Through advances in modern science, we have come to understand that health is much more than the absence of disease. Traditionally, most of us have held an either/or view of health and illness; either we are sick or we are well. We now know that this is not entirely accurate - health and disease exists on a continuum. What most people refer to as “health” may actually more closely resemble a neutral position on the continuum or simply the absence of symptoms. From a practical stand point what this means is that health is something we can actively improve upon.
We once believed that our health was something out of our control. Even now we may feel at the mercy of whatever our genetics and hereditary predicts or helpless when exposed to viruses and bacteria that make us sick. This way of looking at illness certainly made sense when infectious diseases and epidemics ran rampant. Fortunately for us, due to improvements in sanitation, the development of life saving antibiotics and vaccines these type of illnesses are much less likely to be a threat that we will face. Now the diseases that plague us are those of slow accumulations of damage (Sapolsky, 2004). As we face this new contender known as chronic illness, we are armed with the knowledge that these types of diseases are highly influenced by lifestyle, behaviors, and preventive action. The landscape of illness and disease has changed in the last 100 years and if we hope to flourish and thrive, we too must adapt by changing our view and approach to health and illness.
Through epigenetics, the study of how our environment interacts with our biology to turn on the expression of some genes and turn off the expression of other genes, we are coming to understand that our behaviors and environment can play a huge role in determining whether certain genes are activated. The reality is that we have more control over our health than any of us ever dreamed. What we do matters, how we take care of our bodies matters and even how we think about our health and our body matters.
What is more, our belief about the separation of mind and body, could not be farther from the truth. The more science learns about the body and the brain, the more we understand the myriad of ways that the two are connected and entirely interdependent. As a culture, we have been exceedingly poor at taking advantage of this connection and using it to our individual and collective benefit. Right now we are on the brink of understanding, through science, what a powerful tool the mind is in maintaining health, preventing illness, and helping the body to heal (Karren et al., 2014).
A great example of this is the placebo response, a real and powerful response generated by the mind to an inactive substance. The placebo response has been shown to reduce pain and help in healing (Finiss et al., 2010). We know that the placebo response is meditated through the reward and expectation pathways in the brain and through learning and conditioning (Finiss et al.,2010). The mind’s ability to facilitate the body’s natural healing process is not make believe or the stuff of fairy tales - this is scientific fact and we are now coming to understand how to put these methods into action through interventions such as:
· biofeedback, a form of self-regulation using equipment to read physiological change.
If you are interested in learning more about how these methods can be useful to you, please call us at 732.263.7999. Visit our website www.HackensackMeridianHealth.org/IntegrativeMedicine to find out more. Follow our social media for daily health & wellness info:
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Finiss, D. J., Kaptchuk, T.J., Miller, F., Benedetti, F. (2010). Biological, clinical and ethical advances in placebo effects. The Lancet 375, 686-695.
Karren, K.J., Smith., Gordon, K.J. (2014) Mind/body health: The effects attitudes emotions and relationships (5th edition) Pearson Upper Saddle River, NJ.
Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers. New York, NY: St Martin’s Griffin.