The MindBody Connection and Healing
by Farzana Rahman
This article talks about the mindbody connection, health and healing.
Nearly every medical specialty has a disease or group of symptoms that can’t be neatly categorized into a box. This is frustrating for all involved. As doctors we love boxes, it makes everything much easier to understand.
So when it comes to symptoms such as headaches, dizziness or bowels behaving weirdly, doctors will normally order a few tests.
The purpose of said tests is to exclude A Very Serious Disease. If these tests come back normal (as they do for most people) then we’re faced with a quandary. The symptoms are still there but we don’t know why. And if we don’t know what’s causing the symptoms, then we’re somewhat stuck in trying to treat them.
Could Mind-Body Medicine Have the Answers?
That’s where mind-body medicine comes in. Research in this area is fascinating – we’re just starting to scratch the surface in understanding how the mind and body are linked.
Listening to a lecture by Dr John Denninger MD was enlightening. He is the head of research at the Benson-Henry Mind Body Institute at Massachusetts General hospital. He put forward the idea that maybe doctors need to take lifestyle and alternative medicine interventions such as meditation, tai-chi or acupuncture more seriously when it comes to treating disease.
Just Take This Pill
He gave the example of nitroprusside, a drug which was used in the early part of the last century for its ‘health improvement’ effects. Back then, doctors would just dish out this miracle drug not understanding how it worked. Cut to 100 years later and we now know that nitroprusside is a blood pressure lowering agent and that explains its benefits.
The point of this example is not to advocate the willy nilly dishing out of drugs. But it’s the principle of keeping an open mind. Even though we don’t know the physiological mechanisms of certain lifestyle interventions, this doesn’t mean they aren’t effective.
The Placebo Effect
It’s normally at this point that we talk about the placebo effect. A placebo is anything that seems to be a ‘real’ medical treatment but isn’t.
In a clinical trial, placebos are normally pills that are designed to look just like medication except they don’t contain any actual pharmaceutical agents.
The placebo effect refers to the fact that some people experience benefits similar to a real drug when they take a placebo, even though the placebo doesn’t contain anything of significance. Placebos have had positive effects on conditions ranging from depression to sleep disorders in a number of trials. The actual mechanisms behind the placebo effect are still not fully understood, although the mind-body connection and the positive power of belief on healing undoubtedly come into play.
Is MindBody Another name for the Placebo Effect ?
This is the main question that comes up when we talk about mind-body interventions. Do they have an actual physiological effect or is it just the same as taking a sugar pill? Are patients just thinking themselves better ?
The debates are endless and in all honestly, we don’t know all the answers to these questions.
However, what is interesting is that there are experiments that have removed any potential for the placebo effect. And the experiments have still shown real physiological links of stress on healing.
Stressed Out Mice
Rodents are often used in lab experiments as their genetic make-up overlaps that of humans (99% of genes in rodents are shared with humans). Researchers have looked at animal models to better investigate the mind-body connection as it removes the potential for the placebo effect.
In a fascinating study by Vitalo et al, rats were used to investigate the effect of stress on healing.
Rats, by their very nature, are social butterflies. They enjoy hanging out with their rat buddies and having large rat families. So when they are isolated, they get very stressed. Super stressed in fact.
The researchers investigated how isolated rats (the super stressed ones) compared with their social colleagues when it came to healing. Both groups of rats were given burns under anesthesia. The team then looked at how these burns healed in the two groups of rats. The stressed out isolation‐reared rats, healed much more slowly than their social counterparts.
The researchers then added an interesting facet to their experiment. They introduced a stress-reduction intervention for the rats. As they were rats, they decided against a rat yoga class. Instead they added nestlets. Nestlets are cotton fibre cloths that the rats could tear up and use to build nests. This act of nest-building was a stress reduction activity, rat yoga if you will.
They found that simply giving the rats their equivalent of a yoga class, normalized healing. Not only that, when they sacrificed the rats and looked at their brains, they found a positive change in the expression of the genes that regulated stress.
We’re just scratching the surface when it comes to the power of the mind over the body but we’re going to be analyzing further studies in future articles. Subscribe to keep upto date !
Vitalo, A., J. Fricchione, et al. (2009). "Nest making and oxytocin comparably promote wound healing in isolation reared rats." PLoS One 4(5): e5523.