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Activity and Rest in Optimizing the Healing System
All the passages below are taken from the book “Spontaneous Healing---How to Discover and Embrace Your Body’s Natural Ability to Maintain and Heal Itself” by Andrew Weil, M.D. It was published in 1995.
YOU CAN INCREASE the chance of experiencing spontaneous healing by giving your body appropriate exercise and sufficient rest.
Physical exercise benefits the healing system in many different ways. It improves circulation, making the heart a more efficient pump and maintaining the elasticity of arteries. At the same time it tones the respiratory system, increasing exchanges of oxygen and carbon dioxide, which helps the body eliminate metabolic wastes. It further aids elimination by promoting the flow of perspiration and movement of the intestines. By stimulating release of endorphins in the brain, it fights depression and improves mood. It regulates metabolism and the body’s economy of energy. It neutralizes stress, allowing greater relaxation and sounder sleep. It even enhances immune function. Any program intended to optimize the body’s healing potential must include regular exercise.
But what is the best and simplest way to get these benefits? A great many people in our society, both young and old, do not like to exercise at all. Others exercise fanatically, spending hours in aerobics classes and on exercise machines, often in attempts to control weight. Some become addicted to strenuous exercise because it gives them a “buzz,” probably the result of endorphin release. Exercise physiologists and sports medicine doctors have made the whole subject of exercise very complicated. It seems to me that many of these people-—the couch potatoes, the fanatics and addicts, and the experts-—are all missing something.
Whenever I come home after visiting traditional cultures in the Americas, Africa, or Asia, I am struck by the oddity of our habits of exercise. In non-industrial societies the demands of daily life give bodies all the work they need. Muscles have good tone because people lift and carry burdens, and they walk constantly. They walk to gather water and wood, they walk to their fields, they walk to markets, they walk to visit friends and relatives. Of all the technological inventions that have changed our patterns of activity for the worse, the automobile gets the prize. I believe it has compromised health significantly, not only because it has darkened the air of our cities with exhaust emissions, but especially because it has deprived us of opportunities to walk.
Human beings are meant to walk. We are bipedal, upright organisms with bodies designed for locomotion. Walking is a complex behavior that requires functional integration of a great deal of sensory and motor experience; it exercises our brains as well as our musculoskeletal systems. Consider balance, which is merely one component of walking. In order to maintain the body’s balance unconsciously and effortlessly as it changes position and moves over uneven surfaces in a gravitational field, the brain needs a lot of information. It relies in part on a mechanism in the inner ear responsible for sensing orientation in three-dimensional space; if this mechanism fails, people cannot maintain equilibrium. But in addition to data from the ear, the brain depends on visual input and information from other senses to keep us in balance: from touch receptors that let it know what part of the body is in contact with the earth and from proprioceptors in muscles, tendons, and joints that keep it continually informed of the exact position of each part of the body in space. Interference on any of these channels can lead to wobbling and falling. In the brain all of this information is processed by the cerebellum, which uses it to coordinate responses of muscles to the ever-changing requirements of locomotion.
When you walk, the movement of your limbs is cross-patterned: the right leg and the left arm move forward at the same time, then the left leg and the right arm. This type of movement generates electrical activity in the brain that has a harmonizing influence on the whole central nervous system-—a special benefit of walking that you do not necessarily get from other kinds of exercise. Dr. Fulford, the old osteopath who first taught me the basic principles of healing, believed that cross-patterned movement was necessary for normal development and optimal functioning of the nervous system. When babies first start to crawl, this movement stimulates further brain development. I often heard Dr. Fulford instruct adult patients to crawl as a way of speeding recovery from injuries. “Go back to that simple movement, and you will help the nervous system move beyond any blocks,” he would say. Dr. Fulford, a shining example of physical health in his nineties, does not go to aerobics classes or use exercise machines; he walks.
Many of the healthiest people I have met are dedicated walkers. Shin Terayama, the man who recovered completely from metastatic kidney cancer, takes a daily walk before breakfast whenever he can, always maintaining a brisk pace and always including uphill walking if possible. At a recent workshop I led in Montana, a seventy-six-year-old woman in the group greatly impressed me with her stamina on hikes in the mountains. She was in excellent health and looked much younger than her years. I was even more impressed when she told me that both of her parents had died in their fifties and that she had been in declining health in middle age until she started walking. She had also improved her diet, stopped taking medicines, and started using vitamins, but in her mind commitment to walking was the critical factor in her improvement. She walked at every opportunity and joined walking tours on vacations. “It’s my life,” she told me on top of a ridge along the Continental Divide, and I believed her.
So I am going to pare my advice and comments on exercise down to one word: Walk! In my opinion, walking is the most healthful form of physical activity, the one that has the greatest capacity to keep the healing system in good working order and increase the likelihood of spontaneous healing in case of illness.
The advantages of walking over all other forms of exercise are numerous. You do not have to learn how to do it. It does not require any equipment except a comfortable pair of shoes. It costs nothing, and you can do it anywhere: in cities, parks, even indoors in shopping malls if the weather is inclement. The chance of injuring yourself is small, in great contrast to running and competitive sports. It is much less boring than riding a stationary bike or running on a treadmill. You can walk outdoors and enjoy the beauty of nature. You can also walk with friends and enjoy their company.
Walking will satisfy all the body’s needs for aerobic exercise if you do it in ways that increase heart rate and respiration sufficiently. For an ideal aerobic workout, your walks should last forty-five minutes, and you should be able to cover three miles in that time. If your heart and respiratory rate are not elevated at the end of a forty-five-minute walk, you should try walking faster part of the time or look for long, gradual hills to climb. But remember that you are not walking just to get aerobic exercise; you are also going for the neurological benefit of cross-patterned movement combined with visual, tactile, and proprioceptive stimulation. You can obtain this effect from short walks throughout the day as well as from long aerobic walks, and you can enhance it by accentuating your arm swing from time to time. Also try coordinating arm swing with breathing.
I have experimented with many forms of exercise in my life, and I keep coming back to walking as the best. As I get older, I think it will be the one I rely on to keep my body, mind, and healing system all in good shape.
ACTIVITY MUST BE balanced by rest. Everyone has experienced the adverse effects of fatigue and sleep deprivation; lack of good quality rest is one of the most common causes of susceptibility to illness, and a good night’s rest is an effective healing technique that will abort many incipient illnesses. Therefore, improving the quality of rest and sleep should be another priority in a program aimed at enhancing your healing capacity.
Consider the common impediments to rest. Many people are unable to sleep because they are over-stimulated, often by drugs they have ingested earlier in the day. Others cannot sleep because of noise or aches and pains. Others cannot turn off their minds. There are simple remedies for all of these problems.
Stimulant drugs that interfere with sleep include coffee, tea, cola, and other caffeinated beverages; ephedrine, the chief ingredient in many herbal diet and energy products sold over the counter in drug and health food stores; pseudoephedrine, a decongestant in over-the-counter cold remedies; and phenylpropanolamine, commonly used in appetite suppressants. Even when these drugs are taken early in the day, they can interfere with nighttime sleep patterns. If you have difficulty getting restful sleep, try to eliminate all of these substances from your life.
While we are on the subject of drugs, let me state my opinion that sedatives are not to be relied on except for short-term management of unusual stress. If you have a death in the family or have just lost a job, it may be appropriate to take sedative drugs for a few consecutive nights to help you sleep, but taking them every night is not wise. All sedatives depress function in the central nervous system, all are addictive, and all suppress rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, the phase of sleep in which dreaming occurs. Dreaming is necessary for the health and well-being of the brain and mind; if you are not doing it, you are not getting quality sleep, even though the quantity appears sufficient.
The safest sedative I know is valerian, a natural remedy obtained from the root of a European plant, Valeriana officinalis. You can buy tinctures of valerian root in health food stores-—the dose is one teaspoon in a little warm water at bedtime. Still, this product is a depressant and should not be used long-term. Quite recently a nonaddictive, nondepressant regulator of sleep cycles has become available: melatonin, the hormone secreted by the pineal gland, which regulates the biological clock, especially in relation to day/night cycles. Melatonin is sold in various dosage forms in both drug stores and health food stores. The recommended dose is one to two milligrams taken sublingually (under the tongue) at bedtime. International travelers say melatonin is the first and only effective treatment for jet lag. It also appears safe and effective to reset wayward biological clocks. If you get bone tired at seven in the evening, then find yourself wide awake when you get into bed at ten or eleven, it might change your cycles of tiredness and wakefulness to allow you to enjoy full periods of restful sleep. For these purposes, you need take melatonin only for a night or two. I do not recommend it for regular or long-term use, because the consequences of taking supplements of this powerful brain hormone over time are unknown.
If you cannot get to sleep or stay asleep because of physical discomfort, I have several suggestions. One is to try a new mattress, since many different kinds are available, including futons and air mattresses whose firmness can be adjusted with the touch of a button. Another is to have a session or two of adjustment from an osteopathic physician who specializes in manipulation (or from a good chiropractor). This kind of therapy may allow you to find more comfortable positions to sleep in. You can also try soaking in a warm bath before bed and taking hops, an herbal muscle relaxant, which you will find in health food stores: two capsules at bedtime is the usual dose.
I find that noise is a major obstacle to sound sleep, everything from barking dogs in the country to the sounds of traffic in the city. A simple solution, better than ear plugs, is to buy a white-noise generator, an electronic device that produces restful sound. White noise contains a mixture of many different frequencies of sound waves, just as white light contains all frequencies of visible light. It sounds like water running from a shower head, and most units have variable controls that allow you to change the basic sound from that of a steady downpour to rhythmic ocean waves. White noise is soothing and masks offending sounds. A more exciting technology, soon to be on the market, actually eliminates noise by analyzing offending sound waves and producing mirror-image waves that cancel them out. Portable devices of this sort are already available as headsets to be worn on airplanes to eliminate engine noise.
No matter how comfortable my bed and how quiet the room, when my mind is overactive, I usually cannot fall asleep and may wake during the night. In the morning I am very aware that I have not had the rest I need. Learning to leave behind the worries of the day is not as easy as taking a pill or turning on a sound machine, but it is one of the most useful skills you can develop. I often read myself to sleep; there is no shortage of sleep-inducing books, and reading distracts me from pointless rumination. I also use a simple breathing exercise that I will describe in the next chapter, because I find that focusing attention on breathing is an effective way to withdraw attention from thoughts. Another possibility is to get out of the mind by attending to the body-—for example, by tensing and relaxing groups of muscles. Here is a simple exercise that may help you get to sleep when your mind is racing: Lie on your back with your arms at your sides, close your eyes, and take five deep, slow breaths. Then squeeze your eyes shut and tense the muscles of your forehead for a few seconds. Relax for a few seconds. Then tense the muscles of your face and relax in the same way, then the chin and neck muscles, and so on, going down the arms and front of the body until you flex the feet and toes. Then go back to the head, pressing it against the bed for a few seconds and relaxing, and proceed down the back of the body, again reaching the feet, this time extending them. Finally, relax completely and take five deep, slow breaths. The whole exercise will take no more than a few minutes. It is an efficient relaxation technique, especially useful when mental turmoil threatens to keep you from falling asleep.
By the way, a major source of my own mental turmoil is the news. The percentage of stories in the news that make me feel good is very small; the percentage of stories that make me feel anxious or outraged is very large and increasing, as news media focus more and more on murder, mayhem, and misery. It is easy to forget that we have a choice as to whether we let this information into our minds and thoughts. I find it so useful to disengage myself from it that I recommend “news fasts” as part of the eight-week program to a more efficient healing system. I think you will find that these fasts will allow you to get better rest and sleep.
TO SUMMARIZE THIS chapter: Give your healing system a morning walk and a good night’s rest, and it will be ready for whatever challenges may arise.[233-241]
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