When it comes to your health, there is one factor that is more important than almost any other...
If it is missing from your life, it causes or worsens 95 percent of all illness. It has been associated with dramatic reductions in disease and increased longevity.
And it is more important than cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, or any other risk factor in determining whether you will live a long and healthy life. But it doesn't come in a pill, and it can't be found in a hospital or in your doctor's office.
What is this critical factor that determines so much about how healthy or how sick you are?
Your attitude, your social networks, your community, and your spiritual beliefs.
Put another way, the health of your mind and spirit and your sense of connection to your community has an immense impact on the health of your body. In fact, aside from eating breakfast, the biggest predictor of longevity is psychological resiliency -- being able to roll with the punches that life throws at us.
We've known about this in medicine for a long time. I was recently browsing through my library and found an old book that I read in college called Mind as Healer, Mind as Slayer, written by a friend and leader in the field of mind/body medicine, Kenneth Pelletier. He is a clinical professor of medicine at the medical schools of the University of California, San Francisco and the University of Arizona.
His book was published in 1977. I wish I could say that a lot has changed since that book was published. Sure, we have filled in the gaps and learned more about the mechanisms through which the body affects the mind and the mind affects the body, but the basic truths remain the same.
There is a dramatic and powerful connection between your mind and body, and between your body and your mind. In fact, it really should not be called a connection because it is just ONE bidirectional system.
Unfortunately, few doctors accept or understand this fundamental reality about biology. So, in most doctors' offices, you aren't going to learn about the connection between your body and brain or how to use that connection to help you heal.
However, in this blog I am going to give you the tools to do that. I am going to explain how the body and mind are intimately connected and give you 10 tips you can use to calm your mind and heal your body.
Calming your mind is the last of the 7 Keys to UltraWellness; today you are going to learn how you can relax your way to vibrant health and optimal weight.
An Epidemic of Stress-Related Disorders
According to Hans Selye, MD, the man who coined the word "stress" and first mapped out its biological effects, "The modern physician should know as much about emotions and thoughts as about disease symptoms and drugs. This approach would appear to hold more promise of cure than anything medicine has given us to date."
Selye's words are as true today as they were on the day he wrote them.
We are seeing an epidemic of stress-related disorders in our society, including depression, anxiety, autism, attention deficit disorder, memory disorders, and dementia, and these disorders are making the pharmaceutical industry highly profitable.
You see, Americans live on caffeine and Prozac. We use substances to manage our moods. In fact, the four top-selling items in grocery stores are all drugs that we use to manage our mood and energy: caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and nicotine.
But how do we really deal with the root of this problem? You use the MOST powerful pharmacy in the world -- which is right between your ears!
A little later, I will tell you how to use your brain to fix your health problems. First, I want to share a story that illustrates the power the mind has to harm or to heal.
The Power of the Mind-Body Connection
Tom, a long-term patient of mine, came to see me after his wife died. He suddenly developed heart failure. His heart just wouldn't pump. It was flooded with grief molecules, hormones like adrenalin, noradrenalin, and cortisol.
His case is far from being the only documented case in which grief caused cardiovascular problems. The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a study about how grief or emotional trauma can cause heart failure -- literally a broken heart.
Rather than giving Tom drugs for "heart failure" as I was taught in medical school, I suggested he get healing touch, a form of energy and emotional healing. Sounds a bit out there, huh? Well, he followed my advice and dramatically recovered. Touch, not medication, healed his heart.
I think we can all learn a lesson from Tom and other cases like his.
In school, we all learned how to read and write, but we never learned how to use our minds to help us with the most important survival skills of all: staying happy and healthy!
Other cultures differ in their training. Herbert Benson, MD, of Harvard Medical School, has demonstrated the amazing power that trained Tibetan meditators use to control their physiology by slowing their metabolism, changing their heart rates and brain waves, and raising or lowering their body temperature.
He even documented on film an ancient practice called tumo, the generating of internal heat, performed by initiated Tibetan monks. The monks are wrapped in icy cold sheets and must use their internal heat to dry them, possibly by actively burning something called brown fat. As a result, they can sit naked on a snowy mountaintop all night and not freeze, keeping warm with their internal heat.
That's something most of us don't have any consciousness of, or control over. Imagine if you could turn on fat burning and lose weight with your mind!
That is how powerful our mind and our beliefs can be.
But in the West we aren't even taught how to cope with the day-to-day frustrations of life. We live under constant chronic stress and we are not trained to address this stressful psychic load that is the burden of the 21st century.
This is unfortunate, because stress is killing us.
Just consider these facts:
• 95 percent of all illness is caused or worsened by stress.
• Low socioeconomic status is associated with poorer health outcomes and higher risk of death from all causes. This is not because of poor health habits, but because of feelings of powerlessness and loss of control.
• Internalized racism and stress are associated with high amounts of belly fat.
• Stress hormones damage the hippocampus -- the memory center in the brain -- causing memory loss and dementia.
• In a study of people who volunteered to have cold viruses injected into their noses, only people with a high level of perceived stress got colds.
• Women with metastatic breast cancer survived twice as long if they were part of a support group.
• Belonging to a group -- a religious group, a bowling club, a quilting group -- reduces risk of death from all causes and increases longevity, despite health habits.
• In a study of doctors, those who scored high on hostility questionnaires had a higher risk of heart attacks than those who smoked, were overweight, had high blood pressure, or didn't exercise.
So, if you don't think the mind has the power to influence your body, think again.
The good news is that you can change your beliefs and attitudes and their effects on your mind and your body. You may need to learn a few new skills, like stress reduction techniques, but it can be done.
However, our beliefs and attitudes aren't the only things that matter. Our mind and brain function is also influenced by what happens in our bodies. By addressing the 7 Keys to UltraWellness, "mental" problems can often be cured -- without changing our beliefs.
The effects of beliefs and attitudes are important. There can be no question of that. But the effects of imbalances in our core body systems on our mental state and brain function are just as important and are mostly IGNORED by traditional medicine.
For example, I saw a man yesterday who was completely stressed out and anxious. He had palpitations and drank four martinis a night just to calm down. He also had severe muscle cramps and eye twitches.
These are obvious signs of magnesium deficiency. But stress, alcohol, caffeine, and sugar all deplete magnesium. He was trapped in a vicious cycle.
What he needed wasn't Valium or Prozac, but rather to address why he was magnesium-deficient and then fix it through detoxification, treating his yeast overgrowth, cutting out alcohol and caffeine, and supplementing with the relaxation mineral, magnesium, to calm his nervous system.
That, in combination with other tools for calming the mind and the body, will help him reset his nervous system. By using these tools together, he'll be taking advantage of both the body-mind effect and the mind-body effect, thereby optimizing his treatment.
You can do the same thing. By employing the following techniques, you can leverage the power of your brain and body to calm your mind and bring healing.
10 Tips for Calming Your Mind
Here is what we know about how to influence the mind-body and the body-mind system. Consider these essential survival skills. You cannot thrive without them!
1. Address the Underlying Causes of Stress -- Find the biological causes of problems with the mind by working on the 7 Keys to UltraWellness. Mercury toxicity or a magnesium or vitamin B12 deficiency or a toxic gut chemical or a gluten allergy could be changing your brain. So, by changing your body, you can change your mind!
2. Relax -- Learn how to ACTIVELY relax. To engage the powerful forces of the mind on the body, you must DO something -- you can't just sit there watching television or drinking beer.
3. Learn New Skills -- Try learning new skills such as meditation, deep breathing, yoga, biofeedback, and progressive muscle relaxation or take a hot bath, make love, get a massage, watch a sunset, or walk in the woods or on the beach.
4. Move Your Body -- Exercise is a powerful, well-studied way to burn off stress chemicals and heal the mind, so just do it! It has been proven to be better than or equal to Prozac for treating depression.
5. Optimize Your Nutrition -- Clean up your diet from mind-robbing molecules like caffeine, alcohol, and refined sugars and eat regularly to avoid the short-term stress of starvation on your body.
6. Supplement -- Take a multivitamin and nutrients to help balance the stress response, such as vitamin C; the B-complex vitamins, including B6 and B5 or pantothenic acid; zinc; and most important, magnesium, the relaxation mineral.
7. Try Herbs -- Use adaptogenic herbs (herbs that help you adapt and balance your response to stress) such as ginseng, Rhodiola rosea, Siberian ginseng, cordyceps, and ashwagandha.
8. Use Heat Therapy -- Take a hot bath or a sauna to help your body deeply relax and turn on the relaxation response.
9. Change Your Beliefs -- Examine your beliefs, attitudes, and responses to common situations and consider reframing your point of view to reduce stress.
10. Find a Community -- Consciously build your network of friends, family, and community. They are your most powerful allies in achieving long-term health.
In the last seven blogs, I have introduced you to a set of new ideas and concepts that have the power to transform your health personally and to transform health care as a whole. It is no small job in either case, but it is essential to stem the impending tsunami of ill health and economic burden facing us, our children, and our children's children.
The solution is a fundamental change in our worldview about health -- a view that helps us get to the core of illness, learn self-care, take control, and empower ourselves to transform our own health and turn our "sick care" system into a health care system.
Each of us can contribute and make small changes that will have a big effect as we move toward vibrant health and vitality as individuals, and as a society.
Take control of your health today using the techniques I have outlined in this series of blogs, and you will become part of a growing movement that is working toward fundamentally changing the way we understand the body and practice medicine in this country.
Now I'd like to hear from you...
What examples of the mind-body and body-mind effect have you experienced?
What do you do to relax and calm down?
What changes in your health do you notice when you're relaxed?
Please let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD
Mark Hyman, M.D. practicing physician and founder of The UltraWellness Center is a pioneer in functional medicine. Dr. Hyman is now sharing the 7 ways to tap into your body's natural ability to heal itself. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, watch his videos on Youtube and become a fan on Facebook.