A Matter of Mind and Body

by Professor Avni Sali
Spring 2015, Living Magazine

The way the mind influences the body is perhaps one of the most important areas of medicine. Known as Mind-body medicine, there is now a significant amount of scientific evidence to help us understand the way we are able to influence our physical health by how we feel and what we do. Mind-body medicine is about the interactions of the brain, mind, body, and behaviour, and on the ways in which emotional, social, spiritual, and behavioural factors can directly affect our health.

Ancient medical practice has traditionally integrated the mind and emotions with the physical body, though in Western medicine the two tend to be more distinct. Modern science is beginning to piece together physiological and biochemical observations that might have been previously discarded. A case in point is the fact that heart attacks have been shown to occur around 9am on Monday morning with greater frequency than at any other time. To understand the causal links it is necessary to understand the mind and its effects on the body. Much interest here centres on the human stress response.

Stress and depression are known to influence the body’s immune system, and sensitive people are more likely to pick up external factors and stressors, storing them internally and adversely affecting immunity. We can help ourselves, and others, to deal with stress in various ways.

The understanding of Mind-body medicine has shown that it is profoundly useful to have someone to talk to about problems. In other words, to ‘unload’ the storage in our mind that is detrimental to health.

The way an individual feels will influence the functioning of the body to varying degrees. During relatively stress-free times, when a person feels good, the body works well. On the other hand, when a person doesn’t feel good, the body does not work well.

The field of study covering immunity is called psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), whereas the field that investigates how the mind influences hormones is called psychoneuroendocrinology (PNE). Where PNE is the study of the mind’s effect on hormones, PNI investigates how our emotions have a profound effect via the nervous system on the way the immune system functions.

We know that stress can influence immunity in various ways. It can depress the part of the immune system that protects us from infection and serious diseases including cancer. The hormones that increase with stress are numerous, the more important ones being cortisol, growth hormone and prolactin.

Cortisol and growth hormone provide resistance against insulin, and hence the body has to produce more of it to compensate for the resistance. A high level of insulin can have a negative effect on the body. High insulin can increase the chance of cancer as it is a growth stimulant. Insulin can also increase the chances of heart disease and can influence blood pressure and lipids (the cholesterols).  High levels of insulin can also be a factor in late onset type 2 diabetes.

We now understand that if a person is feeling good, their immunity is likely to be functioning normally, and the hormone levels of their body are likely to be normal. However, a person experiencing high levels of stress will often display abnormalities in both these areas, which can then increase the chance of illness and disease.

In modern life, stress is a universal experience that is on the rise. In recent years, considerable research has gone into measuring its effects.  Stress is increasingly recognised as a contributing factor or direct cause of many illnesses.  In some instances, stress is a natural and appropriate response to an exceptional situation. The ‘fight or flight’ response is encoded into our physiology to preserve life by allowing the body to respond to dangerous situations.

Inappropriate levels of stress can lead to an unfocused mind, irrational thoughts, the projection of fears into the future and habitually recreating past anxieties. The mind’s complex perception, interpretation, imagination and conditioning, plays a key role in the stress responses that we habitually experience.

Meditation and other relaxation techniques are profoundly important for their ability to influence the effect of stress on the body. Some insurance companies in the US and Europe offer substantial reductions in life insurance premiums for people who regularly practice an approved form of meditation – the health benefits of which are recognised and supported by scientific evidence.

As well as the numerous positive benefits associated with wellbeing, feeling relaxed and engaging in life, meditation has been shown to positively influence cancer, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other common conditions. This comes from a combination of factors including the direct physiological benefits derived from a clear and balanced state of mind, and the improvement in lifestyle that results from more conscious and autonomous behaviour.

Addressing the issues of stress through meditation and other relaxation methods will enhance our physical bodies by helping to normalise physiological functions.  It will aid our mental and emotional states by reducing stress and improving mood, and enables us to be more spiritually connected to our inner selves.

Mind-body medicine is an essential part of integrative medicine that allows a better understanding of why disease occurs and how it can be influenced.

“The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well.”  Hippocrates

Prof. Avni Sali
(MBBS, PhD, FRACS, FACS, FACNEM)

Professor Avni Sali is often referred to as the father of Integrative Medicine in Australia. In 1996 he was the Founding Head of the Graduate School of Integrative Medicine at the Swinburne University in Melbourne. In 2009 he established the not-for-profit, charitable National Institute of Integrative Medicine (NIIM), and became its founding Director. His lifelong work has been the tireless promotion of bringing evidence-based Integrative Medicine into the mainstream medical model – to become the medical paradigm of healthcare.  Professor Avni Sali is a long standing board member of The Gawler Cancer Foundation.