Vitalism: Toward a working definition
In the early 20th century, the conventional or “allopathic” medical paradigm ascended to dominance in the United States without deep cultural scrutiny or debate. Funded by big business interests, particularly the profitable pharmaceutical industry, allopathic medicine became the measuring stick to guide legal precedents, insurance practices, and standards of care for physicians. In the process we have overlooked longer-standing, equally authoritative healthcare systems that offer valid alternatives to our expensive and often ineffective medical system.
Vitalists draw upon the vast repository of wisdom inherent in the Earth and the native intelligence that is embedded in the processes of life itself. Vitalists view the human body as a self-regulating organism rather than a machine with interchangeable parts. Unlike a dented car or a scarred wooden chair, the human body has the capacity to restore and revitalize itself. The aim of vitalistic medicine is to engage and augment these self-regulating, self-restorative pathways to heal damage, restore full function, and build optimal health.
All life forms are imbued with an innate intelligence that governs the processes of birth, maturation, restoration, and death. Both the human body and the planetary body are informed by this “vital force,” an indwelling wisdom that orchestrates complex processes and systems to restore, maintain and build health.
This innate intelligence is known by many names including vital force, life force, vitality, animating force, élan vital, soul, spirit, vis vitae and qi.
Classical systems of medicine
All systems of “classical” medicine recognize this vital force and aim to cultivate vitality, not only to resolve symptoms but also to create greater levels of health.
Classical medical systems include:
- Ayurvedic medicine
- Classical Chinese medicine, i.e. the more ancient Taoist traditions, not contemporary “Traditional Chinese Medicine,” which is a 20th century reconstruction of Chinese medicine (Lihong, 2019)
- First Nations/indigenous medicines
- Naturopathic medicine
- Persian medicine
- Tibetan medicine
- Traditional western herbalism
Practitioners of these ancient, deeply rooted systems of medicine have long understood that health rests upon the foundations of living in right relationship with self, family, community, planet and Creator. A full description of health in the Vitalistic paradigm therefore embraces physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.
Our daily actions can either augment or undermine the vital force. Health or disease is therefore the result of the way we live our lives.
Classical medicine recognizes that the health of our physical bodies is inextricably linked with the health of the Earth. In truth, the physical body is a microcosm of the planetary body of our Earth. The same laws that govern human health also inform the well-being of planetary and galactic systems. Like Matryoshka dolls, human health nests inside the wisdom of larger systems of life.
We are both informed by and dependent upon these vast cosmic systems.
Planetary Health: The Gaia Hypothesis
In the 1970’s the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) hired British chemist James Lovelock, PhD to create a definition of life in order for planned space probes to assess if there is life on other planetary bodies. How would we determine that another planet supported life? Lovelock turned his attention to an already agreed upon “living” planet, the Earth, in search of a scientific definition of life.
Together with microbiologist Lynn Margulis, Lovelock discovered that, like our human bodies, the earth has a series of complex self-regulating mechanisms that have maintained homeostasis over eons. Examples include the salinity of the ocean, oxygen content of the atmosphere, stability of surface temperature, diversity of species, and processing of carbon in the biocycle (Harvard, Creative Commons). Lovelock named his work “the Gaia Hypothesis” in honor of the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia. Lovelock’s and Margulis’s work spurred the development of the field of bio-geophysiology.
Margulis (1998) emphasized that Gaia is “not an organism” but rather “an emergent property of interaction among organisms.” She defined Gaia as “the series of interacting ecosystems that compose a single huge ecosystem at the Earth’s surface. Period.” Notwithstanding her reticence, she argues that “the surface of the planet behaves as a physiological system in certain limited ways.”
Human and Planetary Health OR My Body, My Earth
These same principles guide the health of our own bodies, our beloved planet earth, and likely life throughout all of creation.
Like the Earth, we generate heat at our core. Our blood and saliva register the same salinity as the Earth’s oceans, and our bodies are comprised of the same percentage of water as the planet’s oceans and waterways (roughly 72%).
Like the Earth, we rely on complex, interdependent systems to maintain dynamic equilibrium in the body. These interlocking systems maintain steady body temperature, electrolyte balance, blood sugar, heart rate, blood pressure and a myriad of other vital life processes, primarily without our conscious intervention.
The Earth also has complex systems that have maintained a remarkably stable equilibrium in surface temperature, ocean salinity, and atmospheric gases, millions of years beyond what the laws of physics and biology would have predicted. The oceans should have long since increased their salinity, the planetary temperature fluctuated beyond habitable levels, and the atmosphere’s oxygen bonded with other gases and minerals of the Earth’s crust. Instead, “the Earth’s atmospheric composition is kept at a dynamically steady state by the presence of life [italics mine]” (Lovelock, 2009).
Human Biome, Earth Biome
Our bodies, like the Earth, are filled with more mystery than certainty. Science continues to reveal new realms of life, within our bodies and in the Earth. Research in the last decade has sparked a deeper understanding of the complexities of the human biome. We begin life as 99.9% our own unique human cells. As we mature, that ratio changes, and only 43% of our total cells are human (Gallagher, 2018). The other 57% are the “biome” consisting of bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea. These organisms and their balance (or imbalance) play a critical role in human health and disease.Over the last decade scientists have made a parallel discovery in the Earth’s body. The “biosphere” is a subterranean ecosystem that is “almost twice the size of the world’s oceans” (Watts, 2018). This underground biosphere is comprised of “between 15bn and 23 bn tonnes of micro-organisms, hundreds of times the combined weight of every human on the planet” (Watts, 2018). Many individual organisms in this subterranean world can live for millennia.
Restoring Planetary and Human Health
This recent subterranean biome discovery highlights the complexity of factors that contribute to life on Earth. The Biosphere 2 project in Arizona, meant to replicate a self-contained, self-sustaining ecosystem, also yielded much information about the complex array of factors that support planetary life in its initial experiments (Nelson, 2018). Within the first year, atmospheric levels of oxygen dropped from 20.9% to 14.2%, and scientists had to pump fresh air into the system to sustain the lives of the inhabitants. Carbon dioxide levels also fluctuated dramatically from day to night. One of several factors the scientists did not consider was the importance of wind in generating “wood stress” to strengthen the trees within the enclosed system.
In the process of creating the Biosphere 2, scientists began to understand the limits of their knowledge about the complexities of life on Earth. They did not, and perhaps cannot, understand the intricacies of the systems and interactions that support life on Earth. The scientists’ efforts at mimicking the interdependent, interconnected planetary systems may have exposed more gaps in knowledge than it confirmed about their current understanding of planetary ecosystems. In the process, we discovered that larger, more intricate self-governing forces guide the complex array of planetary systems than we previously had imagined.
Like the scientists of the Biosphere 2 project, the functional medicine physician attempts to alter the biochemical processes of the body to achieve an ephemeral “balance” that can lead to health. Much of this biochemical “tinkering,” however, is done without a full understanding of the interconnected nature of the larger systems or the self-governing intelligence that guides these life processes. Just as the Biosphere 2 scientists neglected the importance of wind and other factors in the ecosystem, so, too, have the functional medicine practitioners failed to consider important aspects of the body’s inter-related systems. By attempting to replace the wisdom of the body’s indwelling, self-regulating intelligence, the functional medicine practitioner lacks the key to health and healing: the vital force that ultimately orchestrates the body’s complex, interrelated processes.
Earth restoration provides models to understand the potential for health regeneration. The field of restoration ecology aims to protect areas of biological health and diversity so that they can expand into surrounding damaged areas. Restoration ecology scientists are exploring how chemically damaged areas can be returned as closely as possible to their original state (Rohr et al., 2015), and are monitoring whether the soil biome can be restored with the reintroduction of native species (Yan et al., 2019).
Practitioners of Vitalistic medical systems engage the body’s innate intelligence and augment the regenerative processes, much like the work of restoration ecology and ecological engineering to restore environmental damage. Working with the vital intelligence can exponentially speed these processes, while suppressive therapies tend to thwart the innate repair systems and create further symptoms.
Revitalization requires finding and addressing the underlying causes of a condition. Classical Chinese medicine recognizes the bao ben, the roots and branches of a disease. Addressing only the leaves and branches of a condition will provide temporary relief. Focusing on the roots opens the pathway to a “cure” for the condition.
Genetics plays a role in our health but is not the final arbiter. Genes are the architects of human design, but the cell membrane guides the construction (Lipton, 2005). The cell membrane makes moment by moment decisions that modulate and sometimes override the genetic blueprint.
Genes are not destiny but rather templates rich with possibilities, and the substrate of our daily lives determines their expression.
The science of vitalism explores how to catalyze similar restorative processes in the human body. The foundations of health are built upon the way we live, how and with whom we work, what we eat, how we move, how we think and what we say. The substance of our daily lives forms the substrate of health or disease.
The Earth does not require human support to thrive. Humans, however, are completely dependent on the Earth’s vitality for survival. Life as we know if, for both humans and the Earth, is far more mysterious, far more complex, and far more interdependent than scientists previously had understood.
Navigating Health with Science and Soul
In the Vitalistic paradigm, we recognize that the human body is filled with as much mystery as certainty, and that the worlds of both science and spirituality contribute to the full experience of health. One might say that the boat of our lives moves forward under the power of two oars: science, the world of measurable certainty; and spirituality, the world of the ineffable mystery. Rowing with one oar guides us in endless circles. Rowing together, these dual oars move us toward our goal of vibrant health.
Vitalists understand that all aspects of a patient’s life have the potential to impact health. Disease may have physical, mental, emotional and/or spiritual causes. All aspects of a patient’s life are important in developing full, vibrant health.
Health is more than the absence of disease. The vitalistic Naturopathic Physician aims to educate and engender life changes that will lead to sustainable health and well-being. The Vitalist also has the skills to move beyond disease prevention to health creation.
The ultimate goal of vitalistic health care is to support patients in doing what is most important for them in their lives in a way that aligns with and supports the life, health and diversity of all of creation.
Gallagher, James. 10 April 2018. More than half your body is not human. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/health-43674270
Harvard Commons, Gaia Hypothesis. Retrieved from https://courses.seas.harvard.edu/climate/eli/Courses/EPS281r/Sources/Gaia/Gaia-hypothesis-wikipedia.pdf
Ligong, Liu. 2019. Classical Chinese Medicine. Hong Kong, The Chinese University Press.
Lipton, Bruce. 2006. The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.
Lovelock, James. 2016. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Margulis, Lynn. 1998. Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Nelson, Mark. May-June 2018. Biosphere 2: What Really Happened? Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. Retrieved from https://dartmouthalumnimagazine.com/articles/biosphere-2-what-really-happened
Rohr, J.R., Aida, M.F., Cadotte, M.W., Clements, W.H., Smith, J.R., Ulrich, C.P., & Woods, R. (2015). Transforming Ecosystems: When, where, and how to restore contaminated sites. Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, 12(2), 273-283.
Watts, Jonathan. Mon 10 Dec 2018. Global team of scientists find ecosystem below earth that is twice the size of world’s oceans. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/dec/10/tread-softly-because-you-tread-on-23bn-tonnes-of-micro-organisms.
Yan, D.F., Gellie, N.J.C., Mills, J.G., Connell, G., Bissett, A., Lowe, A.J., & Breed, M.F. (2019). A soil archaeal community responds to a decade of ecological restoration. Restoration Ecology. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/rec.13033