There’s no doubt that optimal nutrition plays a significant role in supporting our health and well-being. But nutrition, as important as it is, obviously isn’t the only factor that influences our physiology.
Over the past several years, an increasing amount of research has focused on the role of emotions, behavior and beliefs in contributing to both health and disease. In fact, an entirely new discipline called “psychoneuroimmunology” (say that three times fast!) has emerged to study the connection between the mind and the body. In short, what has been revealed is that the separation we make between “the mind” and “the body” is largely an illusion. Mind and body exist in a continuous and interrelated web of connections that is only now beginning to be discovered by western science.
But though the idea that our thoughts and emotions can directly influence our physiology is new to modern biomedicine (just ten years ago it was dismissed by most physicians and researchers as so much “New Age” fluff), it has been deeply ingrained in our cultural paradigm for centuries. It is embedded in our language; consider the phrases “worried sick” or “scared to death”, and you’ll know what I mean. I’m sure all of you have had the experience of becoming ill after a particularly stressful period at work, or feeling moody and perhaps depressed while you are physically ill. These are both prime examples of how interconnected our mental and emotional health is.
In their book Feeling Good Is Good For You, researchers Carl J. Charnetski and Francis X Brennan set out to review the emerging evidence that pleasure can boost our immune systems and lengthen our lives. According to the authors,:
“In every way, stress is the antithesis of pleasure. It jangles your nerves, juggles a whole host of your body’s hormones, elevates your blood pressure, and makes your pulse race… It also weakens your immune system’s ability to resist illness and disease.”
If stress is the antithesis of pleasure, then it follows that pleasure is the antithesis of stress. And the best way to fight stress, say Charnetski and Brennan, is with pleasure. Our bodies secrete chemicals called endorphins when we experience pleasure. Animal research has revealed, for example, that endorphin levels are up to 86 times higher after animals experience multiple orgasms! But endorphins are also released, albeit at lower levels, in more mundane daily activities such as playing with a pet, watching a funny movie, listening to our favorite music, visiting a favorite place or connecting with loved ones.
The chemicals released when we experience pleasure do more than counteract stress hormones and improve mood. Consider these additional effects:
- They improve immune function by producing an antibacterial peptide
- They enhance the killer instincts and abilities of various immune components, including B cells, T cells, NK cells, and immunoglobulins.
- They enable certain immune cells to secrete their own endorphins as a way of improving their disease-fighting capacity
Charnetski and Brennan examine several “pleasure inducing” experiences that have been scientifically proven to promote health and well-being.
- Positive attitude and insight
Most of us are already aware of the healing power of those things listed above - at least on some level. But in this culture, there is also an overwhelming reliance on medicine, surgery, diet and other physiological interventions to treat disease. Though we may pay lip service to the idea that stress causes illness and pleasure can prevent it, how many of us actually attribute the same importance to listening to music or watching a funny movie as we do to taking a pill? The lesson in this book is that our thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behavior are all capable of inducing the same physiological changes in our bodies as foods, supplements, pills and even surgery are.
If you doubt that this is true, consider the placebo effect. It has been proven over and over again that pharmacologically inert substances like sugar pills can have identical or even greater therapeutic effects than drugs in certain cases. Even more impressive are the trials that have shown that sham surgery (when small incisions are made to convince the patient they have had the operation, but no surgery is performed) is at times as effective as the actual surgery.
Clearly this points to the power we all have to heal ourselves. If only the suggestion or belief that we will heal is enough to induce the physiological changes that lead to healing, without the presence of any “active” pharmacological substance or surgical intervention, then clearly our thoughts, beliefs and emotions have the potential to be powerful medicine.