Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful.” [Psalm 139:14 – NIV]

To understand many of the dynamics of health, it’s beneficial to know in broad terms how the human body functions.

The real action takes place at the level of trillions of cells within us. Every single cell knows what its job is and how it must work together with other cells in a vast community of cells. Within our cells, energy is created for us to live by. That’s the work of the tiny, but mighty, mitochondria which live inside most cells. They’re like miniscule batteries powering up cell activity. Energy production at the cellular level of our bodies is a powerful chemical process which involves the flow of oxygen-rich blood and nutrients pumped by the heart to all cells. Once these elements reach the cells, they get converted into energy to power the body’s functions and movements.

Recall that it’s the cells that make up your tissues, and these tissues make up your organs and muscles. The internal organs, in turn, all form part of your body’s great systems. These include the respiratory system, digestive system, cardiovascular system and circulatory system. These systems all work in concert, like parts of a symphony orchestra playing in harmony. Ideally, everything in the body is timed to perfection.

But nothing in any of these systems would work at all if the cells that make up the substance of the human body didn’t know what to do and didn’t know how to create the energy they need to function. As tiny as they are, each cell has been coded with a precise set of instructions to do a specific job. More about this coding of the human body a bit later.

As far as we know, the human body, including its core of the brain and nervous system, is the most complex machine in the universe. Think about that for a moment. That’s a huge compliment right there to each one of us, showing how special we’ve been made.

Your body is a living biological clock, a superb timepiece, with trillions of microscopic moving parts. If you could watch through a microscope everything that’s happening within your body at any given moment, you’d see a spectacular show of human cells choreographed to work in harmony. It is this show that produces the wonder of life and energy within you.

No wonder the Book of Genesis explains that human beings are made in the image of God. Despite our human faults, we’re still the crown of all creation. And that’s really saying something, because creation itself is majestic.

Life’s essence, surely, is sacred.

Furthermore, we’ve been created as open systems. Closed systems only allow energy to enter and leave, but not matter. For example, a sealed thermos containing hot water slowly loses its heat, but no matter or material goes in, or out, of the thermos while it’s closed. By contrast, if we don’t regularly take in food, water and air, we’ll soon die. It turns out that one of the secrets of improving well-being is to get the balance right between how much we take in and how much energy we burn off in exercise. We are open systems who need to be in a good balance with the surrounding environment which supplies our physical needs. And we need to be internally balanced, too. The reasons why will become clear as we go along.

The body knows exactly how to take in and use energy. Three systems coordinate their activities to make this happen. While the digestive system takes in food, our breathing draws in oxygen which is needed to burn the food at the cellular level and then the circulatory system circulates both oxygen and nutrients through the body. What harmony and efficiency are needed to provide power to all our cells!

Since we’re biological open systems dependent upon nature and society to survive, we should stay humble. For we can only exist and co-exist fruitfully with our surroundings if we live balanced lives. To find well-being, we must be in balance as open systems which are dependent on resources around us to sustain life.

To get started in the search for this wholeness, let’s draw up a simplified picture of the body. It’s already been mentioned that inside us there’s a living jigsaw puzzle made up of trillions of tiny pieces called cells. The adult body contains over 50 trillion cells, organised into around 200 specialised forms. Amazingly, the whole body is self-assembled from these trillions of cells.

Cells are made up mainly of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. They each have a control centre in the nucleus, surrounded by the cytoplasm with fluids and organelles, like the mitochondria, that perform metabolism. Different types of cells live for different periods, and the average age for cells is less than 10 years. The ongoing renewal of cells, with older cells dying and being replaced by new ones, occurs on a continuous and industrial basis. Take your liver, for example. Within roughly a year, the entire organ will be replaced through renewal and replacement of its cells. Red blood cells last around 120 days, but they make about 250,000 trips around the circulatory system in that time. Inside us, there’s lots of work going on. No wonder Genesis calls on us to be caretakers and stewards of life within and around us.

Later, we’ll examine how our cells know what to do, and when. It soon becomes evident that there’s an intelligence at work within us.

The inner workings of the cells, organs and systems that turn us into living, breathing, moving, speaking, thinking humans are so intricate they’re almost beyond imagination. The brain and nervous system alone are marvels of construction, far exceeding in ingenuity the most powerful computers, or the fastest rockets and spaceships.

It’s easy to see that the human body is an example of engineering on an epic scale. Here are some of its inner marvels.

Let’s take the blood circulation system mentioned above. We know the heart pumps and recycles blood throughout the whole body. In fact, blood travels about 12,000 miles every day. This blood flow provides energy to the cells to enable them to do their work.

If we look at the human skeleton, we see how strong it is for absorbing the stresses of constant movements in daily life. Its network of 206 bones protects the internal organs. Our bones are thought to have the strength of cast iron. And there are some 400 joints which give us physical flexibility and dexterity. Even more importantly, our bones manufacture blood cells. They store minerals, including calcium, needed for bone and muscle function. The bones of the rib-cage are a major supplier of red-blood cells.

Then there’s the brain and nervous system. It’s like a hyper-efficient telephone and communications network for receiving information and triggering millions of movements and actions of the body’s many parts. It can handle a vast number of signals whizzing around. It’s the command centre of the body, with millions of nerves, and its basic unit is the neuron, or brain cell. It sends electrochemical messages from one part of the body to another. In fact, every neuron can send electrical impulses down its length and to other cells at up to 65 mph.

The spinal cord is the nervous system’s central highway. This powerful bundle of nerves carries information from the outside world from the senses to the brain. Commands from the brain go in the opposite direction to organs and muscles. But the nervous system doesn’t just respond to external stimuli like noises, sights, smells and different tastes, it’s also geared to internal monitoring of the body. There are sensory neurons inside blood vessels and organs which send information about blood pressure and oxygen levels back to the brain. The medical profession refers to “internal housekeeping tasks” carried out automatically and continuously by the nervous system – such as maintaining heart rate, performing digestion, opening and closing of blood vessels, and the like.

Neurotransmitters called endorphins, produced by the body during exercise and exciting activities like rock climbing, can create sensations of well-being. We see here the intimate connection between the physical workings of the body and some emotional states. As we gain more knowledge of how the body, mind and spirit work as an interrelated whole, the need for a holistic approach to health and life-extension becomes more obvious. However, the medical profession, like most academic disciplines taught in our secondary and tertiary educational systems worldwide, tends to compartmentalise knowledge into specialised silos, an entrenched practice which greatly impedes the search for human wholeness and social stability, undermining and fragmenting truth itself in the process.

There are dozens of these neurotransmitters in the nervous system. Many drugs, both illegal and legal, work by changing the flow of these transmitters. An example is how Prozac affects serotonin in the treatment of depression. It’s thought that many depression-sufferers secrete too much cortisol, which is a stress hormone. Dopamine, too, is a neurotransmitter, which works on the brain’s pleasure centres.

In times of threat and strong emotion, there’s the famous built-in “fight-or-flight system”. During times of rest, the opposite happens – that’s when the parasympathetic division of the brain switches to conserve energy and restrict activity. Here we come to a vital part of staying healthy and living longer: the body has survival circuits which can be activated, such as when we take a cold shower or immerse our heads in a basin or bucket of ice-cold water. (I’ll discuss some health tips like this which work for me in a subsequent blog about living healthier, longer and better lives.)

Not only is the body self-assembling from birth – it’s also self-renewing and self-regulating. We should treat our bodies – and the bodies of others – as the wondrous creations they are. Anything less must constitute either a trivialisation or a brutalisation of life’s inherent sacredness.

There are many, many more marvels in the human body. I’ll touch on a few more.

As bio-chemical beings, our endocrine system is made up of glands spread around the body. Its job is to release chemicals, mostly hormones, into the blood and the fluid around cells. The system regulates metabolism, growth, digestion and reproduction.

We’ve all heard of some of the main hormones. For example, estrogen hormones turn girls into women, while testosterone turns boys into men. In “fight-or-flight” situations, adrenaline is released by adrenal glands. For those affected by diabetes, we know the importance of insulin. It’s the hormone that regulates the body’s glucose balance.

When we’re young we sometimes think hormones are out of control, but actually hormones are well regulated in the brain. The hypothalamus area of the brain regulates the balance of hormones to keep the body “on track”. Part of this work is that it controls the pituary gland which lies at base of brain. This can secrete up to nine different hormones for controlling other glands and maintaining growth, reproduction and kidney function.

Working side by side with the endocrine glands are exocrine glands. They secrete saliva, sweat, tears, milk and even digestive juices.

I must also mention the circulatory system as it’s critical to health. We can easily improve blood and oxygen flow in our bodies, for example, through exercise. If we take in deep breaths we can also get more oxygen into our lungs. Both these forms of increasing blood flow to cells can improve our overall well-being.

The circulatory system carries blood filled with oxygen, nutrients and hormones to tissues. Blood cells float in liquid plasma, which is mostly water, along with nutrients, hormones, dissolved gases, red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. As already mentioned, most blood cells are produced in the bone marrow in our bones. The system of the skeleton works with the circulatory system.

The circulatory system cleanses the body, too, by taking away carbon dioxide and other waste products.

Sometimes, we forget that the immune system isn’t a single part of the body, or an organ, it’s a highly mobile system moving around inside the circulatory system, like a commando unit fighting off viruses and bacteria.

Another function of circulation is that blood disperses heat around the body, while helping to cool the brain and all hard-working organs which would otherwise heat up.

The heart is the engine of the circulation system. Its left-side pump collects oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to send into the whole body. Its right-side pump collects oxygen-poor blood and pushes it into the lungs to receive more oxygen.

When we have a cut or wound, the circulatory system sends platelets and clotting agents to the injury site to seal it.

The Bible has always argued that “the life is in the blood” (“For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life”, says Leviticus 17:11) and this is certainly true of the human body.

Once again, we notice that our bodies are exquisitely designed to be self-renewing and self-healing. All we must do is boost our body’s systems where possible, such as when we exercise to pump oxygenated blood faster to all our cells and into our brain.

It’s good to know that the circulatory system harmonises with the respiratory system to keep us alive from minute to minute. With every breath we take, we draw oxygen into the body. Each one of our 50 trillion + cells depends on this continuous infusion of oxygenated blood for life. Deprived of oxygen, our brain cells would die within five minutes. Within a few hours, other tissues will expire.

The breath of life is beautiful. Filled with millions of air pouches called alveoli, our lungs store this breath of life. Through them, gases can move in and out of the bloodstream. Some estimates say about 2,600 gallons of air pass through our lungs each day. The oxygen is used to break down glucose from food to release energy. We need the air, too, for speech and for the sense of smell.

And so we are well-made, with multiple self-governing systems. All these moving parts work together in a complex unison because they’ve been coded, or instructed, to do so. We see that we’re coded for life by the fact that there’s DNA in each of our cells.

The question has rightly been asked, is there a more amazing molecule than DNA? It makes each of us who we are. The more we understand DNA, the more we’ll understand ourselves, one another, and the world around us.

As an example, we humans are all far more alike than we’re different, because the DNA of any two people is 99.9% identical! However, that 0.1% that’s unique must be incredibly precious, because it’s what makes us “one-off” beings who are unlike any person who’s ever lived, or ever will live. At the same time, the 99.9% of DNA we’ve got in common with all other humans constitutes a shared blueprint for humanity. This fact provides the underlying inspiration for us to identify as one species. It reinforces our humanity at the level of DNA. Given that we’re basically 99.9% similar, it’s strange and irrational that there’s so much hate and distrust around between different races and ethnic groups in the world. Biologically, morally and spiritually, this makes no sense whatsoever.

Back now to our uniqueness, though. Each person has a set of about 20,000 genes which make up their personal genome. This “digital information” in our cells contains specific instructions for how each cell, each tissue, each organ, each system, must operate, shaping our bodies and managing our life-functions.

Your genome is your genetic operating code. It’s built into your very fabric, into your very cells. The genome is the entire set of DNA instructions found in each of your cells. In humans, it consists of 23 pairs of chromosomes located in the cell’s nucleus, as well as a small chromosome in the cell’s mitochondria.

What’s the function of this genome? It contains all the instructions needed for an individual to develop and function. Spectacular!

In recent times, the price for sequencing someone’s genome has dropped significantly. The hope is alive that precision medicines, based on knowledge of this genome, will cure numerous serious diseases which still plague us today.

In looking at concepts like DNA, genes and our genome, the question that springs to mind is: how could all our physical systems work with such precision unless they’ve been programmed to do so? In my view, the same Master Coder who coded the laws of Nature, from gravity to electromagnetism, from the laws of motion to planetary movements, also coded our DNA and personal genome.

Recent laboratory-based worldwide research, led by longevity scientists like Dr Morgan Levine and Dr David Sinclair, show that information drives the workings of the human body through what’s called the epigenome. Yes, we all have a genome and an epigenome. If our physical bodies are like hardware, then our epigenome is the operating software.

The rapidly growing field of epigenetics (sometimes called epigenomics) studies changes in DNA, especially when certain genes get switched on, or off, during the chemical reactions when DNA is copied before cells divide. We’ve seen already that cells keep renewing on an industrial scale within our bodies. This is achieved when old cells die and new cells are born through the endless process of cell division. Before each cell division, the DNA in the parent cell must be copied so that both the daughter cells will have the same DNA. From time to time, an error can occur in the copying process. When such modifications of the epigenome (our cellular software) occur, they can be passed on during cell division, and sometimes can even be passed on from one generation to the next.

Without getting into too much detail just yet, some of these errors occurring at the level of DNA can cause diseases and the ageing process itself. We know that cancer cells, for example, are rogue cells which escape the body’s immune system and continue growing through uncontrolled cell division. Some scientists are starting to see ageing itself as a series of faults, or breakdowns, occurring in the epigenome, with accumulated damage at the cell level starting to impact our organs and bodily systems over time.

The good news is that the medical sector is starting to understand so much better how the genome and epigenome work, finally piecing together the body’s hardware and software.

The picture puzzle of the human body is being assembled in astonishing detail as we speak.

Undoubtedly, a health revolution, a huge leap in medical knowledge, is just around the corner. With every new puzzle-piece fitted into the jigsaw, we confirm that we are, indeed, fearfully and wonderfully made.