The human body is a very dynamic system. After we have taken birth here on earth, our bodies do not remain static or stagnant structures. Rather, they are in a state of continuous adaptation to the environment. One such example is of how the body behaves when oxygen levels in the cells fluctuate.
One of the most essential functions of oxygen is that it breaks down the food we consume and produces energy. This energy is used for every action of ours from movement of our hands and legs, functioning of the brain, building of tissues, recuperation from wounds and so on. In short, oxygen is what we depend on for performance of the diverse activities that keep us alive.
Our bodies need an optimum level of oxygen in the blood. A condition in which the blood has below-normal level of oxygen is called hypoxia. On the other hand, hyperoxia occurs when the body has an excess supply of oxygen. Both conditions are dangerous.
The air we inhale should contain minimum 20% oxygen. But there are times when the oxygen level in the atmosphere fluctuates – it increases or decreases. How does the body behave in these different scenarios? How does it adapt for survival in these conditions?
It is seen that when oxygen levels drop, a protein called HIF is produced and accumulates in the cell. This HIF protein creates increased activity in many oxygen-sensitive genes. One such gene is called the EPO gene. This gene secretes a hormone called EPO, which boosts the production of red blood cells. And this brings oxygen levels back to normal. But when there is a higher level of oxygen in the cells, the HIF protein stops its function and prevents further chemical reactions.
Here, we see how elegantly the body adapts to high and low levels of oxygen. The central role is played by HIF protein. The body switches it on when the oxygen level is low and turns its off when the oxygen level is high.
This is an example from our own bodies, at the level of the gene, molecules and cells. It unravels to us the mechanism of survival. Simply put, this mechanism is intelligent adaptation to our changing circumstances. This indeed is a characteristic we all need to develop. When we meet failure and challenges, instead of succumbing to our situation, we need to re-plan, modify our strategy and find out ways that keep us relevant even in developing times.
This is why the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, has said: “A believer is similar to a tender plant. It bends in whichever direction the winds blow. And when the wind is still, it stands upright again.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 5644)
In a deeper sense, the statement of the Prophet likening a believer to a gentle plant is an encouragement to inculcate certain traits in ourselves. This attitude can be variously defined as being mentally responsive, knowing what to do to effectively meet a challenge and having the power of creative thought.
We must be constantly aware and alive. Our bodies are always on guard to determine the levels of oxygen in our cells and respond immediately when the oxygen increases or decreases. We too must be prepared to face a new situation and ready to change ourselves with developing times.