Health and the Mind/Body Connection

By Michael Edmonds 03/09/2011 8

The August 27th edition of New Scientist has an interesting article entitled “Heal Thyself” (pg 33-36) where Jo Marchant examines some of the health benefits which are emerging from a better understanding of the mind/body connection.

The idea that the mind can influence the body and vice versa is not a new one, but it is one that many health professionals are wary of, given that it has been abused and overhyped by various purveyors of woo. At it’s worst, distorted views of the mind/body connection are used to accuse those who are chronically ill of not “wanting” to be healthy. However, this New Scientist article explores scientifically based research around mind/body health.

Think Positive

Optimists appear to have healthier immune systems, live longer and recover better from medical procedures. There is also the suggestion that optimism reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Furthermore, those who view themselves positively (high self inhancers) appear to have lower cortisol levels as well as lower cardiovascular responses to, and faster recovery from, stress.

While some may argue that optimists are born and not made, studies have shown not only is this incorrect but that the more stressed/pessimistic someone is, the better they will respond to techniques to improve their optimism. In work carried out at the University of Pittsburgh when students facing exams were asked to write short essays designed to enhance their self worth the levels of adrenalin and other fight/flight hormones in their urine were lower than those of a control group on exam day.

Social Support

Having supportive rich social lives appears to have a significant contribution to good health. “Being lonely increases the risk of everything from heart attacks, dementia, depression and death.” It has been suggested that this is because those who are lonely may be oversensitive to social threats and physiologically this may result in the upregulation of genes involved in cortisol signalling and the inflammatory response. If this oversensitivity can be reduced, however, the loneliness can be reduced which will improve health outcomes.

The Placebo Effect

It has long been believed that the placebo effect requires deception in order to work, however, research from Harvard Medical School intriguingly challenges this assumption. When patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) were treated with a inert placebo pill and told that “they were made of an inert substance, like sugar pills that have been shown in clinical trials to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes” on average patients taking the pills rated their symptoms as moderately improved. A control group who took no pills by comparison said there was only a slight change.”


A number of studies have suggested that meditation may have small but beneficial effects. Some research has even demonstrated that an enzyme that builds up telomeres, which play a role in the aging process, was higher in people who had undergone a three month mediation retreat when compared to a control group.

Self Hypnosis

Despite being studied, and often denounced as non-scientific, for over 150 years the process by which hypnosis works is still not completely understood. It has, however, been demonstrated to have beneficial effects. it has been suggested that hypnosis may use “physiological pathways similar to those involved in the placebo effect” and perhaps also similar to those which respond to meditation.

Have Purpose

There are a number of studies which suggest strong spiritual faith/religious belief can result in better health, however, critics of these studies suggest that they have not “adequately tease(d) out” other factors which might be involved. Consequently some researchers have suggested that perhaps it is one’s belief that they have a purpose in life which has health benefits or perhaps it is due to, to put it in the words of Clifford Saron of the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis – “the profound impact of having the opportunity to live your life in a way you find meaningful”

8 Responses to “Health and the Mind/Body Connection”

  • Funny you should post this today. I’ve just had my mother on the phone, insisting that her sore hip has become markedly better since she saw a Bowen quack. Turns out she’s also been taking that new pill that’s a mixture of ibuprofen and paracetamol but we mustn’t let that small fact muddy the placebo waters!

  • Mythbuster,
    Hadn’t heard of Bowen before so had to look it up. Thanks for introducing me to a whole new category of woo – how depressing :-)

  • I know from first hand experience that the placebo effect is a big one in healing. There is a great deal of research out there that even on medications, the people given placebos instead of the actual drug, show the same results. If you can get someone to think a certain way, it can have life altering effects. I still remember back to the days when I wanted to get out of Phys Ed class in grade school, I would think my temperature was high and it was. The nurse would take my temperature and they would call my parents, claiming I was sick and needed to go home. Our minds are amazing what they can do. Is there a link to this article that I can check out? I might just have missed the link somewhere in what you wrote. If not, I’ll google it.

  • Don,
    This is some research that a few drugs may be largely operating on the placebo effect, but let’s not forget that other drugs have a significant physiological effect way beyond the placebo effect. The field of mind/body interactions seems to be a mix of various facts and fictions which it would fascinating to get to the bottom of.
    My blog article is based on an article in the August 27th edition of New Scientist entitled “Heal Thyself” (pg 33-36) written by Jo Marchant. This article will list some of the journal papers that the article was based on.

  • Link for Don,

    Couldn’t find the placebo article at the above link but I do get wary when it comes up. A recent study working in with Asthma has indicated that while patients may report improvement there may not be any accompanying objective improvement.
    We can argue over whether this constitutes actual improvement but I feel if there is no change in underlying function or pathology that the only way to responsibly harness placebo is as part of a proven therapy.

    (review of the Asthma article:

    hhmm. two links. Spam catcher bait.

  • Darcy,

    I agree with you that getting subjective feedback from patients hardly seems convincing, however, I would not dismiss the possibility that underlying physiology cannot be influenced by the mind to produce a beneficial effect.

  • Michael, I’m open to the possibility but I have not seen any convincing evidence. And that’s pretty broad, what physiology might be amenable to this?

    Placebo seems to be advocated (by some) as a viable alternate for everything. Should we limit it’s use to pain? Pain plus some other very specifically defined entities? Anything we want?

    At least if we include those aspects that are known to enhance the placebo effect only for those medications and treatments of known benefit we are maximising our chances of better outcomes for the patient.

  • Darcy, I think as long as we are open to any reliable evidence showing that physiology can respond to the placebo effect then that is the best place to be.
    You are quite right about being wary of claims that it is a viable alternative for everything. Such claims are too often used by woo peddlers.

    I think good science and reliable evidence need to be our guides in assessing any placebo claims.

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