Professor at the American Institute of Health Science, member of the American Society of Nutrition and Dietetics Consultants
I'd like to introduce you to your nervous system. You have the head at the top here, the brain and then the spinal cord which descends down from that point. Now, from the spinal cord we have nerves which go out to communicate with every cell in your body. Without your nervous system, your body simply couldn't live. You can survive even if you lose an arm or leg in a war or an accident; but once the brain is cut off from the rest of the body, the latter is doomed to die, the reason being that without the brain, your body is unable to function. Every second of every day, your brain is receiving messages from the rest of your body to tell it what's going on. The brain processes that information and sends back messages in reply. These messages can travel either via your endocrine system, made up of hormones whizzing around the whole body, or via your nerve fibres. Like anything else, your nervous system needs fuel to run on: in fact it works on a low voltage electrical current. For example, if I put my hand on this overhead projector, and supposing it's hot, I'd immediately say: "Ouch!" and at the same time pull my hand back fast. I've been able to act so quickly because of the message coming up to the brain ("Your hand is burning!") and the return message ("Pull it away!") travelling at electric speed. We have messages continually travelling up and down the body every second of our waking life; this is how our body is able to function.
I'd just like to introduce you now to a couple of the biggest users of this vital force: dealing with the emotions and the process of digestion. Dealing with the emotions uses up a tremendous amount of your nervous energy and this can be seen, for example, with small children who have been excitedly involved in some activity, and then afterwards tend to fall asleep for a while; or with an elderly person facing a family bereavement. In both cases they will tend to sleep more than usual in order to regain lost energy.
If you ask most people, "Where do we get our energy from?" they'll reply, "From food," which, to a degree, is true, since the food that we eat is actually used as fuel for our body's muscles, but the brain uses a completely different type of fuel to communicate with our body: an electrical current. For food to be used by our muscles, it first has to be broken down, and this process is called digestion. As I mentioned earlier, digestion uses up an enormous amount of nervous energy, and also a great deal of electrical current. For example, the message comes up to the brain warning that a banana has just been eaten, and the brain sends a message back saying to break it down and digest it. Now if I asked you how many nutrients there are in one bite of an apple, some of you will answer 1,000, most people about 6. Actually, when the first message gets to the brain, it has to start up 1,300 chemical reactions and all that requires a lot of energy.
Now I'm going to answer the BIG question: "Why do they keep showing the film "The Sound of Music" every Christmas?" The answer to this is that when people sit down to their Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner and they put on their plate all sorts of different foodstuffs like meat, dead chickens or turkeys, vegetables, cranberry sauce and everything else you can think of, can you image how many chemical messages your brain has to send to deal with all that? Millions! So what happens is that as soon as they've had their dinner, they sit in the chair and snore. Digesting food is an exhausting process, so the reason they keep showing the same film is that nobody has actually managed to see the end of it!
Ideally we should focus our energy on one thing at a time. If you are driving along in your car and you're trying to keep an eye on the baby who is sitting next to you and simultaneously you're trying to eat your sandwich and also talk on the car telephone, your chances of getting confused and going the wrong way are sky high. Better to focus your energies on one thing at a time and this applies to your body too. Now, in view of what I've been saying, you will appreciate that if we eat too much then so much of our vital energy is taken up by the digestive process that our minds get sluggish, and I'm sure most of us, without realising it at the time, have had such experiences in our lives.
There are many ways nowadays of using up nervous energy, but there's only one way of replacing it: sleep. In my younger days, I used to have a very cheap car, and very often I would have to put the car battery on charge overnight. I used to party rather a lot, so I would come home late at night, put my car battery on charge, maybe well after midnight. In the morning I had to get up early to go to college, but the battery hadn't been on charge long enough, so when I went to turn the key the car wouldn't start. Now you're just like that car: if you don't put yourself on charge long enough - by sleeping well and as much as necessary - you're going to run the same risk. So getting enough sleep is vital for your health, because without it your brain cannot communicate properly with your body.
I'm going to show you how intelligent all of you are, but first I want you to play a little game of imagination with me. I want you to imagine a few thousand people in total harmony. There are no wars, everybody loves and helps everybody else. Once you've got that in your mind, now imagine all 4 billion people on this planet loving each other and helping each other and always working for each other's best interests. Now I'd like you to imagine 36,000 planets, each with a population of 4 billion all communicating in perfect, total harmony. Now imagine that the only way that all these people can communicate is by telephone and everyone has got a telephone, yet there is only one telephone operator available. That one operator is your brain and, seeing that it manages to organise such an incredible job of communication inside your bodies, don't let anyone ever call you stupid again, since you are all owners of truly remarkable bodies. When the ovum and the sperm came together to create each of you, an intelligence was also created within you which is still there today: it allowed you to grow in the perfect way in which you did, to become the perfect baby that you were, both physically and mentally. Our body is self-programmed, self-directing, self-governing, self-repairing, self-healing. Furthermore it's self-cleansing, self-defending and self-sufficient. It is able to be all these things, provided the brain has enough nervous energy at its disposal to communicate with the body, in other words if we have recharged our bodies by sleeping properly.
I'm sure you are familiar with the term "toxins": they are produced naturally by the metabolic process in our bodies and are a potential threat to us. For example, carbon dioxide is a poisonous gas; there is only 1% in the air we inhale, but 4% in the air we exhale. In other words, we make it inside us. If someone tried to suffocate us, it wouldn't be the lack of oxygen to kill us first, but the inability to eliminate that poisonous carbon dioxide as soon as possible. So under normal conditions our body is cleansing itself naturally of toxins the whole time, but there are some other toxins we take in from the outside environment - and so are called "exogenous" - which are generally due to an excess of something.
If, for example, I were to offer Patricia an apple, she might thank me and have it for her lunch, but if I went over to her and gave her a 25-kilo sack of apples and I said, "You're not leaving this room until you've eaten them all," then after eating about 15 of them she would say, "Apples aren't good for us." So anything in excess becomes a threat to the body. Another threat is things we cannot use, for example saturated fats from animal products. Unable to use them, we attempt to eliminate them from our bodies, moving them into the bloodstream, where unfortunately these substances stick to the walls of the arteries, leading to heart attacks and strokes.
When we talk about toxicity, it's very important to remember that poisonous components are not just to be found in the food we eat, but also in the air we breathe. I would also like to fully back up what was said not long ago about toxins coming from the outside environment: that they can poison a person's thoughts and mental programming. The trouble is not when we manage to deal with the quantities of toxins and so have sufficient levels of nervous energy at our disposal, which will give us stable health; but when the amounts of toxins go beyond what our nervous energy can cope with: in this case we are opening the door to illness. On the other hand, we might live on a desert island, have a perfect existence, have a clean, pure diet, free of negative emotions, but still not manage to get enough sleep. Under such circumstances, even though toxicity levels are not very high, our ability to deal with them is very low and again this will lead to disease. Most people living in the western world fail on both counts, since we have slightly raised toxicity levels and nervous energy levels below the acceptable: we undersleep, lead very stressful lives, and live in a polluted environment. All this opens the way to serious illness, even degenerative disease.
If we look at diseases we can see how they follow a sequence of forewarning events, the first of which is, very simply, tiredness or enervation, a sign that there is a gap between the nervous energy needed and the energy actually available.
The next stage is something we call toxaemia, when the blood becomes highly toxic and the nervous system gradually begins to acknowledge the anomaly, and starts sending messages to the brain
which leads us into the third stage, irritation (sore throats, headaches, itching and so on). This is because the nervous system has picked up the level of toxicity and is communicating that to you.
The next stage is called inflammation, when the body sends its healing force to the poisoned area affected by the disease. The body temperature in that area will be raised and more blood will be sent there, so that it becomes red, inflamed and hot. Unless the person is able to get plenty of sleep to reduce toxicity levels in the body
the next stage, ulceration, will soon occur, in which the body will actually sacrifice its own cellular structure to create a hole to the outside - for example, a spot on your skin - where your body has made a passageway so that it can push poisons out of your body). If the body has inadequate nervous energy to cope with the level of toxicity
the next stage begins, and this is called induration, commonly called a tumour, where the body will actually build a little prison around the poisons, a little capsule, to prevent the rest of the body from suffering further damage. Although induration does not mean cancer, the growth is often removed from the body. However, if the toxicity remains in the body and the person continues to be lacking in nervous energy, more serious consequences are to be expected since the body itself breaks down. As you know, we have cancer cells in our body all the time, but they are very much in a minority and are well counterbalanced by our vital nervous energy. If, however, those cancer cells unfortunately become a majority, they invade and cause damage that can seriously compromise the operation of the whole body.
The last stage of disease is cancer, when the cells no longer communicate with the brain, and the situation becomes critical. To return to what I said earlier, if we want to avoid the risk of cancer we should above all avoid running down our vital energies. When we get sleepy this is a message we should not ignore - that mind and body need sleep - so this is my final message for those of you who are still awake, and for those of you who are asleep, I'm really glad: you obviously needed it!
Q: How do we get the nervous energy we need?
A: You sleep in order to recharge your nervous energy. The point is that it is not just how long you sleep for: it's how deeply and soundly you sleep. As we sleep, we go from shallow sleep gradually down to deeper levels of sleep and then we have what is called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage, when we dream. This whole cycle usually lasts about 90 minutes and we go through many of these cycles each night. It's important to realize is that it's only once we reach deep levels of sleep that the real regeneration and healing take place. If you go to bed stressed out, upset or worried, you will tend to hover in these shallower levels of sleep, and full regeneration will not be possible, so I suggest you deliberately do some relaxation exercises prior to sleep. If any of you want to know more about this, then have a word with my friend Lady Margaret, who is with us here and is an expert in these things.
When I was talking about the loss of vital energy during the digestion of food, I was thinking particularly of the foods which use up the greatest amounts of energy as the brain handles the vast numbers of communications, and in fact the most demanding foods are those of animal origin - meat, dairy products and so on - whereas the food which requires the least amount of energy to digest is fresh, raw food. One last thought before I leave you: some of you may have heard of circadian rhythms. Out there in nature we are designed to get up in the morning and find ourselves some breakfast, so probably we'll find something around the middle of the day to eat it between 12 noon and 8 p.m. in the evening. What our body then likes to do is to absorb this food between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m., and then in the last part of the cycle, which is very important, the body gets rid of what it doesn't want, and it likes to do this between 4 a.m. and 12 noon. Remember what I said earlier: we're only good at focussing on one thing at a time, so if you get up in the morning and eat a big, heavy breakfast, you're asking your body to start digesting complicated food and interfering with its task of cleaning itself out from the day before. The point is that breakfast is a very important meal: to miss. However, if giving up your breakfast is too much to ask, I suggest you have fresh, raw fruit, perhaps with some cereals too for your breakfast, so that the body can get on with eliminating these toxins.
Q: Some nights I know I've been asleep for maybe 6 or 7 hours, but wake up exhausted feeling like I've been dreaming all night. Is that because I haven't been sufficiently deeply asleep?
A: This is certainly an indication that you have not gone down to the deeper levels of sleep, because your mind was still busy processing a lot of thoughts. It is our body's way of dealing with our thoughts: we don't actually wake up, but we dream and we can stay at a shallow level of sleep. I think Margaret can teach you some suitable pre-bedtime relaxation techniques.
Q: If we spent all night meditating rather than sleeping, would we be able to recharge our batteries in the same way?
A: The wonderful thing about meditating is that it takes the chatter out of our minds, it allows us to relax our minds and rediscover our true selves, so we need to use less energy in our everyday lives. Also, of course, it leads to very peaceful, deep levels of sleep, but to get to this point you need to bring down the frequency of your brainwaves to ensure a good recharge. So it all depends on how good you are at meditation. Just counting sheep isn't the same thing at all: it doesn't give the same results as a good meditation.
- translations by Hugh Rees, Milan - commissioned by Associazione Vegetariana Italiana (AVI)