The Mind as Healer of the Body
Exploring the mental impact on physical health
by Francis G. Thompson
Karanth was a citizen of Shankargarh, a small seaside village on the eastern coast of India. He lived in 800 B.C. He was a sad man. After the death of his wife, all his sons and daughters forsook him because of his miserly habits. Morose with the happenings around him, he grew sadder day by day, until he fell seriously ill and passed away.
Told and retold through the centuries (no doubt in more entertaining terms) by village storytellers in India, this tale of Karanth’s sad mental state, which caused his fatal illness, is illustrative of India’s time-honored wisdom and practical knowledge about the power of the mind on illness and disease as well as health and healing.
A New Paradigm for Western Medicine
Despite more than 50 years of revolutionary research in medicine and molecular biology by Western-based science, our knowledge about the human brain and its functioning has remained elemental. Little or nothing of what we traditionally call “mind” has been thoroughly understood. In particular, the idea that the mind and the body have a medically significant relationship – where the state of the mind controls the wellbeing of the body – is relatively new to Western medicine. However, this concept has been an integral part of Ayurveda, traditional Indian medical science, for ages.
Ancient texts, including the Vedas, Upanishads and other scriptures considered to be the foundations of Indian philosophy, propounded this principle. Practicing physicians and surgeons of ancient India, such as Charaka and Sushruta, emphasized the importance of the right mental state for healing, holding that the state of one’s mind governs the entire existence of the human being, including one’s physical health.
Modern medicine traces the origin of certain diseases – called psychosomatic illnesses – to mental states such as fear, anger and anxiety. But until recently deeper mind-body links, where variance of mental states directly affects body functioning on a day-to-day basis, were not seriously considered by human biologists. Over the past few decades there have been several scientific explorations that support the contention that mental states like happiness and sadness have a direct consequence on the body’s ability to fight diseases. The actual physical and biochemical changes occurring in the brain and the body – the elusive hidden links that intricately connect the mind and the body – have been deciphered to a certain extent. This has led to a new paradigm of thinking.
The Role State of Mind Plays in Immunity
For instance, if a person with a “common cold” today presents him or herself before a doctor within weeks of a personal tragedy, such as the loss of a loved one, the doctor is unlikely to dismiss these two events in the patient’s life as disconnected and merely coincidental.
The human body is bombarded daily by a wide variety of bacteria and viruses. To fight this ever-present menace, as well as non-infective diseases such as cancer, our bodies have a highly specialized immune system. It consists of an army of blood cells that have varying capacities for neutralizing invading microorganisms – either by devouring them or by releasing chemicals that deactivate them.
Some are highly specialized cells such as T (Thymus-derived) cells and NK (Natural Killer) cells that directly kill both cancer- and virus-infected cells in the body. Anything that depresses the function of these blood cells can make one vulnerable to infections – like the common cold or other viral infections of the respiratory tract.
Losing a loved one is among the most intense of emotional losses anyone can face. A landmark study conducted in 1975, R.W. Bartrop, M.D., and his colleagues at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, studied the effects of bereavement by following the lives of surviving spouses and charting changes in immune function during mourning. Immune and hormonal measures were taken. The conclusion: At eight weeks, T-cell functions were significantly lower in the bereaved spouses than in age- and sex-matched controls.
In other studies, even day-to-day stresses like losing a job have been found to decrease T-cell activity and render one vulnerable to a wide range of diseases and infections.
Happiness and Inner Peace Increase Immunity
While a depressed mind decreases immunity, a happy mood has now been proved to enhance the body’s capacity to ward off disease. Sandra Levy, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cancer Institute, monitored 36 women afflicted with highly advanced breast cancer. Her study of those that survived the longest showed that one of the two most influential factors was a high level of happiness and joy (measured by scores on a standard questionnaire).
The study also showed that the prognosis in breast cancer patients depends on the activity of the NK cells (which directly devour cancer cells); and also that stress causes release of certain chemicals in the body that decrease the activity of the NK cells – thus augmenting the cancer. It is therefore not surprising that research on various relaxation techniques that promote inner peace, including meditation, suggest that they can measurably assist the mind in enhancing immunity against cancer.
(Steven Locke, M.D., director of the Psychoimmunology Research Project at Harvard Medical School, described more than 200 studies on the treatment of cancer by “mind-body” methods in his book Psychological and Behavioral Treatments for Disorders Associated with the Immune System published by the Institute for the Advancement of Health, 1986.)
The connection between happiness and health became clearer when scientists discovered that serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with elevated mood and a sense of wellbeing, also activates the immune system – particularly the NK cells. Further research has identified hundreds of different biomolecules that work as chemical messengers running from the brain to the immune system cells and vice versa – proof of a well organized and highly efficient communication system that mediates the action of thoughts, feelings and moods on bodily health.
Met-enkephalin is another chemical, which, when released in the human brain (by the amygdala), produces euphoric moods. It has been discovered that this chemical, apart from being released in the brain, is also released into the bloodstream. Investigators were initially baffled by the mystery of nature indulging in this seemingly wasteful production of excess chemicals that got washed into the bloodstream, apparently serving no useful purpose. Later it was discovered that met-enkephalin also stimulates our immune system upon entering the bloodstream, by activating T-lymphocytes.
Combined with other studies that document how our moods and emotions trigger the release of neurochemicals such as met-enkephalin, this demonstrated a specific mechanism whereby a happy mood increases one’s capacity to ward off disease.
How Environmental Factors Affect Moods and Immunity
Until very recently, doctors might have scoffed at the suggestion that waking up to see a cloudy and overcast sky through windows could depress immune function in a patient. But the intimate connections between environment, mind and body were established concepts in ancient Indian medicine. Ayurveda gives immense importance to the environment and what the five senses perceive, believing that this can have an effect on the human mind, which is invariably translated to the body. In 2002, the Lancet medical journal reported that exposure to bright light immediately increased brain serotonin, while dark and cloudy days depleted serotonin levels. That sunny hospital rooms expedite recovery in severely depressed patients is an objective proof of this age-old concept.
Mind: The Ultimate Power Source
Eastern philosophies, which are the fountainhead of knowledge on meditation, have always considered the mind an immensely powerful force to keep the body healthy and also destroy physical diseases. They unabashedly declare that man is made by his belief; as he believes, so he is. Today, modern science is beginning to pay attention – as evidenced by the use in advanced medical clinics of visualization, meditation, relaxation techniques and other ways of activating the power of the mind. Promising results with a variety of diseases, for example cancer and asthma, have been documented.
The new science, called psychoneuroimmunology, which endeavors to study the interactions of mind, brain and body is still in a formative stage. However, given the fast pace of research, the day isn’t far off when healing by mental power will be accepted as a scientific proposition and not a metaphysical experiment as it is now. Research proceeds apace in many biological labs around the world to further delineate the intricacies and harness the power of the human mind – the most mysterious object in the universe.
About the author: Dr. I. Basu Ray is a physician with extensive medical training in India, Canada and the United States. He has been a full-time research faculty member of Harvard Medical School and presently holds academic appointments from Tulane University and University of Queensland, and a clinical appointment at Ochsner Clinic Foundation. He travels worldwide lecturing on the role of meditation in modern medicine. You can visit his website at IBasuRay.com.