Over the course of the past year, most of us have experienced the impacts of the drastic loss of social connection we had grown accustomed to. In an attempt to ward off illness (and ultimately, in avoidance of death), we’ve sacrificed many of the very things that enrich wellbeing and make life worth living. While isolation and “social distancing” may lessen our chances of viral exposure, they are equally likely to negatively impact our overall health.
“Chinese medicine identifies disease as disorders of relationship, not as a singular, unvarying entity.”
One of the main ways in which Chinese Medicine conceives of relationship is through the Five Element model, in which the patterns and cycles that exist in nature parallel and resonate with those that transpire in the human bodymind. The Elements are not meant to exist in isolation, in fact they are intimately interdependent, just as humans are. And when we are isolated, all of the Elements within us may suffer, but the Earth Element is most vulnerable. Later we’ll talk about why this is, but first let’s touch on the science behind connection and wellness.
As social creatures, our health is dependent on our relationships
“Social relationships are a significant determinant of immune health. The absence of these essential relationships … has been implicated in the upregulation of proinflammatory processes and reduced immune functionality (e.g., NK cell activity)”. Social isolation can lead to “down-regulation of antiviral genes as well as higher overall levels of inflammation.”
Continual deprivation of physical affection from others may put us into a state of heightened alert, leading to increased blood pressure, inflammation, and stress. We are social creatures by design and evolution, and like a despondent teenager who’s been shunned by their peers - disconnection is interpreted by the brain as a fight or flight emergency. A meta-analysis of study data showed that social isolation greatly increases risk of premature death. A sense of social connection, however, increases chance of survival by 50 percent.
“[Poor social connection] can increase the risk of stroke by 32 percent and the risk of heart disease by 29 percent. Social isolation and loneliness can cause a higher likelihood of depression, decreased cognitive function, and dementia, with secondary side effects that may include higher rates of substance abuse, alcohol-related deaths, and suicide”.
Virtual Connection Just Doesn’t Cut It
The use of virtual communication platforms has unsurprisingly skyrocketed over the past year of global lockdowns. And, while virtual connection may marginally ease the strain of separation for some, it can (and does) exacerbate it for others.
“One survey found virtual gatherings failed to reduce loneliness in nearly half of all respondents, and actively made the feeling of loneliness worse in 10 percent of respondents”
In (reassuring) contrast, benevolent social connection can profoundly strengthen our innate immune capacities. In one study exploring the links between relationships and health, people who received frequent hugs were less susceptible to infection after viral exposure. Furthermore:
“Research indicates that individuals who feel [a] sense of interconnection ... have favorable gene expression, decreased stress, increased antibodies, and better health outcomes.”
An Elemental Approach
In considering the Chinese Medicine view on social connection and health, the research of today serves to substantiate the wisdom of yesterday. Social connection (or the lack thereof) impacts all Five Elements and their corresponding organ systems in unique ways, consequently modulating our wellbeing. However, the Earth Element is most involved in and affected by our social circumstances, so that’s the one we’ll focus on here.
Earth Is the Social Element
In the elemental interplay, Earth is at the center - like the glue that holds all life together, or the mediator that ensures healthy communication amongst all parties. The Earth element archetype is the Peacemaker, who, like the soil of the Earth, and the digestive system of the body, nurtures, nourishes, anchors and connects. Earth constitutes the Spleen/Stomach Organ Network, and a lack of social connection can easily disrupt Earth energetics, leading to difficulty with change, identity, concentration, metabolism, digestion, immune function, fluid metabolism, and more.
Both Chinese Medicine and biomedicine consider the gut an integral component of immune function. In fact, the Spleen, the primary Earth organ, is sometimes described as the “brain” of the immune system. Furthermore, a balanced and flourishing gut microbiome benefits immune processes and simultaneously balances mood - evidenced by the use of prebiotics and probiotics in the treatment of both immune and psychiatric disorders. The entirety of the digestive tract is lined with cells that contain neuropeptides and neuropeptide receptors - the chemical messengers of the brain-body. Many of these same messengers are found in the brain, the endocrine system, and yes, the immune system.
The digestive system also connects us to the “outside” world - it’s how we receive and release nutrients from the Earth. When we sit around a table with loved ones at mealtime, we not only nourish ourselves with food, we fortify our health through meaningful connection and shared experience. The healing power of Earth is delivered via relationship.
Nurturing your Earth Element through greater social engagement and cohabitation can lower C-reactive protein, fibrinogen, and white blood cells (which are produced by the Spleen in response to infection); and regulate expression of salivary secretory immunoglobulin A (sIgA), a primary feature of mucosal immunity found predominantly in the respiratory and digestive tracts, where it acts as the first line of defense against external threats. (*P.S. check out this study to learn how Chinese herbs can impact sIgA, and regulate the flora and mucosal immunity of the lung and intestine, in the treatment of recurrent respiratory tract infection)
As connector and guardian, Earth Element shines a light on the intersection of social behavior and health, which aligns quite gracefully with the revelations being made by modern science.
We are not apart from, we are a part of this dance we call Life. And if we want to actualize our inherent vibrancy we must do so together. In the words of Dr. Paul Farmer, the infectious disease specialist working in impoverished regions around the world: we accompany each other to health. In Haiti, the profound healing capacity of shared presence is built into the very terminology of medical care, where community health workers are called accompagnateurs, which means “people who accompany”.
“To accompany someone is to go somewhere with him or her, to break bread together, to be present on a journey…It's easy to be dismissive of accompaniment in a world in which arcane expertise is advanced as the answer to every problem. But expertise alone will not solve the difficult problems… True accompaniment does not privilege technical expertise above solidarity or compassion or a willingness to tackle what may seem to be insuperable challenges. It requires cooperation, openness, and teamwork” - Dr. Farmer
There’s a reason why “humanity” is synonymous with “benevolence”. Collective compassion and love is truly the most potent medicine we possess.