Strength is a funny one. As a reference point in today’s world it’s seen as an abundantly positive reflection of our state of being. Be it images of powerful people in gym mirrors showing off their hard earned physiques, or ads for banks or insurance companies - strength has become a universal symbol, superlative unit of currency when it comes to identifying the success of an individual. I suppose it comes back to this “power of one” narrative that has its roots back in the pioneering gold rush era, when plundering the landscape to the betterment of the self and being prolifically greedy was something to be admired...
But that’s OLD news right? The century of the self has was the 20th, and we’ve seen how that went. The American Dream lies in tatters, still emitting its final death rattle in the form of the dominant politics in that part of the world. But there’s an emergent narrative that’s much more exciting - one of co-operation, co-creation and inter-dependence that feels both much more appropriate and honestly much “healthier” altogether. It couldn’t be any more grass roots, as it springs up in the form of artisan markets and community festivals in disused urban spaces, as organic as their beaten up trestle tables and homemade bunting suggest. And they bring with them a sort of effervescent excitement as they counteract the conventional capitalist visions of how communities are allowed to interact. They say - ok, here’s a space without architecture - what would you like to do with it? How do you want it to look and what do you want to do there?
And what comes back is magnetically attractive..creative beyond belief, pulsing with life, and with an authenticity that is instantly identifiably real from the roots up. This week I’ll be heading with Lydia Sasse under our Wandering Into Wellness banner to lead an exploratory workshop on a similar topic to this blog, looking at developing strength through surrender, and learning how to inhabit the intangible middle ground that exists between a place of compromise and one of bold and passionate creativity, high up in the Rhodope Mountains at just such an event.
Meadows In the Mountains is as true a vision of a festival as you can imagine, and every detail is real, human, built with real graft and bold creativity. It’s a profound version of human communion in every sense. The effort to even get to the festival is not inconsiderable. And its raison d’etre is empowerment of community to enact meaningful change - spreading its vision in a viral manner at a grassroots level, in an atmosphere of pure connectedness and joy that enables us to see as attractive the work we need to do to get society on track and make the sorts of drastic change to our lives to save our planet and regain the delicate environmental equilibrium that we’ve lost.
Okay time for this blog to get back on track too - so: the search for a strong immune system. Why is this such a misnomer? Well, in our immune system we have cells and signalling molecules whose roles are antagonistic to each other. Some are designed to ramp up defences, and some to calm them down.
Homeostasis is our own sense of equilibrium, just as I was saying above it’s a delicate balance that we’re currently struggling to achieve in our external environment and it’s exactly what we need to seek in our internal world too, and it’s what our body is constantly quietly struggling to maintain, most of the time without us even noticing! Acute inflammation is the body’s way to deal with pathogens and foreign bodies that threaten our homeostasis. It’s methodology is one that concentrates our defensive boundaries towards an insult, be it an infected cut or an unfamiliar bacteria that’s travelled into our body with some spoilt food, and quickly seeks to rid us of the invader. Mobilisation of our forces is rapid, and brings with it signs of redness, pus and other hallmarks, all serving to enhance the concentration of defensive immune system cells, that usually last a short amount of time while our immune system gets to grips with whatever is causing the threat and expelling it, before returning to normal service.
The problem arises when this acute inflammation switch doesn’t get turned off, and it’s a phenomenon that’s becoming more and more common. So many chronic health issues are the direct result of these long term inflammatory “cascades” as they’re known - from diabetes to heart disease and everything in between, if inflammation isn’t at the ultimate root of any disease you can mention, it’s a support act to the main event.
Long term inflammatory patterns are ultimately very confusing for the medical profession too, as they provide inconsistent pathologies, making accurate diagnosis difficult if not impossible. Medics struggle to provide patients with any useful solutions, usually leaving them with a cocktail of anti-inflammatory, pain relieving or sometimes even re-purposed anti-psychotic drugs to manage symptoms, but which can often lead to further debilitating side effects. And the double sting in the tail is that most of these rather nebulous conditions aren’t considered life threatening enough to warrant serious medical research. So help from that field is likely to be a long time coming...
Patterns of inflammation set up early in life, from sports injuries as a child to traumatic experiences - inflammatory cascades are triggered exacerbated by most of life’s big events. And our diet and environment play a part too: as our pathways of detoxification become more heavily stressed this compounds the problem, causing the production of more inflammatory molecules, that all serve to turn up the heat and make our body a difficult place to live, inhibiting digestion, enhancing pain sensation, making us more irritable, and essentially reducing the effectiveness of most metabolic functions, to the point where we end up on a dangerous slippery slope towards ill health.
Some really interesting research is being carried out into the background issues in our world that seem to be causing this enhanced over-activity of our immune systems. Many scientific fingers point towards the lack of infectious disease in our overly scrubbed and disinfected, urbanised western society. There’s a lot to be said for a bit of dirt. Our immune systems are kept occupied trying to deal with it, between that and foreign invaders such as parasites and viruses, it’s as much as our immune cells have been able to deal with over the millennia of our evolution as a species. And the system has done a great job of keeping us alive till now. But without the dirt, our robust immune response is left a loose end, and finds all sorts of ways to run amok in our bodies - attacking either elements that enter us as though they were dangerous invaders, or worse still - attacking our own cells in that lovely process known as auto-immunity.
Another potential source for the outbreak of the wild forest fire that is our heightened immune response, is the narrowing of species in our microbiome. The advent of antibiotics did a lot for saving our species under the threat of serious pathogens, but over prescription of antibiotics has led to a crippling extinction of species from our gut flora. Recent evidence suggests that just two courses of some antibiotics can spell the end of certain species that are inherent to our gut health...and the research suggests that these guys don’t grow back. Ever.
The delicate balance of flora in our gut is so easily upset, and the unfortunate thing that as with so many things in life - there is no “good” or “bad” bacteria - but rather there are simply bacteria in or out of balance. Bacteria such as E.Coli have a part to play in maintaining a healthy host, and that goes for yeasts too. The dreaded Candida serves as one of the primary species whose job it is to decompose our bodies when our light is finally extinguished, but give candida a chance to thrive in an unbalanced environment and watch it take over. Too soon. Grim thought.
There’s one exciting little immune cell here that deserves a mention - the dendritic cells that line our gut wall. Dendritic cells spend their day sampling their environment and play a crucial role in the decision making in our immune system’s response to perceived threat. A relaxed nervous system makes for a “relaxed” dendritic cell which in turn makes for an informed and appropriate immune response. In a body experiencing chronic stress however, with cortisol and other stress hormones circulating to excess, and the little dendritic cells become hyper vigilant - identifying all sorts of items we refer to as “allergens” (gluten, dust, etc) as invaders and tagging them for other parts of our immune system to respond to as a significant threat.
Histamine is such a major part of this conversation too - that little molecule that triggers the allergic response in our immune system. The itching and redness that results from the activity of histamine is the most visible part of allergies - it’s a real sign of a “strong” immune system demonstrating a robust response to threat. Excess histamine is such a common condition these days, and forms part of most allergies, that even though it has a vital part to play in repelling infections in the short term - these days with the lack of infectious disease in our environment, histamine is far less useful than it has historically been to mankind, and now in most of our bodies its role has turned from help to hindrance.
The little cells that release histamine are known as “mast cells” - and the great thing is that we can do a lot to stabilise these guys, and help prevent them spilling their payload of itchy histamine along the way. Sugar consumption and stress (surprise) trigger the release of histamine, while folate, magnesium, and certain probiotic species have been identified as helpful in managing the production, release and breakdown of histamine. Tune in next month as we explore all the diet, lifestyle, nutrients and herbs that can help to manage histamine levels, and help to put out the fire in our immune system before it burns the house down.