Rhythm creates health

By Matthias Girke, July 2021

Rhythms are of great importance for the healthy development of the human being, for their mental wellbeing and their cognitive performance. Whereas the importance of rhythms in education and medicine tended to be underestimated in the past, they are now coming to the fore again, especially in the age of coronavirus.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Medication can have a different effect depending on the time of day, according to chronopharmacology, which studies the periodically recurring and predictable variations in the effect of medication. Illnesses are particularly noticeable at different times of the day and a lack of daily rhythm has an unfavourable effect on our physical and mental state.

Our waking consciousness is characterised by a 90-minute rhythm, known as the basal rest-activity rhythm, which is accounted for in the main lessons at Waldorf schools.

Rhythms cannot be grasped objectively as they occur in time, and are therefore actually a “supersensory” phenomenon that is connected both with the life processes and with the soul and spiritual essence of the human being. They are not mechanical in the sense of the repetition of same thing, but are mobile, adaptable and flexible like life itself.

Rudolf Steiner describes the rhythmical system as an independent entity alongside the nervous-sensory system and the metabolic and limb system of the human being, which he relates to the soul being of the human being, above all to their emotions. The individual rhythmological functions of the human organism, which we can describe starting from the cell all the way through to the organism as a whole, are coordinated with each other and do not run independently. Just as the individual organs of the physical body come together to form a spatial “whole” of the organism, so do the rhythms of the organism running in time come together to form its overall rhythmical system. If the system collapses, the person becomes ill.

Conversely, rhythmisation goes hand in hand with health. In this way, a rhythmically designed daily routine can be beneficial to a person’s health.

Rhythm connects the conscious to the unconscious

Rhythms develop between rest and movement, between the maxima and minima of the functional activity of the body. Rhythms not only depict physiological changes in organ functions, but are also related to the soul and spiritual nature of the human being. On the one hand, processes of consciousness develop on the basis of the nervous and sensory systems, and on the other, of the unconscious metabolic processes and movement. Both functional alignments are connected by the rhythmical system. With each inhalation there is a small “awakening”, with the exhalation a letting go and a slight sinking into sleep. The first and last breaths illustrate the connection of the soul and spiritual being with the body and its release. The medical terms inspiration (first breath) or expiration (last breath) aptly reflect this connection.

The respiratory and cardiac rhythms are particularly well-known rhythms, but all organs are physiologically healthy when they function rhythmically.

Rhythmical interaction

The rhythms in the human body encompass various periods of time. At first, the most obvious rhythm is the rhythm of day and night, that is, the interplay between waking and sleeping. The temperature of the body varies and reaches its maximum at around 6pm. Our wellbeing is determined by this thermal rhythm, and we can only fall asleep well when the body temperature drops in the evening and awaken properly when it rises again in the morning. Internally, we experience this difference in our mental and emotional state: in the morning we can concentrate better and cognitive performance comes more naturally. Only in the course of the day does our full capacity of will and readiness for activity develop. By the evening, the soul becomes open to the artistic and the imagination – the realm of the feeling.

Illnesses also possess a daily rhythm: in the morning, the organism develops a tendency to harden. Patients suffering from rheumatism experience morning stiffness in their limbs, those suffering from depression experience a morning low. Even heart attacks occur more frequently in the early hours of the morning. By the evening, many complaints subside as a warmth develops in the organism. The depressed patient’s mood often brightens and the person suffering from rheumatism can also move a little better. The spectrum between inflammatory and sclerotic disease processes, as it develops over the course of a life between childhood and old age, is already hinted at over the course of a day. There are also rhythms with a longer wavelength, such as the seven-day rhythm. Some childhood illnesses, such as measles, follow a weekly rhythm and are related to the child’s mental state, which changes over the course of the week.

Sleep quality is also subject to a weekly rhythm. The quality of sleep is thought to be best in the night from Friday to Saturday. While the daily rhythm is connected to personal efficacy, the weekly rhythm is connected to changes in soul experience and sensation. The monthly or four-week rhythm is evident in numerous vital and reproductive processes that occur within the organism. In addition to the menstrual cycle, the excretion of sodium fluctuates at this rhythm. And even annual rhythms shape the organism; certain illnesses are more frequent seasonally. Bones, for example, are denser in summer than in winter. Type 1 diabetes manifests mainly in winter. Hyperthyroidism occurs with varying frequency depending on the season. The physical organism is connected to these long-wave rhythms. In the examples given, the life processes have a monthly rhythm, the soul state is primarily dependent on the weekly rhythm, and the daily activity of the personality oscillates according to day and night rhythms.

A disrupted rhythm causes illness

Numerous diseases are associated with impairments and disturbances in the rhythmic system. For example, the fluctuation of the heart rate narrows in the case of many cardiovascular diseases. The healthy fluctuation of the heart rhythm in conjunction with respiration becomes rigid. Similar phenomena can occur in patients with diabetes mellitus. For this reason, therapeutic attention must be paid to the rhythmical processes in addition to the administering of medication. It has now been proven that eurythmy therapy can improve heart rate variability. It is well known that being awake for too long is associated with changes in cerebrospinal fluid (nerve fluid), as is also found in Alzheimer’s dementia (increased concentration of beta-amyloid). These functional changes can in turn be balanced out by sleep. A balanced rhythm of sleep and wakefulness promotes the health of the nervous system and in turn the functions of consciousness. In view of our western lifestyle, which is largely characterised by sedentary work, information overload and intellectualisation of children at far too early an age, these factors are of great importance and carry lifelong consequences. Both insufficient as well as excessive sleep have adverse health effects. Rudolf Steiner noted that while sleep usually refreshes us, sleeping too long can also lead to illness. The adverse health effects (cardiovascular disease, mortality, cancer) of sleep induced by hypnotic agents (sleeping pills) are well documented.

Rhythm heals

The human rhythmical system is related to the rhythms of nature and the macrocosm. The day-night rhythms are determined by the course of the sun, in the monthly rhythms the relationship to the moon is reflected, as for example in the lunar periodicity of the retina: A person becomes more red-sensitive than blue-sensitive around the full moon.

However, the immediate connection of the human being to their environment has become increasingly detached. The rhythmical system has become individualised, which is related to the development of the I. While the autonomisation and disturbances in rhythmical processes can lead to impairment and possibly even illness, the rhythmisation of everyday life supports healing processes. For the prevention and treatment of many diseases, the rhythmisation of daily life is an important prerequisite and the subject of numerous medical discussions. When a person enters a state of sleep, their rhythmical system harmonises. For example, a stable rhythm of one to four can be established between breathing and heart function. A similar opportunity arises through inner development: if we succeed in creating moments of inner calm, the rhythmical system can harmonise and heal the organism.

The inner work done by a person is therefore not only important for their spiritual development, but also for their body. Active engagement with spiritual matters heals the organism. These connections, which apply to adults, also apply to the child to an even greater extent. A child requires the nurturing of its rhythmical system through a healthy balance between wakefulness and sleep, between cognitive and physical activity, between a healthy state of breathing with the world through the openness of interest to their surroundings and inwardly fulfilling moments of being present with themselves.

About the author: Dr Matthias Girke is head of the Medical Section at the Goetheanum

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