Science Discovers the Healing Power Inside Your Mind
By Jane Symons / Source: The Express
Imagine how much better life would be if medicines were free, available around the clock and came with no unpleasant side effects. It may sound too good to be true but the reality is we can all tap into this 24-hour pharmacy because it's literally all in our mind.
We sometimes talk of being "worried sick" but there is growing evidence that we can also harness the amazing power of the mind to think ourselves well.
A belly laugh can even help us cope with pain as researchers at Oxford University proved recently.
Professor Robin Dunbar, who led the study, believes uncontrollable laughter releases pain-killing chemicals called endorphins.
"Things that worked well were slapstick comedies such as Mr Bean," he says.
The Power of Positive Thinking
Doctors have long recognised the importance of positive thinking. They call it the power of placebo which is a phenomenon that sees patients improve after taking a dummy pill or treatment.
Some reports found that placebo works in 90 per cent of cases.
Meta-analysis, which is a review of all existing studies, suggests that half the effectiveness of prescription antidepressants is down to the placebo effect.
Meanwhile half the rheumatologists who responded to a survey reported in the British Medical Journal admitted prescribing placebos on a regular basis to patients with chronic arthritis.
In most cases mind power is not a replacement for modern medicine but it can enhance its impact and reduce the risk of getting ill in the first place.
Here are some scientifically proven ways to rewrite the proverb and make it: "Patient, heal thyself."
Opt For Optimism
A sunny outlook can help head off a heart attack, revealed a study of almost 100,000 women which was published by the American Heart Association.
Healthy volunteers were given personality tests and then tracked to see who went on to develop medical problems.
Pessimists were 50 per cent more likely to die from cardiovascular disease with the highest incidence among women who scored highly for "cynical hostility".
A similar but smaller study of men found optimists had the lowest cardiac risks and pessimists had the highest incidence of artery disease.
One clue to the connection between outlook and health outcomes emerged from researchers at Hong Kong City University who measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the saliva of volunteers who were also asked to complete psychological tests.
Cortisol is a hormone released in response to stress originally as part of our fight or flight reaction. It's helpful in short bursts but when levels remain raised it suppresses the immune system, raises blood sugar and encourages weight gain.
Love is a Drug
Brain scans show that love helps us withstand pain, revealed a study at Stanford University in America.
When volunteers were asked to hold a heated device until it became too hot to handle they could withstand more pain if they were distracted by a picture of the person they loved.
Dr Sean Mackey, a pain specialist who headed the study, said: "The amount of pain we experience may be modulated by a large number of factors and now we know that love is one of those factors."
Pill-Free Pain Relief
Another study by Dr Mackey showed brain training can help patients with chronic pain reduce their symptoms.
Volunteers who suffered from long-term pain were hooked up to scans which showed them what was happening in their head and then asked to try different mind games in an attempt to soothe the discomfort away.
One woman who took part in the trial said: "I imagined little people scooping away the pain trying to rescue me," and "I thought about water or snowflakes putting the fire out."
She had endured eight years of almost constant pain after a riding accident but said: "I think the most incredible thing was to see that scan of my brain constantly producing pain. Then to gain control over the pain, to see that I had that power, even when I was making myself feel worse, was amazing."
to Melt Away Stress and Disease
Relax and Change Your Brain
Meditation can alter the way our brain works. Learning how to relax has an impact on the anterior cingulate cortex which is the region that regulates blood pressure, heart rate and decision-making.
Researchers at Oregon University discovered just 11 hours of mind-body training improves the functioning of this part of the brain and they believe meditation could be used to help prevent mental disorders.
High-tech MRI scans show relaxation techniques also trigger physical changes in the part of our brain associated with stress. The amygdala which lies deep within the brain goes into overdrive when we are frightened.
It sets off a series of signals that activates the nervous system and it also helps store painful or stressful memories.
This part of the brain has also been linked to psychological problems including anxiety, hyperactivity and phobias.
Research has revealed that when we are stressed grey matter in the amygdala becomes more dense.
Yet when researchers at Harvard University asked stressed volunteers to learn how to meditate, brain scans showed relaxation can reverse this process and reduce grey matter density in the amygdala.
Mind power is so effective at controlling the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) it is now recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.
Professor Peter Whorwell, an IBS specialist based at the University of Manchester, pioneered the approach because standard treatments were failing for many of his patients.
"I got into hypnosis because the conventional treatment of these conditions is abysmal," he says.
Patients start with a brief lesson in how the gut works and are then asked to imagine a feeling of warmth and their bowel working normally.
He has shown that under hypnosis they are even able to slow bowel contractions which is usually impossible. Patients also become less sensitive to pain.
Professor Whorwell is not sure how the hypnosis works but said there is "a lot of incontrovertible research" that it does.
Head Off a Heart Attack
The stress hormone cortisol is literally a killer. If levels remain high for long periods it increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, reduced immunity and many other health problems.
The more stressed we are the more cortisol is released when we find ourselves under pressure.
Yet women who are long-time fans of meditation found their cortisol levels were 300 per cent lower than a similar control group who did not practise relaxation, a study in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences reported.
It's never too late to start. Just 20 minutes of meditation will lower cortisol levels within five days say Chinese researchers.
Kathy andrews, 49, is a music teacher from thame in Oxfordshire
As A teenager growing up in the United States, Kathy suffered from the eating disorder bulimia and in her 20s sought help to deal with her emotional problems.
It wasn't until she had children and moved to England with her British-born husband Mark that she was diagnosed with depression. Her doctor prescribed antidepressants but she was uneasy about the prospect of long-term medication.
A friend in the States suggested mindfulness and Kathy discovered that one of the three men who helped develop the technique, Mark Williams, a professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University, was on her doorstep. She joined a trial he was running which involved taking an eight-week course to master the technique, which draws on meditation.
Kathy says: "These are not simply relaxation techniques although you do become a lot more relaxed.
"The point of mindfulness is learning how to pay attention and be aware of what is going on right now."
A typical exercise might focus on breathing and being aware of every breath, following the rise and fall of your chest and nudging the mind to notice small sensations and noises.
"You are a lot more in tune with what's around you at any time," says Kathy.
The technique has been so effective that Kathy has reduced her reliance on antidepressants and hopes to wean herself off medication altogether.
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