A Healthy Start to a Healthy Year
by Vicki Rackner, MD
Can your mind help your body keep your New Yearís resolutions? Mounting evidence says,
The evolving field of psycho-neuroimmunology, or the study of the mind-body connection - often considered fringe beliefs - could help you keep your resolutions. This intriguing subject of scientific inquiry is still shrouded in mystery.
Just as an experiment, put aside your skepticism, pretend that these ideas could be explained by science, and consider how you could harness their power to promote your health.
When new medications are tested, one group gets the new medication and another group gets the *sugar pill* or placebo. Why do this? Study after study shows that if you think youíre taking real medicine, your body will respond as if it actually did get the active ingredient, even if itís a sugar pill. Somehow the belief in the power of the medicine creates the desired outcome of lowered blood pressure or heart rate or weight loss in about a third of people. Is this science? Yes. Is this mind-body medicine? Yes.
Let your beliefs help your body achieve your desired goals. If regular exercise is your goal, tell yourself, *Iím invigorated by my daily 20 minute walk.* The placebo effect suggests that your belief that you have more energy with regular exercise makes it so.
In November 1998, a teacher noticed a *gasoline-like* smell in her classroom, and soon thereafter she had a headache, nausea and dizziness. Given the concern about a toxic environmental substance, the school was evacuated and closed for 5 days. Almost 200 students and teachers were seen in the ER for similar symptoms. But no environmental cause was ever identified. One explanation is that the belief that a toxic exposure occurred led to the symptoms, or the nocebo effect. This is the flip side of the placebo effect.
I reflected on this study as I was waiting with my son for his turn in the dental chair. He repeated, *Itís going to hurt; itís going to hurt.* I suggested to him that he might be better served by saying, *Itís going to be fine; itís going to be fine.*
Has the nocebo effect undermined your New Yearís resolutions in the past? Barry saw this in action last March as he told himself,*I hate to exercise.* He made a commitment to daily walks in January and talked himself out of them before the winter snow melted.
Harness the power of the placebo effect and minimize the nocebo effect this year, even if your resolution is something challenging like smoking cessation. In years past you might have told yourself, *This never works. Iíll never be a non-smoker.* Consider replacing that thought with, *In the past it didnít work. Now I keep my promises.*
Itís the study of humor and its effects on the human body. Researchers are asking the question, *Is laughter good medicine?* You know from your own experience that laughter breaks stress and tension. Evidence suggests that laughter enhances the function of your immune system and stimulates pleasure centers in the brain.
You always have the choice about whether to laugh or cry. Ann remembered that as she completed an interview for the job of her dreams. She bought a new suit that made her feel like she already had the job. It wasnít until she left the group interview that she discovered the toilet paper stuck in the waist of her skirt streaming behind her like a tail. After an initial rush of embarrassment she laughed.
We are a deeply religious nation, and many of my patients use prayer as a source of strength and comfort. Can prayer promote healing? Growing evidence from well-respected clinical studies suggests it can, although not enough evidence for the medical community to conclude that prayer is good for health.
What kind of evidence would you need to use prayer as part of your health regimen? Interestingly, you would consider the same factors whether youíre re-considering Vioxx or Naproxen (recently found to cause heart problems) or Aryuvedic remedies (recently found to be associated with toxic levels of heavy metals). What are the desired benefits, and what are the risks?
What harm could prayer do? We doctors get concerned when patients forgo conventional therapy that has proven benefit for therapies like prayer or shark cartilage that do not have proven value. Consider using mind-body therapies such as prayer together with proven medical treatment. Now, shark cartilage is another matter - and simply not proven at all.
Gratitude and giving
Some interesting, if preliminary, studies suggest that the expression of gratitude and the act of giving increase brain serotonin levels, the same chemical change antidepressant medication helps. That might support your own experience of feeling better as you reach out to the tsunami victims or express gratitude for the health and safety of those you love and the extraordinary richness of your life.
You have the power to carry out your New Yearís resolutions, whether itís achieving greater physical, financial or spiritual health. Who knows-maybe one day with greater understanding of the mind-body connection, you doctor may prescribe the power of your mind to help you get there.