"A time to kill, a time to heal…a time to build up, a time to break down" Turn, turn, turn The Byrds (from Ecclesiastes 3.3)

"At the cellular level you can either heal or defend, but you can’t do bothDr David Comely, my magical mysterious health adviser (in Wellington, NZ). This struck me as extremely profound. When animals (like us) feel safe, and loved, we heal or repair better; we can put all our energy  into healing instead of defending. 

Epigenetics, the switching on and off of genes, occurs at the cellular level. Google “genes are not your destiny” and you'll find its whether you turn the genes on. Lifestyle (sugar, fasting, microbiome, activity) affects whether or how often genes are ever expressed.

Cell signals are complex Heath Robinson affairs; a signal hits the outside of the cell, there’s a secret handshake  to get through the cell membrane and once inside, like a marble knocking over a switch pulling a string that lights a candle.... a cascade of signals changes a switch to “on” or “off”. That switch says to your cell “unwind that gene, and use it to stamp out copies, until I get another signal that says enough!".

The complex series of events are often a simple yes or no (on or off). They're not open-ended choices, more like a game of 20 questions: Animal, vegetable or mineral? It's the axis of opposites that I posted about: inflame or calm, store or release, break down or build up; insulin or glucagon. Panic stations, you’re starving: turn down the thermostat, scavenge and recycle broken bits. Ample food, relax, crank up the heat, build new bits. And so when you're ill,  you want to know about: defend or heal.

Sick baby monkeys in skin contact with their mothers produce many times more white blood cells than isolated baby monkeys, get well more quickly and have higher survival rates. Defend or heal; a baby without adult protection diverts its resources to defence. Immediate survival calls you to fight the tiger now; fight the ‘flu later (if you survive the tiger.  So heres the kicker - sending your body fear signals when there is no tiger takes your cells attention away from healing. And this is what we do in modern life.

Compared to our ancestors (say, out on the icy lake with frozen extremities, fishing for dinner), our lives are paradise. We can well afford to relax and play. But many of us live in a state of anxiety, fighting imaginary tigers24/7, with no let-up. 

Do you sense an underlying, existential angst? Perhaps unworthiness, a need to justify your existence, insecurity, fear or just thinking you’re a loser. You tell this to your body (slumping shoulders, tight jaw, churning stomach), it sets your cells to "defend". Martha Beck relates a client felt one step from homeless destitution so had a goal of $20m; on reaching $20m still felt unsafe and revised it to $40. Moral of the story, it was never about the bank balance, it was an emotional state. Which of your tigers are imaginary, when they all feel real? And what can you do about it?  

Our ancestors lived a daily cycle: heat, light, activity and stress; then cool, dark, quiet, and relax (see  circadian rhythm). This is a daily cycle of “on” (defend) and “off” (heal). Our modern daily cycle is more often work-stress then play-stress; social media 'status-anxiety', action-horror-thriller shows, or outrage-inducing clickbait that passes for "news".

Here's a thought. In the old days if you hadn't found any berries or caught your antelope by sundown, you had to down tools anyway. When the light faded, you had to stop. If we run our stress-relax pattern by the day-night cycle, we can heal and defend. Relaxing and smelling the roses feels good, but is also vitally important to your health and wellbeing at a cellular level.  It's not 'wasting time'. What rituals make you feel safe, cosseted and protected like those baby monkeys?

I'm trying out a radical old idea; I'm more aware of seasons, light and weather. When the sun goes down this is my cue to stop eating (early dinner), contemplate safety, do quiet relaxing things. My lights are dim and phone and computer screens are orange, (f.lux or Twilight). I invite you to join me at sunset to down tools and relax, for sanity and to boost your cell's healing power.