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Evidence is mounting that our thoughts, emotions and beliefs can heal and avert disease – so choose yours wisely, says Denise Cullen.

When science writer Jo Marchant felt a throbbing headache descend, she reached for a jar of candy blue capsules. ‘Metaplacebalin Relaxant Capsules,’ the label read. ‘One or two capsules to be taken three times per day.’ Standing by the sink, she downed two, with a glass of water. “It’s hardly a scientific trial,” she writes in “Cure” (Text Publishing, 2016). “But within 20 minutes or so, the pain really does dissipate.”

Remarkably, Marchant hadn’t just swallowed a new miracle drug. Even more remarkably, she knew the pills were placebos – sugar pills, containing no active ingredients whatsoever. They were sold by a company called APlacebo which, like others of its ilk, capitalises upon humans’ ability to attach meaning to any medical treatment, fake or otherwise. “Neither fake acupuncture nor a fake pill is in itself capable of doing anything,” Marchant writes. “But patients interpret them in different ways, and that in turn creates different changes in their symptoms.”

Placebo power

Marchant conducted this experiment as part of a global exploration of the science of mind over body, and documents the compelling results in “Cure”. Practitioners of Eastern medicine have never bought into Cartesian dualism, which views the body and mind as two independent entities. Western medical science, however, which has long pooh-poohed therapies such as acupuncture and homoeopathy, is only just catching on to the important and influential role the mind plays in our overall physical health.

There’s no need to throw rational thought to the wind, Marchant argues. Evidence is mounting that our thoughts, emotions and beliefs can ease pain, heal wounds, fend off infection and heart disease, even slow the progression of AIDS and some cancers. “The science is there,” she says. It was once thought, for instance, that nervous and immune systems had nothing to do with each other. However, it is now known that they are intimately linked and that our senses, including sight, smell and taste, may facilitate their communication.

In “Cure”, Marchant interviews a nephrologist (kidney doctor) who is tasked with delivering sufficient doses of immune-suppressing drugs to stop patients’ bodies rejecting their transplants, while preventing dangerous side effects such as toxicity. The doctor freely acknowledges the interaction between the immune system and the brain. “I see in my clinic that patients reject their (kidney) graft if they have a psychological crisis,” he says. Strange as it sounds, his knowledge led him to co-developing a treatment protocol that involves patients drinking a bright green lavender-flavoured milk that uses the power of conditioning to calm hostile immune systems.

It is also widely accepted that chronic stress floods the body with high levels of cortisol, causing inflammation which triggers disease. The work of Australian Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn and her colleagues has specifically investigated the effect of stress on telomeres (small caps on the ends of our chromosomes) and telomerase (the enzyme that replenishes telomeres) in relation to mindfulness meditation. Stress, it seems, shortens telomeres; stress relief may slow the progression of illnesses like cancer in some patients. “It’s not that you can wish these diseases away, but it seems we can prevent and slow their onset with stress management,” Blackburn says.

Our very longevity may even hinge on telomeres. Scientist Bill Andrews, who features in the documentary “The Immortalists”, highlights the role of telomeres in ageing, and the development of age-related diseases like heart disease and Alzheimer’s. He points to one study involving genetically modified mice with short telomeres: when telomerase was added, they showed “significant signs of age reversal”.

However promising the results, there are significant barriers to those undertaking research in the field of mind-body medicine. Marchant reveals that Big Pharma drives much of the research agenda, leaving precious little, if any, funding for research into holistic, preventive or complementary therapies. “Despite their best intentions, medical professionals are working within a system that prioritises access to medical technology, and allows increasingly little space for the human aspects of care," she writes. So while modern medicine skilfully sets broken bones, excises tumours, and balances blood chemistry, it fails to adequately address chronic, complex health conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, chronic pain, depression, addiction, or obesity.

If there is a take-home message to be drawn from Marchant’s work, it is how the bond between patient and practitioner may influence treatment outcomes. While most doctors are harried and hurried, people just want to be heard. As Hippocrates noted, “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.”

Mind-body magic

Research shows that meditation helps protect against depression and dementia. Medical imaging studies suggest that meditation may counteract or prevent the physiological cause of depression by decreasing amygdala activity and increasing grey matter volume and activity of the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex and other brain regions associated with attention and emotional self-regulation, according to a paper in Radiography.

Generally speaking, people live longest in the world’s richest countries. But when residents of Costa Rica’s impoverished Nicoya peninsula defied this trend by demonstrating “surprisingly high” life expectancies, researchers identified contributing factors including active lifestyles, strong religious faith, ample sleep, healthy diet and, crucially, close family ties, Marchant reports. The emerging field of behavioural epigenetics (the process by which DNA in cells is “tagged” by environmental cues) supports the notion that social relationships influence gene expression.

The brain’s fixed capacity for conscious attention has opened up drug-free possibilities for pain relief. The knowledge that visual imagery is a potent form of distraction has resulted in the development of virtual reality scenarios such as “Snow World”, which allows war veterans to experience less pain while having their burns treated, and “Comfort Talk”, a combination of empathic communication skills, positive suggestion and visual imagery developed by an intervention radiologist for people undergoing invasive medical procedures like breast biopsies. In trials, patients who received Comfort Talk reported less pain and anxiety than those receiving standard care; they also required lower levels of sedative drugs, and had far fewer complications.

Denise Cullen is a Brisbane-based freelance writer and editor. She contributes to a range of local and international publications including The Age, The Australian, The Courier-Mail and The Sydney Morning Herald and is a Master of Psychology (Forensic) student at Bond University.