As one of four very robust siblings and a mother who believed that food was the key to health–not brown rice and tofu, but the good old fashioned 50’s, early 60’s hearty meat, potatoes and frozen vegetables kind of fare–I grew up feeling like a normal healthy kid to whom disease happened to somebody else. In fact, when my mother took us for our regular check-ups and the doctor would ask if there were any problems, my mother would shake her head in feigned apology and sigh, “Sorry, Doctor. I’m afraid there’s nothing interesting to report. These kids are just boringly healthy!”
Still we never thought twice about popping a few aspirins for a headache or fever or a round of antibiotics if the dentist or doctor prescribed it. Having a pill to take, I remember, made me feel as though I was being being taken more seriously and it seemed to have a far more therapeutic effect than the kisses my mother had offered for various childhood “boo-boos.”
It was only later in adolesence–when I began to question just about everything– that I started wondering what exactly this medicine was doing. I’d always felt that I was basically very healthy, so why did the body come up periodically with annoying symptoms like headache, diarrhea, rashes, etc.? And why was it that often I didn’t get sick when others did– even though we were all exposed to the same so-called infectious germs? Or, why, with all the germs ﬂoating around, didn’t I get sick a lot more often? Could it have anything to do with things I was or wasn’t doing, like overeating, undersleeping, worrying? Could symptoms be perhaps signals that a healthy body gives when things get a little out of kilter? Though the pills usually seemed to clear up the situation, I wondered how the contents of a little colored tablet could correct slovenly living habits or a less than ideal environment.
After a lot of observation and investigation, not to mention a fair share of sneezy/wheezy days, I ﬁnd myself in midlife more and more in tune with the operation of this amazing instrument–the human body. I still get the occasional annoying symptoms of a cold–and thank goodness!
Here is what makes a lot of sense to me.
A few years ago I read a story in the New York Times about a scientist in England who had dedicated his entire research to ﬁnding a cure for the common cold. After two years of intensive study, however, he gave up, announcing that, having uncovered at least 400 varieties of rhinovirus, there was just no way a vaccine or pill could be designed to deal with all of them!
Something about this story really resonated with me. I had long suspected that in view of the fact that man was able to put a man on the moon among other things, but was still at a loss for a way to irradicate the common cold, perhaps Nature in her wisdom had something else in mind. Perhaps conquering this seemingly simple malady was not the point at all and this English scientist should be grateful to have realized the futility after devoting only two years of his life to such an enterprise. After all, a man with such determination could go far, but not, it seems, in seeking an antidote to the common cold.
Why? Because it is my discovery that the common cold is not a disease at all, but rather a periodic elimination of accumulated debris–a process which I have come to appreciate as one of nature’s most profound and basic life-supporting rituals in which we are privileged to participate.
For me the cold serves as a housecleaning–nature’s wonderful design for maintaining balance in an imperfect world. I liken it to what happens to our houses in the throes of modern living: the clutter piles up–the dirty laundry, dishes, dust, garbage… One day we wake up and say, “Whoooa! Time to stop everything and tidy up the place!” So it seems with the body as daily life takes it’s toll: we overwork, overeat, undersleep, get stressed out and constipated. After a while things get pretty sluggish and we’re barely dragging along. Then one day that goopy, achy, queezy, wheezy, runny eyes, runny nose, runny-everything-just want-to-stay-at-home feeling arrives. We can blame it on the guy who sneezed in an elevator or try not to “give in,” OR, we can smile and say, “I hear you; time to get down to business.” Congratulations! You’ve been invited to participate in that ancient celebration more commonly known as “the cold.”
And so it seems no mystery to me why all the classic symptoms of a cold have to do with gunk trying to get out of the body– e.g., sneezing, coughing, itching, diarrhea, fever sweats, throwing up, skin eruptions, even bloody noses, etc. I learned from Henry Bieler, M.D., author of Food Is Your Best Medicine, that the cold is a “vicarious elimination of toxins” via mucus from the respiratory tract. It is a result of toxic overload, not germs: “Germs gather to digest the products of the inﬂammation and white blood cells rush in to destroy the germs.” To the question, why are colds more prevalent in the winter months, Dr. Bieler answers, “because there is much less active skin function during this time, with considerably less skin respiration and perspiration. Also, the average diet consists of fewer fruits and vegetables during the winter and a higher concentration of salt (which encourages retention). When people are less active, they tend to be constipated and also to overeat, especially during the holiday season– Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s–with consequent overburden of the liver and kidney function and general metabolism. A cold often follows these celebrations.”
It is my experience that conventional medicine regards the cold as a pest–an infectious or inﬂammatory disease for which it has no use and no cure, only palliatives. Over-the-counter and prescription drugs are geared to alleviate the symptoms (antiinﬂammatories, anti-histamines, antibiotics, anti-diarrhea, anti-ache…)–in short, anti-elimination medicine. These remedies offer temporary relief by blocking the symptoms, i.e., keeping the stuff stuck inside. But, from my vantage point, they do nothing to get rid of the junk–the reason for the symptoms–which keeps piling up. The medicine enables us to put off the cleaning for a little while, but I think an active immune system will keep crying out, louder and louder, to get down to work. Chances are, in time the message will ring out again–another cold, maybe ﬂu, bronchitis, ear infections–each time, a call to action. If all these efforts of the body are stiﬂed, eventually overload and exhaustion may set in, the warnings stop and the storage process could become more insidious.
Hippocrates, the ancient Greek who is considered the Father of Medicine, taught that inﬂammation is “the ﬂame that cleanses the body.” He understood that all the so-called “infectious” diseases–from colds to bronchitis to pneumonia–were really inﬂammations and so advised his patients to help the cleansing process when he uttered that famous prescription, “If you feed a cold, you’ll have to starve a fever.” But over the centuries the “if” too often got clipped from the sound bite–a loss which, of course, changes the meaning completely and, I would think, prolonged the suffering of those multitudes who thought gluttony was their best remedy! (The more pointed but less publicized words of physician Sir William Osler, known as the Father of Modern Medicine, might have saved generations of confusion and misery. He said, “The cold should not be treated with ‘contempt,’ but be followed by bed rest, a good book to read, no food.”)
In any case, the modern practice of suppressing symptoms and inhibiting elimination with drugs appears to have its darker side. Philip Incao, M.D., who writes and lectures on “Inﬂammation–the Natural Enemy of Cancer,” cites studies that show cancer patients had less inﬂammations, i.e., colds, childhood diseases like mumps, chicken pox, etc., in early years than others. He suggests that the lack of periodic eliminations, i.e., inﬂammations, causes toxic build-up result ing in early exhaustion or breakdown of vital organs (and glands) that can “make one vulnerable to cancer later on.”
So how do I best partake of this marvelous ritual, i.e., give my body the utmost assistance in doing its work? According to Bernard Jensen, Ph.D., D.C., in Nature Has a Remedy: “Let it ﬂow! Rejoice.” Here are some of the ways that I celebrate the age-old rite:
- I go to liquids–water, herbal teas, vegetable broth, chicken broth, fruit juice, an occasional piece of fruit–all requiring little energy for digestion so that the vital force can then be focused on the task of elimination. I don’t push; I drink only when desired. Once I recognize the gear shift, I don’t feel much like eating anyway. (When real hunger sets in, I know I’m getting better. I’m also getting better at being in tune with my body.)
- I rest, keep comfortably warm, relax, listen to music, read. Nothing to feel guilty about not doing. Listening to the body, a most miraculous survival mechanism, is top priority now. If I only do that, I will have done a lot.
- To aid the cleansing I might take a mild herbal laxative. Sometimes I’ve had strange reactions as the body starts to tidy up: the result I feel of stored toxins getting circulated into the bloodstream on the way to elimination. I just continue doing what I know I have to do. This includes staying in contact with a practitioner who understands this natural healing process.
- As long as a fever stays below 104 o F., I just sweat it out. For me fever is a natural way the body eliminates toxins. Normally, the body wisdom knows its own limits. I trust in this wisdom.
- Remember the Ruth Sackman, President of FACT, Golden Rule of Health: “As long as it’s coming out, don’t worry about it!”
Once conﬁdent that I am in tune with my body’s signals, I try to relax and enjoy the process–glad that things are functioning according to design. I don’t worry about all the tasks undone or that friends may ﬁnd me boring company. In a few days the cold will be on the way out and I’ll be feeling great–refreshed and ready to jump back into the daily scufﬂe.
With this kind of housecleaning for me an occasional cold is about as exciting as it gets. Flu, pneumonia…? I don’t think these were meant to be part of the festivities.