Metaphysics of the one- and two- phasic actions toward the maintenance of life (Yang Sheng) and cyclicity (Huan [Yuan])-Tao ‘going-around’ of Lueshih Chunqiu (spring and autumn analects).
Vitamin D, which is created from ultraviolet radiation of the sun, acts according to the Dao. Considerations of the Dao, ‘a life-giving force responsible for the creation of myriad things’1 can shed light on the mechanisms of action of this ‘hormone of sunshine.’ For longer than justified, vitamin D was misunderstood as primarily a regulator of calcium metabolism. Results over several decades from sophisticated research methods have pointed to an undeniable breadth and depth of vitamin D’s functions in the body, going far beyond the calcium myopia. In reflecting on this trove of data, this note argues for different interpretations and philosophical considerations. The Yang Sheng ‘preservation and nourishment of life,’ and Yuan Dao ‘go around’ of life, death, and return point the way.
Multiple sites of vitamin D actions of the solargenic vitamin D for the promotion and maintenance of life; ontogenic connection of inorganic matter (calcium, phosphor) with organic matter (biomolecules)
After nearly one hundred years of domination by the primacy of calcium regulation, numerous new actions of vitamin D are finally being recognized. This follows the experimental revelations of a multitude of specific vitamin D receptors with non-calcitropic actions2.
The first new insights about various holistic actions independent of systemic calcium metabolism came from our laboratory, using a novel high-resolution method and radiolabeled vitamin D (Receptor Microscopic Autoradiography). The data emerging from this research contrasted markedly with the negative results of biochemical and other “expedient” laboratory procedures, which simply did not have the resolving power to identify receptors and related target actions. Only after a remarkable twenty to thirty year delay has the scientific community finally accepted the existence of multiple target cell populations and the multiplicity of related actions. Slowly and reluctantly, scientists are reviewing the five ‘classical targets’ – bone, kidney, intestine, liver, and parathyroid – and reconsidering this artificial designation that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century. Results from epidemiological studies about the occurrence of diseases and tumors related to low sun exposure in northern latitudes and covered habitats is also contributing to an expanded appreciation of vitamin D’s actions.3 Measurements of blood levels of vitamin D metabolites are further facilitating diagnostic and therapeutic applications with effects on cell proliferation, differentiation, and secretion, as well as repression of tumor growth, harmonization of organ functions of the cardio-vascular system, kidney, digestion, immune- and stress regulation, fertility and reproduction, and brain-spinal cord systems.
This does not deny that calcium regulation does have importance, but only as one of the many functions of vitamin D, taking its place especially in relation to growth and bone repair4. Indeed, the role of vitamin D and calcium in relation to the Dao can be understood by recognizing that vitamin D acts as an ontological bridge between the inorganic and organic, facilitating calcium and phosphorus incorporation into biomolecules during early development and progression of life.
Vitamin D dose-dependent positive and negative effects
While ‘normal’ low and medium levels of vitamin D treatment enhance the maintenance and promotion of normal tissue functions, the effects on differentiated cells and the use of high doses can have the opposite effect, supporting cell death and turnover. This is being explored and utilized for the treatment of, for instance, psoriasis and different kinds of tumors5. The observation of both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ poles, of opposite dose-related effects with the same compound, presents a new challenge now that vitamin D science has been liberated from a fixation on calcium6.
Taken together, the extensive experimental data, including data that took science down erroneous paths, argues for philosophical and transexperimental holistic reviews. Such holistic views exist in the pre-scientific philosophy of the Dao, Yin-Yang, the origin of religions, and the Greek und Renaissance heliotherapy. Said German dramatist, August von Kotzebue (1761-1819), “Die Sonne ist die Universalarznei aus der Himmelsapotheke’ (author’s translation: The sun is the universal remedy in heaven’s apothecary).
‘Vitamin D’ is itself an erroneous scientific name for the biological agent of the ultraviolet radiation of the sun. This author has suggested ‘soltriol’ in analogy to estradiol, but even with a more apt name, science will not suffice for a full understanding of vitamin D’s quintessence for life. It is highly improbable that scientific analysis alone can construct an adequate picture from all the multiple singular and focused observations. Going beyond mere ‘faith in science’ (Wissenschaftsglaeubigkeit), the complex and variable processes of vitamin D actions require metaphysical considerations7. To this end, for an understanding of vitamin D’s multiple hormonal actions, the philosophical Dao provides essential clues.
Yang Sheng – ‘life preservation and nourishment’ are basic goals of the Dao and Vitamin D
The correspondence between mythologic-philosophical 2500-year-old ‘knowledge’ and modern ‘scientific’ revelations are profound and worthy of analysis. As succinctly stated by one author8:
“The best way to characterize the Taoist idea of salvation is to see it as fundamentally‘medicinal’ in intention and structure. The medicinal implications are clear in that, as Fung Yu-Lan has recently written, one of the central ideas of early Taoism, and its connection with later Taoism, is the concern for yang sheng – not immortality, but psychic and bodily health through ‘life preservation and nourishment’ (Fung Yu-Lan, loc. cit.). It can almost be said that the whole thrust of Taoism has always been in terms of healing method that seeks to reestablish the original balanced wholeness of human nature and society. Salvation for Taoism is primarily a healing return to the beginning, a quest for the salve or elixir for life.”
Accordingly, Yang Sheng is a fundamental concept of Chinese traditional medicine. It is aimed at preventing diseases, maintaining health and achieving longevity through proper nutrition, mind-body cultivation, balance and harmony. Our expanded knowledge of vitamin D’s multiple sites of action suggests just that, namely that vitamin D is one of the essential mediators for a disease-free life. Further research is required to establish the specific functions of vitamin D in different organ systems, as well as their mutual and hierarchical relationships with vitamin D alone and after modulating influences through other bioactive substances, like sexual and adrenal hormones.
Huan Tao (Yuan Dao) – the ‘round way’ characteristics of the Dao and Vitamin D
In the Lueshih Chunqiu, the Yuan Dao is described as the ‘round way,’ the circle of life. Richard Wilhelm9 translated from the Chinese:
“Der regelmaessige Wechsel von Tag und Nacht gehoert zum runden Weg. Des Mondes Wanderung …., des Lichtes Wanderung durch die vier Jahreszeiten, einmal oben, einmal unten. Wenn die Geschoepfe sich regen, so keimen sie, vom Keimen geht es zum Leben, vom Leben zum Wachstum, vom Wachstum zur Groesse, von der Groesse zur Reife, von der Reife zum Verfall, vom Verfall zum Sterben, nach dem Tode zur Erde zurueck. Das gehoert zum runden Weg.”
(author’s translation: The regular cycle of day and night belongs to the ‘round way’. The moon’s journey …, the journey of light through the four seasons, now high, now low. When the creatures stir, they germinate, germination leads to life, from life to growth, from growth to size, from size to maturity, from maturity to decline, from decline to dying, after death back to earth. This is the ‘round way’.)
This circular ‘going around’ is similarly evident in actions of vitamin D. With ‘physiological’ doses, sufficient to have an effect, vitamin D stimulates growth (cell proliferation and differentiation) and secretion. With high doses, however, and toward fully differentiated cells, negative and ‘deadly’ developments can be observed. These are recent discoveries that require further elucidation. Does vitamin D have a role not just in the creation of life, but also its diminution? Polarity of dose-dependent biological action has been observed with various other substances as well. This general observation is expressed in the Arndt-Schultz rule6 of hormesis.
In order to fully understand the actions of vitamin D, multiple other factors must be considered as well, including visible light, temperature, latitude, time of day, species, age and endocrine status. The challenge of such a multi-dimensional context, of keeping all relevant facets and variations simultaneously in view, is evident. At some point, these factors can be more fully evaluated and integrated by reaching beyond specific scenarios to something more fundamental.
Metaphysically – specifically in relation to calcium and phosphorus – part of the significance of vitamin D lies in the Daoistic progression of life from the inorganic to the organic and back again. From an ontological perspective, and as a key to life, the sunshine hormone has been pivotal in fostering associations between inorganic elements, such as calcitropic agents, with organic elements, such as proteins.
In summary, recent understandings of vitamin D beyond the long-dominant bone and calcium paradigm recognize the multiple effects and variability of vitamin D actions. The integratively functional and exquisitely adaptable effects of vitamin D on the body have close relationships to holistic concepts of the pre-scientific philosophy of the Dao. This includes its ‘preservation and maintenance of life’ (Yang Sheng), and the ‘going around’ biphasic cyclic effects of life, death, and return (Yuan Dao). The limitations of the calcium dogma of vitamin D document the hidden dangers of any scientific approach that relies too heavily on analysis based on dissection. A fractioned approach inherently risks losing the view of the whole, thereby misunderstanding fundamentals of design and interpretation. The example of vitamin D emphasizes the importance of philosophy in meta-understandings of scientific actions. Philosophical and metaphysical considerations are necessary parts of the scientific process.
- Liu JL: An introduction to Chinese philosophy. Blackwell Publishing. 2006; p. 5.
- Stumpf WE. Vitamin D sites and mechanisms of action: a histochemical perspective. Histochem. Cell Biol. 1995, 104:417-27.
- Grant WB: Epidemiology of disease risks in relation to vitamin D insufficiency. Prog. Biophys. Mol. Biol. 2006,92:65-79.
- Stumpf WE: Vitamin D and the scientific calcium dogma: understanding the ‘Panacea’ of the sun. Europ. J. Clin. Nutr., October 2012.
- Grant WB, Mohr SB: Ecological studies of ultraviolet B, vitamin D and cancer since 2000. Ann. Epidemiol. 2009,19:446-54.
- Stumpf WE: The dose makes the medicine: Drug Discovery Today. 2006; 11:550-5.
- Girardot NJ: Myth and meaning in early Taoism. Univ. Calif. Press, Berkeley, 1983, p. 42.
- Fung Yu-Lan: A short history of Chinese philosophy. Edited by D. Bodde, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1948.
- Wilhelm R: Spring and Autumn Analects des Lue Bu We. Anaconda Verlag, Koeln, 2006, p. 54.