A Healthy Start to a Healthy Year

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The evolving field of psycho-neuroimmunology, or the study of themind-body connection – often considered fringe beliefs – couldhelp you keep your resolutions. This intriguing subject ofscientific inquiry is still shrouded in mystery.

Just as an experiment, put aside your skepticism, pretend thatthese ideas could be explained by science, and consider how youcould harness their power to promote your health.

Placebo Effect

When new medications are tested, one group gets the newmedication and another group gets the “sugar pill” or placebo.Why do this? Study after study shows that if you think you’retaking real medicine, your body will respond as if it actuallydid get the active ingredient, even if it’s a sugar pill.Somehow the belief in the power of the medicine creates thedesired outcome of lowered blood pressure or heart rate or weightloss in about a third of people. Is this science? Yes. Is thismind-body medicine? Yes.

Let your beliefs help your body achieve your desired goals. Ifregular exercise is your goal, tell yourself, “I’m invigorated bymy daily 20 minute walk.” The placebo effect suggests that yourbelief that you have more energy with regular exercise makes itso.

Nocebo Effect

In November 1998, a teacher noticed a “gasoline-like” smell inher classroom, and soon thereafter she had a headache, nausea anddizziness. Given the concern about a toxic environmentalsubstance, the school was evacuated and closed for 5 days.Almost 200 students and teachers were seen in the ER for similarsymptoms. But no environmental cause was ever identified. Oneexplanation is that the belief that a toxic exposure occurred ledto the symptoms, or the nocebo effect. This is the flip side ofthe placebo effect.

I reflected on this study as I was waiting with my son for histurn in the dental chair. He repeated, “It’s going to hurt; it’sgoing to hurt.” I suggested to him that he might be better servedby saying, “It’s going to be fine; it’s going to be fine.”

Has the nocebo effect undermined your New Year’s resolutions inthe past? Barry saw this in action last March as he toldhimself,”I hate to exercise.” He made a commitment to dailywalks in January and talked himself out of them before the wintersnow melted.

Harness the power of the placebo effect and minimize the noceboeffect this year, even if your resolution is somethingchallenging like smoking cessation. In years past you might havetold yourself, “This never works. I’ll never be a non-smoker.”Consider replacing that thought with, “In the past it didn’twork. Now I keep my promises.”

Gelotology

It’s the study of humor and its effects on the human body.Researchers are asking the question, “Is laughter good medicine?”You know from your own experience that laughter breaks stress andtension. Evidence suggests that laughter enhances the functionof your immune system and stimulates pleasure centers in thebrain.

You always have the choice about whether to laugh or cry. Annremembered that as she completed an interview for the job of herdreams. She bought a new suit that made her feel like she alreadyhad the job. It wasn’t until she left the group interview thatshe discovered the toilet paper stuck in the waist of her skirtstreaming behind her like a tail. After an initial rush ofembarrassment she laughed.

Prayer

We are a deeply religious nation, and many of my patients useprayer as a source of strength and comfort. Can prayer promotehealing? Growing evidence from well-respected clinical studiessuggests it can, although not enough evidence for the medicalcommunity to conclude that prayer is good for health.

What kind of evidence would you need to use prayer as part ofyour health regimen? Interestingly, you would consider the samefactors whether you’re re-considering Vioxx or Naproxen (recentlyfound to cause heart problems) or Aryuvedic remedies (recentlyfound to be associated with toxic levels of heavy metals). Whatare the desired benefits, and what are the risks?

What harm could prayer do? We doctors get concerned when patientsforgo conventional therapy that has proven benefit for therapieslike prayer or shark cartilage that do not have proven value.Consider using mind-body therapies such as prayer together withproven medical treatment. Now, shark cartilage is another matter- and simply not proven at all.

Gratitude and giving

Some interesting, if preliminary, studies suggest that theexpression of gratitude and the act of giving increase brainserotonin levels, the same chemical change antidepressantmedication helps. That might support your own experience offeeling better as you reach out to the tsunami victims or expressgratitude for the health and safety of those you love and theextraordinary richness of your life.

You have the power to carry out your New Year’s resolutions,whether it’s achieving greater physical, financial or spiritualhealth. Who knows-maybe one day with greater understanding ofthe mind-body connection, you doctor may prescribe the power ofyour mind to help you get there.

By Vicki Rackner MD

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