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.
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.
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.
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.
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”