The Completed Self

I have recently discovered the immunological concept of the “Completed Self” which is a way of saying that a healthy and complete human being consists BOTH of their own cells (all the ones that have descended from the fused egg and sperm their parents contributed) AND the whole ecology of commensal microbes – bacteria, viruses, etc – that come to inhabit our skin and hair, our bowels and other corners and crevices in our bodies, shortly after our births.  As the linked review states: “the newborn human naturally engages in an immunologically-permitted merger with designated parts of the environment.”  This whole kit and caboodle of microbes, which we mostly pick up from our mothers, is part of what makes us whole and healthy and able to withstand the infections and to heal from the injuries which the world throws at us.

When the self is not able to “complete” properly, that is to say that it is not able to acquire the proper complement of commensal micro-organisms, staying healthy becomes harder.  It seems that these commensals (commensal means the relationship is either of benefit, or is neutral, for the parties concerned), help to train our immune systems so that their response to the world’s insults is measured and helpful.  An immune response which is too weak means we can be easily overwhelmed with infections, but an immune response that is too strong can generate levels of inflammation that injure the health of the body.  As the linked article says:  “Misregulated inflammation, a host defense-homeostasis disorder, appears to be a key biomarker connecting a majority of chronic diseases.”  Getting the balance right is the key to persistent health.  Increasing numbers of people afflicted with serious chronic diseases (or “misregulated inflammation”) means that the balance has gone terribly wrong for many people, who are not in a state of immunological completeness.

As I explained in my last post, TCM has given a great deal of thought to the ways in which a disease begins and progresses, and the contributions that are made to its characteristics by both the pathogen (disease causing agent) and by the body’s defenses.  In the clinic, we are trained to “read” this interaction and use treatment principles aimed at changing the balance in favour of the body’s defenses, to give a person a better chance at clearing the pathogen from their own system.

The TCM classics have also give a great deal of thought to internally generated pathogens – these can share the names and characteristics of the external pathogens which are named after climate factors – “wind” “cold” “heat” “damp” “dry”, which cause acute, infectious type diseases when they invade, but there are additional “complex” pathogens that are only generated in the body when (as the article above shows) the immune response “misregulates” – ie the body’s defenses are unable to clear the pathogen, and its inner processes begin to become unbalanced.  In TCM these internal and complex pathogens are called “toxic fire” or “phlegm” or “blood stasis”.    These are factors in most chronic diseases, which, of course, are the ones we see most often in the clinic.

Once there is a chronic disease, its history can be knotty, its manifestations can be harder to “read”, and there is a great deal to do to restore balance and health.  But, tolerably often, small interventions can begin large changes, as a person’s body begins to recover its own capacity to restore itself.

Meanwhile, there is a great deal being discovered at the moment about the true importance of our commensal microbes, and of having a healthy microbiome to “complete” us.  I often think that standard medicine is often around 30 years behind where the research indicates.  However, it is possible that within a decade or two, medicine will see the task of restoring health to a body, as the task of restoring health to its whole ecology!   Meanwhile, everything we can do for the health of our own ecological complete self is a bonus to our long term health.   There is a great deal written about gut health, microbiome health and practices and techniques for promoting it.  These include using fermented foods, and avoiding unnecessary antibiotics as a minimum, but there is a great deal of information out there.  Please investigate!



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