The Philosopher’s Stone Has Been Found…It’s Inside You
For centuries learned people have searched for the mystical philosopher’s stone, believed to be the elixir of life and give immortality to he or she who owns it.
But could it be that the philosopher’s stone is not so much a stone but an attitude?
A groundbreaking piece of research by Kevin Tracey, director of the Feinstein Institute and Professor and President of the Elmezzi graduate school of molecular medicine in Manhasset, New York, has revealed how the nervous system (the vagus nerve) controls inflammation in the body, now known as ‘The Inflammatory Reflex’. Inflammation is one of the major contributors to aging of the body and plays a key role in illness and disease.
Most people think of inflammation as the swelling and redness after a cut. This inflammation is a vital part of healing and helps to ensure that nutrient-rich blood is drawn to the site of injury to help facilitate healing. But it turns out that if it wasn’t for the vagus nerve – the longest nerve in the body that runs from the top of the brainstream, through the face, throat, chest, heart, the GI tract, all major organs, and even over certain immune cells – inflammation from a small cut would typically spill out into the bloodstream and lead to septic shock and multiple organ failure.
The vagus nerve is the brake on inflammation throughout the body. Once the vagus nerve senses that there are enough inflammatory substances (the chemicals of inflammation) following an injury it sends a signal to the immune cells that make those chemicals and tells them to turn off production.
The vagus nerve puts the brakes on inflammation in much the same way that you might apply the brake in your car when you’re travelling a little over the speed limit.
The vagus nerve is highly important because inflammation doesn’t only arise in response to injury; it is also a side effect of unhealthy lifestyle factors – like poor diet, drinking, stress, etc. It plays a key role in heart disease, some cancers, and in fact it is involved in just about every serious disease we know of in western medicine.
Indeed, it is one the ‘Major Agers’, which are phenomena that most cause aging. So much so, in fact, that many gerontologists believe that if science could develop a powerful body-wide anti-inflammatory drug then the average person would live until they were around 150 years old.
But we now know that the vagus nerve is our natural anti-inflammatory nerve. Maybe the wonder drug that pharmaceutical companies are currently searching for isn’t necessary. Maybe all we need to do is train our vagus nerves in much the same way that we train at a gym. Is this possible?
It seems that people have different vagus nerve activity, or what is sometimes called, ‘vagal tone’. Think of it like muscle tone. A person who exercises regularly might enjoy good muscle tone and similarly a person who exercises or does meditation, yoga or tai chi, might enjoy good vascular tone. Vagal tone is used in a similar capacity to indicate power, activity, health etc of the vagus nerve.
Some people’s nervous systems, then, are more efficient at keeping inflammation at bay, just as different people have different immune system robustness. Some are good at keeping them free of illness and some aren’t quite so good.
Recently, a link has been identified between the vagus nerve and compassion. In some studies people who are most compassionate were found to have the highest vagal tone, and similarly the reverse is also true. People who have the highest vagal tone tend to be the most compassionate. In some of this research Dacher Keltner, psychology professor at Berkley, calls these people ‘vagal superstars’. According to much of his research, the association between the vagus nerve and compassion is very strong.
So could training ourselves to be more compassionate actually train the vagus nerve and reduce inflammation in the body? Scientists have indeed recently studied the link between compassion and inflammation.
In a 2009 study, scientists at Emory University School of Medicine, trained 33 people in a compassion meditation, which involved the structured generation of feelings of compassion on a daily basis, and compared them with a group of 28 people who didn’t do the meditation. After 6 weeks those who did the compassion meditation had much lower levels of inflammation in their bodies than those who didn’t.
Since the vagus nerve is the primary brake on inflammation and compassion is correlated with the vagus nerve, it makes sense that compassion actually reduces inflammation in the body.
Could it be that the philosopher’s stone that many have searched long and hard for has always been right in front of our eyes? In fact, it is not so much in front of our eyes but in our hearts? Could it be that simple? History has taught us that things usually are that simple. Maybe it’s called the philosopher’s stone because it takes a philosopher to consider compassion to be the elixir of life. Perhaps humanity has only just reached a point of spiritual maturity to even contemplate such a thing.
So why is it that compassionate people everywhere aren’t living until they’re over a hundred? Well, we counter the effects of it with other lifestyle choices we make – the unhealthy foods we eat, the toxins and stimulants we take into our bodies, our unhealthy habits like smoking and drinking (too much), not exercising regularly, and also our mental emotional stresses of life. Many of us are so stressed that we neutralise the effects of most of our healthy habits. Perhaps, the journey now is to learn to treat our bodies and minds well.
The new healthy formula:
Eat well, sleep well, exercise well, think well, and show people that you care!
Perhaps this formula is the mystical philosopher’s stone. Maybe the stone is not a stone, but a Way, the philosopher’s Way.
And that way is compassion.
For Kevin Tracey’s discovery of the inflammatory reflex, see K. J. Tracey, ‘The inflammatory reflex’, Nature 420, 2002, 853–9; also H. Wang, et al., ‘Nicotinic acetylcholine receptor alpha7 subunit is an essential regulator of inflammation’, Nature 421, 2003, 384–8
For the link between the vagus nerve and compassion, see Dacher Keltner, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, Norton, New York, 2009
For the study of compassion meditation and inflammation, see: T. W. W. Pace, L. T. Negi, D. D. Adame, S. P. Cole, T. I. Sivillia, T. D. Brown, M. J. Issa and C. L. Raison, ‘Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioural responses to psychosocial stress’, Psychoneuroendocrinology 34, 2009, 87–98
For a good summary of the compassion-vagus nerve-inflammation link, see David R Hamilton PhD, Why Kindness is Good for You, Hay House, London, 2010.