A hostile attitude raises heart attack risk, while dummy drugs “cure’ 30 per cent of people. What’s going on?
Mind and body were once thought to operate completely separately, but increasingly, science is showing that this isn’t the case. There’s now biological evidence that what we think, feel and believe can have a direct effect on the way in which our bodies function - and, consequently, on our wellbeing.
Although the holistic nature of many complementary medicines means that they are largely centred around a mind/body link, orthodox medicine has only just started to catch up and acknowledge the role that attitude, thought and emotion play in health, particularly in people’s ability to combat illness.
This connection between the brain and the Immune System is being explored by the relatively new science of psychoneuroimmunology. It began in earnest in the 1970s when, in the course of an experiment, scientists gave rats a saccharine-flavoured solution along with a drug that causes stomach upsets and suppresses the Immune System. When they were given the saccharine on its own the rats began to die; it seemed that their immune systems had learned to shut down in response to it, even in the absence of the drug, suggesting that there is a link between the brain and the mechanisms that fight disease.
Since then, research has increasingly discovered ways in which the brain connects and communicates with the Immune System and other systems in the body. The processes at work in the mind/body link are highly complex. Neurotransmitters in the brain can be affected by emotions and, in turn, trigger physical reactions in other parts of the body, including the systems that combat illness. And illness, of course, affects emotions and behaviour.
“There is a clear, established link between how we are in ourselves and the health of our bodies,’ says Dr David Reilly, Consultant Physician at the Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital. “Think of how just a moment’s embarrassment can make you blush. Now imagine what long-standing and burning inner feelings might do.
“Being hostile predicts future Heart Disease better than High Cholesterol, smoking or body-mass index. Hopelessness likewise. Optimists on average live nine years longer than pessimists. Every thought and feeling has to be reflected and expressed through the body.’
Stress, for example, is one area in which body and mind are strongly linked. Stress and Anxiety raise levels of cortisol and adrenaline in the body, which affect the Immune System. Stress has also been shown to trigger other chemicals, which are linked with “illness type’ behaviour including changes in mood and eating and sleeping patterns.
Many conditions appear to be exacerbated by Stress. Studies have shown, for example, that relapses in people with multiple sclerosis can be associated with stressful events.
But feeling good can affect the Immune System too. A Californian study proved that laughter is good for you by showing that medical students who had just watched a comedy video had an increased number of virus-fighting T-cells and more vigorous immune-boosting natural killer cells in their systems.
Nowhere is the effect of mind over matter more evident than in the case of placebos. It’s estimated that dummy treatments given in the course of research can effect a cure for 30 per cent of patients, or even more in some cases. Sometimes a patient’s faith in a cure can be the best medicine of all. In one study for example, a placebo emerged as a more effective treatment for Depression than either St John’s Wort or a prescription Anti-Depressant.
It’s not just drugs either - placebo Surgery has been shown to work too. In one American study, patients with Arthritis of the knee were treated just as successfully with a small incision and no further action as those who had a proper operation.
Although the jury is still out on whether placebos actually produce physical changes in the body, their effectiveness undoubtedly helps to strengthen evidence for the mind/body link.
The increasing credibility of this link is evident in the way in which it’s become accepted that attitudes to illnesses affect outcomes. A study by Dr Stephen Greer carried out at King’s College in London, for example, suggested that women with breast cancer who have a “fighting spirit’ live longer than those who react fatalistically. Another study has shown that Heart Disease progressed more rapidly in men who felt helpless than those who did not.
However, the association between attitude and prognosis is by no means clear cut. A review of 26 studies investigating psychological coping styles and survival from cancer concluded that there is little consistent evidence that attitudes such as fighting spirit or denial affect the progress of the illness. “People with cancer should not feel pressured into adopting particular coping styles to improve survival or reduce the risk of recurrence,’ say the review’s authors.
Furthermore, findings that suggest that a person’s mental attitude is crucial can engender guilt in people suffering from illnesses if they feel they are not reacting in the “right’ way. This can make people feel as if they are to blame when they get sick, or when their attitude to their illness is not “up to scratch’.
In her book, The Human Side of Cancer, US doctor Jimmie C Holland talks about what she calls “the tyranny of positive thinking’ - the way in which people who are ill are made to think that they are to blame for not getting better if they fail to approach their condition with an optimistic “fighting’ stance.
“Many people with cancer come to see me or other therapists for help with Depressed feelings precisely because they don’t fit today’s popular model for coping with cancer,’ she says. “They assume it must be their fault, that they’re out of step, that there must be something wrong with them.’ Obviously, this is not very helpful.
Health in mind
While it’s far from established that people can actually think themselves into a cure for a particular illness, it’s possible that a generally sociable and involved lifestyle can keep us healthier for longer. “Of course nothing in the end stops us ageing, getting sick and dying - that is natural and inevitable - but we can influence this to a degree,’ says Dr Reilly.
“Elderly people who help with housework, childcare and other tasks reduce the risk of dying by almost 60 per cent compared with those who don’t help. It seems isolated social states and emotional states do not help life or happiness thrive. We need to help ourselves adopt as much inner peace as we can.’