Of Yin & Yang, Qi and Immune Systems

Do you know that we start rotting as soon as we have breathed our last breath? This is a fascinating reminder that decay is the default situation for the human body. Given half a chance, our dear body will putrefy.

So what is it that is stopping us from rotting when we are alive?

Apparently, scientists do not as yet know much about how a human body rots – at least not in great detail. We know that we are inhabited and surrounded by microscopic life forms that either exist in symbiosis with us, or are invisible parasites. These continue living after the host body dies, and naturally the relationship shifts – from one of mutual existence to being a banquet for the surviving party.

There is nothing strange about that. Life nurtures life – or more correctly, death nurtures life. We are but a complex system that transforms energy from one form to another, ad infinitum.

Now, apparently even before resident creatures begin to feast on the dead body, the very ceasing of life processes has already caused the cells to literally decompose. Just minutes after the flow of blood stops and the supply of oxygen ends, “auto-digestion”, or autolysis, starts. Cells increase in acidity and enzymes begin to eat into and through cell membranes. This is most obvious in the liver, which is full of enzymes; and in the brain, which is full of water. As the containment of liquids within cells and within vessels fail, gravity draws fluids to flow downwards, changing our complexion. And then the rotting process moves on to more advanced stages.

But enough about the death and rotting bit.

We use the term “immune system” to denote the processes within our body which fight parasites and infections, and stops intruders from eating us up. As Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it, an immune system is “the complex group of defense responses found in humans and other advanced vertebrates that helps repel disease-causing organisms (pathogens)”. These responses can be non-specific and innate, or specific and acquired. Unfortunately, the immune system can have deficiencies and disorders. When that happens, it can become our worst enemy and cause allergies, cancers and a host of other debilitating and fatal ailments.

Against this negative description of physical being, how would one define “health”? Simply not being sick or injured is the minimal qualification for being healthy, I assume. On the other hand, the World Health Organization tells us that, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

“Complete well-being” is quite a high standard to use for good health. It was set already in 1948 though, before humans learned to become high-consuming hypochondriac health nuts.

Understandably and unavoidably, alternative medicines and healthcare exist to question the science of medicine – and necessarily of the workings of the human body. That’s a healthy sign. In fact, the strongest challenge to modern medicine, to my mind, is a conceptual one rather than a medical one.

For example, one can convincingly argue that in Chinese medical thinking, which highlights the need for a body to balance (the operational word) between yin and yang to stay healthy, food and medicine tend to blend into each other. There is no clear line between the two. Food can definitely be seen as preventive medicine, and medicine can be seen as nourishing. And indulgent eating habits can therefore be considered as the taking of bad medicine that impedes the processes that keep the body purring along effectively.

How does this affect how we think about prevention and cure? On one hand, it means that we should be mindful of anything we eat, drink, inhale and absorb; on the other, excessive concern with this balancing act tends to ignore the importance of exercise to good health.

And then there is the notion of qi, of vital energy, which brings me to the reason why I began this piece with morbid words about bodily decay.

Seen as a whole, the human body is as amazing a defensive organism as it is a rapacious beast. There is indeed a mystery inherent in the passage of the body from being alive to being dead. Abrahamic and many other ways of thought try to make sense of it by introducing the Soul, the ghost in the machine. As long as a Soul inhabits a body, like a hermit crab inhabiting a shell, the body’s mechanisms will work. The question they then have to answer is, how come there is sickness at all in that case? Is the body sick because the soul is sick? And the answer at that point has to get ever more spiritual – they may reply that the body is sick because the soul has sinned, be it in this life or in earlier lives. A sick soul causes a sick body – that would be a common answer.

Or one could employ the notion of qi. The working mechanisms of the body are only as healthy as the extent to which flows of energy – be these manifested as blood vessels, as breath or as a holistic notion of dynamism within the body – are unimpeded. Such a view does not necessarily deny that there are infections that can overwhelm an otherwise fully healthy body.

It’s worth thinking more about.

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