What Eastern medicine has known for 2000 years about the connection between the mind and the body, Western medicine only actively started to research less than 2 centuries ago. The concept of the mind influencing the body was first explored by George Beard, MD in 1881 when he linked the stressful lifestyle of the American elite with conditions such as poor digestion, migraines and depression. Beard called the clinical condition Neurasthenia, now commonly known as nervous exhaustion. Since then many scientific studies have been performed to demonstrate the mechanics of the mind-body link.
Molecules of Emotion
The breakthrough in mind-body research came in the 1970’s with Dr. Candace Pert and Dr. Solomon H. Snyder’s discovery of neuropeptides. Their work was hugely influential in the creation of a brand new branch of science called Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). Neuropeptides provided PNI with the scientific language – that of neuropeptides and their receptors – that allowed Western medicine to explain in scientific terms how the mind is able to communicate with the body, and the body with mind. Pert called the receptor and neuropeptide molecules, the molecules of emotion.
The information exchange system that Pert and Snyder identified consists of receptors located on the surface of all cells that bind with their matching neuropeptide counterpart (small protein-like molecules produced by the nerve cells in the brain). Neuropeptides deliver its emotion-linked chemical message to the receptor, which then transmits the message to the cell, triggering a chain of biochemical reactions which can create changes within the cell of either a positive or negative nature.
The key discovery by Pert and her team was that receptors for neuropeptides are not only located in the brain, but also in all other cells of the body. This discovery would explain how it is possible for endorphins and opioids such as heroin or morphine, to powerfully alter the body and emotions.
The relationship between cell, receptor and neuropeptide is explained by Pert as follows:
“If the cell is the engine that drives all life, then the receptors are the buttons on the control panel of that engine, and a specific peptide is the finger that pushes that button and gets things started.”
The nervous, endocrine and immune systems are therefore interlocked in a body-wide system where each part can communicate and influence, the other part. According to Pert, our emotions are the key.
“Emotions are the nexus between mind and matter, going back and forth between the two and influencing both.” C. Pert
Many studies have been performed to prove the theory that the mind-body connection is multi directional. Examples are provided below.
Mind influencing the body
A UK study found that men who had depression were three times more likely to develop heart disease than those without depression.
A study of 150 couples showed that marital discord increases the changes of calcification of the arteries. In the study, couples were asked to discuss any topic for 30 minutes whilst being recorded on video. After 20 minutes, researchers were able to distinguish two types couples. One group emerged as having marital discord, displaying signs of anger, frustration and negative feelings towards their partner. The other group was compassionate, kind and physically tactile towards their partner. Levels of CAC (coronary calcification) in the arteries were measured and found to be higher in the marital discord group. In a sense hardening of the heart towards your spouse, can lead to hardening of the arteries.
The effect of the mind on the body is not only limited to our emotion, but images – both imagined and real – can also affect changes in the body.
Research was performed on a group of patients receiving a 4 – 6 week course of rehabilitation physiotherapy. The first group only received physiotherapy. The second group was asked to do one hour of mental imaging (visualisation) of themselves performing strength building tasks per day in addition to physiotherapy. The third group observed able bodied people perform tasks in addition to receiving physiotherapy. The groups who used visualisation and the group who observed able bodied people, both gained movement much faster than the group who only received physiotherapy treatment. It should be noted that the exercises were performed repeatedly over the course of the study. Repetition is key in order to build neural pathways in the brain that connect with the muscles. It is clear however that the brain does not distinguish between doing, imagining or observing.
Body influencing the mind
A recent study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital found that increased levels of physical activity were able to reduce the risk of depression considerably, even among those who are genetically predisposed to depression. Both high-intensity exercise, such as aerobic exercise and dance and lower-intensity forms such as yoga and stretching, lowered the risk of depression. Overall, individuals could see a 17 % reduction in the likelihood of a new episode of depression for every four hours of activity per week.
Science has proven that the mind and the body impact each other. The question then is how can the individual control what information is being shared between the mind and the body?
Change the environment
The work of Dr. Bruce Lipton shows that the environment in which a cell is placed, determines “the fate” of the cell. Lipton divided genetically identical stem cells into three groups, each group into its own tissue culture dish with its own culture medium (the environment for the stem cell). In one dish the cells formed bone, in the second dish the cells formed muscle and in the third dish the cells formed fat cells. What the cells eventually grew into was controlled by their environment.
Humans are genetically the same, but the mind (consciously or subconsciously) is interpreting the environment as stressful or not, and the cells of the body will respond accordingly. (See the work of Perk on neuropeptides.)
The key to optimum wellness is therefor to control and change if necessary, the beliefs and way of viewing the world in such a way that the environment is perceived as non-threatening, safe and positive. When the individual is able to change their environment and their perception of the environment, they are able to control the genetic responses of their cells. Dr. David Hamilton sums it up best when he says “Belief shifts biology”.
*This blog post is based on the assignment I completed for Module 1 of my Integrated Resilience & Wellness Coaching studies. Citations were included in the submitted assignment.*