The vagus nerve and cancer

DNA with light shining behind itI recently read a scientific paper, published this year in the Journal of Oncology (see paper), with great interest. It linked the activity of the vagus nerve with cancer prognosis.

Why is this important?

I’ve written quite a bit about the vagus nerve in some of my blogs and books (The Five Side Effects of Kindness), mainly because the vagus nerve produces an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. I’ve also emphasised how this effect is even amplified by the experience of compassion.

That’s why I found the paper so exciting because it reviewed 12 scientific studies, involving 1822 patients, and suggested a link between high vagus nerve activity and better cancer prognosis. The effect, the authors wrote, was most likely due to an anti-inflammatory effect created by the vagus nerve.

I’ve summarised the main findings of the paper below.

The authors pointed out that three main biological factors contribute to the onset and progression of tumours. These are: oxidative stress (free radicals), inflammation, and excessive sympathetic [nervous] activity (stress).

Amazingly, the vagus nerve seems to inhibit all three.

Many of the studies measured heart rate variability (HRV), which is the main index of vagus nerve activity. Briefly, when we breathe in, heart rate quickens a little, only to slow down again when we breathe out. The vagus nerve is responsible for the slowing down, and thus the difference between this increase and decrease (high and low) of heart rate – heart rate variability (HRV) – is considered an indicator of vagus nerve activity.

Generally, the paper found that the higher a person’s HRV, or vagus nerve activity (also known as vagal tone), the slower the progression of cancer, and this was true for all cancers studied. The effect was especially pronounced in late stage, metastatic cancers.

The authors suggested that in early stages of cancer, the treatment a person receives is the overwhelming positive factor and so swamps out any observable effects of the vagus nerve, but at later stages, when treatments are often less effective, the vagus nerve’s workings are far more apparent and the vagus nerve becomes the main determining factor.

So much so, in fact, that the authors found that survival time in patients with high HRV (or vagus nerve activity) was 4 times greater than in patients with low HRV (or vagus nerve activity).

The effect of the vagus nerve on inflammation was suggested as the main factor. It is known as the ‘Inflammatory Reflex’. The vagus nerve basically turns off inflammation at the genetic level by turning down a gene that produces TNF-alpha (Tumour Necrosis Factor), which is an inflammatory protein in the body that sets off a cascade of inflammation. Thus, the vagus nerve can effectively control inflammation in this way. Therefore, higher vagus nerve activity usually means lower inflammation.

In one study of patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, for example, patients with high HRV (or vagus nerve activity) survived longer and had lower inflammation levels than patients with low HRV (vagus nerve activity).

The study authors wrote that, the vagus nerve “may modulate cancer progression by inhibiting inflammation.”

The study also showed that tumour markers in other cancers (like PSA – prostate specific antigen – for example) were also lower in patients with highest vagus nerve activity.

So, the question is: can we increase our vagus nerve activity?

The answer is yes.

There are a few ways, in fact, that include:

-exercise

-meditation

-yoga

-practice of compassion

I’d like to draw your attention to the latter because I’ve written about this before and it demonstrates a powerful link between mind and emotions and physical health.

Studies have shown a link between compassion and vagus nerve activity, an idea first put forward by Stephen Porges, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and now widely known as polyvagal theory.

For example, vagus nerve activity has been shown to increase through regular practice of a compassion meditation (the Buddhist’s metta bhavana or ‘Loving Kindness’ meditation). Here, we consistently cultivate a feeling of kindness and compassion for ourselves and others.

The same meditation has also been shown to lower a person’s inflammatory response to stress, presumably via increasing vagus nerve activity.

So, yes, we can increase vagal tone!

For me, this research is extra evidence that exercise, meditation, yoga, and even compassion, offer us far more protection from illness than we have imagined up until now. Now we are beginning to see the underlying biological mechanisms that explain why these practices are so beneficial.

Of course, exercising, meditating, doing yoga or being a nice person doesn’t mean a person will be immune to cancer. We all know that’s not true. But it might mean that they offer us a degree of protection, perhaps lessening the impact of some of the factors that do cause cancer.

Can kindness boost the immune system?

In other blogs, I’ve written how kindness is the opposite of stress in terms of its physiological effects. At first, one might imagine that peace is the opposite of stress, but peace is more the absence of stress than its opposite.

In a number of different ways, kindness produces opposite effects from those that stress causes.

It is very well known that stress supresses the immune system. Part of this is due to the stress hormone cortisol. So effective is cortisol in suppressing the immune system, in fact, that millions of people use it every day as hydrocortisone cream without realising that hydrocortisone cream is cortisol, but in cream form. It acts to reduce inflammation (part of the immune response), which is why it is used to treat conditions like eczema, itching, and rashes.

When we are kind, at the very least it spares us some stress and so, by default, allows the immune system to work more optimally by minimising cortisol production.

But can kindness do more than this and even enhance the immune system?

The Mother Theresa effect was named after a Harvard University study where volunteers watching a video of Mother Theresa carrying out acts of kindness and compassion experienced an immune boost.

In the study, researchers took secretory immunoglobulin-A (s-IgA) samples from 132 volunteers before and after watching the video. Found in saliva, it is the immune system’s first line of defence if a person eats something that’s contaminated, and is generally considered a fairly good indication of overall immune function.

After watching the film, their s-IgA levels were significantly elevated and remained elevated for a while afterwards as the volunteers kept thinking about particular scenes from the film.

In a different experiment, researchers at the HeartMath Institute, in Boulder, Colorado, asked volunteers to cultivate feelings of care and compassion for just 5 minutes. Similarly, they also received an immune boost, with s-IgA levels increasing by around 50% and again staying elevated for some time.

Empathy is a relative of kindness. One might think of empathy, in fact, as the seed that grows into kindness. It starts when we feel moved by the pain of a person (or animal). This is empathy – I feel your pain. It eventually evolves into a willingness to act to ease the suffering or to help in some other way.

A randomised controlled trial of 719 patients with the common cold found a connection between empathy shown to them in a doctor’s consultation and how quickly they recovered, indicating a link between empathy and immune function.

In the study, the volunteers were asked to rate how much empathy they were shown during a consultation. This is by no means meant as a criticism of doctors. There are a number of reasons why a doctor might be perceived as not showing empathy, which can include having so many patients and almost always be under time pressure, which sometimes means having to fill out forms while consulting.

Anyhow, each patient was asked to score the doctor for empathy shown to them on a 1-10 scale, using a CARE questionnaire (Consultation And Relational Empathy). Of those who scored the doctor a perfect 10 (around a third of patients), they had reduced severity of symptoms, recovered faster and also had higher immune function.

In each of the above studies, the effects are likely because of how empathy and kindness make us feel. Feelings generate biochemical products. For example, feelings of stress generate stress hormones (including cortisol). Feeling happy generates dopamine and serotonin. Feeling uplifted or excited can produce the brain’s natural versions of morphine. It is also known that feelings associated with empathy and compassion produce oxytocin. It seems that they also produce products that alter immune function.

So, to answer the question in the title of this article, I’d say, Yes. It seems to me that kindness can boost the immune system.

 

References

All references are cited in David R Hamilton PhD, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness‘ (Hay House, 2017)

Do drugs work better if we believe in them?

It seems to me that they do – broadly speaking.

Paying more for a simple painkiller, for example, seems to make it work better. A study of differently packaged aspirin tablets, for example, found that those that were branded to look more expensive worked much better than those that looked plain and generic.

In other words, paying ten times more for branded painkillers than for generic ones actually seems to enhance their effect. There’s nothing chemical going on. It’s the same drugs. It’s our perception of them that’s going on. We perceive something that’s more expensive as being better. Ultimately, it’s our own perception that enhances the painkilling effect. In this case, our brain produces its own natural (endogenous) painkillers.

Generally speaking, looking at stats for placebos, they work better for pain in the US if they’re injected, yet they work better if they’re tablets in the UK. It’s our perception that matters. People in the US have more faith in ‘getting a shot’. People in the UK have more faith in ‘popping pills’.

Studies of anti-ulcer treatments in different countries reveal a similar kind of effect. A trial of Tagamet in France found it to be 76% effective with the placebo coming in at 59%. Yet a trial in Brazil found Tagamet to be 60% effective. In other words, a placebo in France was almost as good as the actual drug in Brazil!

What we believe matters. Having faith in a particular doctor is likely to mean that her or his prescriptions will work better for you.

In a British Medical Journal paper a few years ago, doctors who gave a ‘positive consultation’ (for minor ailments), where they reassured the patients that they would be better in a few days, were compared with doctors who gave what were defined as ‘negative’ consultations for the same kinds of ailments, where the doctors were less reassuring. Two weeks later, 64% of those who had a positive consultation were symptom free, yet only 39% of those who had a negative consultation were symptom free. Over and above the effect of an actual medicine prescribed, and your beliefs about it, is your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about the doctor.

Did she/he listen to me? Did she/he show me empathy? Was she/he confident and reassuring? Or even, was she/he old even enough to understand my case properly? And she/he did look and sound very intelligent!

These are all conversations we have with ourselves during and after a consultation. The thing is, the dominant thoughts and feelings that we settle on matter.

And it would be wrong to think that any benefit of how we think, feel and believe is ‘just psychosomatic’. The contents of our minds shift our biochemistry. Placebo research suggests that our brains very often produce the chemistry that is required to deliver a result we’re expecting to happen.

What does this overall kind of effect above say about our own minds? It shows us that what we think about, how we feel, and what we believe, matters. It’s not a reason to ditch our medicines, of course. Taking and acting on medical advice is sensible. But it shows that our own thoughts, feelings and beliefs about the medicines and about doctors play an important role in recovery and healing.

Taking it a little further, I would even extend it and say that, for some people, their thoughts, feelings and beliefs about the medical systems, insurance companies, and even pharmaceutical companies also matters.

The latter point is something I’m quite familiar with. I’m a trained organic chemist and worked as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry several years ago. I often hear people say that they mistrust the industry in general. As such, some think of the drugs they are prescribed with suspicion; some imagine that they are poisons, or that they’re only being prescribed them so that the system can make a profit.

All I can say is that most of the people I worked with in the pharmaceutical industry wanted to save lives. If you are prescribed medicine, rather than imagining it as something poisonous, imagine it instead doing the job it’s supposed to do. Picture it as an animated character swimming through the bloodstream to where it needs to go and doing what it needs to do. If you’re prescribed medicine, this is a much better use of your mind.

So it seems that some drugs do work better if we believe in them, or if we believe in the doctor who prescribed them.

The deciding factor, it seems, is what you believe!

 

References

For the study on branded vs generic aspirin tablets, see: A. Branthwaite and P. Cooper, ‘Analgesic effects of branding in treatment of headaches’, British Medical Journal, 1981, 282, 1576-1578.

For the study of placebo injections vs placebo tablets in the US and UK, see: A. J. de Craen et al, ‘Placebo effect in the acute treatment of migraine: subcutaneous placebos are better than oral placebos’, Journal of Neurology, 2000, 247(3), 183-188.

For the Tagamet study in France, see: R. Lambert et al, ‘Treatment of duodenal and gastric ulcer with cimetidine: A multi-centre double blind trial’, Gastroenterologie Clinique et Biologique, 1977, 1(11), 855-860.

For the Tagamet study in Brazil, see: J. A. Salgado, et al, ‘Endoscopic findings after antacid, cimetidine and placebo for peptic ulcer – importance of staging the lesions’, Arquivos De Gastroenterologia, 1981, 18(2), 51-53.

For the study comparing positive vs negative consultations, see: K. B. Thomas, ‘General practice consultations: is there any point in being positive?’, British Medical Journal, 1987, 294, 1200-1202.

Visualising Illness into Wellness

For several years now, I have been writing about, and teaching, a visualisation strategy of imagining illness turning into wellness. People often ask me how it works. I believe there’s a few things that contribute so I thought I’d briefly sketch out some of them in this blog.

1) Impact on the immune system
There’s a growing body of research that suggests that guided imagery elevates the immune system. Studies have shown positive changes in NK cells, neutrophils and lymphocytes, as well as in secretory immunoglobulin A, for example.

2) A person feels empowered rather than hopeless
Many people, when suffering from injury, illness or disease, feel a sense of hopelessness and that there isn’t anything they can do to facilitate their recovery. This can be stressful. Understanding that the mind impacts the body often gives people a sense of hope and a belief that they can, in fact, do something to help themselves, which can therefore reduce stress.

Thus, a consistent cultivation of hope or positive feeling might head a person in the direction of wellness just as a consistent experience of stress can have the opposite effect.

3) The impact of positive belief
The placebo effect is no longer viewed as just psychological. There is no question, now, that expectation and belief cause changes in the brain and body. The apparent limits of the placebo effect are now being explored and we’re learning that, to an extent, and depending upon the condition studied, the brain can create the chemistry it needs to create to give a person what they’re expecting to happen. Placebo pain relief comes, for example, because a person’s brain produces its own version of morphine.

4) Focusing of willpower
There’s a lot to be said for the impact of a will to live or a will to get better. Sometimes, it is the main ingredient some people need. It may not always produce seeming miracles, but it can certainly help.

5) The positive impact of repetitive visualising
I believe this plays a large role and suggests that neuroplasticity is taking place in the brain, which is where the brain undergoes physical changes. It takes consistency (repetition) to effect such change.

Essentially, the brain is ‘wiring in’ what a person is imagining taking place. It is well known to occur when a person visualises movement, for example, as in sports or rehabilitation. I personally believe, even though there is limited research on this, that the same kind of thing happens with visualisation to improve many other conditions.

Thus, repetitive visualisation might create physical change in the brain, which is accompanied by a physical change in the body, particularly in the region that a person’s attention is focused upon, but also in other systems of the body that are relevant to the change. There is some evidence that this might happen in the immune system.

In addition, visualisation studies show an increase in white blood cells over time as a person practices visualisation on a consistent basis. This might correlate with neuroplasticity in the brain, which also occurs over time.

6) Natural recovery or other positive factors
It’s also important to mention the natural course of something. Sometimes, a person might be on the road to recovery anyway. Visualisation might speed the process up or have little or no additional effect because the body is already doing what it needs to do.
Also, many people make lifestyle changes that positively impact their circumstances, which might involve changes in physical activity, diet, stress levels, change of environment, etc.

So, very briefly, this is what I believe is going on, or contributing, when a person uses visualisation techniques.

And please note, I’m certainly not suggesting that we use our minds instead of following medical advice, but that we use our minds in addition to medical advice. Many people, in fact, actually visualise their medicines doing the desired job. Some people receiving chemotherapy for cancer, for example, have visualised the chemo drugs as piranha fish or Pac men nibbling the tumour so that, in their imagination, the tumour (or tumours) is getting smaller and smaller and smaller.

PS…
I’m currently working on the 10-Year Anniversary Edition of my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’. I intend to include several new examples of the use of visualisation in this edition, as I did in the 1st Edition. If you have personally used visualisation as part of your recovery from injury, illness, or disease, and would like your visualisation story to be considered for the book, please email me on [email protected] Please include what you visualised, how often you visualised, and what the outcome was. Thanks. 🙂

The right thing to do

elderly woman smiling with her caregiverI was in Chicago for a couple of days recently. Among many things, one thing that stood out for me was the number of homeless people who were not asking for money. One was just a young girl, who couldn’t have been more than 18. Some of their cardboard signs said things like,

Please. I’m not looking for money. I’m just hungry and cold” and “Can you spare some food, please?

Many of us mistakenly imagine that homeless people will spend money on alcohol or drugs. They just wanted food. But on that point, even if they would spend money on alcohol; how many of us, after a hard or stressful day at work, reach for a glass of wine or a beer as soon as we get home. It offers us comfort and an escape, of sorts. Why should it be different for homeless people, given the stress they live under? I guess I’m saying that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

So, for the rest of the day, each time I saw such a sign, I popped into a shop to buy a sandwich, or something sweet or even warm and offered it to them. They were immensely grateful. In turn, I felt absolutely great inside.

Now, I’m not at all trying to impress you. Any kindnesses I do are tiny in comparison with the acts of kindness done daily by millions of people around the world. What I wish to convey is that I often come across the attitude (mostly in science and with males), that kindness is selfish if it makes you feel good.

Some say, if it feels good then you’re not doing it for them, but for yourself. That I felt so good about buying food for these homeless people got me thinking about this. And here’s the thing.

The reason kindness feels so good is because deep down we know it’s the right thing to do. When we help someone, we align our actions with our core – our core identity. We are genetically wired for kindness. The kindness gene, in fact, is 500 million years old – it’s one of our most ancient genes – which is WHY kindness impacts our biochemistry (see ‘Molecules of Kindness‘ and ‘Born to be Kind‘). It’s our deepest nature.

Helping others makes us happier because were sensing that deep feeling of rightness, that ‘This is who I am!!’ … ‘This is what it’s really all about!!’. Being kind touches that deep part of ourselves that cuts through all the crap and reveals a feeling of joy. Kindness doesn’t just make us feel good, it reveals joy.

Let me say that again. Kindness doesn’t just make us feel good. It reveals joy.

It cuts away the blocks to joy, to happiness, to peace.

So my answer when anyone calls it selfish if it makes you feel good, I’d say that’s merely a misunderstanding of where the good feelings come from!

So be kind during this holiday season. You never know the difference even one seemingly small act of kindness might make for someone.

The opposite of stress

Everybody knows what stress feels like. We also know what it feels like when we’re kind, when someone is kind to us, or even when we witness kindness.

The feelings are opposite. Most of the effects inside the body are the opposite too.

Feelings of stress generate ‘stress hormones’ in the brain and body, like cortisol and adrenalin.

Feelings of kindness generate oxytocin and nitric oxide (I affectionately call them ‘molecules of kindness’). Stress creates tension in the nervous system, pushing it into ‘fight or flight’; Kindness relaxes the nervous system, guiding it into ‘rest and relax’.

Stress increases blood pressure, kindness reduces it.

Feelings of stress generate free radicals and inflammation in the arteries and immune system, which can eventually lead to cardiovascular disease. Feelings of kindness reduce free radicals in the arteries and immune system. Kindness is, in fact, ‘cardioprotective’ (protects the cardiovascular system).

Stress weakens the immune system, kindness boosts it.

Stress makes us unhappy; kindness makes us happy.

Stress is linked with depression; kindness is protective towards depression.

And just to top it off, while stress speeds up ageing, kindness slows ageing.

The Science

Here’s a little by way of a simple explanation for some of the above effects.

Stress is linked with cardiovascular disease. Small amounts of stress are OK and even relatively large amounts too, if not too frequent, but consistent stress is associated with poor health outcomes through having a negative impact on the heart, arteries, and immune system. Stress is ultimately associated with shortened lifespan.

On the other hand, the warm feelings we get through kindness generate oxytocin and nitric oxide. Nitric oxide softens the walls of our arteries and improves blood flow around the body. Together, oxytocin and nitric oxide reduce blood pressure.

Where stress increases free radicals (oxidative stress) and inflammation in the arteries and immune system, which is linked with hardening of the arteries, research on oxytocin using cells from the arteries and immune system found that it reduced free radicals and inflammation in the arteries and immune system, effectively acting as an efficient antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

Research also shows that in relationships where there is more kindness, love and affection, there is also much less hardening of the arteries. It’s almost as if when we harden towards others, so we harden in the inside, but when we soften towards others, so we soften on the inside too. I love the symmetry!

Stress increases activity of the sympathetic nervous system, placing the body on alert. Kindness and compassion, on the other hand, increase parasympathetic activity, allowing the body to relax and regenerate. Kindness and compassion increase vagal tone, which is a measure of parasympathetic activity.

Stress can have a long-term negative effect on the immune system. Kindness, on the other hand, explains the ‘Mother Theresa Effect’; this is from research that showed that the immune systems of volunteers were boosted when they watched a video of Mother Theresa of Calcutta performing acts of kindness.

Kindness also makes us happier and is an antidote to depression. Many pieces of research comparing people performing acts of kindness with people going about their normal business show that people doing kindnesses become happier. Other studies find that, statistically, people who do regular volunteer work are generally happier and suffer less depression than people who don’t.

What surprises many people is that kindness slows ageing. It’s pretty obvious, really, when you really think about it. It is common knowledge that stress speeds up ageing. We’re all familiar with the tales of people whose hair went white rapidly once they began a stressful job. Stress causes oxidative stress (what happens when free radicals wreak havoc) and inflammation, which accelerate ageing of the heart and arteries, immune system, joints, muscles, hair, skin, brain … pretty much the whole body.

Kindness slows ageing in a few ways. Indirectly, simply through sparing ourselves stress we spare ourselves some of these effects. But more directly, the products of kindness (oxytocin, nitric oxide, and increased vagal tone), actively slow internal processes of ageing, like oxidative stress in the skin, muscles, arteries, immune system. Some research, for example, has shown a substantial reduction in oxidative stress in muscles and skin when there’s plenty of oxytocin around.

And here’s the thing: you can’t get oxytocin from diet. You can’t eat it nor drink it. The only way to get it is to make it internally, and we make it through how we think, feel and behave. When our thinking, our feelings, and our behaviour towards others and towards animals is kind (yes!… kindness to animals boosts oxytocin) then it’s like we turn on an oxytocin tap inside our bodies, giving us much of these ‘side effects’.

You don’t need to do something huge for it to qualify as a kind act. Simple gestures count too. Even a kind thought about someone that results in a smile on your own face is you being kind.

You don’t even need to give it much thought at all.

Just be kind!

By David R Hamilton, PhD

Author of ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’

References: Research quoted above cited in ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’

The table below summarises the effects of stress vs kindness

How kindness can reduce wrinkles

mother showing kindness to daughterYes, you read correctly!

Have you ever cut an apple in half and left it on the table? If so, you’ll have noticed it quickly goes brown. This is oxidation, or oxidative stress, as scientists prefer to call it.

Oxidation occurs in skin too, and it can be a side-effect of lifestyle, diet, stress, even sunlight. It doesn’t happen as quickly in our skin as it does in a sliced apple left on a table, so don’t worry, but it happens nevertheless. It’s caused by what are known as free radicals.

Here’s a simple way to think of free radicals. Think of what Harry Potter’s spectacles look like: two ‘O’s and a little bridge between them. His spectacles are actually the exact shape of oxygen, the stuff we breathe. Oxygen – O2 – has two ‘O’ atoms and a bond (bridge) connecting them as in, O-O.

Now imagine Harry gets hit by one of Draco Malfoy’s spells and it snaps the bridge of his spectacles. So now he has two single lenses that are no longer bonded to one another. When this happens to oxygen, not due to one of Draco’s spells but to some kind of stress, the two ‘O’s are said to be free radicals.

Once bonded, they are now separate. Instead of being in a relationship, they are single. And they simply hate being single. They’ll do anything to be back in a relationship.

Unfortunately, such is the strength of a free radical’s desire to bond that it will happily covet its neighbour’s wife, so to speak: it will pinch any nearby atom. This isn’t so great for the body, especially if the atom pinched is part of the cells of our skin, or even the cells that line our arteries, or our immune system, or even a brain cell. Once the free radical has taken an atom, these cells can begin to fall apart.

The body has natural ways of dealing with free radicals, though. It uses anti-oxidants. An anti-oxidant is anti (against) oxidation. It is a willing partner for a free radical, thereby eliminating any further damage to cells.

We get anti-oxidants from many fruits and vegetables, salads, teas, olive oil, cinnamon, dark chocolate, and many other foods. It’s one of the reasons why doctors encourage us to eat those foods. We also have natural anti-oxidants in the body.

But when free radicals are produced more abundantly than the body is able to mop them up, that’s when we get oxidation / oxidative stress.

In the skin, it contributes to the formation of wrinkles.

So, what has kindness got to do with it?

It’s probably easier to think of it the other way around. You’ve probably noticed that stress speeds up ageing. This is partly because stress increases free radicals.

On the other hand, kindness generates the hormone, ‘oxytocin’ (see ‘Molecules of Kindness’), which reduces free radicals.

Scientists publishing in the journal, Experimental Dermatology, were studying two types of skin cells: keratinocytes, which make up 90 per cent of the outer layer of skin, and fibroblasts, which are the cells that make collagen.

They found that free radical levels are much lower in both the keratinocytes and the fibroblasts when there’s plenty of oxytocin present, and higher when there’s not much oxytocin present. In other words, oxytocin actively reduces free radicals.

Now, you cannot get oxytocin from your diet. You cannot eat it or drink it. The only way to get oxytocin into your skin is to produce it naturally. And the way to do that is through your behaviour!

Oxytocin production is a side effect of kindness (see ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness‘). Just as feeling stressed produces stress hormones, the feelings of warmth or connection that accompany acts of kindness generate oxytocin in the body.

This oxytocin reduces free radicals all throughout the body. Not only does it reduce free radicals in skin but studies show it reduces them in the arteries too, producing a ‘cardioprotective’ effect; that is, protecting the heart and arteries.

So, you want to reduce wrinkles? Be kind.

Someone once said to me, “That can’t be right because I am kind and I have wrinkles.”

Of course, being kind doesn’t mean you won’t age. But it does mean that being kind can slow the process down … just as stress speeds it up.

It simply comes down to the feelings that kindness and stress produce because these feelings generate substances in the body.

As I mentioned above, feeling stress generates stress hormones, and they contribute to the production of free radicals.

Feelings of warmth, connection, affection, gratitude – feelings that accompany kindness – generate oxytocin and oxytocin reduces free radicals.

In other words, stress speeds up ageing, kindness slows it down.

So, yes, as unlikely as it might sound on first reading, kindness really can reduce wrinkles.

 

Want to learn more?

There has been a great deal of recent research into the internal physiological products of being kind and compassionate. I have collated much of this research, including the different ways that kindness impacts cells, the immune system, nervous system, arteries, and brain in my book, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’. Available from all major booksellers. Here’s a few Amazon links. Amazon.co.uk  Amazon.com  Amazon.com.au  Amazon.ca  Audiobook

The 7 Day Kindness Challenge

 

I’d like to challenge you to complete a 7-Day Kindness Challenge.

Here’s some ground rules:

1) You must do something different every day. You can do the same thing on two different days if you want, but it only counts the first time.
2) You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone at least once. In other words, you have to do an act of kindness that stretches you a bit.
3) At least one of your acts of kindness must be completely anonymous. No one must know that it was you who did it, or what you did. You can’t tell anyone about it.

That’s the rules. Good luck!

And remember, you don’t have to do big things to make a difference. It’s the small things in large numbers that matter most because opportunities for these arise every day.

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.

How Kindness Can Heal The Body

love as medicineIt’s been said that love or kindness can mend a broken heart. It’s true, and by this we generally mean emotionally. But there’s much more to it. Love and kindness also have a physical impact on the heart.

Let me explain. Everyone knows that stress creates stress hormones, like cortisol, adrenalin, and norepinephrine. But, to be clear, it’s not necessary for us to be facing a stressful event. Anticipating or recalling a stressful situation produces stress hormones. Similarly, how we feel in relation to a current stressful situation produces stress hormones. In other words, it’s not the situation itself, but how we feel in relation to it that generates stress hormones. Feelings are the key!

This is an important point. What about feelings of a different kind? What kind of hormones do they produce?

Well, love produces the love hormone, oxytocin. It’s been called by other names too! – the cuddle chemical or hugging hormone (because we produce it when we hug) and even the moral molecule or ‘trust me’ drug (because it promotes trust). I often refer to oxytocin as a ‘molecule of kindness’. The reason is that it is produced when we’re being genuinely kind.

Genuine kindness creates feelings of warmth and connection, as does love, and it is these feelings that produce oxytocin.

OK, so now we know that kindness produces oxytocin. How does that heal the body?

Well, oxytocin is a cardioprotective hormone. Cardioprotective means exactly what it says – protective towards the cardiovascular system. It provides this protection in a few ways.

First, it stimulates production of nitric oxide, which then dilates our arteries. The result is a reduction in blood pressure. This is a well-known strategy employed by cardiovascular drugs – to boost nitric oxide. It was one of the first strategies I learned when I worked in cardiovascular drug development, in fact. It is also the basis for how Viagra works. Outside it’s very well-known role, Viagra is also a cardiovascular drug.

Second, oxytocin acts as both an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory throughout the cardiovascular system. An antioxidant basically means it is anti (against) oxidation (or oxidative stress), more popularly known as ‘free radical’ damage. Free radicals harm the heart and arteries, which is why we’re encouraged to have antioxidants in our diets through eating vegetables, fruits, and things like cinnamon, dark chocolate, and even olive oil.

The anti-inflammatory part is vital too because inflammation plays a major role in cardiovascular disease. We generally focus so much on reducing cholesterol, but inflammation is just as much of an issue. In fact, an increase in cholesterol is often a side effect of inflammation.

So, given that oxytocin is such a potent cardioprotective hormone and that we produce it when we’re being genuinely kind, we can therefore say that kindness is cardioprotective – that kindness reduces blood pressure, acts as an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory.

Indeed, we’ve probably all felt that relaxing, calming sense that kindness brings, whether we’re the person being kind, the recipient of it, or even a witness to it, and even sometimes a warm feeling in the chest, which is caused by an oxytocin-stimulated increase in blood flow to the heart.

Furthermore, studies on the Buddhist, Loving-Kindness meditation, also known as metta bhavana, have shown potent anti-inflammatory effects. In research, people taught the meditation, where they cultivated feelings of kindness and compassion, were found to have a much lower inflammatory response to stress. Other research on the meditation showed increases in nitric oxide, undoubtedly due to increases in oxytocin.

So, kindness reduces blood pressure and causes antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. And there’s more. Oxytocin – our molecule of kindness also helps speed up wound healing. Under conditions when oxytocin levels are low, certain wounds can take longer to heal. Part of the reason for this is that oxytocin promotes angiogenesis – regrowth of blood vessels – which is vital to wound healing. When we get plenty of oxytocin in our bodies, wound healing is more at an optimum. Kindness really does heal!

Our molecule of kindness also plays a key role as an antioxidant in skin cells. Getting plenty of oxytocin into the skin slows the ageing of skin, in fact. We can’t eat or drink oxytocin; it’s not something we get from diet. We must produce it through how we feel, which is often a consequence of how we behave (i.e. kind or not). Therefore, there’s a strong case for the effect of being kind and how we age.

It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. We all know that stress can speed up ageing, and much of this is because stress increases free radicals and inflammation. In the skin, this accelerates ageing. And let me remind you that it’s the feelings of stress that are doing this. Swap stress for kindness, on the other hand, and the warm feelings of connection produce oxytocin, which is delivered to the skin, thus slowing the visible process of ageing.

Research now even shows that oxytocin plays a vital role in cardiomyogenesis – the growth of heart muscle cells. In fact, in the absence of enough oxytocin, cardiomyogenesis is significantly slowed. This effect is most pronounced in infants or young children who do not receive enough love. Their entire body, including the heart, grows at a slower rate (about 30% slower).

This lack of emotional warmth and loving contact significantly reduces levels of human growth hormone and oxytocin. In reference to research in this area, UNICEF wrote that, “For every three months that a young child resides in an institution, they lose one month of development.” Importantly, bringing a child into a warm emotional environment has positive effects on growth and development. Some research shows a massive catch up of growth when a child is fostered or adopted from an institution.

So, yes, love and kindness can mend a broken heart, but over and above the emotional healing, we have very positive physical effects too, on the heart and the whole body.

You may have noticed that I have referred to genuine kindness above as how we produce oxytocin. This is very important because, just like feelings of stress produce stress hormones, it is the feelings associated with kindness that produce oxytocin. The only way to get these warm feelings of connection is when the kindness is genuine. You must mean it, in other words.

Most of this research didn’t exist ten years ago, which is why it is not common knowledge, especially in professional circles and in mainstream health services. I believe it is time that we make it common knowledge then because it is hugely beneficial in our homes, for ourselves and our family members, in our workplaces, hospitals, and societies at large.

So, please feel free to share this article with friends, family, colleagues, and co-workers so that the information reaches the people it needs to reach. And in the process of going about your day today, be kind!

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.

References

All references cited above can be found in David R Hamilton, PhD., ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness