For centuries, western medicine has discounted the connection between the mind and body when it comes to health. Now, growing scientific evidence suggests that the mind can play a powerful role in healing, as Lynne Malcolm and Katie Silver report.
In recent years, practices yoga, meditation and mindfulness have become buzzwords, hinting a change in thinking around the relationship between the body and the mind. Patients and practitioners alike are beginning to acknowledge that the two may be inextricably linked.
‘I think this is a notion and a paradigm whose time has come,’ says George Jelinek, a professor in emergency medicine at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne.
According to Jelinek, it makes sense for people to be empowered and take control of their own health, rather than rely on a ‘pharmaceutical maker’ which may only ameliorate a disease temporarily.
Dr Craig Hassed is a senior lecturer in medicine at Monash University, and believes that the mind-body connection explains the well documented placebo effect.
‘It’s been known for decades and decades that if somebody takes a particular pill there is often significant effects that aren’t attributable to the chemical action of the drug,’ he says. ‘[Sometimes] the placebo effect is actually a major part of the clinical effect.’
Brain scans have shown that learning you will receive a drug can actually spark neurological changes. That is, it alter the mood and pain regulation centres in the brain.
This is especially so if the drug is administered by a medical professional.
‘This trust that the mind produces changes in the brain, which cascade right down through the body,’ says Hassed. ‘It can influence things—the gut, the way the immune system activates, as well as the subjective experience of various things.’
Dr Hassed, who also coordinates mindfulness programs at Monash University, says negative emotional states—like stress, anger and depression—activate the sympathetic nervous system. This system mediates the fight-or-flight response, which causes changes in heart rate, blood pressure and cardiac contractility—making heartbeats bigger than normal.
‘Sugars and fats pump into the bloodstream, your metabolic rate goes up, so you are starting to feel hot and you’re sweating to keep yourself cool while you are exerting yourself,’ he explains. ‘You go pale, the blood is diverted away from the skin and away from the gut, so your whole gastrointestinal system shuts down. Your blood gets thick and sticky and will clot faster than normal, while your immune system pumps out inflammatory chemicals.’
This response can be functional when we actually need it, but it can be overused.
‘When we activate that response all the time … by anticipating future events or replaying past events, getting overly angry and reactive to events … we over-activate this fight-or-flight,’ Hassed says.
‘It has a long-term cumulative effect that’s called allostatic load. If we wanted to accelerate ageing and the illnesses associated with ageing, this is what we’d do.’
‘We need to learn how to recognise the inappropriate activation of the stress response and switch it off.’
There is an opposite effect, known as ‘the relaxation response’, which was discovered by one of the field’s pioneers, Herbert Benson, of the Harvard Mind Body Medicine Institute. He has been researching meditation since the 1970s.
Patient Shannon Harvey began investigating mind-body medicine after she was told she had lupus disease.
‘The thing about being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease is that the doctors can’t actually offer a cause, and they can’t offer a cure,’ she says. ‘They can offer drugs that suppress the immune system and they can say vague statements like “we think it’s genetic”, but they can’t actually tell you why, and they can’t tell you that you’ll get better.’
After spending $30,000 on traditional and alternative medicine combined, Harvey stumbled across an article written by Dr Hassed. ‘It summarised the latest science showing that there is a direct connection between the state of somebody’s mind and their health outcomes,’ she recalls.
One study it referenced was by Sara Lazar of Harvard University, who found an eight-week meditation program can actually change the structure of someone’s brain.
‘Things like their grey matter, their stress centres, they all start shifting in just eight weeks,’ says Harvey.
In this period, the amygdale—the brain’s stress centre—shrinks, and those who had taken part in the meditation program ‘reported greater feelings of peace, and less stress.’
‘What we can extrapolate … out of this is that it’s not about changing our lives, but it’s about changing our relationship to our lives,’ says Harvey.
She believes that meditation helped her to have a child, something that can be very difficult for lupus sufferers. She then went on to make a documentary, The Connection, about the mind-body interaction. The film falls into a field known as psychoneuroimmunology.
‘It’s the way that the brain interacts with the immune system interacting with the endocrine system,’ Harvey explains.
Craig Hassed believes that future research may prove meditation can have beneficial effects, if practiced over the course of someone’s life.
‘The more a person has done and the longer in their life they’ve been doing it for … may be very important for preventing cognitive decline that is associated with ageing and maintaining a healthy brain,’ he says.
George Jelinek, says he’s managed a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis by changing his diet and increasing his exercise. He also decided to keep a diary to record the important things that were happening in his life.
‘I started reading some of the key works around spirituality [from] a whole range of different authors,’ Jelinek says, ‘And I started reading a lot more about healing.’
His method has seen him go 15 years without a relapse, to the point that he now runs workshops across the country for people with MS.
Hassed says it’s time the medical establishment caught up.
‘It’s not a patentable product, so you don’t get the marketing push that you do for other interventions and treatments,’ he says. ‘[But] there’s an absolute goldmine down there if we could just plumb the depths with just a few more resources in that area.’