I just read Cure: a journey into the science of mind over body. Science journalist Jo Marchant explores what eludes measurement – the inner landscape of the mind. The physical body dominates the focus of western medicine but Marchant finds that there is much more to healing than fixing the broken bone or extracting the tumor. She interviews many scientists who’ve dedicated their research to understanding the healing process.
As we live longer, living with pain or chronic illness is more likely. So how do we use our brain to befriend our body and manage the aging and disease process? Cure is not a quick read, nor a self-help book with its exhaustive research. I recommend diving into the details but the following are highlights that struck me:
The placebo effect is real. While it may not alter the underlying disease, it can reduce the symptoms simply by the patient’s believing it will help. As anthropologist Dan Moerman says, “the active ingredient is meaning”.
Chronic stress increases susceptibility to pain, infection, and chronic disease. The release of cortisol equips the body to fight or flee an immediate crisis but long term has a debilitating effect. Poverty as a chronic stressor is a leading indicator of future health problems.
The nocebo effect is when a patient adversely reacts to a harmless treatment. For example, radiologist Elvira Lange looked at how preparing patients for the sting of a shot might actually make the pain worse. Better to visualize something positive. She coined the phrase “comfort talk” showing how a kind word, a smile, a continuing relationship with a caregiver can make a profound difference.
The brain is the “central governor” determining when our muscles become fatigued. Sports physiologist Tim Noakes studied fatigue in athletes concluding that fatigue was less physical than mental as the brain perceives sensation and emotion, putting on the brakes before a physical collapse. This need for muscular reserve to flee whatever danger arises (ex. a lion in the desert savannah) is easy to understand from an evolutionary perspective. This braking can become a faulty mechanism for persons with chronic fatigue syndrome. The brain over protects.
Social bonds are key to living happy lives, and, in some instances, longer lives like on the coast of Costa Rica (book looks at longevity here). Friends and family keep us going. Spiritual health particularly in the context of community makes a profound difference.
Visual imagery, gut-focused hypnotherapy, mindfulness meditation, biofeedback, yoga, tai chi –all offer tools for freeing the breath, slowing down the heart rate, reducing pain, and stimulating the vagus nerve, thereby inducing the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system.
At the helm of steering our physiology, the brain can enhance health, ease symptoms and fight disease or can wreak havoc. To put it simply, it's up to you.