10/23/2006 – Fort Wayne, Indiana *News-Sentinel* includes an article:
“Thinking can alter the way body fights disease, new research shows” by
Here’s the article:
Western medicine separated the mind from the body in the Middle Ages
when the famous French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes
agreed to accept flesh and bone as the province of physicians, while the
Catholic Church claimed possession of the mind, insisting it was the
creation of the soul.
But Descartes, whose works were placed on the Church’s Index of
Prohibited Books in 1667, believed the two really interacted in the
brain. Using the fledging powers of observation and deductive reasoning
that he was then developing, Descartes could conclude that “the mind is
so intimately dependent upon the condition and relation of the organs of
the body, that if any means can ever be found to render men wiser and
more ingenious than hitherto, I believe that it is in medicine they must
be sought for.”
It’s taken a long time, but doctors and psychologists are now bringing
the mind and the body back together amid new evidence that the mind can
improve the healing process in ways that traditional medicine can’t.
Unlike earlier notions about the mind-body connection, which were often
based on anecdotal stories or simply “gut” feelings, scientists now can
document through powerful imaging technology what Descartes could only
deduce, that our thoughts are capable of producing dramatic chemical and
physical changes that directly affect our health.
Hospitals, including Northwestern Memorial in the Chicago area, are
enlisting the help of “health psychologists” to find nontraditional ways
to treat patients with common disorders like cancer, heart disease and
gastrointestinal problems. In doing so, doctors have had to come to
grips with something that many have been reluctant to admit: that a
patient’s beliefs can affect the healing process, and that the so-called
placebo effect is not an exercise in self-deception, but an authentic
biological reaction orchestrated by the brain.
“Over the last several decades the empirical evidence (for the placebo
effect) has really mounted, and people in our culture today are much
more likely to embrace this mind-body interaction and synthesis,” says
Kim Lebowitz, director of cardiac behavioral medicine, who was recruited
in 2004 by Northwestern Memorial, becoming the first psychologist in the
country to be hired full time by a hospital cardiac unit.
Health psychologists are not like psychiatrists, who try to uncover
childhood roots of emotional problems. Rather, their practice, called
behavioral medicine, is based on studies showing that stress, anxiety
and depression – which show up as physical symptoms and are a major
reason 60 percent of patients visit doctors – can harm the body just as
directly as germs, artery-clogging diets, lack of exercise, obesity and
misbehaving genes. They are at the interface of psychology and biology,
where what people think and their beliefs can either increase the risk
of disease on the one hand, or restore equanimity on the other.
Patricia Mumby, assistant professor in the department of behavioral
neurosciences at Loyola University Medical Center, is part of the new
breed. A longtime registered nurse, she became dissatisfied with
medicine’s half measure of care and went back to school to study
psychology. She felt it was an untapped reservoir of healing.
“Patients are recognizing the (mind-body) connection, and they want more
control over their own health care and their own well-being. Health care
providers are recognizing it too and are more open to it.”
The healing power of the tools used by health psychologists – relaxation
techniques, self-hypnosis, biofeedback, yoga, acupuncture, exercise,
coping skills – rests on two revolutionary findings by researchers into
how the brain works. One is that a vast network of nerves hard-wires the
brain to all the body’s organs in more ways than previously thought. The
second is that the brain constantly sends out streams of hormones to
regulate the digestive, heart and immune systems and then responds to
the chemical messages sent back.
This field of research, with the formidable name of
psychoneuroimmunology, studies how stressors, and the negative emotions
they generate, are translated into physical changes. The brain, for
example, carries on a two-way conversation with the immune system, and
stress can dial up such hormones as cortisol and adrenaline, increasing
the risk of infection and delaying healing. Laughter and exercise, on
the other hand, can release hormones that subdue inflammation and jack
up natural killer cells, which may provide increased protection against
Descartes knew that the brain could easily be deceived, that the thrill
experienced by someone mistaking a piece of glass for a diamond would
feel as genuine as if they had found the real thing. What recent
research has revealed are the chemical alterations in the brain that
underlie these emotions. New findings show, amazingly, that the brains
of people in clinical trials who take what they think is a potent drug,
but which really is a sugar pill or placebo, produce almost the
identical neurochemical changes as the brains of drug takers.
In one study, during which Parkinson’s disease patients got noticeably
better on a sham drug, imaging showed their brains were producing more
of the muscle-controlling chemical acetylcholine as were the patients
receiving the real medication. Placebos routinely improve disease
symptoms 30 to 60 percent of the time, compared to active medications,
which often do not do much better. And, like real drugs, placebos can
produce adverse side effects when subjects think those side effects are
It is 21st century evidence for what the Stoic philosopher, Lucius
Seneca, noted some 2,000 years ago: “It is part of the cure to wish to
Dr. Patrick McCarthy, co-director of Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s
Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute, understands what Seneca was talking
about. “With surgery we can fix hearts that are (diseased), but that
only goes so far,” he says. Patients may still be dealing with
depression or stress or some other condition that can affect their hearts.
“Twenty years ago, if you’d suggested to someone that they should see a
clinical psychologist, they probably would have had a lot of resistance
– `I’m not crazy. I don’t need them,'” McCarthy says. “It’s a lot more
accepted now. People realize that depression is part of their heart
Delores Rogalski, a 57-year-old from St. Joseph, Mich., underwent a
heart transplant at Northwestern Memorial after dealing with a
“plateful” of stress in a tumultuous four-month period, including a
divorce, lung operation, her daughter’s hospitalization, deaths of a
close friend and mother-in-law and her transplant.
Rogalski’s treatment included sessions with Lebowitz, the director of
behavioral medicine, to reverse her downward spiral of stress. People
try to predict or control their environment, Lebowitz says, and when
problems pile up, anxiety results: They tend to concentrate on all the
things that are out of their control.
Before the transplant, Lebowitz taught Rogalski mental and behavioral
exercises to relax her mind and body. She started with slow, deep
breathing, then moved on to progressive relaxation of every muscle
system from head to toe. Learning to imagine pleasant things transported
her mind into a safe, healing place. She imagined being on a beach or in
the countryside, recalling all the delightful smells, colors and vistas.
“I’m not anything like the person that walked in here,” Rogalski says.
“I’ve accepted my divorce. I’ve accepted the things that I couldn’t do
anything about. I put things in perspective in my life. That’s the key
thing. Emotionally, I was all over the place.”
After Rogalski got her transplant, “I was having her imagine this
powerful heart, very healthy, very pink, beating very rhythmically,”
Lebowitz says. That was a very profound image for her. It gave her a lot
of comfort and strength.”
When scientists talk about stress, they mean chronic stress, the kind
that lasts at least two weeks, not the everyday variety that virtually
everyone experiences, like a mood swing caused by a friend’s careless
remark, a temporary setback at work or declining stock prices.
Like Bruce McEwen, a Rockefeller University neuroendocrinologist, they
have found that such stress can change the brain’s wiring in harmful
ways. His research shows that stress hormones can activate an
inflammatory response in the body that doubles back to hit the brain,
not only in the areas that govern blood pressure, heart rate, intestinal
activity and other responses, but in areas of higher cognitive function
that processes memories, fear and anxiety.
“It turns out that circuits in these parts of the brain are very
sensitive to stress, and we’re just beginning to realize the myriad
consequences that this will have on a person,” he says.
One characteristic of chronic stress and depression is called the
“You feel like when you have a cold or the flu,” McEwen says. “You feel
totally without energy. Your brain is foggy. You can’t remember anything
that’s happening. You feel physically sick. This is caused by an
inflammatory response in your body which is then transmitted into the brain.”
And then transmitted from the brain back to the heart or other organs.
“Your gut’s fundamentally a dumb beast. Your heart’s fundamentally a
dumb beast. They take their direction from the central nervous system,”
says Dr. Michael Jones, director of Northwestern Memorial’s Center for
Functional Gastrointestinal and Motility Disorders.
That connection has been lost, he says, since the Enlightenment in the
18th Century, when scientists decided to study the human condition and
Descartes was one of its luminaries. “That was also the time of the
Inquisition,” Jones notes, “and the Catholic Church basically said:
`Rene, that’s a wonderful idea, but I just really want you to keep in
mind that the mind and the soul belong to God and the Catholic Church.'”
Mind-body dualism also was an efficient business model – you have an
ill, I have a pill. But it neglected the natural healing – and
potentially destructive – power of the brain, Jones says.
The brain’s effect on the body has always been evident in some ways: A
stressful situation triggers a feeling of butterflies in the stomach,
one of the first organs to be hit by chronic stress. The meal you are
enjoying will not digest as well if it is interrupted by a call from the
IRS saying your tax return will be audited.
It doesn’t matter if you’re stressed because you’re making your gut
miserable or whether you’re stressed because you’re gut is making you
miserable, Jones says. What matters is breaking the cycle.
“I’ve got the latest and greatest motility drugs and visceral
analgesics,” Jones says. “We have all the bells and whistles, and none
of it really does anything (if chronic stress is involved). But when you
talk to people and put their problem in the context of their lives and
look at the big picture, they start to get better.”
Three years ago when Seth Knocke was 16, the youth began experiencing
severe nausea after eating. He saw several doctors to no avail and
finally was referred to Jones, who first tried his “bells and whistles.”
An anti-nausea drug had no effect. That was followed by an
antidepressant to relax the digestive system’s smooth muscles. That
worked for eight months, then the nausea returned as intensely as before.
That’s when Jones called in clinical psychologist Laurie Keefer, now a
full-time member of his team at Northwestern. Jones figured out that
Knocke’s troubles began with a stomach virus that made him nauseated
when he ate. Even after the virus went away, his brain retained that
association and released nausea-producing chemicals whenever he consumed food.
To break that noxious cycle, Keefer tried teaching Knocke self-hypnosis,
in which the patient remains fully conscious but relaxes to the point
where he is in a state near falling asleep, preparing his brain to
accept information that would disassociate food from nausea.
Staring at a lighted picture in a dark room, Knocke listened to Keefer
suggest that he was making a gentle descent on a soft cloud to a boat in
a tranquil pond. Drinking the cool water would feel like medicine going
down his throat and into his stomach, where it would cure any nausea.
After five once-a-week sessions, the nausea went away. The few times
since then that it threatened to return, Knocke went into his self-
hypnosis mode, soothing his stomach with an imaginary sip of cool water.
Now a freshman at Beloit College, he plans to major in psychology,
inspired by his experience with the healing power of self-hypnosis.
“They said my brain was essentially a computer with a hard drive,”
Knocke says. “What got loaded into my brain was this nausea and they
just needed to rewire it and I’ll be OK.”
Irritable bowel syndrome is the No. 1 reason people seek out
gastroenterologists. Since current drug therapy for this condition often
is disappointing, an increasing number of physicians are switching to
treating the brain in order to calm the gut.
A recent study by University of Manchester researchers found that at the
end of one year, both psychotherapy and antidepressants were better at
reducing symptoms and improving quality of life than routine care.
Furthermore, psychotherapy was the cheapest to provide, costing 22
percent less than antidepressants and 41 percent less that standard therapy.
Selma Holme turned to a stress-reduction regimen while she was being
treated for uterine cancer two years ago. After 14 years of caring for
her husband, Jack, who has Parkinson’s disease, she felt as if her
immune system had burned out.
Holme first turned to guided imagery to relax and then to self-hypnosis.
A year ago, she started receiving acupuncture treatments as part of
Loyola’s stress-reduction program. It wasn’t long before her husband
commented on how she wasn’t as uptight as before, then her daughter
remarked on how well she and her husband were getting along.
“I have more energy. I’m optimistic,” says Holme, who is now cancer-free
after radiation therapy.
Obviously, behavioral medicine cannot replace vaccines, drugs, surgery
or other conventional medicine, and no one knows exactly how effective
it is. But there is a growing consensus in the medical community that
stress, anxiety and depression are bad for health and need to be treated.
In 1995, Ohio State University researchers Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and her
husband, Ronald Glaser, published a pivotal study showing that relatives
who cared for Alzheimer’s patients, a stressful task, took 24 percent
longer to heal from small, laboratory-induced superficial flesh wounds
than people in the same age and economic bracket who were not caregivers.
That was followed by a second study showing that wound-healing in
students facing midterm exams took 40 percent longer than when they
looked forward to summer vacation.
Stress plays havoc with hormones like cortisol, known as the stress
hormone, and adrenaline, the fight-or-flight hormone, says Glaser,
director of OSU’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research. They can
cause blood cells to lose their equilibrium, change their function and
deregulate the immune system, he explains. Immune cells start pumping
out inflammatory proteins called cytokines, which in the short run speed
healing but when produced in excess can damage tissue all through the
body, increasing the risk of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis and diabetes.
“When Jan and I started working with each other, quite frankly I didn’t
believe this,” Glaser says, referring to the impact of stress on disease
and healing. “I said, `OK, we’ll do a study and if it doesn’t work
that’ll be the end of it.’ So here we are 20 years later still doing
this research, because obviously it worked.”
In fact, it’s changing medicine, he says. “Physicians will start asking
patients what’s going on in their lives when they come in with
infectious diseases or cancer or metabolic diseases or diabetes or
obesity. Because now we know that what’s going on in their lives is
affecting those diseases.”
The first indication that stress was not just a nuisance but could
hammer internal organs came in the early 1900s, when Harvard’s Walter
Cannon discovered that whenever people feel threatened, the body rushes
to raise blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and breathing.
Sixty years later, in the same laboratory used by Cannon, Dr. Herbert
Benson discovered the antidote to stress: the “relaxation response.”
During his research, Benson was leery of incurring the scorn of his
Harvard colleagues, so he waited until the dark of night to bring in
subjects, who practiced transcendental meditation. Simply by thinking,
he found, they could dramatically alter body functions. Breathing slowed
by 25 percent, oxygen consumption declined by 17 percent, blood pressure
fell and heart rate slowed.
And it wasn’t just meditation that reduced stress. Further research
showed that deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, hypnosis,
guided imagery, prayer and other techniques could achieve relaxation.
“Any disorder that is caused or made worse by stress, to that extent the
relaxation response is an effective therapy,” says Benson, the Mind/Body
Medical Institute associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical
School. “We found it useful in hypertension, anxiety, mild and moderate
depression, excessive anger and hostility, and insomnia, among other things.”
People intuitively feel that doing something to calm their nerves helps,
he says. A federally funded study in 2004 revealed that half of all
Americans practice some form of relaxation, although most never tell
“We view health and well-being as akin to a three-legged stool,” Benson
says. “One leg is drugs and the second leg is surgery and medical
procedures. But there has to be a third leg and that’s self-care, which
involves such things as the relaxation response, nutrition and exercise.”
Benson’s investigation of the placebo effect, which is different than
the relaxation response, leads him to conclude that it works by
triggering memory traces that regulate stress hormones, a process he
calls “remembered wellness.”
“There are three components of the placebo effect,” he says. “The belief
and expectations of the patient, the belief and expectations of the
physician or health professional and the belief and expectations that
come from the relationship of the two.
“When they’re in sync, remarkable healing properties come about. If you
believe yourself (to be) well, you can often be well. Will this cure all
diseases? Of course not. But many medicines are perhaps working because
of the placebo effect.”
Psychological interventions may aid healing, but can they prolong the
lives of seriously ill patients? That remains controversial, though some
studies suggest a positive effect. Alastair J. Cunningham of the Ontario
Cancer Institute found that terminally ill cancer patients who remained
upbeat tended to live longer than equally ill patients who succumbed to
stress and depression.
“We have some evidence that when people get very involved in helping
themselves in these ways they can live longer,” Cunningham says. “But
there are no guarantees.”
If stress causes bad chemical changes in the brain, can happiness
produce good changes? Finding out is the goal of Lee Berk, associate
professor of health promotion and education at Loma Linda University
near Los Angeles.
Spurred on in his research by the late Norman Cousins, who maintained
that laughing at Laurel and Hardy comedies helped him overcome a life-
threatening autoimmune disease, Berk discovered that laughter, as well
as exercise, music and meditation increase levels of endorphin, a key
brain chemical. Endorphin, which is actually morphine produced by the
body, is a mood elevator and reduces levels of stress hormones.
“It slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure and reduces respiration
so you don’t need to breathe fast,” Berk says. “It plugs into immune
cells and produces beneficial changes.”
Berk’s study of patients who suffered their first heart attack showed
that those who watched a comedy or sitcom half an hour a day were
significantly less likely to suffer a second attack than comparable
patients who were not given a prescription for humor.
“If we could package mirthful laughter in a pill, it would literally
require FDA approval to give it to patients because of all the changes
that take place,” he says.