Can your brain learn to respond to a placebo?

DNA with light shining behind itImagine how much money the NHS or medical insurance companies would save if we could swap some of our drugs for placebos after a few days of taking them?

As far as some exciting new research is concerned, it certainly seems to be a possibility.

A placebo is an empty pill; that much most people know. But just like someone can learn to play tennis or hit a golf ball and get better over time, a new study has found that the brain can learn to respond to a placebo and can get better at it over time too.

The research involved 42 patients with Parkinson’s disease, who had had the disease for between 11 and 24 years. It was led by Fabrizio Benedetti, professor of physiology and neuroscience at the University of Turin Medical School. It was published in the Journal of Neurophysiology.

Any improvements in the patients were assessed by a) measuring muscle rigidity at the wrist and b) measuring the activity of individual neurons in the thalamus of the brain.

The patients were initially given a placebo and the scientists measured their responses. After one placebo, there was no clinical improvement and no changes in individual neurons.

Next, a patient was given an injection of the anti-Parkinson’s drug, apomorphine. The following day they were due to receive their second injection of apomorphine but it was secretly swapped for a placebo injection. Even though they received a placebo, there was a measureable clinical improvement and an increase in activity of neurons on receiving the placebo.

That wasn’t the half of it though. If they received two doses of apomorphine before the placebo, the clinical improvement and neuronal activation was ever greater, and greater still after receiving three prior doses of apomorphine, and even greater yet if they received four doses before their placebo.

The rule they found was this: “The greater the number of previous apomorphine administrations, the larger the magnitude and the longer the duration of the clinical and neuronal placebo responses.”

Amazingly, in patients who received a placebo after four previous administrations of apomorphine, the placebo gave them the exact same physical improvement as the drug did.

In other words, once the person (and their brain) learns what to expect from a drug, the drug can be swapped for a placebo – at least in the case of apomorphine and Parkinson’s disease.

It’s important to point out here that this is not just ‘all in the mind’ or that only ‘weak minded, or gullible, people’ respond to placebos, which is a common sceptical response.

Let’s think about it for a second: The study showed actual physical changes in the brain when a person received a placebo. It is certainly not ‘all in the mind’. And I would argue, in fact, that it takes a strong mind to cause these physical and neurological changes!

It is these brain changes that lead to physical improvement. So rather than it being ‘all in the mind’, the mind, in fact, causes neurological changes in the brain.

Indeed, many previous studies have shown that expectation drives the placebo effect. Benedetti defines a placebo as: “The administration of an inert treatment along with a positive psychosocial context inducing positive expectations of clinical improvement.”

That is: a patient expects a result and this expectation alters their biochemistry to bring them the result that they are expecting.

Think of what this means. A placebo is an empty pill. Typically made of sugar or chalk, it has no pharmacologically active ingredients. But in the mind of the person receiving it, she or he imagines it to be a medicine that will bring them relief or improvement.

It is this imagined, expectation of improvement that activates the placebo response, altering activity in the brain and delivering the person the very result that they are expecting.

So, given that healthcare seems to be all about money these days – of course, it’s about health, really, but everything seems to have a price tag! – I wonder how much scope there is, given further research, to swap some drugs for placebos after a person’s brain has learned what the drug does.

Now we’re really entering the days of taking seriously that the mind impacts the body quite significantly.

The Science of High Performance in Sport

tennis player abstract

Whether you’re playing tennis, golf or even running the 100 metres, there are certain things you can do that can help you to achieve high performance.

Here’s 7 of the most important ones:

Practice

How good do you want to be? One of the most important things to know is that practice lays down neural pathways in the brain. Whether it’s a cross-court winner in tennis, an approach shot at golf or even the start in a 100 metres sprint, practice is key to laying down these pathways that make you improve at these movements.

Practice creates habits in the brain and therefore the muscles, which not only helps you improve but also means that your body will know what to do in those all-important moments when you only have a split second to think.

Mental practice

Almost every elite athlete does mental practice. Neuroscience research shows that the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. In one piece of research, the brains of volunteers carrying out repetitive movements over 5 days were compared with volunteers imagining the same movements. Amazingly, the new brain pathways were identical in both groups.

So, to harness this fact, visualise yourself doing your sport, but see yourself doing everything just right. Due to the feedback between the brain and the muscles, this ensures that your muscles also learn to work in the way you’re imagining.

You can also use mental practice to play shots you find especially difficult, thus speeding up the learning on the court, green, or track. One important thing to keep in mind with mental practice is that you’re not just necessarily imagining the winning result, but the physical movements you’re doing in creating that result.

Repetition is key

The 3 rules of physical and mental practice are: Repetition! Repetition! Repetition!

High performance requires well defined neural pathways in the brain that connect with the muscles. The only way to build such neural pathways is repetition of the movements. And remember, the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. Use mental practice as well as physical practice.

In one-to-one competitive sports, if someone repeatedly beats you with the same shot or manoeuvre, practice countering it repetitively – both on the field and in your mental practice. Repetition wires neural pathways and thus habits into the brain.

Doing it once or twice is unlikely to get your breakthrough, but doing it a few hundred times might make a real difference. Many people don’t get the breakthroughs they seek because they don’t realise how much repetition is required. It’s all about your mind and body learning what to do, and this occurs through repetitively laying down neural pathways in the brain.

Focus

Stay focused, especially at the higher levels of your sport. Loss of focus for even a moment can turn a game of tennis, leave you 2 or 3 shots to catch up in golf or mean the difference between a gold medal and fourth in a race. Focus is as much a key to building a habit of winning as is training your body.

A simple focus exercise when practicing is to give every shot your 100% attention. Keep your eye on the ball at all times. This is not just something you do in competition, but essential in practice so that mental focus becomes a habit.

Mindfulness practice also helps because it develops the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the front part of the brain, above your eyes, that controls concentration.

Relax

If a tennis ball is flying at you at over 200kph, tension will only slow your reaction time. Similarly, tension before an important golf shot will chop away some smoothness from the shot, introducing an error of a few to several metres. Tension in a race tightens muscles and slows speed of movement.

Practice being highly alert and focused, yet relaxed at the same time. Many people think these are things you do at different times – alert one moment and relaxed in another – but it is important that you learn to do them at the same time. Focused doesn’t mean grimacing and holding your eyes and muscles rigid.

Relaxing helps your trained neural pathways take over. If you’ve practiced enough then your wired habit should do the rest – i.e., your body knows what to do. A good tip is to practice conscious breaths several times a day in a variety of different conditions and contexts. It will help you stay relaxed, yet focused, regardless of what is happening around you.

Body language

How you hold and move your body affects your focus and how you feel. There’s what’s called a ‘bi-directional relationship’ between your brain and muscles. It’s why you smile when you’re happy and tense your muscles when you worry. People mostly think it just goes that one way – from the brain to the muscles – but it goes the other way too, from the muscles to the brain.

To harness this, practice holding and moving your body in a way that conveys self-belief and quiet confidence. Do it on the court, green or track, but also practice it all throughout the day as you go about your life. You’re looking to create a body language habit and wire it into the brain, and this requires repetition while you practice, compete, and throughout your daily life.

Will to win

A will to win can be that edge that makes the difference in the latter stages of any game, when one or two points or one or two centimetres make all the difference. A will to win helps maintain high focus but it also activates trained neural pathways that ensure that your body does what it needs to do to win.

Winning becomes a habit when you have a well-developed will to win.

 

About the author

david-headshotDr David Hamilton is author of 9 books, including ‘The 5 Side Effects of Kindness’, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, and ‘I Heart Me’. He is a former athletics coach and also a former scientist within the pharmaceutical industry. He left the latter to study the placebo effect and teach people how to harness the mind-body connection for health, wellness, and high performance in sport.

 

 

 

Placebo School logoCheck out my online course – Placebo School. It’s all about understanding and harnessing the mind-body connection.

Does a placebo work if you know it’s a placebo?

placebo boxThe answer to that question is Yes!

That’s according to new research led by Ted Kaptchuk, from the Program for Placebo Studies at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston.

It involved 97 patients who had chronic back pain. First, they were given a 15-minute explanation of the placebo effect and how it worked. Then they were randomised into two groups.

One group were asked to continue with their ‘treatment as usual’ while the other group were given a bottle labelled “Placebo Pills” and were instructed to take 2-a-day as well as their usual treatment.

Conventional logic would tell you that the placebos shouldn’t work. “Surely a placebo only works if you don’t know you’re getting it. That’s the whole point. It’s blind faith,” said someone at one of my talks on the mind-body connection. Here they were being told they would be taking placebos so there’s no blind faith. Yet the placebos worked, and not just a little bit.

Those who knowingly took their placebos reported significant reductions in maximum pain, minimum pain, and even their usual pain – 3 different assessments of pain severity that doctors use. They even reported a substantial drop in pain-related disability.

This is not to say that pain is a figment of the imagination. That is not true at all. Try saying that to someone who suffers from chronic pain. What actually happens is that the mind can produce its own natural pain killers and it is these natural ones that are responsible for the drop in pain.

This result is similar to a study of 80 IBS sufferers conducted by the same researchers. They were also given placebos but the key, again, was what they were told. They were told that the pills were:

“… made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.”

Result? The placebos worked. After taking their placebos, they rated their symptoms as moderately improved compared with people who didn’t receive any placebos, who reported only a slight change.

How? In both these studies, the key was knowing that there is such a thing as a mind-body connection, that the mind exerts real, physical, measureable, effects on the brain and throughout the body.

The mind-body connection is obvious when you think about it. What happens to males when they imagine a sexual fantasy? It can be quite obvious, if you know what I mean. The mind actually produces a substance called nitric oxide in certain blood vessels, which causes an increase in blood flow there. In fact, Viagra works by stimulating an enzyme to make nitric oxide.

To offer a different example, when you think of something that worries or stresses you, you increase adrenalin in your body. Again, your mind alters your biology.

Ultimately, it was through the mind-body connection that the above studies worked. Once the patients had an explanation of how the placebo effect works – that the mind does affect the body – it planted the knowledge in their minds that their thinking and what they believe would impact their biology. Then the act of taking the placebo triggered the expectation that it could or would help.

Add to that the habitual action of taking a pill and popping it in your mouth, which activates the subconscious, conditioned, expectation of a result, and there you have it. A placebo can work even if you know it’s a placebo!

 

Check out my upcoming ‘Mind & Emotions Boost Event

Is expensive Nurofen better than cheap Ibuprofen?

happy peopleNow, not being a marketing person I’m really not in favour of creating different versions of the same thing and charging more for them. But given the recent news headlines, the question many people have is, ‘Is Nurofen better than Ibuprofen?’… even though they are the same thing.

I know people who swear that Ibuprofen simply isn’t strong enough for them and that they find that only Nurofen works for them. They use a similar argument for Panadol vs Paracetomol, preferring to pay several times more for the branded Paracetamol.

However, an interesting thing happens when you do pay more for the same thing. In the 1980s, a study was performed where over 800 women were given one of two versions of the same aspirin for headache pain.

One group of women received an expensive looking version in quality packaging labelled as ‘Aspirin’, and another group received a cheap looking version in plain packaging labelled as ‘Analgesic’. However they were both the exact same aspirin, merely in different packaging and with a different name.

The other two groups of women received placebos but one groups’ placebos were expensively packaged and labelled ‘Aspirin’ and the other groups’ were in plain aspirin packaging and labelled ‘Analgesic’.

Now, you’d expect both versions of aspirin to work the same, given that they are both aspirin, and both placebos to work the same, given that they are, well, sugar. But that’s not what the study found.

The expensively packaged aspirin worked better than the cheaper looking version, even though they were the exact same drug. And interestingly, the expensive looking placebo also worked better than the cheap looking placebo. And funnily enough, the expensive looking placebo was nearly as good as the cheap looking aspirin. So what’s going on?

Basically, we associate price with quality so when we pay more for something, we expect it to work better. And it turns out that what we expect or believe actually changes what happens in the brain.

It’s not psychosomatic! It’s not ‘all in the mind’! Research into the placebo effect shows us that belief changes brain chemistry. Believing that something is going to relieve pain actually causes your brain to make it’s own versions of morphine (known as endogenous opiates).

And our beliefs about how the medicine is administered matter too. In the US, an injection of a placebo for pain works about 50% better than a placebo tablet even though they are both placebos. In the UK, it’s reversed. A placebo tablet for pain works a little better (about 10%) than a placebo injection. Why the difference? Surely if they are all placebos they should work exactly the same. Again, the difference is down to what we believe.

In the US, people talk about ‘getting a shot’ and so people in the US generally believe that injections are better for pain than tablets are. On the other hand, people in the UK talk about ‘popping pills’ and so UK people tend to believe in tablets for pain. It comes down to cultural language and that language reflects what we believe.

The bottom line is that things are never ‘all in the mind’. Our beliefs change our brain chemistry (and also what’s going on all throughout the body) and that change can often produce healing effects.

Interesting though this is, and also an untapped resource in terms of our capacity to affect our own health if we learn some mental techniques, the issue that bothers people is that the relatively high pricing of branded medicine seems to be all about profit.

I can’t say for sure that pharmaceutical companies aren’t aware of how to boost the placebo effect and that they price things higher to tap into it. I left the industry in 1999 so I’m not on the ball with their knowledge base. I spent four years in drug development after my PhD in organic chemistry. Given the time since I left I really can’t comment on their motivations.

Certainly, my colleagues back then were definitely not knowledgeable about how the placebo effect works and the general opinion was that it was simply a nuisance that got in the way of achieving a true measure of how well a new drug was working in a clinical trial.

But in the words of Fabrizio Benedetti, professor of physiology and neuroscience at the University of Turin School of Medicine and world authority on the placebo effect, in a paper published in the journal Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology, he wrote:

The placebo effect has evolved from being thought of as a nuisance in clinical pharmacological research to a biological phenomenon worthy of scientific investigation in its own right.”

I would say that there is definitely more to the mind than most people think. The human mind really is a relatively untapped resource in its ability to bring about changes in the brain and body. The challenge for us, really, is learning how to tap into this phenomenon and learning how to direct and control it.

That’s my motivation for studying and writing about the mind-body connection.

 

Further reading: For many studies on the mind-body connection and other mind-body phenomena, including meditation, neuroplasticity, and visualisation strategies for harnessing the mind-body connection, see my book: ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’.

Mind Over Matter

mirror neuronsI’ve written a lot over the years on the subject of the mind-body connection. The origin of my interest actually goes back to when I was 11 years old and I was in the school library. A book fell of the shelf beside me. It was ‘The Magic Power of Your Mind’ by Walter Germaine.

At the time my mum was suffering from depression, which had begun a few years earlier as post natal (post partum) depression. I had an instinct that the book would help my mum so I took it home.

It really helped her. It didn’t cure her in a day or anything like that, but it taught her insights and strategies and gave her hope that she could chart a course through some of the difficult times. As a teenager, I often heard my mum say things like, “I can do it,” while pumping her fist, “It’s all in the mind,” “It’s mind over matter,” and “It’s the Thought that Counts,” which incidentally became the title of my first book. These were examples of my mum’s positive self-talk that she’d learned. Today we think of these as affirmations.

Growing up, a fascination with the subject and possibilities of mind over matter gradually developed in me. Later, after I completed my PhD in organic chemistry, I took a job in the pharmaceutical industry. It was there that my interest and understanding of the mind-body connection went up a notch. My job exposed me to the whole area of drug development where I learned a bit about the placebo effect. I quickly became more interested in the placebo effect and the whole mind-body connection than in developing drugs and often spent hours of my spare time pondering and reading up on the subject.

I left the industry after 4 years to write and speak full-time. Now, 8 books later, my interest hasn’t dropped a bit but in fact has grown considerably.

When I left the pharmaceutical industry in 1999, mind-body science was in its infancy, really. Now, there is a wealth of research showing beyond all doubt that your thoughts, beliefs and emotions cause physiological, biological, and even genetic changes all throughout your body. And when I say genetic changes, I’m not meaning that we change our genes or anything like that, but that our thinking changes the pattern of ‘on’ and ‘off’ of our genes. A gene might get switched on or off, for instance, as a consequence of what you’re focusing on.

Thinking of someone or something that causes you stress, for example, switches on stress genes, the consequences of which can lead to constriction of the arteries. Thinking of someone you love, on the other hand, activates completely different genes, the consequences of which can actually dilate your arteries.

Believing a drug will help you can cause it to work better. Believing it won’t help you often negates some (or all) of its potential effect. Paying more for a simple painkiller makes it work better than a cheaper version because of your belief that more expensive equates to better.

Imagining eating can reduce appetite by signaling the brain that you’re full, imagining moving your muscles repetitively actually causes structural changes in the circuits of the brain, making those muscles stronger. Paying attention to your breathing also causes structural changes in the brain in such a way that makes it easier to find peace amid chaos.

Imagining happy things alters brain chemistry that can make you feel better. Imagining things you’re afraid of activates fear centers of the brain.

Imagining moving your arm convinces your brain that you’re actually moving it, an insight from neuroscience that has reaped benefits for thousands of stroke patients, and athletes.

A pilot can even fly a plane with his mind if the navigational controls are interfaced with a device that reads his brain activation.

There is no doubt whatsoever that your mind affects your body. The skill in making it work for you, really, is learning to control what you focus on.

And that really comes down to training, in much the same way that you learn any skill through training.

So I thought I’d give you a little insight into the mind-body connection today, enough perhaps to give you some faith in yourself, that you really do have the capacity to bring about positive changes in your health by adjusting your focus.

A strategy for overcoming worry, fear or anxiety

Breathe written on a pebbleEverybody has worries and fears. They can be useful because they can be warning signs of danger. They can also give us insights into the workings of our own minds. For some, understanding the source of a worry or fear helps them address a deeper issue causing it. But for most people, those repetitive bolts of worry, fear, or anxiety are nothing but a nuisance.

New insights in neuroscience offer us hope, however, in being able to change our emotional states.

During worry, fear or anxiety, brain resources tend to be flowing towards worry, fear and anxiety areas of the brain. Part of the fear architecture in the brain is the amygdala.

It’s a habit…

You might have noticed that the more we worry the more we seem to find to worry about. Worry, fear and anxiety are like habits for many people and so much so that eventually it only takes a small thing to set it off. Several years earlier, the same thing wouldn’t have had as much of an effect, if at all, and you now wonder why it is that you seemed so much stronger, more resilient, when you were younger. It’s partly because just like a muscle grows bigger and stronger through exercise, so worry, fear and anxiety brain areas grow too.

Just as a muscle becomes more powerful, so worry, fear and anxiety seem to become more powerful, in that we become more sensitive to circumstances around us and even begin to lose confidence. The phenomenon is broadly known as neuroplasticity.

This is where the hope lies though, because, a) neuroplasticity occurs in many regions of the brain, and b) it doesn’t just refer to growth but to shrinkage through lack of use. Think of what happens to a muscle if you stop using it.

The strategy I’d like to share with you uses this insight. If you stop worrying so much, you tend to find less things to worry about. That’s because you’re not using the ‘worry muscle’ as much and so it shrinks, just as a muscle shrinks if you stop working it.

Easier said than done! True! So the strategy involves bypassing the whole positive thinking thing. Instead we use simple techniques to divert resources away from the worry areas of the brain to areas associated with conscious control of our minds. It’s kind of like not letting resources flow backwards but making them flow forwards instead. Through not ‘feeding’ the worry areas so much, just like a muscle weakens through lack of use, the same happens to worry regions of the brain.

It takes a little bit of work, but it can be well worth it.

The How-to…

Here’s what you do. Each time the worry, fear or anxiety surfaces, take a comfortable breath, focusing all of your attention on the act of breathing – the sound, the sensation in your nostrils, the movement of your tummy or chest. By doing this, you interrupt the flow of brain resources towards the worry areas and instead send resources towards the prefrontal cortex (the bit above your eyes). It’s an area at the front of your brain that’s associated with conscious control. This is because you are consciously controlling something; in this case, your breath. This prefrontal cortex, among other areas, is active when we focus our attention on our breath.

It sounds easy on paper and initially the positive effect might only last a moment or two and you might find yourself having to do it 2, 3 or even 10 times in a row. This is where the work comes in. You almost need to be relentless, focusing on your breath every time the fearful thought or feeling arises. The technique is not for everyone as some might find it tiring and you might also doubt it could actually work.

But it can bring powerful results if you keep it up for a few days. Within that time, as neuroplasticity occurs to build the prefrontal cortex while at the same time shrinking the amygdala, you might notice a little letting-up of your fearful thoughts and feelings. Keeping the practice up for a few weeks might produce lasting results.

There is another fun way to do it. Instead of focusing on your breath when the fearful feeling arises, I have encouraged people to do a little victory dance – a silly, crazy set of made-up dance moves, choreographed by your good self. The key with victory dancing is to do it long enough until you smile (or laugh) – that might take 5 seconds or half a minute. That way, you’re activating positive emotion centers of the brain instead of fear areas. The same thing occurs as before – you build positive emotion areas of the brain while shrinking the worry areas and this is because you’re giving positive emotion areas a workout in instead of feeding worry areas.

You can even add a little visualization or an affirmation while you do the breath thing or the victory dance thing. For the visualization you might imagine the worry area of the brain shrinking down. For the affirmation you might say a positive statement that reflects how you intend to feel.

And if motivation to do it is a hurdle for you, a good thing to help keep you motivated is to remind yourself that you’re simply choosing to work different muscles. We all know how muscles get stronger and weaker depending on how much we exercise them. Doing this and acknowledging that there are actual changes taking place in the brain can provide just the motivation you need.

It is a vey useful strategy. It might not be for everyone and it’s also not the answer to all of our worries, fears, and anxieties. But it certainly is a useful tool.

Did you know you’re a chemist?

serotonin
serotonin

Yes, you are a chemist! As you think, you shape the chemistry of your brain and blood, you shape the chemistry of your relationships, and you also shape the chemistry of your life.

I have a PhD in chemistry and was once a professional chemist. I trained in how to build molecules and found myself working as a scientist with one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

I loved ‘organic chemistry’, which is where we stick atoms together in various combinations to construct a particular shape of molecule. My specialist fields were cardiovascular disease and cancer.

But even though we think of chemists as people who work in labs, everyone is a chemist and the labs we work in are the laboratories of our bodies, our homes, and the laboratories of our own lives. Here’s the different ways you’re a chemist.

1) How you practice brain chemistry

As you think, you practice brain and blood chemistry. When you think about someone or something that stresses you, then you produce stress chemistry in your brain and blood stream.

You elevate levels of cortisol, adrenalin, norepinephrine, and histamine. Prolonged thinking like this often leads to a build up of free radicals and inflammatory cytokines in your bloodstream. These are chemicals that play a role in heart disease and ageing. And you’re doing this with your mind!

If you were to think of someone that you love instead, or think of a moment of affection, so you produce different chemistry. You elevate levels of dopamine, serotonin, growth hormone, and oxytocin.

If you consistently think in this way, so you increase oxytocin in your bloodstream, which helps sweep those damaging free radicals and cytokines out of your blood. It is a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone. And again, you’re doing this with your mind.

To take a scientific example, research shows that a hostile mindset is linked with cardiovascular disease. People who tend to be most hostile and aggressive have a much higher risk of heart disease than the general population. An attitude of love, compassion and kindness, on the other hand, is associated with better cardiovascular health.

2) How you practice relationship chemistry

A hostile or aggressive mindset also shatters relationship quality. It steers conversations towards complaints and criticism and guides us away from the things that really matter.

When we overly focus on what’s wrong with things or what’s wrong in the world, we get so caught up in the emotions of anger and frustration that we actually miss out on savouring special moments that happen around us. During these times, we move farther away, emotionally, from those who matter most to us.

When we point the mind towards the heart and focus on what’s good and the good qualities in people, on the other hand, we sow seeds of emotional closeness. People find us more approachable and more enjoyable to be around. We gradually move closer, emotionally, to those who matter most to us, as well as build a network of people who value us for who we are.

3) How you practice life chemistry

Our thinking also shapes the events and circumstances of our lives. We move towards, or attract, those things that we give most attention to.

The trouble most of us have is that while we might have a goal or aspiration, we only give it a fraction of our focus. Throughout the day, a whole manner of things occupy a greater portion of our minds: how crap our current state of affairs is, how such and such a person is causing us stress, how we have too much month left at the end of our money, as well as, of course, a lot of happy thoughts too. But most of us generally apportion a larger percentage of our thinking to where we are and the woes of the past than to imagining and visioning our future. We need to flip this around a bit and learn to direct a better portion of our attention to where we want to go.

Even if it’s not an event or ‘thing’ you want but a state, learn to direct more of your attention inwards, perhaps through meditation.

So everyone is a chemist. I like to reflect on the fact that I started out as a chemist, left that role to study and write about the power of the mind (initially based on the placebo effect. You may have read my bestseller, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’), and only years later realised that I never stopped being a chemist at all. I’ve just learned to practice different kinds of chemistry, kinds of chemistry that we’re all practicing in every moment of our lives. We just don’t realise that we’re doing it.

Now if we do realise it, we can impact our health in a favourable way, we can nurture and build our relationships, and we can use our chemistry prowess to shape the landscape of our lives.

Most people grow up with the idea that the mind is impotent, that its only function is to interpret life, think and make decisions. But the mind can be thought of as a force, one that pushes chemistry in the brain and body, one that brings love into our lives, and one that pushes outwards to create our hopes and dreams.

You are much more than you think you are and far more capable than you think you are! Now believe in yourself!

Can your mind influence your genes?

image from istockphoto
image from istockphoto

Yes!

It’s doing it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s impossible, actually, to disentangle your mind from your genes.

When you learn something new, or think the same thing over and over again, the brain lays down neural pathways. But they don’t just spring out of thin air. They are the consequence of a series of events that result in the activation and deactivation of hundreds of genes. But here’s the thing – these events are set in motion by something you’re thinking about!

Setting aside the details for a moment, what we’re left with is that thinking leads to the activation and deactivation of genes. This is what I call the mind-gene interface.

We see the same thing with meditation. Consistent meditation has been shown to bring about structural changes in the brain. With meditation it is mental focus on something – an idea, perhaps, or breathing – that brings about theses effects. An 8-week meditation study at Harvard even showed that meditation impacted 1,561 genes in novice meditators and 2,219 genes in experienced meditators. In the novices, 874 genes were switched on and 687 were switched off.

Some people might wonder why this is important to know.

It’s important because we grow up believing that the mind is impotent, something that we only use to think with and to analyse life events. But this is disempowering. It leads us to think that we can’t do anything to help ourselves or to change anything.

A good friend of mine spent some weeks in hospital over the past year. Being a proactive person with a determination to do what he could to facilitate his own recovery, when he asked what he could do to help himself, he was told, ‘nothing’.

But this response is only a habit of thinking that’s based on the notion that the mind is impotent, and I’d probably have given the same response myself if I was wedded to that notion. Actually, the mind can be thought of as a force, in that the mind’s focus can bring about biological and physiological effects in the brain and body. Knowing this, there is never nothing that a person can do. We have to think, so how about we learn what to think about?

On a totally obvious level, for instance, if a person is sick, thinking about stressful things is not going to help. Chemicals of stress can be produced and circulate around the body. So thinking about calming things can help. Similarly, thinking affectionately is good for the heart. Thinking hostile and aggressive thoughts isn’t.

We’re all chemists in a way. The chemistry of the brain and body responds to what we focus on and how we feel. If we learn what to focus on we can, to an extent, switch on and off different chemistry. We then take our chemistry skills onto a new level. I see this as the next great development in mind-body medicine.

I believe we have a much greater ability to affect our health than we think. We just need to get over the notion that the mind has no effect on the body. If anyone ever tries to tell you that the mind has no effect on the body, ask them if they’ve ever had a sexual fantasy.

The reason I explain the science of mind-body medicine is to give people faith in themselves. I believe that this faith can make a real difference.

Believing in a medicine or in a doctor leads to better outcomes than not believing, so clearly belief has effects. So how about we learn to believe in ourselves? Not at the expense of medical advice, of course, but in addition to it.

Your mind is more powerful than you think. And you are the one who directs it.

How about we learn to focus on things we’re grateful for? How about we learn to feel empathy and compassion more? How about we learn to cultivate thoughts of love and affection? You are a chemist and that would be some nice chemistry.

It’s a start. And at the very least we’re doing something positive with our minds.

 

Resources:

Some good books on the mind-body connection are:

Mine 🙂 ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body‘ & ‘It’s the Thought that Counts

I’d also recommend, Lissa Rankin MD, ‘Mind over Medicine‘ and Bruce Lipton, ‘The Biology of Belief‘.

I also have some mp3 audios: How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body (live lecture) and ‘6 Principles of Mind-Body Medicine

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So how DOES your mind affect your body?

DNA against lightMost people learn from an early age that the mind is just something that we use to think with and that it interprets life events. Any ideas that the mind could somehow affect the body have traditionally, in the West at least, been written off as fantasy or some mysterious and unexplained mind-over-matter effect.

Actually, it’s not mysterious at all and evidence shows that there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the mind impacts the body. Try to think of a sexual fantasy without having a physical impact or causing hormonal fluctuations in your body!

Your mind is affecting your body right now. It affects it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Most of the time we just don’t notice.

We’re all chemists, you see. I’m a trained chemist. I have a PhD in organic chemistry, which involves building up molecules by sticking atoms together. For this, I earned a place developing drugs for heart disease and cancer in a large pharmaceutical company.

To be honest, though, my interest was really on the people in medical trials who improved on placebos, and so accelerated my interest in the mind-body connection.

Yes, we’re all chemists. If you had to think of someone who causes you stress then you’d produce stress chemistry in your brain. You’d also elevate levels of cortisol and adrenalin in your bloodstream, and cause increased blood to flow to your major muscles. If you think in this way consistently, then there’s a fair chance that you could produce higher levels of free radicals and chemicals of inflammation in your bloodstream too.

Or you could think of someone you love or feel affection towards. This time, you’ll produce love chemistry in your brain, which will involve dopamine, serotonin, the brain’s natural versions of morphine and heroin, known as endogenous opioids, and the love hormone, oxytocin.

Oxytocin will also be produced around the body and will quickly dilate your arteries and lower your blood pressure. It’s called a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone – it protects the heart. It might even initiate labor if you’re heavily pregnant. With consistent thinking in this way, the elevated oxytocin levels will neutralise free radicals and inflammation in your blood vessels. Not bad at all, I think, for something you’re doing with your mind! Yes, we’re quite the chemists.

Again, bear in mind that this is stuff you’re doing with your mind!! Your mind is not some impotent instrument that just interprets the world, where your thoughts, intentions, hopes, and your dreams simply float off into the ether. You can think of your mind as a force, because it does actually bring about effects all throughout your body.

You could take your chemistry prowess a little farther and use your mind to change the physical structure of your brain. You could impress your friends at dinner by giving them a demonstration. It might be a little boring for them, though, as they’d have to watch you with your eyes closed, paying attention to your breathing for about an hour or two (it’s called meditation, to the uninitiated). But, hey, if you had a portable scanner with you then you could show them the scans by the time they finished their second course. They’d see changes in the bit above your eyes. And you could really impress them by specifically making changes to the left side of this bit. All you’d have done was to infuse your meditation with thoughts and feelings of love and compassion.

You could even do a little magic trick and ask them to choose any body part and you could then stimulate that part with your mind without even moving it.

Say they chose your big toe, for instance. All you’d do is focus your attention on your big toe and they could measure electrical and chemical changes there. If this sounds far-fetched, simply thinking about a body area and immediately stimulating the corresponding brain area governing it is actually central to new emerging prosthetics technologies. Thinking of moving a paralysed limb, for instance, stimulates the area of the brain connected to it, which is linked to a computer device that can then move a prosthetic device, or even a make a character take a step forward in a computer game.

Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are potentially the next big step in computer gaming, actually. It’s all made possible because the brain doesn’t really distinguish between whether you’re doing something or whether you’re just imagining it.

Yes, things have come quite far in the whole mind-body field in the past decade. It’s funny but had I suggested, a little over a decade ago, that any of the above could be possible, I’d probably have been laughed out of any lab. It’s funny how things change, isn’t it?

I was actually asked, a little over a year ago, to give a lecture on the mind-body connection to medical students, so it’s great to see that some areas of mind-body science are now beginning to be taken seriously. And may it just keep getting better and better! Ripples!!

 

If you’re interested, here’s a link to a download of a recent lecture I gave entitled, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’.

References:

For mind-body explanations and references to scientific journal articles, see David R Hamilton PhD, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’ (paperback) (UK paperback) (Kindle) (UK Kindle)

For information on the connection between love, kindness, compassion, and oxytocin and how this impacts the heart, see David R Hamilton PhD, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ (paperback) (UK paperback) (Kindle) (UK Kindle)

Top 5 Mind-Body Tips for Healthy Living

girl relaxing in the grass1) Meditate to calm your mind and stay young

Meditation helps calm the mind and reduce stress. Regular practice helps us meet many of the routinely challenging situations in our lives with less effort, and we achieve better results.

Few people realize that meditation also slows the aging process. One study associated meditation with higher levels of the ‘anti-aging hormone’, DHEA, implying that meditation slowed aging. A Harvard study showed that it even impacts us at the genetic level, affecting around 2,000 genes, some of which counteracted damage to the body from free radicals, thus potentially slowing the rate of aging.

A simple way to meditate is to sit down and listen to the sound of your breathing for about 10 minutes a day.

 

2) Believe that your mind can help you to heal

Studies of the placebo effect – where people get better in medical trials while taking dummy drugs – reveal that belief can make us well from many different ailments. When you believe in a medicine, or in the physician prescribing it, it is likely to work better for you. We have a powerful capacity to affect our own health with our minds.

One interesting placebo study saw volunteers in a pain study have placebo cream applied to one of their hands or feet, although they thought it was a local anaesthetic. Then they had extract of chili (capsicum) injected into their hands and feet. Incredibly, the pain selectively reduced where the cream was applied but not on the other hands and feet.

A simple way to build belief like this is to tell yourself regularly that the mind can help heal the body. Read up on scientific evidence of mind over matter (there’s lots around) and this will help you to believe in yourself.

The most common methods people use to visualize healing are where they imagine inside the body at the site(s) of illness and imagine changing it from illness to wellness. They imagine cleaning, clearing, scooping, melting, or even sending love and affection, or any other method they can think of. And they do it regularly.

Of course, using visualization is not a substitute for medical advice. It is something that you would use in addition to medical advice. That’s the intelligent approach.

 

3) Show compassion and kindness to people

Compassion physically impacts the brain, building up empathy centers and areas that help us to feel more positive and emotionally balanced. It is also linked with the vagus nerve. Some studies show that compassion is associated with the fitness of the vagus nerve in how it reduces inflammation in the body.

This is a good thing because too much inflammation plays a major role in heart disease, some cancers, and possibly the majority of diseases we know of.

Kindness is also good for your health. The bonding hormone, oxytocin, is released through warm emotional contact, which is something that kindness cultivates. Great research on oxytocin shows that it is cardioprotective – it helps protect your arteries from agents of disease. So kindness is cardioprotective. I love that because everyone is familiar with the idea that kindness (and love) is good for the heart (and soul). Science is saying the same thing.

Kindness can also make a real difference in someone’s life. We shouldn’t do kindness because we are trying to gain. We are kind because it’s the right thing to do. But the gains are real; they are side effects, written into our genetic code through the millions of years of caretaking behaviour of our ancestors.

 

4) Be Positive

OK. We’ve all heard this before, but it is important from a health perspective. A good dose of positivity can help us navigate some of the difficult situations in our lives with less stress. And stress, as we know, plays a role in illness and disease. Less stress can equal longer life.

Some studies on positivity show that it is associated with better health. One 30-year study found that optimists had around a 50% lower risk of early death than pessimists and a few others show that a positive attitude is associated with a longer lifespan.

Of course, there are always exceptions. We all know positive people who die young and very pessimistic people who outlive their entire families. That’s a statistical thing and will always be true. But take a sample of several thousand people and you will see that positivity is associated with longevity.

 

5) Cultivate a heart of gratitude

Counting our blessings is good for our mental and emotional health. One 3-week study compared those counting blessings with those counting their hassles. It was called a ‘Blessings vs Burdens’ study. The blessings group kept a daily diary of some things that they were grateful about while the burdens group kept a diary of their daily hassles. After the 3 weeks, those in the blessings group were 23% happier than those in the burdens group.

A few simple methods that you might use are, a) Write a daily list of 5-10 things that you are grateful for that have happened in the last day (it’s good to do this just before going to bed), or b) Choose a different person each day and spend a few moments thinking of all the reasons why you are grateful for their presence in your life.

Gratitude is a tasty ingredient in food for the soul