The Bodypower Principle

Dr Vernon Coleman

It began in the autumn of 1980…

I was in Vienna and the weather was freezing cold. Outside in the street the wind cut through my thin raincoat as if it weren’t there. I walked with my shoulders hunched and my hands stuffed deep inside my coat pockets. My fingers felt numb. I was so cold that I could hardly think; even my brain felt frozen. I was shivering involuntarily and uncontrollably.

It was dusk. The skies were dark with rain to come and in the early evening gloom the bright lights of the cafe seemed especially warm and promising. I love the cafes of Vienna and Paris. They remind me of the sort of places where Dr Johnson might have talked with friends in London a couple of centuries ago. Through the open curtains I could see the dark wooden tables and chairs, the racks of newspapers neatly folded around wooden sticks and the plump, bosomy Austrian waitress hurrying about with vast cups of cream-topped coffee.

I went in, found a table near to the window and sat down. Inside the cafe it was cosy and comfortable. Old-fashioned radiators and a log stove gurgled pleasantly and the air smelt of ground coffee beans and rich chocolate cake. The waitress approached and smiled at me. I gave her my order, took my hands out of my pockets and tried to rub them together. They were white with cold and I could hardly move my fingers.

I cupped my hands, held them up to my face and blew on them. Slowly the feeling came back into them. Slowly the colour returned. Gingerly I flexed and extended my fingers; gradually I regained the movement I had lost. As I watched my frozen fingers changing colour I suddenly became aware of something that was to change my life. I suddenly became conscious of the remarkable powers of the human body to adapt itself to cope with its environment. Outside in the bitterly cold autumn air the blood had left my fingers to reduce the amount of heat lost in order to try to maintain my internal body temperature. My body had been prepared to sacrifice my fingers to save itself. Inside, in the warmth of the cafe, the blood had rushed back into my hands. Once my body’s internal thermometer had recognised that the temperature inside the cafe was warm my body no longer had to fight to keep me alive.

I felt the shivering stop and slipped off my coat. I picked up the coffee which the waitress had brought me and held my head in the steam rising from it.

I’d been qualified as a doctor for ten years and for most of that time I’d been working as a General Practitioner in a small town in central England. To begin with I’d enjoyed the work I did, but for several years I’d been growing more and more worried by the fact that too often I was finding myself interfering with illnesses when it seemed to me that my patients would probably get better by themselves if only I and they were prepared to wait.

Sitting in that cafe in Vienna, with my thawing hands wrapped around a steaming cup of coffee, I realized that the human body has far more extensive, protective and self-healing powers than we give it credit for. I realized that all of us, doctors and patients, tend to be too quick to rush for the medicine cabinet when things go wrong. I remembered a book I’d read when I was at medical school. Called The Wisdom of the Body, it was written in 1932 by a physiologist called W. B. Cannon, who believed that the body’s abilities to protect itself from change and threat are comprehensive and far-reaching. And I remembered conversations I’d had with a friend, Tony Sharrock, who was convinced that too often doctors ignore the fact that in illness the body knows best.

I took out my notebook and pencil (for years I have never gone anywhere without both) and immediately wrote down the outline for a book I knew I wanted to write. In the beginning I called it ‘Listen to Your Body’. I wanted to try to teach doctors as well as patients that the human body has far-reaching powers that we ignore far too often. I wanted to try to persuade patients to learn to listen to their own bodies and to avoid interfering with their bodies unless absolutely necessary. I wanted to teach doctors that they should not always assume that whenever illness strikes intervention is essential. I wanted to show both patients and doctors that we all underestimate the remarkable healing powers of the human body.

A few days later I got back home full of excitement. I wanted to resign from my practice, write the book and change the world. I knew that I could not remain in General Practice, handing out endless prescriptions. I knew that if I continued to work as a doctor I would not have the time to teach doctors and patients how wrong they were to continue to put all their faith in drugs and surgery.

It wasn’t quite that easy.

I sent the outline to my then literary agent with a letter that was bursting with enthusiasm. She was far less impressed than I had hoped she would be. She wrote back to me arguing that ‘the serious illnesses people have nowadays simply wouldn’t heal themselves, so there’s a limit to how useful this process can be’. I was frustrated almost beyond belief. That was exactly the attitude I was so desperate to change. The truth is that most illnesses are not serious but are treated as if they are. I insisted that the idea was relevant and valid and that the only way to put forward the idea was to write a book about it, explaining the remarkable self-healing powers of the human body and showing exactly how those powers could be harnessed.

Already disillusioned by the way health care was administered in the UK (with confidentiality having been abandoned by the system), I resigned from the National Health Service in the summer of 1981 and decided to become a full-time professional writer.

Leaving the NHS wasn’t the wrench I’d thought it might be. I missed my patients desperately but I didn’t miss the NHS bureaucrats with whom I had serious disagreements.

It wasn’t until 1982 that I found a publisher prepared to commission the book. I was having dinner with Jamie Camplin of Thames and Hudson to celebrate the launch of my book The Good Medicine Guide when I managed to persuade him that the principles behind Bodypower were not only sound but merited a wider audience. Camplin agreed to publish the book.

The dream I’d had in that cafe in Vienna two and a half years earlier had been fulfilled. The philosophy I described in Bodypower changed my life, and has influenced everything I’ve written about medicine since 1980. It has also influenced hundreds of medical writers, thousands of doctors and millions of patients. In the UK the book became a Sunday Times top ten bestseller and sold around the world. The Bodypower philosophy is now widely acknowledged and accepted.

Every week since 1983 I have collected new evidence showing the remarkable powers of the human body. There has been evidence from scientists around the world showing that the power of the body and the mind is greater than anyone could have dreamt a mere decade ago. For example, researchers have shown that crying helps the body get rid of harmful waste material. It has been shown that tears shed because of emotional feelings contain more protein than tears shed because of irritation. When you are upset and you cry your body is getting rid of unwanted and dangerous wastes. Researchers have also shown that during the last three months of pregnancy, and for the twelve months after a pregnancy has ended, a mother’s lips produce sexually attractive chemicals designed to make her lips more kissable. Sebaceous glands along the borders of the newborn baby’s lips produce similar chemicals and help ensure that the baby responds to its mother’s kisses in an appropriate way.

Newspaper stories have supported the Bodypower theory too. Soon after Bodypower was published I read about a farm worker who had been involved in a horrific accident. He carried his severed arm for a mile in order to get help. His arm was then sewn back on by a surgeon at a nearby hospital. More recently I read of an 87-year-old widow who knotted sheets together and climbed out of her first floor window in order to escape from a fire. In both these cases the human body found resources that no one would have thought could exist.

Most exciting of all, perhaps, has been the response from the medical profession. When Bodypower was first published the response from some parts of the medical establishment was cool. Doctors have for decades been taught that in order to beat disease they have to interfere with nature. The medical profession has grown in strength alongside the drugs industry; thousands of doctors have been taught that a doctor’s first response to any illness must always be to reach for his prescription pad. But that too has changed. More and more often the medical journals now contain articles written by doctors explaining how they have discovered that it isn’t always necessary to interfere when a patient falls ill; that the body can often look after itself; that the body’s defence mechanisms and self-healing mechanisms are far more sophisticated than they had been taught and that the power of the human mind is far greater than anyone would have dared suggest just ten years ago.

In 1983 the philosophy behind Bodypower seemed new and slightly frightening to many people. Some thought it threatening, a few even suggested that it was heresy to suggest that in 90 per cent of all illnesses there was no need for a professional healer, that the body could look after itself perfectly well.

Today the philosophy described in Bodypower is widely accepted. It has not halted the march of modern interventionism but it has, perhaps, caused some of those who lead the march to break step. From the letters I have received I know that it has encouraged many to be prepared to take advantage of their bodies’ own healing processes and to regard illness as something to be conquered in partnership with the help of healers (whether orthodox or alternative) rather than as something to be handed over completely to the professionals.

Adapted from the foreword to Bodypower by Vernon Coleman
Bodypower is available on Amazon as a paperback and an eBook.

Copyright Vernon Coleman March 2022