousness, it is then the instrument of who we are. Or you could say that our magnificently constructed body is a full orchestra – but it is not the music. Our bodies are not ourselves, but express ourselves. As we constantly grow and change, the body has to grow and change with us.

Childhood Infections
The process of acute inflammation in childhood infections helps to connect that child’s not-yet-manifested potential consciousness to the instrument of her or his physical body, which as anyone can observe, goes through constant remodeling. Every change needs not only formation of new tissues, but also the destruction and elimination of old ones. Inflammation refines the human body by getting rid of unneeded, worn out materials, and expelling them. The vehicle for this process is the immune system, and in children especially, it takes place through fever, mucus production, vomiting and diarrhea.
The word ‘infection’ for childhood illnesses, is of course a misnomer, because it focuses attention on the bacteria or viruses as invading, causative agents. But the infectious agents commonly blamed for most illnesses are already inside us or constantly around us. They become active enough to cause symptoms only when there is an accumulation of wastes and debris produced naturally by a growing body. Then the immune system ramps up, and through inflammation and fever cleanses the body and establishes a new balance. Many parents report seeing distinct developmental leaps in their children after recovery from an inflammatory illness.

Killing the Messenger
Attacking the bacteria with antibiotics is really “killing the immune system’s messenger.” Evidence that the whole acute inflammation and fever cycle is normal lies in the fact that animals experimentally raised in germ-free environments fail to develop either normal immune systems or healthy intestines. Shutting down fevers and inflammation with antibiotics not only suppresses an essential, natural process that builds immune capacity, it drives the toxins deeper into the body. They surface later in chronic illnesses. The huge increase seen in recent years in chronic illnesses such as asthma and allergies, and in immune disorders, follows the indiscriminate use of antibiotics and vaccines.

Of course, when excessive bacterial activity threatens to “burn the house down,” then antibiotic use is fully warranted. Call your doctor if a child or adult appears to be steadily losing strength with a high fever.

The essential viewpoint is that we and our bodies do not and should not stand still. We grow, we change, and we age. In childhood (and more slowly and subtly later), we transform and mold our bodies through incarnating into them. Illnesses may signal either that change is occurring or that our inner poisons have accumulated to the point that they provoke a healing crisis – as in the bronchitis that is provoked by smoking or the hepatitis provoked by intravenous drug use.

Inflammation and Plasticity
The brain develops, as physiologists have discovered, through the functions it carries. In a child brought up without language, the “language center” of the brain fails to develop, not the other way around. The healthy brain is elastic and flexible, and needs to stay so to convey our thoughts and intentions. Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias can be seen as a loss of plasticity such that the instrument can no longer “play the tune.” If the neurons don’t work properly, the consciousness is disturbed. Chemicals called cytokines are known to be mediators of inflammation. Certain cytokines have been shown specifically to increase brain plasticity. That suggests that the process of inflammation, mediated by cytokines, increases the ability of the nervous system to integrate with the body. It helps us to be healthy, whole and functional human beings who can actively unfold our potential.

Of course, this is only a brief introduction to very complex issues. It is meant as a preface to the column I will be offering to you through Lilipoh starting with the Winter issue. In it I will try to answer your practical questions about health and illness (please send them to the address listed below). I hope what I am saying here and in the future links together good health practices with a specific medical viewpoint – that both the minor ailments and big health crises that meet us in life are more than bumps in the road or tragic detours, but real events intimately connected to who we are and where we are going.

Philip Incao, M.D. practices medicine in  Denver, Colorado. For a more detailed description of the role of inflammation in childhood illnesses, see Melissa L. Block’s article with Philip Incao, “Don’t Worry, Mom – I’m Just Growing” in the July/August 2003 issue of Mothering magazine.

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