Updated: Feb 10, 2019
We have learned a lot about how our body works in the last few years. As it turns out, one of the great pillars of health is how we perceive the world around us. It is our experience of the world and how we process that internally that turns on and off hormones and genetic expression and digestive health and inflammation and immune health and probably a lot more that we are just beginning to understand.
Further, we now know, these psychological influences to our genetic expression are passed down to the next generation, causing us to start off in life at a potential disadvantage, and this is cumulative throughout the generations, but it is reversible. It is interesting to note that an event that could be very threatening and stressing to one person, could be very motivating and joyful to another. So it is not the actual event but our experience of that event that harms us or helps us.
Many recognize the importance of triggers in Cancer, and one of the big ones is emotional trauma. Kelly Turner, PHd, Harvard Researcher in her book, " Radical Remission: The Nine Key Factors That Can Make A Real Difference, describes many of the psychological factors that made a difference in people's recovery from cancer. In fact 5 of the nine have to do with these types of influences. These 5 are: Releasing suppressed emotions. Increasing positive emotions. Embracing social support. Deepening your spiritual connection. Having strong reasons for living.
How could these five have such a dramatic influence over something as difficult as Cancer? And could we be living much healthier lives and longer lives if we just learned how to manage this facet of our existence?
In Bruce Lipton's The Biology of Belief, he proves conclusively in his lab experiments that blood vessel cells changed their structure and function based on inflammatory chemicals in their environment. This was even after their DNA had been removed proving that genes are not the brain of the cell. But that is another story. He details how our beliefs influence biochemical reactions at the cellular level, basically that our beliefs influence the signalling compounds in the cellular environment and those in turn influence the cell. He also talks about the placebo and nocebo (the power of negative thinking) effect, and that although we don't understand all the mechanisms, it is very real. In one experiment, the Baylor School of Medicine published in 2002 in the New England Journal of Medicine, where a surgeon was trying to figure out which part of knee pain surgery was giving his patients relief. The patients were divided into three groups. Moseley, the surgeon, shaved the damaged cartilage in the knee of one group. For another group, he flushed out the knee joint. The third group got fake surgery with standard incisions and then were told they had standard treatments. They were all given the same post operative treatment which included exercise. The results were shocking. The placebo group did just as well as the actual surgeries.
So let's look at some of the mechanisms of those interactions, the pathways by which the brain influences body function...and if that is true, anything that influences the brain, like your thoughts (your mind) or your spirituality or an imbalance in the biochemistry of your brain (caused by your mind or spirituality) can therefore influence your health. Of course, toxins, diet and lifestyle influence brain function as well but this article is about the emotional influencing factors.
1. The Autonomic Nervous System.
Divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic, our Autonomic nervous system puts you into either a Fight or Flight, or a Rest and Digest mode. You were designed to be able to fight or escape danger. In those conditions, hormones are released under direction of your brain to: increase blood circulation, increase respiration, increase blood sugar, increase attention and focus, decrease digestion, decrease gut function. All body systems are mobilized to get you what you need to get out of danger, where you are using and tearing down your body systems to escape. But this is supposed to be a temporary situation until you can return to safety. The modern world can cause stress that keeps your body reacting the same as if you were being charged by a mountain lion. Being in a constant stressful situation, or chronic stress, causes all sorts of tissue destruction, inflammation and disease. You were designed to reside primarily in parasympathetic mode so you can rest, digest and rebuild. Trouble occurs when stress puts you in tear down mode more than you can rebuild yourself, thus tilting the balance to tissue destruction. Measurement of parasympathetic or healing mode can be obtained by measuring what Herb Benson in 1976 called the "Relaxation Response:" decrease in respiration, decrease in heart rate, decrease in blood pressure, decrease in blood to the muscles, decrease in cortisol, blood sugar and other hormones. We have also learned that Heart Rate Variability (which can be measured with available aps on the internet) is an indicator. The more varied your heart beats (time between beats), the more relaxed you are. It is as if your body needs a constant and consistent beat to get you through emergencies.
Stress is a highly orchestrated response to a perceived threat or challenge that includes biological, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional elements. A stressor is the real or imagined thing that sets off this whole process. Humans are unique in that we can make ourselves incredibly stressed about something that never happened and may never happen.
There are two complimentary biological pathways that mediate the stress response: the sympathetic nervous system half and the HPA Axis half. The sympathetic system activates, through perceived threats, causing the adrenal glands to release epinephrine and norepinephrine and the HPA Axis follows with other hormones, primarily cortisol, leading to the overall stress response.
Disease related to over arousal of the stress response are primarily cardiovascular, causing heart attacks and death. Others clearly related are diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, fatigue due to an HPA Axis failure or imbalance (cortisol issues), poor blood lipids, depression, anxiety and PTSD or post traumatic stress syndrome and nutritional deficiencies. And as mentioned above, emotions can be a trigger for Cancer.
2. The HPA Axis.
This is the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal communication through various hormones starting in the brain and ending in the Adrenals secreting the stress hormone, cortisol. It is much slower to turn on than the fight or flight hormones and much harder to turn off. Cortisol is necessary for our daily energy, but just in the right amounts, too much or too little can be a nightmare for the effected individual. It is supposed to slowly rise during the day giving us the needed energy to get out of bed and tackle our daily lives, then trail off in the afternoon, allowing us to rest, digest and rebuild, and to go to sleep, where much of our healing occurs. Constant stress or stimulation of your HPA Axis can get you into real trouble, if your cortisol levels are not where they should be, causing almost unbearable fatigue, sleepless nights (causing havoc in your body) and very difficult to recover from. You need to work with a professional to diagnose this issue and get the right treatments for recovery. It is not always in the adrenals, it could be in your brain!
3. The Immune System.
This system is extremely complicated and must work well in order to have the right balance for attacking infections, creating and shutting off inflammation and wound healing. There are direct controls from the brain to the immune system, one is the HPA Axis. Immune cells can be stimulated or suppressed by cortisol. Cortisol also influences immune cell numbers and cell function. But also the half of the Sympathetic system, the fight or flight system, effects immune cells. Plus nerves from the autonomic nervous system directly connect to immune organs like your thymus, spleen and lymh nodes. There is a newer field now called Psychoneuroimmunology, all about these influences. It is fascinating. You can understand now how our brains can exert control over one of the most important systems in our body, charged to keep us free from serious infection and healing our injuries. So, can stress cause a lowered resistance to infection? Absolutely. Perhaps that is one of the the mechanisms of the tie to cancer, a lowered immune system, allowing the cancer to take hold and thrive.
There are a whole series of compounds that attach to your genes and either suppress or hide their expression or allow them to be read and therefore perform function in the body. This is called Epigenetics and we are just at the tip of the iceberg in learning about this new field and how it affects who we are and how we function. We now know that there is a bi-directional communication going on where our epigenetics influence our behavior and our behavior influences our epigenetics.
Currently, studies have shown that our genes can be modified by epigenetic factors such as; diet, life experiences, beliefs, perceptions, chemicals, meditation, mindfulness, and cognitive therapy. In other words, environmental signals that don’t affect DNA sequence but do effect how those genes are expressed. A simple example is the placebo effect, where our beliefs affect our biology. This is very real. We need to leverage this tremendous healing power of the mind, not just make fun of it or use it in drug testing.
Even when you’ve inherited genes from your biological parents, they might or might not be active in your own makeup. So your thoughts are influencing not your genetic make-up, but how and if those genes are used in the body. The potential impacts to our health and our children are astounding, because we pass those markers on to our children as mentioned above.
5. Memory and Learning.
The biological pathways we have discussed - the sympathetic nervous system, the HPA axis , stress, all influence our capacity for memory and learning. The best state for learning is a non-stressful state.
6. The Gut-Brian connection.
We are hard wired between the gut and the brain through a nerve called the vagus nerve. If we have an inflamed gut, there is a good chance we have an inflamed brain. So your stress you are feeling, or anxiousness or depression could be a result of a problem in your gut and visa versa. Good brain function is vital for good gut function. So you can get in this do loop that is hard to get out of. Some studies have shown that certain microbial strains especially benefit the brain. And as you might know, most of your immune system starts in the gut as do some of your neurotransmitters, like serotonin. There is this intricate dance between our gut microbes, our immune system and our brain that is changing all the time, depending what we eat. We know now that what we eat can change our bacterial species almost every meal. So if you are chronically constipated or have other gut issues, start thinking about how your brain is functioning. Is your thinking foggy? Is your memory clear? Do you feel positive? Do you have mood swings? These could all be a result of gut function. Or your intense emotional state could be causing poor digestion, leading to gut imbalances. The gut is the window to your health. If that is not working right, then it is hard to treat other body conditions as well. And if you are having emotional issues, guess what is going to be effected? That's right, your digestive system, also meaning that you will not get all the nutrients out of your food that you should be getting. You are not only what you eat, but what you absorb. So being in a good mental state is very important while eating and digesting, to ensure the best digestion and absorption of food.
Now here is some new information we are just coming to terms with. Genetic information from plants in the form of RNA makes its way out of plant cells and into the genes of bacteria in our gut. This changes their production of chemicals that come into our blood stream and effect us. So there is this constant influence at the genetic level to our health making us intimately tied to nature in ways we never understood before.
7. Spirituality and Health.
For many people, religion or spirituality forms the basis of meaning and purpose in their life. In the past decade and a half, we've seen a great resurgence in the scientific understanding of what spirituality is and how it influences our health. In general, we've found lower overall mortality and longer life expectancy for religious or spiritual people. An element of this could be social support and the practice of eating well in many spiritual communities. Religion may foster a sense of meaning, solidarity and identity, all lowering the stress response and getting us into the healing response. Prayer is a form of meditation, an escape from the daily troubles of a modern existence, thus relaxing and calming the autonomic nervous system. Turning your troubles over to God, forgiveness and gratitude relieve the burdens we tend to take on our selves, either real or imagined. Remember, we humans are unique in that we can experience stress due to things that have never happened, re-live stressful events in the past, or simply from what we imagine could happen. Some common attitudes across different religions that might be worth studying include acceptance, forgiveness, compassion , kindness, empathy and altruism, which could all help us cope with life and keep us feeling positive, producing a class of compounds called endorphins which help stimulate good feelings and emotions, and stimulate the healing or placebo effect. Forgiveness is more about benefiting you, freeing you from being held emotionally hostage to another person's act. This act may set up or create a constant source of negativity in your system, not good.
Still not convinced? What do you think a lie detector is all about?
They hook about 5 sensors up to your body, nothing internal, all external. Even with nothing connected inside your body, even the slighest thought while you are sitting perfectly still can cause a biochemical change that can be detected by these sensors. When you tell a lie, it causes a little bit of stress, moving you into sympathetic state, causing this slight alteration in your body. So just imagine, if this minute thought while answering a simple question, can cause a detectable change, imagine what these changes are doing to your bio chemistry over protracted periods!!
So, what do we do about it?
Any number of things can help get you into relaxed parasympathetic state, including music, massage, meditation, fun, friends, dancing, drumming, prayer, deep breathing, EFT, change of pace, vacations, yoga, tai chi, a walk in the woods, intense exercise (don't overdo it!). The opposite of stress is feelings of love and joy and community and purpose. Strive for those feelings to obtain the right balance in your life. We are realizing now more than ever how important it is to take that mental escape or break, take time for yourself, even if it is a one minute zone out, to get you into a rebuild state, break the chains of stress, and provide that oxygen line (like you were in an aircraft), so that you can take care of yourself first and therefore be there for others in the many years ahead.
Here are some other ideas:
- Spend time with people that have a positive energy, not negative
- Surround yourself with fun and engaged people
- Listen to positive messages, turn off negative media
- Open your hearts to the light of joy and positive feelings
- Take on something new, no matter how old you are, something you may have always wanted to do
- Ban negative thoughts from your thinking, put the best positive spin on each situation
- Realize that a bad period in your life is normal and in time it will pass
- Get passionate about something
- Get instruction on anger and stress management
- Pick up a book by Joel Osteen, "Next Level Thinking"
I hope this information was useful and that you incorporate stress relief protocols in your daily life, especially if you have had unresolved emotional trauma in your life. Get some help if you need to in order to get that trauma out of your body and allow you to feel great again.
Yours in health...