The decades-old doctrine that genes determine everything is slowly crumbling. Scientific studies beyond the textbook context show that our idea of genes as the sole life-determining factor is not accurate. But that is a subject worthy of a book all of its own.
Biestmilch has taught me that genes form an integral part of the body's communication system, whereby the environment of the cell changes the activity of the genes and vice versa. It is a communication process that works in both directions. This environment or milieu of the cells is always inflammatory. The degree of inflammation may vary in its intensity. The spectrum covers every point along the continuum from wellness to illness. The extremely positive news is that, by changing our lifestyle, we can influence that milieu and associated genetic activity – again in both directions – in both a positive and a negative sense.
Ever since I became aware of this, I no longer treat my body in the rather unthinking way I used to many years ago. Biestmilch keeps reminding me over and over again how important my lifestyle is to the quality of my life and the inflammatory environment of my cells.
I have been asked countless times whether Biestmilch is helpful for this or that medical condition. Yes, of course, I tend to say. It is beneficial because it is capable of modulating the inflammatory environment of the cells. Unfortunately people tend to pay far too little attention to prevention. The preventive effect of our lifestyle on the aging process is still underrated. We usually fail to see any reason to make changes to our lifestyle until we receive a diagnosis of heart disease or cancer.
Then we may perhaps begin reflecting on our lifestyle choices. The comforting news is that we are capable of influencing the course of chronic illness at any point in our life. However, it is of course much harder to do this than prevent it from happening in the first place.
A hundred years ago, when antibiotics had not yet been invented, people primarily died of infectious diseases. Today we die of very different, but in some cases, equally preventable diseases – chronic illnesses such as coronary heart disease, tumours or diabetes. Nine out of ten people die of these causes, which is a shocking number. It is in our own hands – at least in our western society – to do something about this fate – something beyond the options that medical science offers.
One of the more recent studies proves that we do not inherit longevity and wellness, as we once thought. Instead, the sum of our habits determines our length of life. About 90% of us (according to a scientific estimate) could live to the age of 90 by making simple changes to our lifestyle. We would then be free of the kind of chronic disease that otherwise makes those final years so miserable. Even if we are aware of cases in our family history of cancer and heart disease, most of our fate lies in our own hands.
How long we live depends on how we live our lives and not how long our parents lived.
Our lifestyle – how we sleep, relax, exercise and eat – greatly determines how old we will become, how we age and what illnesses will afflict us. Irrespective of how well we feel today and how old we are, we should not hesitate to start preventing these all-too-common chronic illnesses. Small decisions taken on a daily basis such as what we eat, how we sleep and how much exercise we do count more than we might think. One day we will have to accept that prevention is a better option than putting ourselves through endless, painful treatments without any prospect of real success.
Day-to-day decisions in the here and now are important determiners of how we age, how we feel and how we ultimately die. In the western hemisphere, we have the privilege of being able to make those decisions. So why would we pass up on that chance?
In particular, our diet over the past few decades has been the cause of obesity, vascular diseases, diabetes, coronary heart disease, tumours, allergies and many other chronic conditions. They all have one thing in common: a failure to regulate the otherwise controlled inflammatory conditions of our body.
The October 2013 special issue of TIME magazine "How inflammation rose to become the biggest killer of the century and the key to healing through prevention” is a good indication of the importance of inflammation in the rise of chronic illnesses over the past few years.
The magazine names inflammation as the "secret killer". That is both true and false. Inflammation is far more than a killer. It is the body's survival mechanism. It generates well-being and protects us from disease. When we feel good, the inflammation processes within our body are well controlled and precisely regulated. They do not exceed the threshold that leads us to feel sick.
A host of metabolic processes create energy from the food we eat. But energy needs a distribution system. The nervous system, the immune system and the endocrine (hormone) system assume this role within the body. These regulatory super-systems regulate the flow of energy within our body. In the hierarchy of energy supply, the heart, brain and kidneys take top priority. When illness or injury occurs, that priority is diverted to the healing process.
The three super-systems of regulation create
and control inflammation
We are more likely to be familiar with the theory that the immune system plays the primary role when it comes to inflammation. And we tend to associate the immune system with infections and the process of warding them off. Unfortunately that view is inaccurate. The immune system is a regulatory system. It contributes to regulation of our metabolism, energy distribution and stress response. It heals our wounds and infections by shutting down the inflammation process.
However, the immune system cannot perform this role without communicating with our autonomous nervous system and hormones. These three systems are referred to as the stress system. It is the system that creates and maintains the equilibrium – homeostasis – of the body.
An inflammation only becomes a dilemma if the inflammatory processes become chronic. This occurs when the stress system is no longer able to curb the inflammation. A chronic inflammation often persists for decades until chronic illnesses like diabetes, vascular disorders or tumours are diagnosed.
As all illnesses, without exception, thrive on the fertile soil of chronic inflammatory processes, TIME Magazine in a special 2013 edition referred to inflammation as the "secret killer". Eating, exercising, relaxing and sleeping well – making good decisions for yourself and your own well-being – can relieve this process of suffering. Even if the progression of a disease can no longer be reversed, the speed at which it proceeds can still be reduced. These four decisions to make lifestyle changes are also crucial to how you age.
We need inflammation in order to survive. Suppressing the natural inflammatory processes with medication and thus weakening the potential of the immune system to heal or overcome disease may have consequences that are just as fatal as the exacerbation of inflammation caused by stress factors. Impaired wound healing, infections following tumour treatment and the development of metastases, allergies or autoimmune diseases – all of these have inflammatory elements.
We need to make serious efforts to ensure the regulatory and modulating abilities of the regulatory systems of the body are not destroyed. That is the lesson we have to learn and that is the lesson Biestmilch has taught me over many years.
Through our lifestyle, we can prevent and control the inflammatory processes that essentially hold our bodies together. It is also the way we influence the activity of our genes. Lifestyle means how we eat, how much exercise we do, how we sleep and how we rejuvenate or relax. And – this factor is the hardest to control – how much stress we have to endure.