Newsweek, Inc. - Sept. 27 issue
Scientists are mapping the pathways that link emotion to health. The challenge for the rest of us is to put these discoveries to work. By Herbert Benson, M.D., Julie Corliss and Geoffrey Cowley.
Imagine you're allergic to the oil of the Japanese lacquer tree - so allergic that the brush of a leaf against your skin provokes an angry rash. Strapping a blindfold over your eyes, a scientist tells you she'sgoing to rub your right arm with lacquer leaf and your left arm with the innocuous leaf of a chestnut tree. The rubbing commences, and before long your right arm is covered with burning, itchy welts. Your left side feels fine. No surprise, until you learn that your left arm - not the right - is the one that got lacquered.
Or imagine that Parkinson's disease has reduced your walk to a shuffle and left your hands too shaky to grasp a pencil. You enroll in a study and receive an experimental surgical treatment, which dramatically improves both your gait and yourgrip. You're ready to declare it a miracle of modern medicine, when you discover that the operation was a sham. The surgeons merely drilled a small hole in your skull and then patched it
"... the relationship between emotion and health is turning out to be more interesting, and more important, than most of us could have imagined." That thoughts and feelings can affect our health is hardly news. In the span of a few decades, mind-body medicine has evolved from heresy into something approaching cliche.
So why is NEWSWEEK devoting this Health for Life report to the mind-body connection? Because the relationship between emotion and health is turning out to be more interesting, and more important, than most of us could have imagined.
through the lens of 21st-century science, anxiety, alienation and
hopelessness are not just feelings. Neither are love, serenity and
optimism. All are physiological states that affect our health just
as clearly as obesity
life is rife with potential stressors, and there is now little question
that uncontrolled stress can kill."
According to a recent government survey, nearly half of all Americans used mind-body interventions in 2002. The respondents embraced practices ranging from deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation to meditation, hypnosis and guided imagery. Close to half of them also said they prayed-perhaps the oldest and most basic form of mind-body medicine.
had plenty to pray for. Modern life is rife with potential stressors,
and there is now little question that uncontrolled stress can kill.
Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon recognized 90 years ago that when
confronted by a threat-physical or emotional, real or imagined-the
body responds with a rise in blood pressure, heart rate,
As researchers chart the health effects of hostility and hopelessness, they're also gaining unprecedented insights into the mind's power to heal. The "placebo response" has been widely recognized since the 1950s, when Harvard's Dr. Henry Beecher described the phenomenon. Until recently, most experts dismissed it as a feat of self-deception, in which people who remain sick (or never were) convince themselves they're better. But we're now discovering that expectations can directly alter a disease process.
those Parkinson's sufferers who improved with sham surgery. Using
PET scans, researchers compared their brains with those of patients
who received an active treatment. As expected, theactive intervention
caused a significant rise in dopamine, the neurotransmitter that people
with Parkinson's lack. But the patients who
are just the beginning. Mounting evidence suggests that any number
of soothing emotional experiences can improve our physical health.
At Duke University, researchers have found that religious observance
is associated with lower rates of illness an hospitalization. In studies
of HIV-positive men, researchers at UCLA
Can we teach ourselves to be healthier? That is the central question of mind-body medicine, andthe answer is not an unqualified yes. Stressful life circumstances are sometimes inescapable (no one chooses poverty or discrimination).
mind-body techniques can improve almost anyone's quality of life."
Heredity and temperament leave some of us more stress-prone than others.
And prayer is clearly no substitute for penicillin or a decent diet.
Yet mind-body techniques can improve almost anyone's quality of life.
Meditation may not cure cancer, but by alleviating fear and softening
the side effects of treatment, it leaves many patients feeling less
victimized. Stress-related illness often defies conventional remedies,
and when we persist with high-tech pills and procedures, the costs
of treatment can easily outweigh the benefits. Mind-body medicine
offers a saner starting place. If it fulfills half its promise, it
could reduce medical costs while improving our health and our lives.
And whatever its limitations, it has the advantage of doing no harm.
Benson is the Mind/Body Medical Institute Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and founding president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston. CORLISS is a medical writer at Harvard Medical School. Cowley is NEWSWEEK's health editor. For more information go to health.harvard.edu/NEWSWEEK.
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