Letter from Publisher, October 2018
The “mind-body connection” is described by Yogapedia as “how the brain and thoughts influence the body and its functions”. An article published in Scientific American in 2016 provided new evidence of the power of the mind to help people stay well and resist illness.
The focus of the article is on placebos and how they can have specific, measurable effects on the brain and body. Scientific American (ScientificAmerican.com/article/the-science-of-healing-thoughts) is not a place where “alternative medicine” or natural health would expect to find a seat at the table. Nonetheless, the journalist writing the article, Jo Marchant, describes digging through scientific research and interviewing scientists around the world who are “often struggling for funding or risking their reputations” to report on health outcomes not yet accepted by the mainstream.
She reports that there are “now several lines of research suggesting that our mental perception of the world constantly informs and guides our immune system in a way that makes us better able to respond to future threats.”
She quotes one scientist who tells us that, “Placebo painkillers can trigger the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins. Patients with Parkinson’s disease respond to placebos with a flood of dopamine. Fake oxygen, given to someone at altitude, has been shown to cut levels of neurotransmitters called prostaglandins.” (She explains that prostaglandins dilate blood vessels, among other things, and are responsible for many of the symptoms of altitude sickness.)
It’s important to note that none of these effects are caused by the placebo, which in itself is neutral, but rather are triggered by our psychological response to those fake treatments. It’s a complicated process and includes our expectation that we will feel better. This, in turn, is affected by all sorts of conditioning, such as our previous experience with treatment, how impressive or invasive a treatment is, and whether we’re an optimistic person and feel listened to and cared for.
What strikes me as particularly exciting is the fact that “honest placebos” (where someone knows they are taking a placebo) seem to work. A recent article in Time magazine followed a 71-year old woman with severe IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). She tried everything—from drugs to changing her diet—with no appreciable results. Approximately ten years ago, she decided to enroll herself into a trial which turned out to be a first-of-its-kind clinical trial where the patient would be receiving a placebo pill with no active ingredients. Once she discovered what she was taking, she felt “deflated” that she got her hopes up for nothing.
Three weeks later, after taking the pill twice daily, she was symptom-free. She had never gone so long without an attack. “I didn’t have a clue what was going on,” she says. “I still don’t.”
Another fascinating study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa013259) looked at surgery for patients with severe debilitating knee pain. People were divided into three groups. In one group the surgeons saved the damaged cartilage in the knee; for another, they flushed out the knee joint of material believed to be causing inflammation—both were standard surgeries for people with arthritic knees. The third group received a fake surgery: an incision was made and then sutured. All patients were sedated and believed they actually had surgery. All three groups had the same rehab process, with astonishing results. The placebo group improved just as much as the other two groups who had actual surgery.
The take-away from this research is that there is scientific proof of a deep connection between our thoughts and beliefs and our physical well-being. The biggest hurdle is believing in the divine power we each have been given.
Peace and Blessings.