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