The Seven Life Processes
Interview with Ross Rentea, M.D.
Q: Can we look at human physiology in such a way that we can have an anthroposophical overview?
A: Yes. Rudolf Steiner gave us a key to this by identifying the seven physiological functions that shed light on our basic life processes. Once you understand these you will know which disease is connected to which process.
Q: Can you outline each of these?
A: Surely. They are: breathing, warming, nutrition, circulation, maintenance, growth and maturation, and reproduction. However you should know that Steiner connects soul qualities as well as physical principles to these life processes.
Q. Can we look at each of these processes in turn, and characterize them?
A: Breathing is the first life process. Steiner emphasizes that this is an occult term, which signifies "intake" from the outside world; the beginning of digestion. It encompasses taking in something as spiritual as thought, light, or oxygen through the lungs; or as physical as taking in food.
All these must be transformed as they are accepted by the body. If too much enters that cannot be processed, it will cause damage or illness. A first step is to control quantity and what comes in. If you take-in too much untransformed warmth, you will get burnt, as in radiation illness. Uncontrolled intake of substances that overwhelm you can lead to addiction or, physically as in smoking, can lead to cancer. Lastly, if the body constantly fights overabundance, it gets used up; the typical process of aging.
Q. Can all these life processes be associated with planetary qualities?
A: Yes. Planets, everchanging in the sky, govern all moveable, interchanging functions in the body. Breathing is associated with the planet Saturn, the most peripheral planet from a spiritual point of view.
Steiner called the second process warming (ruled by the planet Jupiter). This directs our attention to whatever increases body temperature. One such process is the influence of the thyroid gland. We all know that people who suffer from an under-secretion of the thyroid feel cold and are slow.
Q: Is there a progression between this process and the first one?
A: Yes. The real function of the thyroid hormone, besides taking up oxygen like the first process, is to increase the use of oxygen throughout the body. Every time oxygen is used, it is a form of burning, and its fire results in warmth. So you can see how the warming is an intensification of breathing.
There is however another significant aspect to warming. Substances taken in by breathing need to be absorbed more deeply. This happens when food is taken across the gut wall and into the inner organism, or when substances cross through the membranes into the cells. All of these passings, or ferryings, across walls require warmth, and create warmth. One of these ferrying processes is the ionic pump (such as the sodium potassium pump). Surprisingly 60% of the body's metabolic energy is generated just to keep these pumps going. Sodium and potassium are substances that make electricity flow. They also make our nervous system function, which ultimately allows us to think. Thinking is connected to the planet Jupiter.
In conclusion, illnesses of this physiological stage either have to do with burning too fast; using too much oxygen (the problem of free radicals and antioxidants), or too little warmth production as in hypothyroidism.
Nutrition is the third process. It is also connected with Mars. Mars is an aggressive Planet, related to destruction. Nutrition has this same quality.Substances brought in with breathing, then warming, now must be broken down within the body. Nutrition has to do with breaking down of proteins, and building up new ones. Actually, the whole world of biochemical changes belongs to this life process.
Q: This seems to follow the path of food. Can we follow the thinking process along the same route?
A: We can receive a thought from another person; taking it in. We can warm it up, becoming enthusiastic. Then we can digest and transform it, until we perceive it as our own. If a substance cannot be transformed, illnesses of deposit ensue, such as fat cholesterol, xanthomas, deposits of water (edema), uric acid crystals, (gout), sugar deposits (diabetes) etc. These illnesses are a weakened Mars.
With the fourth process, circulation, we have arrived at the center of the body. It relates to the beat of the heart and the rhythm of the lungs. The transformed substances must now be transported to the organs that use them. This is done through the cardiovascular system, governed by the Sun and the Ego. Everything to do with flow is a manifestation of circulation, for example the white protein in the blood called albumen. It even looks like the sun, or like an egg, intense at the core, with a white mantle around it. Any disturbance, where circulation suddenly gets out of rhythm, belongs to this pathology. If substances accumulate instead of going where they belong, you have illness. Albuminous processes circulating in the wrong place can cause diarrhea or various forms of allergies (sudden nasal discharges).
Q. It seems that the first three processes were a unit of sorts, with the fourth at the center. Are the next three processes a unit as well?
A: Certainly. Maintenance, growth and reproduction are oriented in the opposite direction, more from the inside of the body towards the outside.
The fifth process, maintenance, relates to tissue and cell connections. It is the sum total of making substance into the body's own cells, each one round like little mercury droplets. This process belongs to Mercury. Mercury also controls the intercellular messenger activity between each cell. All repair, scarring and healing belong to Mercury. Too little produces weakness or hypermobility of tendons; too much can cause uterine fibroids or cysts. In congestive heart failure the heart muscle is not maintained enough.
Sixth, growth and maturation belong to the same process that forms tissue or actual organs like liver, lung, kidney, etc. It takes a new impulse, that comes from Venus, to individualize tissues and transform them into organs. When growth comes to an end, and the body as a whole presents itself to our eyes, we have a truly harmonious 'whole' in front of us. Where do we see the Venus forces? They become obvious in the 'beauty' that the human form, in its entirety, has. All maturing has as its crowning point the formation of beauty.
Q: How were the last two life processes opposite to the second and third processes?
A: The second and third process had very much to do with taking in substance. Under the governance of Mercury and Venus, substances are excreted. If the processes don't come to an end, when they keep on going, there is pathology. I have the feeling that this is where all leukemias and lymphomas come from, not quite the same as solid tumors, which are under Saturn. Organs under the influence of Venus secrete hormones. All disturbances of hormonal life, specifically male and female, are related to this domain.
The last process, reproduction is the total opposite of the Saturn forces. It is governed by the Moon. Reproductive forces result in the formation of an embryo that grows and is ultimately a totality; a new world, excreted to the outside at birth. Saturn forces bring the outer world in, the Moon forces take the inner world out. Pathology in the reproductive realm includes genetic diseases.
This picture of classifying all physiological processes in a group of seven consecutive categories is completely novel; a first time presentation in the scientific world of human physiology from an evolutionary point of view. More on this topic can be found in R. Steiner's basic booklet, Anthroposophy—A Fragment.
Ross Rentea received his medical degree at the University of Chicago; then did his residency in New York City. Subsequently, for six years, he worked at clinics in Europe to study anthroposophical medicine. Since 1983 he has been practicing in Chicago, together with his wife Andrea Rentea, MD.