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Mind–Body Therapy

The mind–body connection is at the heart of complementary and alternative medicine. More than 50% of people with a chronic illness are using some form of alternative treatment. Mind–body therapies access the mind–body connection to improve health and recover from illness. The main mind–body therapies are hypnosis, mental imagery, biofeedback, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, meditation, breath work, and tai chi.

Mind–body therapies emphasize using the mind in conjunction with physical treatment to assist the healing process. These therapies have been found effective for reducing depression, insomnia, stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), nausea, acute and chronic pain, poor circulation, diabetes, and hypertension. Mind–body therapies aim at establishing balance or homeostasis.

Dr. Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response, did some of the early mind–body research. Benson founded the Mind Body Medical Institute” at Harvard Medical School. In The Relaxation Response, Benson explored the power of meditation to affect health. Using Transcendental Meditation for his studies, Benson found that meditation elicits the relaxation response, which in turn: decreases drug and alcohol consumption, decreases fight-or-flight physiology (the stress response), decreases oxygen consumption, decreases lactate (an indicator of stress), lowers blood pressure and heart rate, decreases fatigue and muscle tension, improves sleep, greatly improves functioning of the immune system, and decreases the levels of chemicals in the blood associated with anxiety. In short, the relaxation response improves mental and physical problems induced by stress.

Mind–body therapies go beyond the relaxation response. The power of the mind can hold sway over life and death. Most of us know someone or have heard of someone who battled a fatal illness for a long time, refusing to die until after their child or grandchild’s wedding, or some other important event. Then shortly after that event, the person dies. These people are “willing” their body to stay alive until they are ready to die. That kind of mental power is extraordinary and needs to be tapped, in the course of recovery from illness.”

People with any illness, especially a chronic illness, need to have access to as many tools as possible — the best of conventional medicine, alternative therapies, diet, nutritional medicine, exercise, and dozens of other alternative therapies. When I evaluate someone for the first time, I want to know much more than what the main symptom or illness is. I want to explore body, mind, and spirit. When I explain the importance of targeted mind–body therapies, I often hear, “Oh, I already have a psychologist,” or “This has nothing to do with my mind.” In general, mind–body therapies are not psychotherapy. They are ways that we can consciously use our mind to enhance health, decrease pain, and improve the chances of recovery from illness.

Mind Defined

Defining the mind is difficult. Here is one useful definition by Antonio R.. Damasio. “We define the mind as conscious and unconscious thought patterns, including images, perceptions, and intentions generated by a functional network of distributed neural centers in the brain and body, including homeostatic representations that provide the context for human self-awareness and emotional experience.” I have found that Eastern spiritual and philosophical teachings provide the most clear, profound definitions of the mind.

The mind permeates every inch (perhaps every cell) of the body. Our vital energy, also called “prana” or “chi,” also permeates the entire body. Where mind goes prana goes. Wherever the mind is most affecting the body, our vital energy, entwined with the mind, instantly penetrates the same area. We can’t separate the mind from the body or the body from the mind.

How the Mind–Body Connection Works

1. The Nervous System

The mind–body connection refers to the intertwining of mind and body. The most obvious way that it works is through the central and peripheral nervous system. People with chronic digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease find that, when they experience stress, their digestive tract responds almost instantly. A stress can translate into intestinal pain or diarrhea in seconds. Whether that stress is something we see or hear, nerve impulses travel quickly from the brain to the digestive tract, which is massively covered with nerves.

2. Immune System

Dr. Candace Pert, author of “Molecules of Emotion: Why We Feel the Way We Feel” and discoverer of the endorphin receptor site has made huge contributions to our understanding of the mind–body connection. Dr. Pert discovered the endorphin receptor site in 1972, setting off a revolution of treatments (especially medications) that work at receptor sites. Pert participated in research that showed that all components of the immune system, such as white blood cells, have receptor sites for all or most neurotransmitters. At the same time, neurons (nerve cells) have receptor sites for immune system chemicals. Her conclusion was that the immune system is a floating nervous system.  This is a big piece in understanding how the mind–body connection works. There is hard-wiring of the mind–body connection through the nervous system and soft-wiring consisting of chemicals that activate both nerve cells and immune system cells.

3. Water and the Mind–body

When Masuro Emoto published his work on water, water crystals and how our thoughts and emotions alter water crystals, I wondered how that might relate to the mind–body connection. Our bodies are two-thirds water.  Is it possible that our thoughts and emotions affect the crystalline structure of our own water?  I don’t know, but with our bodies being largely water, and with emotion changing the structure of water, it is possible that the structure of water in our bodies is part of what connects mind and body.

4. The Breath

Conscious control of the breath is part of most mind–body programs. The breath, considered to be an interface between mind and body, can alter energy levels, stress, and focus faster than any other modality. Voluntary, conscious, slow breathing decreases sympathetic nervous system activity (fight-or-flight), and increases parasympathetic nervous system activity (associated with rest, relaxation, and serenity). One hypothesis (Jerath and colleagues) is that conscious breath work resets the autonomic nervous system. Conscious breathing improves heart and lung function, partly through the increased tissue oxygenation that deep breathing provides.

The breath is directly linked to vital energy, or prana. When we breathe, our body’s vital energy increases. As mentioned previously, where the mind goes, prana goes. When the emphasis is consciously using the breath, the mind becomes quieter, more still, and as a result, both body and mind become calmer.

5. The Pituitary Gate

It is my belief and theory that the pituitary gland acts as a gate. If that gate is closed, when we experience stress, the pituitary gland won’t release hormones that trigger the stress response. When the gate is closed, stress causes problems above the neck, such as anxiety, insomnia, and depression. Other people have an open pituitary gate. When they are stressed, the pituitary gland quickly relays that stress straight to the body, by releasing ACTH and other stress-related hormones.

How does the outside world affect our physiology? First, we take in the world through our five senses. Information from the senses goes straight to the mind, which quickly determines if our senses have picked up information that is stressful. If we determine (unconsciously) that the stress is serious, we move into fight-or-flight physiology. The mind (which is formless) relays an “alert message” to the hypothalamus, part of the brain involved with memory and emotion. The hypothalamus relays electrical signals through nerves to the pituitary gland, which is directly below the hypothalamus. The pituitary then releases what are called “trophic hormones,” such as ACTH (adreno-cortico-trophic hormone). ACTH enters the bloodstream, reaches the adrenal glands, which respond to ACTH by releasing the stress hormones of cortisol and adrenalin. At this point, what started at a mental level is fully translated into physiology, and it all happens quickly. We can heal the physical damage of stress if we respect the role of the mind and the power of mind–body therapies.

Mind–body Therapies

There are “top-down” mind–body therapies such as meditation, hypnosis, and mental imagery. There are “bottom-up” therapies, such as progressive relaxation, yoga, breath work, and tai chi that start at the body level and affect mind and body. Comprehensive mind–body clinics (also called “Integrative Medicine”) usually teach a combination of top-down and bottom-up therapies.

Medicine is often a world of extremes. On the one hand, there are diehards in conventional medicine who are reductionistic, focusing their attention only on one part of the body and relegating mind–body therapies to the category of snake oil. On the other hand there are those who rely 100% on mind–body, alternative therapies, ignoring the value of conventional medicine, when it’s indicated. I believe that in the future, medicine will be a healthy, practical blend of what we now call “conventional” and “alternative.” Ultimately, healing involves what works. Throughout the history of medicine most major breakthroughs have been rejected—because they do not fit into the belief systems of the time. After there is a large amount of success with a new treatment modality, it gets integrated into medicine, and only then do medical beliefs change to incorporate a new treatment modality.

Both the science and beliefs are solidly established for the mind–body connection and mind–body therapies that access the mind–body connection. Adding meditation, yoga, breath work, mental imagery or hypnosis to your treatment plan is not a sign of mental weakness. It’s a sign that you want to be more empowered, motivated and successful in your journey to health and wellness, to balance and wholeness.

David Gersten, M.D. practices Nutritional Medicine and Integrative Psychiatry out of his Encinitas office and can be reached at 760-633-3063. Please feel free to access 1,000 online pages about holistic health, amino acids, and nutritional therapy at and