Swine flu. Models of Disease.

I had promised something about the defenders of reason and rationality, and that will be next time. But a quick thing on swine flu and disease in general - it's a hot topic, and the thermal scanners picked it out for attention.

One of the things we forget in Western medicine is that medicine and the way we deal with disease is always based on certain assumptions and models about how the body works, and what's gone wrong when it doesn't work. Instead we just assume that 'scientific medicine' is what we have now, and it's only in the past that people had models, which have all been superseded with the onward march of scientific progress. But in fact the medicine we use is itself just another model, usually called the 'allopathic' model. Normally anything with a -pathic or -pathy attached is considered quackery, like homeopathy or naturopathy. But our own medicine is simply allopathy. Just another -pathy.

Not that all medical people like to be categorised as such, and in fairness the term had its origins with the homeopaths, who used it with some negative connotations. But if you strip away the debate about names, what's at issue here is the actual models and principles used to understand health and disease, and therefore how to treat sick people. And the distinction the homeopaths were trying to draw is very real, and very interesting.

[This isn't a defence of homeopathy by the way, it appears to perform badly in most of the pretty fair tests it's subjected to. But it did characterise the underlying principles at stake well.]

Allopathy is normally defined as "the system of medical practice which treats disease by the use of remedies which produce effects different from those produced by the disease under treatment." (Thanks to MedicineNet.com.) Or in other words, in allopathy you understand the symptoms a person is experiencing as pointing to "the disease" they're afflicted with. So the symptoms aren't really the problem, it's the disease which is the problem, and the symptoms are the outcome of the actual disease and are therefore not particularly interesting in themselves. Even today medical people talk about 'symptom relief' only as a palliative measure, something for nurses and other unimportant and underpaid medical staff to deal with. And the entire discourse in numerous fields and public life about getting to the 'cause' of something rather than only meddling with the symptoms derives from this same model.

Homeopathy took an entirely different tack and said you should treat illness using minute quantities of drugs which produce the same symptoms in healthy people that you're trying to treat. So for example if somebody had heart problems, and drug X actually produces these same heart problems if given to healthy people, then you should give really tiny quantities of this same drug to the afflicted. (It's the really tiny thing that drives critics of homeopathy crazy, because the quantities are so minuscule it seems impossible they can do anything at all. And tests seem to show that they largely don't.)

No need to throw the baby out with the bathwater here - is it 100 years since anybody 'threw out' bathwater by the way? - by taking homeopathy's failure to cure us all and use it as an excuse to not have another look at the basic principles. You see I reckon there's something very profound in the general idea of treating symptoms as things worthy of attention in themselves. Homeopathy does this in a slightly loopy sort of way, but there could be an entire continuum of ways of showing proper respect for symptoms. There's a profound, anti-idealist common sense in not looking for the truth 'behind' things, in respecting things just as they are and for what they are. The entire schema of symptoms and causes is idealist, it's Plato's cave forms again, animating the real world from their ethereal other-world. Because causes are always like that, they disappear to infinity into ideality. In medicine black humours and bile become germs become genes become viruses...the series is always after an end term which doesn't ever arrive.

What doesn't often occur to people, but is obvious when you think about it, is that disease and illness are not alien invaders in our bodies, they are things our body does. The body may be provoked by germs or genes or whatever into a certain 'illness' response, but it's your own system that produces fevers, cancers, tensions and all other manner of apparent dysfunctions. All illness and disease is a sort of trick, it's something that tricks your system into working in a certain way. And it's not even a trick, because the illness response is perfectly consistent with the conditions in which the system finds itself, and represents the system trying to restore an equilibrium it has temporarily lost. For example Harvard's Donald Ingber has shown (for example here) that cancer itself is not the genetic illness many thought, but rather a perfectly natural response of the body to being placed under unbalanaced forces, at all scales from macro to micro. The genetic abnormalities we see in cancer are the outcome of these forces, not the cause. Cells differentiate into shoulders or noses or epithelium or cancer based purely on the stresses placed upon them.

The point of all of this is that every disease we encounter should actually be much more controllable than we would at first believe, because instead of heading down the infinite rabbit hole looking for a prion or gene or virus that's 'causing' it, we can instead focus upon our own system's response, which is the illness. Practically, next time you get a headache or cold or blocked nose, or whatever, don't take our usual step of fighting against it, of reacting to these things that feel wrong or bad. Shift your viewpoint and understand these to be perfectly legitimate occurrences in themselves, which you should fully embrace. Exactly the opposite to what most of us and allopathic medicine does.

You may be amazed what happens if you respect the response for what it is, and let it do its work. Something as simple as a blocked nose can show this - if you just let it be blocked, and embrace that blocked-ness, you will find your system shifts your breathing to your mouth, which removes the excess rush of (drying) air up your nose that is the usual cause of dry and blocked noses. And hey presto, your nose will start to clear. Or if you're sat in a chair and feel muscle tensions and aches as a result of sitting for a while, just let them be and keep doing what you're doing (don't push them away or try to stretch or correct them - just allow them to be there as you go about your activity). You'll soon notice that those tensions are your body already trying to restore an effortless, upright posture, just like a balloon will immediately start to try to stretch back out to its original shape if you push your finger into it. It may be a little freaky at first, to observe your body moving itself in this auto-correcting way, but it's a genuine wonder. (Hypnosis, anyone?)

And if you do end up stuck with the swine flu in the next weeks and months, take your Tamiflu, but also just let those flu symptoms be and see if you get better faster. I don't mean to be flippant, but I've not had a cold that didn't self-correct in this way in less than a day, in several years of trying this. It's not easy at first not to react in the usual way, but it gets easier with practice. And it's only our obsessive idealism that ever got us to believe that our entire bodies can be rendered helpless by one, tiny, apparently causative agent such as a flu virus, rendering us powerless as we surrender arms and do nothing at all with the response of the rest of our systems. Response that is entirely ours to play with, in miraculous ways.

Disease. Dis-ease. The loss of ease.


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