Health, freedom and wakeful presence
“Ultimately, healing flows from within. The word itself originates from “wholeness.” To be whole is much more than to experience the absence of disease. It is the full and optimal functioning of the human organism, according to its nature-gifted possibilities. By such standards, we live in a culture that leaves us far short of health.” Gabor Mate. M.D.
In the previous post I referred to an article by Dr Gabor Mate, in which he writes that ‘the separation of mind and body is an erroneous view, incompatible with science. Personality traits—that is, psychological patterns—conduce to disease because the brain circuits and systems that process emotions exert a profound influence on our autonomic nerves, as well as our cardiovascular, hormonal, and immune systems: In reality, they are all conjoined. The recent, but no longer new, discipline of psychoneuroimmunology has delineated the many neurological and biochemical mechanisms that unite all these seemingly disparate systems into one super-system.” He also cites a report in Science Daily from the University of Virginia: “In a stunning discovery that overturns decades of textbook teaching, researchers have determined that the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist. The discovery could have profound implications for diseases from autism to Alzheimer’s to multiple sclerosis.”
Unresolved trauma also impacts our development and health in the present and in the years to come. This would seem common sense, but there is also a lot of scientific evidence today of the deleterious impact of the residual effects of trauma across generations. Post traumatic stress symptomatology is only one cluster of issues that are often conducive to other health problems like autoimmune conditions. Gabor Mate writes: “It is impossible to overstate the impact of childhood trauma on adult mental and physical health. Myriad studies have demonstrated that early-life suffering potentiates many illnesses, from mental diseases such as depression, psychosis, or addiction to autoimmune conditions to cancer. One Canadian study demonstrated that childhood abuse raised the risk of cancer nearly 50 percent, even when controlled for lifestyle habits such as smoking and drinking.”
Therefore, it is probably wise to bear in mind that most symptoms or health conditions are usually caused by multiple factors, and thus, need to be investigated and tackled through different routes and complementary approaches. When we view all our experience, our bodily organs and functions included, as complex, interconnected and embedded, a holistic approach seems to be the more reasonable and effective way to address things. Our environment influences our physiology, which in turn influences our mental states and psychology and vice versa; so, isolating symptoms or problems doesn’t help us get to the root causes, and as a result, rarely resolves a problem. What usually happens is the management of symptomatology or decrease of intensity of an experience, and often an unresolved condition or symptom mutates into something else creating vicious cycles as time goes by.
The complexity and interconnectedness of our living experience and the fact that presenting symptoms can be the result of many factors seems to require a more open minded and a multi-faceted approach. Health and wholeness are dependent on healthy nutrition, an environment free of toxins and pollution, non toxic relationships, resolution of old traumas, a sense of belonging, safety and freedom, and more. Often life and dietary changes and our own informed and empowered involvement in our healing are required if we want more than symptoms management. We need to keep an open mind, and also, become more informed and connected to our intuition when it comes to our health. While we seek professional assistance and guidance, we need to also bear in mind that giving our power away to authority of any kind is not necessarily a wise or safe approach.
Dr Kelly Brogan, whose book I am engaging with currently, describes how textbook mental symptoms or disorders can actually represent ordinary physical imbalances that are routinely undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. She writes: “They are what I call the psychiatric pretenders, five physiologic conditions that can leave you with symptoms that are indistinguishable from depression and other so called mental disorders……..” These five pretenders are thyroid imbalances; gluten and dairy sensitivity; blood sugar instability; effects from medications and vitamin B12 deficiency. In relation to B12 deficiency Brogan writes: “Here are some of the reasons that vitamin B12 is so important: B12 supports myelin, the sheath around nerve fibers that allows nerve impulses to conduct. So when this vitamin is deficient, it’s suspected of driving symptoms such as an impaired gait, loss of sensation, signs of dementia and even multiple sclerosis. But what about B12’s role in psychiatric symptoms such as depression, anxiety, fatigue, and even psychosis? The role of Vitamin B12 in neuropsychiatric syndromes can best be explained by two basic biological mechanisms: methylation and homocysteine recycling….”
In relation to thyroid imbalances Brogan writes that an unbalanced thyroid and not unbalanced brain chemicals is one of the most common “pretenders”, particularly in women today, and that hypothyroidism (an overwhelmed and thus underperforming thyroid) is one of the most under diagnosed conditions…… She suggests that “the vast majority of symptoms that occur with a thyroid disorder could easily come under a “depression” diagnosis. Most of us never think about our thyroid, but this butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of the neck has important functions, including playing a key role in metabolism, digestion, elimination, appetite, energy, temperature, sleep, and mood. Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland is underactive because of nutrient deficiency or inflammation and doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone. …….This conversion to active thyroid hormone is dependent on specialized enzymes, optimal cortisol (your stress hormone), and certain nutrients such as iron, iodine, zinc, magnesium, selenium, B vitamins, vitamin C, and vitamin D. In our fast-paced, nutrient-depleted world filled with toxic substances, this one hormonal conversion step alone can be easily impaired. And while you may not feel the attack in your thyroid per se, you’ll definitely feel it in your mood, energy, and cognition. When the thyroid is responding to stressors, you can experience an array of depression like symptoms, including fatigue, constipation, hair loss, low mood, foggy thinking, feeling cold all the time, low metabolism, weight gain, dry skin, muscle aches, and an intolerance for exercise. You’re wearing socks to bed, pooping only once a week, and penciling in your eyebrows because the hair has gone missing. And then there’s the special consideration of postpartum thyroiditis, a condition that 10% of women develop after delivery.”
Kelly Brogan describes her own experience of postpartum thyroiditis: “It’s a condition that I was diagnosed with nine months after the birth of my first child, and one that invited me to reexamine my lifestyle, and then later my entire life. This is whole-person medicine. ………” She also discusses hyperthyroidism and presents a case study related to of a woman who was confronting surgery. Like Hashimoto’s, Graves’ disease is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system responds to perceived danger by hyper-stimulating the thyroid gland. She writes: Natascha came to me for relief from the following symptoms: night sweats, hair loss, tearfulness, forgetfulness, palpitations, weight loss, agitation, low libido, and vaginal dryness. She also reported one to two months of very low mood and hopelessness. My prescription? An anti-inflammatory/ ancestral diet, advice to minimize toxicant/ environmental exposures, and encouragement to eat natural fats for brain support…..”
But a more holistic health approach requires cultures and contexts with more respect for alternative perspectives and new findings. It also requires courage to step out of the frame or not be so over dependent on prescribing pharmaceuticals only or removing organs. Gabor Mate writes: “If we wish to take full responsibility for health in our society, we must not only be vigilant guardians of our personal well-being, we must also work to change structures, institutions, and ideologies that keep us mired in a toxic culture.” It is the same in families, at work and educational contexts. But by stepping out the box we come up against a certain status quo. It can be scary. We can experience reactivity, ridicule or pushback in any context, where we may have a different take on things even when it comes to our own health and bodies. Increased awareness over the levels of democracy and freedom operating in any context can safeguard us, and also, allow us to move with more freedom and make the choices that can facilitate smoother coexistence, as for instance, in a work or class context that we are not ready to leave, while also, work to change things. Being aware of power structures and limitations in how much we can be, say or do at any given moment or how much another can deliver, embrace or tolerate gives us more freedom in terms of how we navigate situations. A wakeful knowing allows us to set boundaries and protect ourselves, but also, make sounder and more courageous decisions.
I know from personal experience that had I been more awake and less exhausted and worn down in a somewhat recent educational environment. I would have been better able to not only observe deficits of freedom and democracy in terms of tolerance of ideas that were perhaps deemed less conservative or deviating from the status quo, but more importantly to not underestimate the potential consequences that could derive from those particular dynamics. From a place of wakeful knowing I could have decided on the best route. Being more awake could have assisted me not only in “gauging” the levels of freedom and openness of the environment, but also, in evaluating if “upsetting” people around ideas like aversive and unconscious racism and biases, or the importance of visiting early trauma or references to indigenous people and soul wounding or the body’s capacity to heal, were in the end worth the hassle and if it served my health, long term plans and life purpose. Residing in a more integrated and wakeful state might have protected me from the consequences of over-estimating the breadth of freedom and democracy that was truly available and allowed me to be flexible and fierce, at the same time. I read somewhere online that ‘Nice loses in academia, not because one needs to be mean, but because one needs to be fierce.“ Unfortunately, integration and wakeful presence are processes and states that require and conduce readiness, knowing, guidance, support, time, clarity and healing.
Kelly Brogan, M.D., 2019, Own Your Self, Hay House, Kindle Edition.
Gabor Mate, M.D, article from https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/good-health/2015/11/16/gabor-mate-how-to-build-a-culture-of-good-health/