Mind-body medicine…if you think it’s only a new age, woo-woo fad bandied about by hippies or spiritual gurus, think again.
Your health just may depend on them — your thoughts that is.
In this Ultimate Guide to Mind-Body Medicine, we will discuss everything you need to know about the growing field of mind-body medicine, including what it is, the benefits, and how you can start incorporating some of the key mind-body medicine practices into your life.
You may be surprised to find that mind-body medicine holds some ancient answers to our modern healthcare crisis. And a surge in research is providing evidence that it works. So if you’re intrigued by the idea of mind-body medicine and would like to learn more, be sure to read this entire ultimate guide.
Whatever notion is firmly held concerning the body, that it becomes.-Yoga Vasistha
What Is Mind-Body Medicine?
Mind-body medicine is an alternative healthcare model that examines the relationship between the brain, the mind, consciousness, the body, and behavior. It’s based on scientific evidence that thoughts, feelings, and other bodily sensations are interconnected and directly influence one another.1
So, what you think and feel, what you believe — they affect the health of your physical body. How you mentally and emotionally process sensory information from the natural world and your social environment can make your body sick or aid its healing.
Your toxic job, your negative spouse, your lack of self-discipline when it comes to binge-watching every episode of Friends for the fifth time…do you think all of that has zero impact on your physical health? You wouldn’t be alone.
Mind-body medicine — like other complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) approaches such as naturopathy, homeopathy, and acupuncture — is still considered quackery in the minds of many disease-based medical fundamentalists. Paradoxically…that negative Nancy mindset might be why mind-body medicine does not and never will work for them.
Regardless of the naysayers, the use of mind-body medicine and its CAM kin continues to grow. A recent study found that 14% of U.S. adults had used meditation or other mind-body practices within the past year.2 As public interest in mind-body practices is on the rise, research has documented the physiological, neurobiological, and genomic changes associated with them, including increased heart rate variability, suppression of stress-induced inflammatory pathways, activation of specific brain areas, and increased telomerase expression.3 All that to say, it’s time to take mind-body medicine seriously.
A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.-Solomon, 10th C. BCE
Meditation or Medication?
Meditation, mantra, prayer, and yoga are some of the techniques used by mind-body medicine practitioners to help patients manage stress levels, increase mental clarity, and achieve physical healing. These approaches treat the patient’s mind, body, and spirit as a whole. Mental and emotional states, religious or spiritual beliefs, behavior patterns, and environment are all important factors in treating a physical ailment. The mind is used as a powerful tool to catalyze healing.
Compare that to the conventional medicine model where doctors assess and treat the physical symptoms of a disease with drugs or surgery. The focus is on the disease, not the person. Conventional medicine has its place. It’s saved many lives and is an important part of our healthcare system. But it’s not the only way.
Yes, it’s easier to take pills that mask your symptoms than it is to change your entire mentality about eating right and exercising regularly. Clean eating and regular workouts take a lot of effort. Changing your habits, your lifestyle, takes determination and hard work. Yet the rising cost of prescriptions and their frequent failure to actually make you feel good, like your happy, healthy self again, to, dare I say, cure you…isn’t that reason enough to take a closer look at the possibilities of mind-body medicine as a means to restore your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing?
History of Mind-Body Medicine
The mind-body connection in medicine dates back to ancient times. The idea that thoughts influence the body’s natural ability to heal was accepted by nearly every culture. Eastern healing traditions, such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), have always emphasized the importance of mind, body, and spirit. Medicine in the West has its own history with mind-body medicine, where Enlightenment science severed the mind-body connection for nearly 300 years.
Hippocrates’ Role in Mind-Body Medicine in the West
Have you heard of Hippocrates, the “father of modern medicine”? Around 400 BCE, he and his followers were the first to create a medical model to explain the workings of the human body in health and illness.4 He taught all disease had a natural cause and was not a consequence of angering the gods. Medicine came forth as a secular discipline outside of religious superstition.
“Healthy mind in a healthy body” was the main tenet of the Hippocratic philosophy.5 They practiced a natural approach to healing. They sought to understand thoughts and emotions and how they’re connected to the function of the human body and disease. And they emphasized the need for harmony between the patient and the environment. All this is reflected in the Hippocratic Oath, a version of which new doctors still give today if they choose.
It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.-Hippocrates
Galen’s Role in Mind-Body Medicine in the West
In the second century AD, Claudius Galen advanced Hippocrates’ work and brought it to Rome. Galen asserted that all life is based on spirit. In man, the spirit was the soul, which was responsible for thought.6 He “found” the soul in the cerebrospinal fluid, where it traveled through the nerves to the muscles and organs, animating the body.
Galen added the doctrine of the “non-naturals” to Hippocrates’ theories. He discovered “passions and perturbations of the soul” that were non-physiological causes of disease. Strong emotions influenced mental and physical health. He once made a diagnosis of lovesickness. When no pathological cause for physical symptoms was discovered, he identified the emotional cause of a young woman’s illness as a “hidden love interest.”7
Thanks to the 100 or so medical texts he wrote that often mentioned “the Creator,” Galen’s medical model was safe in the eyes of the Medieval church. As a result, his influence lasted 1500 years. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment and the onset of technological advancement that the impact of thoughts and feelings on physical health was sadly dismissed.
Descartes’ Role in Mind-Body Medicine in the West
Unfortunately, in the 17th century, Descartes’ reductionism brought dualism to medicine. The mind and body declared two separate parts. The mind – simply a part of the body machine. The mind has no effect on the body and no effect on disease.
New technologies revealed the cellular world, separate and apart from thought and feeling. Antibiotics reinforced the idea that science could control nature and cure disease. The mind-body connection embraced by the ancients was totally replaced. Treating illness was purely a matter of physical investigation and experimentation. Diseases of the mind were not real as they didn’t have a biological cause. It wasn’t until the 20th century that mind-body medicine began to be revalidated in the West.
The Role of Einstein and Cannon and Beecher in Mind-Body Medicine in the West
Einstein’s theory of relativity and the birth of quantum physics opened the door for the reintroduction of mind-body medicine in the West. In the 1920s, Walter Cannon discovered the “fight-or-flight response,” showing how environmental pressures produce sympathetic nervous system and adrenal gland activation.8 Stressors — physical or mental threats — cause physical reactions. Heart rate increases. Breath quickens. Skin grows pale. Hands get clammy. Trembling may occur. Blame this on your ancestors. They had a lot to run from or kill to survive. Now fight-or-flight is in your DNA.
Scientists started taking the power of belief more seriously when World War II physician Henry Beecher saw a reduction in pain after he injected soldiers with saline instead of morphine. He coined the term “placebo effect.” These soldiers wanted relief. Beecher told them they’d received painkillers. The soldiers believed him, believed they’d feel better — and they did — almost half reported their pain was reduced or gone altogether.9,10
Dualism Denied and the Mind-Body Connection Restored in the West
The placebo effect spurred new research that revealed biochemical causes for placebo-based pain reduction. In the late 1970s, Dr. Candice Pert made a groundbreaking discovery — chemicals in the brain and body responsible for mind-body communication. These chemicals, neuropeptides, mimicked morphine, relieving pain by mediating intercellular communication between the body and the brain via a network of receptors.
Neuropeptides controlled pain. The mind “talked” to the body and vice versa with its own internal communication system. Thoughts and emotions affected physiology. It was all “revolutionary.” Nevermind the fact that physicians in the East had practiced medicine founded upon these notions for 5,000 years. But Pert proved it with the modern scientific method. She even asserted the mind and body aren’t only connected, they are actually one “body-mind.”11 Dualism was no more, once again.
Mind-Body Medicine Today
One of the big problems mind-body medicine critics have is the lack of evidence-based research. The question becomes…who’s going to pay for it? There’s no billion-dollar drug at the end of a clinical trial pipeline. Because prayer, chanting, and many other mind-body techniques are absolutely free.
Pair that with the fact that faith, belief, religion, and mindset are entirely personal. This alone makes it difficult to establish a control group. Who’s to say if Judaism is a more effective belief system for healing than Buddhism? What about Millenials who are “spiritual but not religious”? Should scientists isolate and investigate each religion’s impact on healing or will run-of-the-mill spirituality suffice?
For disease-based therapies, research is quite straightforward. Gather a group of people with the same disease and systematically experiment with suppressing or eradicating symptoms. Problem is, most clinical trials weed out people who suffer from multiple diseases simultaneously, a condition called comorbidity. A drug trial for Parkinson’s Disease, let’s say, may disqualify a patient who also has depression.
But the reality is, most people with chronic illness have comorbidity.12 So, while a drug may help treat Parkinson’s symptoms, it’s not going to treat the accompanying depression. No problem there, because they’ve got another pill for that. And so on and so forth until the average 65–69 year old takes 15 prescriptions per year.13
All those drugs get tiresome and expensive. People want alternatives. They want whole-body healing. We all desire the restoration of health and wellbeing. So, we’ve looked to the past. Ancient solutions once deemed primitive — preserved by a select few also labeled primitive or unsophisticated — are getting the consideration they deserve.
In response to the increased use of complementary and alternative methods, the National Institute of Health funds mind-body research through the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.14 Harvard, Georgetown, UCLA and more than seventy universities now offer integrative medicine programs that include courses on mind-body medicine.15
Add to that, an incredible influx of new healing technologies based on frequency, light, sound, and energy that are taking the principles of ancient practices and modernizing them through intricate devices that work at the cellular level and beyond. While there is much more to be done to “prove” the effectiveness of mind-body medicine, the growing consensus is that the future is promising.16
Conditions Treated With Mind-Body Medicine
Stress is a major factor in disease because it interrupts the body’s innate ability to heal itself.17 Stress releases hormones that shut down or reduce immune system function and can lead to digestive problems, muscle tension, headaches, heart disease, neurological disorders, weight gain, weakened bones, poor sleep quality…the list goes on. Enter mind-body medicine, which has been shown to decrease stress levels and reduce symptoms of many conditions, including stressors related to the Covid-19 pandemic.18 Here is a list of other conditions, mental and physical, that have been proven to benefit from mind-body practices:
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Anxiety Disorders
- Bipolar Disorder
- Cancer Rehabilitation
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and other Chronic Conditions
- Eating Disorders
- Gastrointestinal Disorders
- Insomnia/Sleep Disturbance
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Parkinson’s Disease and other Movement Disorders (MDs)
- Stroke Rehabilitation
- Substance Abuse
While this is not an all-inclusive list, it does give you an idea of the variety of conditions mind-body medicine can help treat when used as a complementary therapy. In reality, mind-body medicine can also be used to help prevent disease by helping people keep stress under control and prioritize a healthy lifestyle.
Mind-Body Medicine Therapies
The term mind-body therapy refers to a variety of therapeutic practices that enhance the mind’s interactions with bodily function, inducing relaxation and improving overall well-being.
Some of the most commonly practiced and studied mind-body therapies are prayer, guided imagery, meditation, and yoga. But there is a vast library of techniques from which to choose. EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), acupressure, acupuncture, hypnosis, biofeedback, breathwork, reiki, qi gong/tai chi, sound therapy, light therapy, and others have been scientifically studied with promising results.
Many are available free or near-free via online courses or videos, some are covered by insurance plans with or without a copay. Better still, most carry little to no side effects. Before being taken off medications or before adding complementary therapies to your treatment plan, however, consult a health care professional first. Here are a few mind-body medicine therapies you can try:
- Biofeedback — Learn to control your body’s reactions by controlling your thoughts and feelings. A therapist connects electrical sensors to your body that monitor heart rate, breathing, brain waves, muscle tension, or temperature. The monitoring device shows you what muscles you’re tensing when you have a migraine, for example. By learning to deliberately relax those muscles, you may experience temporary or lasting relief.
- Meditation — Thousands of years in the making, meditation is actually quite easy. Sit still. Be quiet. Breathe deeply. Repeat. Or, you can chant a word or phrase — a mantra — such as “I am grateful.” The aim is to gradually gain control over your thoughts and feelings so you can relax on demand. Even when your kids are screaming, “Are we there yet?” at the top of their lungs.
- Yoga — An ancient Hindu discipline combining body postures, meditation, and breath control. Thirty-six million people practice yoga at over 6,000 studios in the United States. Yoga has been studied for its effects on management of stress, chronic disease conditions such as arthritis and hypertension, and emotional difficulties such as depression and anxiety. Find a studio in your town. Get flexible. Reduce stress. You’ll be glad you did.
- Prayer — When people are ill or in pain, they tend to pray. Talk to your Creator about what you’re going through. Pray with others and support one another. Research shows that when people have faith and pray for better health, they demonstrate measurable improvements such as more marked brain activity, lowered blood pressure and heart rate, and reduced anxiety.19
- Tai chi/qi gong — Gentle exercises practiced throughout Asia for thousands of years, these moving meditations have become so popular in the United States they are now considered mainstream wellness activities. Tai chi is a series of dance-like movements flowing from one to the next with deep breathing that can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, improve balance, strengthen muscles, quiet the mind, decrease inflammation, increase happiness endorphins.
- Cognitive Skills Training — Patients learn to identify, challenge and replace negative thoughts (cognitive distortions) with positive thinking. Cognitive skills training can reduce depression, stress, and anxiety; improve self-esteem and coping skills; and reduce panic attacks, anger, and aggressive behavior.
- Positive Psychology — A field of psychology that emphasizes what’s right with people, places and things. By focusing on positive emotions, personal strengths and the achievement of goals, a person’s health and well-being can be improved. Research shows that positive emotions can improve the immune system, help you relax and cope with stressful situations.20
- Acupuncture — An ancient Chinese practice to restore well-being by balancing the body’s life forces. It works by inserting tiny needles at certain points on the body that are thought to be energy channels. Acupuncture can relieve pain, reduce stress, improve sleep and reduce reliance on medications.
- Reiki — Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing. It’s administered by “laying on hands” and is based on the idea that an unseen energy flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. Practitioners facilitate this energy flow, and studies support that the practice does in fact lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, reduce anxiety and promote pain relief.21
- Sound Therapy — Use of various sound frequencies to balance the body’s energy and restore health. The right sounds from tuning forks, for example, can activate healing and trigger the release of feel-good endorphins. Narrative music such as Mozart can help activate certain neural pathways in parts of the brain that control learning and memory. The right kind of music can also lower stress levels, improve sleep and reduce the perception of pain.
- Hypnosis — A trance-like state in which the mind is highly focused and open to suggestion, although you are always completely in control and the therapist cannot influence you to do anything against your will. During hypnosis, you may experience heightened awareness or total relaxation. Many people feel no pain during dental work under hypnosis, for example. Try it for stress reduction, pain control, quitting smoking, and even weight loss.
- Massage — Our bodies were designed with built-in healing mechanisms for pain, stress, fatigue, anxiety, tension, and other conditions. Massage stimulates those self-healing processes. Massage therapy can reduce anxiety, depression, insomnia, pain, stress, and enhance relaxation.
- Aromatherapy — Essential oils derived from plants are used for their health benefits. Aromatherapy can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain; increase energy, alertness and immunity; improve mood, sleep and memory. Research shows it can have a significant impact on the nervous system and hormones.22
- Light Therapy — Exposure to natural or artificial light increases alertness, boosts the immune system, and regulates the body’s internal clock. You can get high-intensity light through natural sunlight or indoor light devices. A number of studies have found that bright light therapy can help treat depression, particularly seasonal affective disorder (SAD).23
- Guided Imagery — A form of therapy that uses the mind to visualize and promote healing. Guided imagery is a positive, hopeful, and goal-directed technique that can have a positive effect on heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and release of stress hormones. It is most often used to help with anxiety, depression, pain management and nausea.
You may find that one or more of these mind-body approaches suits you best to help with your stress management needs and improve the quality of your life. If so, start with small steps that fit into your life and schedule, as these techniques are most effective when practiced or engaged with regularly.
Will Mind-Body Medicine Work for You?
If you “think” there’s something to mind-body medicine, you ought to try it. If you’re suffering from a chronic or life-threatening disease and feel overwhelmed, defeated, or stressed, why not try it? Mind-body medicine may help you better manage your condition. Who knows, you might find inner peace. Or at least worry less about the state of affairs in the world.
He who can believe himself well, will be well.-Ovid
How To Get Started With Mind-Body Medicine
If you’d like to incorporate mind-body medicine into your health regimen to help treat a chronic condition, improve your immune system function, or simply benefit your overall health and wellbeing, here are a few tips to get started:
1. Find a mind-body medicine practitioner. You can search for a certified practitioner with this tool from The Center for Mind-Body Medicine. Integrative, Functional, and Naturopathic Physicians also incorporate mind-body medicine into their practices. Depending on your condition, Chiropractors, Acupuncturists, and Positive Psychologists are great resources.
2. Cultivate self-awareness. Your chosen practitioner will guide you through this process, but you’re going to have to do the work. Self-reflect. Begin to figure out what works for you and what you need to achieve happiness, health, and homeostasis. How? Watch your moods. Monitor your thoughts. Begin to understand how your thoughts and feelings produce physical sensations and cause you to behave habitually. Does the thought of your morning meeting make you cringe? Does an email from your boss at 10 pm give you hives? Does it make you run to the fridge? That’s self-awareness.
3. Retrain your brain. As you start to develop self-awareness, it’s time to retrain your brain and change your habit patterns. This is where mind-body practices come in. First, as a therapy or treatment to address a specific condition. Then as a preventative measure to sustain health in mind, body, and spirit.
4. Make it a healthcare habit. A core component of mind-body medicine is the active role of the patient in developing and carrying out their personal treatment plan. You’ll be expected to take your health into your own hands, to accept responsibility for the psychological, social, and lifestyle changes required to improve your health and wellbeing. You’ll need to make the mind-body medicine practices part of your daily routine. Think meditation is hard? You have no time? What if it was as natural as brushing your teeth? For many longtime practitioners, it is. When you make meditation or movement a priority, you’re establishing a healthcare habit, which can have lasting positive effects on your longevity and quality of life. You wouldn’t skip regular showers. Think of meditation as a shower for your mind.
5. Adjust your treatment plan as needed. Not all prescription medications work for every person. The same is true for mind-body medicine therapies. Where mind-body medicine has the upper hand is that most are non-invasive and have fewer no negative side effects. So, work with your clinician to adjust your treatment plan as needed. If yoga isn’t working for you, try tai chi or meditative walking instead.
If you could learn to heal yourself — to access and control the neurons, chemicals, and energy flowing through your body to your organs with your thoughts and feelings — wouldn’t it be worth the effort?
The research is promising and it is exciting to see what the future holds for mind-body medicine. We hope that you take some time to explore mind-body medicine in your own life, whether it’s through yoga or meditation or a mindfulness app on your cell phone.
If you need help getting started with some mind-body medicine practices or want to explore some clinical therapies, let us know!
Our team of experts are ready and waiting to partner with you to create an effective treatment plan that includes natural remedies such as acupuncture and nutrition counseling along with cutting-edge technological modalities.
Call our office to make an appointment at Silver Tree Wellness Center today.
- More Adults and Children using Yoga and meditation
- Emtions and Disease
- Homeostasis the fight or flight response the sympathoadrenal system and the wisdom of the body
- Cambridge Placebo Effect
- The wisdom of the receptors neuropeptides the emotions and the bodymind
- American Society – Pharmasists Response to Senate Finance working Group
- Top US hospitals promote unproven medicine Mysticism