Is mind-body medicine the future?


Cancer is one of the most feared words of the English language. When we think of the word we are sometimes unaware of what causes it and only concerned with ways to deal with it. Immediately.

Chronic disease can be seen as a breakdown of the body’s capacity to heal itself. The power of the mind in influencing the body can cure a great proportion of illness and disease. Biomedical science demonstrates that long-term stress, either physical or mental, can cause this collapse.

Timothy Birdsall, vice president of Integrative Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America believes human emotion is difficult to overcome.

“There are enormous amount of reactions and emotions associated with having cancer, and many people are uncomfortable dealing with those emotions.”

Mr. Birdsall acknowledges a growing body of research has shown our mind has powerful effects on our body. He said it is imperative to find an appropriate way to, “access those emotions, release them, and reap the positive benefits on the immune system.”

In a study of 60 breast cancer survivors, women who used hypnosis reduced the number and severity of hot flashes and also reported improvements in mood and sleep.

Mind-body specialists are quick to point out that complimentary medicine does not guarantee a cure, but it can affect what happens in your body.

A waste of money, a lack of evidence to prove it works, and long-winded and drawn-out potential benefits are words to describe the labels surrounding this path of medicine.

Therefore, what specifically is mind-body medicine, and where did this all begin?

The term ‘mind-body medicine’ is defined according to the U.S. National center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine as a focus on the interactions among the brain, mind, body, and behavior, and on the powerful ways in which emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and behavioral factors can directly affect health.

To put it simply, it encompasses the power of the mind in influencing the body and illness. Examples include: acupuncture, massage therapy, mediation, relaxation techniques, hypnotherapy, Chinese medicine and yoga.

The concept that the mind is imperative in health and illness dates back to ancient times. Eastern culture has a long history of analysing how specific emotions effect specific areas of the body.

More than 2400 years ago, Plato said, “the greatest mistake in the treatment of disease is that there are physicians for the body and physicians for the soul, although the two cannot be separated.” This is as applicable now, as it was then.

Medicine is slowly evolving. In the West, the notion that mind and body were separate began during the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras. There was a huge divide between the mind and the body being separate.

The past fifty years have sparked a lot of discussion over natural therapies in Western culture. Controversies include prevailing evidence for the efficacy of traditional medicinal systems. Efficacy and validity of traditional medicines should be evaluated with preliminary foundational and clinical studies.
While phrases such as ‘mind over matter’ have been around for years, only recently have scientists found solid evidence that mind-body techniques actually do fight disease and promote health. The key to this wisdom is scientific evidence, based on what has been proved to work.

Maryanne Dodds is a Holistic and Registered Psychologist with a great depth of knowledge into the topic. “We should demand proof, and no matter what therapy we choose”, affirming the notion of evidence-based research into medical fields.

In 1989, a clinical study by David Spiegel, M.D. at Stanford University School of Medicine demonstrated the power of the mind to heal.

Of 86 women with late stage breast cancer, half received standard medical care while the other half received standard care plus weekly support sessions. In these sessions, the women were able to share both their grief and their triumphs.

Spiegel discovered that the women who participated in the support group lived twice as long as the women who did not.

Other clinical studies also show how meditation affects mood and symptoms in people with varying conditions such as high blood pressure and irritable bowel syndrome amongst others. It also improves quality of life.

People with fibromyalgia have benefited from practicing tai chi, according to a study on sixty-six people. Study participants who practiced tai chi had a significantly greater decrease in total score on the Fibromyalgia Impact questionnaire. In addition, the tai chi group demonstrated greater improvement in sleep quality, mood, and quality of life.

According to the World Health Organisation, if the major risk factors for chronic disease like poor diet, inactivity and tobacco use could be eliminated, at least 80% of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 Diabetes would be prevented. Thus, evidence based research is critical in reaping the benefits of mind-body medicine.

Since mind-body medicine had been prevalent in the East since day one, why has it only surfaced in Western Culture for the last fifty years?

Mrs. Dodds said a lack of funding in the area has propagated this, “We have very large drug companies and there’s a monopoly therefore on medicine staying the domain of physical medicine and then mind being a separate program entirely.”

According to IMS Health reports, the global pharmaceutical market is expected to reach $1.1 trillion this year. This size of the market is expected to grow nearly $300 billion over the next five years.

In addition, the World Health Organisation has found that three-quarters of the world population relies upon traditional remedies for their health care. Herbal medicines do not carry the same sort of profits that strong laboratory based chemicals hold.

What are the benefits of mind-body medicine?

Dr. Larry Dossey is an internationally influential physician and advocate of the role of the mind in health, and the role of spirituality in healthcare. He said the most significant benefit is the sole focus on each individual.

“It often helps patients understand the root causes of the problem, and how stress results in the specific problems that are troubling them.”

Mrs. Dodds said, “We can now work more on the mind, people can be more conscious of things like positive attitude.”

Registered Naturopath Dana Cohen affirms this, “The benefits of Mind-body medicine treats the whole person, and looking at disease as part of a process rather than one thing.”

There has been a great deal of recent research into mind-body medicine and if genetic disposition is exempt from such practices. Mrs. Dodds said evidence is evolving into this field, specifically into gene pools.

“There are ways that people can now switch genes on and off, so what we once thought of as a genetic pre-disposition, now if people are aware of those things they can actually start programming their mind a little big differently.”

For example, she explained a genetic illness of arthritis could be alleviated with the right mind-body techniques. “They can become aware that if they have a more flexible attitude, they do exercise, they start then being conscious of working in a different way with their mind… and with their body”.

A five-year study lead by a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, John Denninger is testing just this. The study looks at how the ancient practices of yoga affect genes and brain activity in the chronically stressed. His latest work follows a study published earlier this year showing how mind-body medicine can switch one and off some genes linked to stress and immune function.

“The kinds of things that happen when you meditate do have effects throughout the body, not just in the brain,” said Mr. Denninger.

The current study will conclude in 2015 with about $3.3 million in funding from the National Institutes on Health, tracking two-hundred and ten healthy people with high levels of reported chronic stress for six months.

Harvard isn’t the only place where scientists have started examining the biology behind yoga. In a study published last year, scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles and Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn found that 12 minutes of daily yoga meditation for eight weeks increased telomerase activity by 45 percent, suggesting an improvement in stress-induced aging.

Mind-body medicine can be more effective than conventional drugs and surgery- dependent on the issue. It is usually freer of side effects and much less expensive than conventional procedures also.

As complementary medicine can be combined or integrated with conventional medical treatment, it is also called ‘integrative medicine’. Mind-body medicine is generally very safe and works well when combined with usual medical care. However, complementary therapies usually do not undergo the same kind of invasive and rigorous testing as conventional medicine.

Alarming surveys reveal that 75 per cent of patients in Australia who visit physicians have nothing physically wrong with them; they are suffering from stress-related issues such as anxiety and psychosomatic problems.

Consequently, is conventional medicine a negative path to healing?

Mrs. Cohen believes that “complimentary medicine is different to conventional as it targets the person not the disease, treats the causes of the disease not the symptoms.”

Mr. Dossey also had strong opposing views on conventional medicine and said “it has little to offer, concerned with masking the problem. Mind-body techniques have a great deal to offer for these complaints, and a lot more illnesses in addition.”

For instance, in the U.S. each year, around 200, 000 people die in hospitals because of medical or surgical mistakes and the side effects of medications.

However, Mr. Dossey added that the illness in question is very significant, and should guide individuals in choosing which direction people should move in.

“The worst thing is to pick sides and paint ourselves in a corner, opting for only one approach or the other. Whether a conventional therapy works or not depends on so many factors- the correctness of the diagnosis, the skill of the physician, the inherent toxicity of the therapy and so on. The proper treatment for appendicitis is appendectomy, not mind-body medicine.”

Kim Rabbits is a manager of a horse-adjustment farm who suffered from a tore shoulder. He first went to his general practitioner and had an ultrasound and an x- ray that revealed his rotator cuff muscle in his shoulder had a 10mm tear.

Due to the severity of this, his GP recommended he go see an orthopedic surgeon. Kim wanted to try to heal it alternatively, through a month’s course of acupuncture and physiotherapy.

The acupuncture relieved the pain for a while, and the physiotherapy strengthened the muscle around the injury. He combined this complimentary medicine with strong quarter zone to prevent the pain.

Mr. Rabbits realised his shoulder was not healing efficiently, and returned to his GP to get a referral to the orthopedic surgeon. Although he tried to heal the injury himself, a more invasive option was needed.

“I guess I was in denial about coming to terms with undergoing surgery, as the tear in my shoulder needed surgical assistance,” said Mr. Rabbits.

Although complimentary medicine relieved the pain in the short term, more needed to be done to fix the injury. Therefore, conventional medicine plays a substantial role in specific procedures that requires immediate assistance.

“Conventional approaches are superb for all kinds of trauma, and resecting cancers, curing cataracts and so on. Urgency is key here,” said Mr. Dossey.

Mrs. Cohen deems that ideally we want the best of both worlds, saying it is crucial to look at where medicine works.

“Conventional medicine works extremely well in accident, emergency, and the treating of certain infections. It has not served so well in terms of treating chronic-disease states.”

Mrs. Dodds added, “Mind-body medicine can be superior for stress related problems- far superior to the over-use of tranquilisers, which seldom do anything to correct the underlying problem causing the symptoms.”

There is considerable evidence that mind-body interventions, even as they are being studied today, have had positive effects on psychological functioning and quality of life- particularly helpful for patients coping with chronic illness and in need of palliative care.

After analysing this, is mind-body medicine the future of medicine?

We are at a very big crossroads and change in society right now, where individuals understand more about how powerful the human mind is through an increase in global research. Although the power of the mind has been known for centuries in the East, it has only gained prominence in Western society for the past fifty years.

“If we are more aware of the mind-body as a joint concept, we see that whatever we are actually thinking has an impact on our body,” Mrs. Dodds said.

Thus, we are shaping, changing and affecting our body all the time. The more we realise this, the more implications it has for health, and for being able to program people in positive ways.

“We are finally realising that the body is in the mind,” Mrs. Cohen said.

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