This article was originally published on my website drlawrencecheng.com
Ultimately, what is health?
The WHO (World Health Organization) defines it as the following:
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
Health is not merely the absence of disease. It is a positive asset that enables us to fulfill our human potential. Without health – it is hard for us to reach the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is the foundation of the pyramid upon which everything is built upon.
Health is wholeness – integrated at every level – from a cellular to whole being. What constitutes cellular “well-being one might ask? The cell is our basic unit of function. It is actually like a computer that is constantly waiting for inputs/information. Based on the information it receives, it responds by translating the DNA, making proteins, enzymes and other molecules to maintain homeostasis (balance). The cell is constantly sensing and responding to the environment. What happens at the cellular level happens at every level of the organism from a tissue, organ, organ system and finally whole person level.
So health is the ability to appropriately sense changes in the environment and make adaptive changes. The ability for an organism to self-regulate is essential not only to survive but to thrive! Sensing on every level is dependent on being able to have sufficient balanced sensitivity and being able to interpret/discern the message/information. Too little sensitivity means that we will fail to pick up signals that might be important and too much sensitivity can result in over stimulation and usually increasing resistance. This happens at the receptors within the cell, on the cell surface membrane, organ system sensing systems (for carbon dioxide, blood oxygen levels, blood glucose etc.) to nervous system (our senses), our immune system and how we process information from a psychological level as well. What information, what messages are we inputting into our cellular computer, nervous system, whole person? Are we conscious about the quality of this information that we expose ourselves to and the resultant downstream effects?
How do we balance our sensitivity set point so that we can pick up the signals from the noise but not be overwhelmed by the noise. This is where the practices of mindfulness, meditation, yoga, Tai chi, Qi gong of the Eastern Wisdom traditions have much to teach us. In this world of too much information, too much sensory overload, being on-line all the time – our nervous systems are losing the ability to be sensitive and discerning at the same time. This ‘noise’ is causing illness. We need to balance this by consciously choosing to create space, to subtract, to distill, to edit what is truly important, to quiet down the mind/body noise to that we can connect to something deeper.
The science of epigenetics tells us that our phenotype (which is the observable composite of physical characteristics) is determined by the interaction between our genes and the environment. What this tells us is that how we live each and every day – what we eat, how we move, how we sleep, ow we perceive the world affects our biochemistry at a DNA level. The foundations of health need to address all of these. Lifestyle medicine should always be the first treatment before any drugs or surgeries unless it is an acute illness that requires prompt intervention. Precision medicine using “omic” molecular technologies (genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, microbiome) will help us understand our biochemistry and physiology like never before and promises truly personalized medicine. But this will not necessarily give you optimal, vital, radiant, exuberant health which is what we all want!
Health is much more than an optimal physiologic state. Beyond the bottom part of the pyramid, we need safety, social connection, confidence, achievement and self-actualization. Fundamental to this development is deep sense of knowing oneself and a radical self -acceptance of who we really are and the ability to compassionately observe our patterns of behavior, self-delusion and escape. A recognition that we are already whole. We are not broken. Discomfort, illness, pain are pathways to lead us to observe and learn and ultimately to become more integrated selves.
Whole Human Health is firstly about recognizing our own innate radiant essence and our own innate body intelligence/wisdom. These core beliefs than translate and manifest as our behaviors. We cannot sustainably change behaviours without transforming the underlying core beliefs. The journey to health is all of this…
Health is about being in touch with this essence of being a human being.