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The Wisdom of Symptoms: Respect the Intelligence of the Body to Heal

Sunday, October 18, 2009 by: Dana Ullman, MPH
Tags: symptoms, health news, Natural News

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(NewsTarget) Have you ever wondered what is that stuff coming out of your nose when you have a common cold? Such nasal discharges are composed of dead viruses that were killed by the body`s defenses, dead white blood cells that were killed as a result of the infection, and of a liquid substance known as mucus which the body deploys as a vehicle to remove this dead matter.

If you take a conventional over-the-counter drug for the common cold, these drugs "work" by reducing the body`s ability to create mucus, which simply inhibits the body`s own efforts to eliminate the dead viruses from the body. Although these conventional drugs may stop the nasal discharge temporarily, the side effects of these drugs are that they lead to bronchial congestion, headache, and fatigue, which can be more problematic and discomforting symptoms than the original simple nasal discharge.

The lesson here is that just because a drug is effective in getting rid of a symptom does not necessarily mean that this treatment is truly curative (or even helpful).


The basic assumption behind the broad field of natural medicine is that the human body has an inherent wisdom within it that strives to defend itself and to survive. Symptoms of illness are not simply something "wrong" with the person, but instead, symptoms are actually responses and efforts of the organism to defend and heal itself against infection and/or stress. Hans Selye, MD, PhD, the father of stress theory, once asserted, "Disease is not mere surrender to attack but also the fight for health; unless there is a fight, there is no disease."

Our human body has survived these thousands of years because of its incredible adaptive capabilities, and one of the ways that it adapts is through the creation of symptoms. Whether it be through fever and inflammation, cough and expectoration, nausea and vomiting, fainting and comatose states, and even the variety of emotional and mental states, each symptom represents the best efforts of the bodymind in its effort to fight infection and/or adapt to physical and psychological stresses.

Although symptoms may be the best effort of the organism to defend itself at that time, it is not usually effective to simply let the body try to heal itself. Most often, some treatment must be provided to help nurture, nourish, and augment the body`s own wisdom. The challenge to physicians, healers, and patients is to determine when to help aid this inner wisdom of the body and when to intervene to make certain that the body does not harm itself.

The word "symptom" comes from a Greek root and refers to "something that falls together with something else." Symptoms are a sign or signal of something else, and treating them doesn`t necessarily change that "something else." Ultimately, a symptom is a signal, a warning light that something is off-balance. It is akin to an oil warning light in your car. Although this light will go off if you unscrew the lamp, this simple action doesn`t solve the more complex problem that led to the light turning on in the first place.

In 1942 Walter B. Cannon, a medical doctor, wrote a seminal book entitled The Wisdom of the Body. This book, which is a classic in medicine, detailed the impressive and sophisticated efforts that the body deploys to defend and heal itself.

Many leading scientists, including the late Dr. Hans Selye, have taken Cannon`s work further, recognizing that symptoms are actually efforts of the organism to deal with stress or infection. And even more recently, Randolph Nesse, MD, and George Williams, PhD, authored Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine (New York: Times, 1995) in which they link the important role that symptoms and disease have to the evolution of the human body. Nesse and Williams show how our symptoms and seemingly normal body functions work as important defenses:

- Fever is an important, even vital, defense against infection.
- Tears help wash and cleanse the eyes.
- The respiratory system is bathed in antibody and enzyme-rich secretions that are propelled up and down the throat and bronchial tree so that invaders are killed.
- The ears secrete an antibacterial wax which helps to fight infection.
- The frequent washing of the mouth with saliva kills some pathogens and dislodges others so that the stomach`s acid and enzymes can destroy them.

Without having to tell the bodymind what to do, our innate survival instinct has developed sophisticated responses to both old and new infections and stresses.

Concepts in new physics offer further support for the notion that living and non-living systems have inherent self-regulating, self-organizing, and self-healing capacities. This ongoing effort to maintain homeostasis (balance) and to develop higher and higher levels of order and stability have been described in detail by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ilya Prigogine in Order Out of Chaos, Fritjof Capra in The Turning Point, and Erich Jantsch in The Self-Organizing Universe. In systems thinking, "perturbations" are understood as efforts of a system to re-establish balance and to increase its complexity so that there is greater dynamic homeostasis.


The implications of recognizing that symptoms are efforts of the body to defend itself are significant. Because some conventional drugs work by suppressing symptoms, these drugs tend to provide helpful temporarily relief but tend to lead to other new and more serious problems by inhibiting the body`s defense and immune processes. Such drugs should be avoided except in dire situations or in extreme pain or discomfort when safer treatments are not working fast or adequately enough.

Because symptoms are adaptations of the body in its efforts to defend and heal itself, it makes sense to use treatments that mimic this wisdom of the body. Ultimately, homeopathic medicine is a well-known therapeutic modality that honors this wisdom of the body. Homeopathy is a type of "medical biomimicry" that uses various plant, mineral, and animal substances based upon their ability to cause in overdose the similar symptoms that the sick person is experiencing.

It may be no coincidence that two of the very few conventional medical treatments that augment the body`s own immune system are immunizations and allergy treatments, and these drug treatment modalities coincidentally derive from the homeopathic principle of similar (treating "like with like").

By using a medicine that causes similar symptoms as those of the sick person, the medicine is akin to being a "medical aikido" (the martial art that seeks to match and mimic the force of the attacker against the attacker).

It is not surprising that so many Eastern spiritual teachers have been trained in homeopathy or have simply become advocates for it. Swami Satchidananda and Swami Rama were formally trained in homeopathy, while Sri Aurobindo, Meher Baba, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Yogai Bhajan, Swami Muktananda, and Sri Chinmoy have been known to seek homeopathic care or advocate for it. The fact that many of these spiritual teachers also believe that life problems are not really "problems" but are opportunities for learning is part and parcel of the idea that symptoms are defenses in the body`s efforts to learn how to adapt to the world around us.

The Latin words, vis medicatrix naturae, make reference to "the healing power of nature," and these words and concepts form the basis for naturopathic medicine. Despite maintaining a healthy respect for the healing power of nature, neither naturopaths nor homeopaths think that it is effective to just let the body heal itself. Usually, it is necessary to give the body specific tools/treatments that help in this healing process. Homeopathy and other natural medicines that nourish and nurture the body`s own wisdom are good first steps to initiate a true healing beyond just symptomatic relief.

Consider that the most famous words from Hippocrates were "First, do no harm." It seems that Hippocrates was instructing us all to first try safer methods before resorting to the big guns of more dangerous conventional medical methodologies.


Walter B. Cannon, MD. The Wisdom of the Body. New York: Norton, 1942.

Randolph Nesse, MD, and George Williams, PhD, Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine. New York: Times, 1995

Dana Ullman, MPH. Discovering Homeopathy: Medicine for the 21st Century. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 1991.

About the author

DANA ULLMAN, MPH, is one of America's leading advocates for homeopathy. He has authored 10 books, including The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy (foreword written by Dr. Peter Fisher, Physician to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II), Homeopathy A-Z, Homeopathic Medicines for Children and Infants, and (the best-selling) Everybody's Guide to Homeopathic Medicines (with Stephen Cummings, MD). He is the founder of Homeopathic Educational Services (http://www.homeopathic.com), America's leading resource center for homeopathic books, tapes, medicines, medicine kits, software, and distance learning courses. Homeopathic Educational Services has co-published over 35 books on homeopathy with North Atlantic Books (which are distributed by Random House).

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