Have you ever wretched at the sight of maggots in the trash or lost your appetite after finding a hair in your food? Does your skin crawl at the sound of chalk scraping the blackboard? Felt aroused at the sound or sight of your lover? You are experiencing how dramatically your physical body responds to your ethereal mind.
When it comes to our health, the conventional science downplays the interaction of the mind and body. Just the idea that prolonged stress or anxiety can cause long-term health problems took a long time to catch on. Instead, the science community looked almost exclusively to the hard facts.
The Greek physician Hippocrates (370 BC) spoke of “the natural healing force within.” So, back before Jesus, physicians appeared to understand or suspect the connection between our body and mind. By the seventeenth century, René Descartes’ view of the duality between the body and mind was adopted and accepted. The physical body was rooted in the material world and studied by scientific methods while the ethereal mind could not be. In other words, patients’ accounts of symptoms were replaced by health studies’ outcomes (i.e., hard numbers).
Advances in MRI technology, observing how our brain responds to stimuli, has diminished Descartes idea of body and mind dualism. Even so, thoughts and emotions are still seen as soft science because they are less measurable than analyzing the physical body. This view is why our health insurance seldom reimburses for visits to homeopaths, acupuncturists, massage therapists, or for any treatment not proven with mathematical precision.
The conventional approach to medicine has resulted in miraculous discoveries. Antibiotics saved my life at the TB sanatorium. Vaccines protect children from polio and measles. Down syndrome can be diagnosed in the womb. Physicians transplant diseased organs like gardeners plant perennials. Hips and knees are replaced and a week later you are on the golf course. However, the conventional approach has failed when it comes to warding off or defending us from pain, depression, chronic diseases, dementia and more.
Jo Marchant, who has a Ph.D. in genetics and medical microbiology, writes of the moment when she began to think about the lines drawn in the sand between conventional medicine and alternative approaches. Sitting at a park she struck up a conversation with another mother—women are quick to share—who said that homeopathic medicine had cured her of longstanding, debilitating eczema. “I love homeopathy!” the mother told her.
Jo’s science-trained brain did a knee-jerk, “But there’s nothing in homeopathic remedies.” To which the woman said, “nothing measurable.” Those two words pushed Jo off the straight and narrow science path deep into the world of “holistic traditions that prioritize the immaterial over the material; people over conditions; subjective experience and beliefs over objective trial results.” Her journey and findings are told in her book, Cure, A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body.
Some years ago, when family and financial demands peeked, Tim’s back complained bitterly. Visiting doctors, the conclusion was surgery. I shared with Tim overhearing a coworker describe her brother-in-law’s acupuncture success. After six weeks of acupuncture therapy with a Chinese MD, Tim’s pain had departed. This alternative health approach had eased his cramped back muscles and convinced his mind that all was good and well. When I went to the same practitioner for migraines, he was not able to help any more than conventional approaches.
“We are witnessing a revolution in medicine, in which we’ll soon fully understand the role of the mind in health and will come to see the human aspects of care not as an add-on luxury, but as a central, guiding principle towards improving patient outcomes,” writes Jo Marchant. “One obstacle is the way in which research is funded: more than three quarters of clinical trials in the US are funded by drug companies who understandably have no interest in proving the benefit of any approach that might reduce the need for their products. Pills and medical devices are clearly a more attractive business proposition than hypnotherapy or biofeedback.”
The mind does influence our health. No one suggests we ignore science and go back to the dark ages of bloodletting. Hundreds of mindfulness trials and high quality homeopathy studies of equal or higher quality than drug studies have been administered. For those not cured by conventional medicine, alternative approaches offer hope (and minimal intervention) and have delivered favorable results for millions.
Today, nearly 60% of people over 65 are taking five or more drugs and 18% of those are taking ten or more. While we may not have the stats for the number of adverse drug complications, they exist. But stats do exist for drug effectiveness. “The main threats facing us now are not acute infections easily cured with a pill,” Marchant writes, “but chronic, stress-related conditions for which drugs are not nearly as effective. We’ve seen that in many cases, painkillers and antidepressants may not work much better than placebos. The top ten highest grossing drugs in the US help only between 1 in 25 and 1 in 4 of the people who take them; statins may benefit as few as 1 in 50.”
In other words, attending to our health means care of body and mind. How we get there, conventional or holistic, is for us to discover. What works for one person may not be the answer for another. Medical doctors take the Hippocratic Oath, first do not harm. When it comes to our own bodies, perhaps we should do the same and keep an open mind for how to heal it.