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'I Will Not Be Pleased' -- Your Health and the Nocebo Effect (Part 2)

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Mainstream medicine has uncovered the placebo effect and discounted it at the same time. But more and more it appears that a patient's expectations, beliefs, and personality are important in the outcome of an illness. By extension, they are also important is preserving health. In the first post devoted to this topic, I cited new research on the opposite of the placebo effect, known as the "nocebo effect," in which negative expectations produce bad results. In drug trials, patients who are given dummy pills can have either positive or negative outcomes despite the fact that the fake drug is chemically inert.

If you're a researcher running such a trial, you'd simply discount the placebo-nocebo effect as "statistical margin of error." Nothing counts except the real drug and how it affects your subjects. But in real life, outside controlled experimental conditions, the implications spread much wider.

The body operates as a vast feedback loop, with each of 50 trillion cells sending and receiving messages all the time. To be understood, a message must be written in chemical form. The vast majority of messages are coded as brain chemicals that enter the bloodstream, along with minute electrical impulses generated in brain, heart, and muscles. When you delve into the structure of brain cells, the source of these electrochemical impulses, you find that genes must be activated to produce them. The picture becomes incredibly complicated -- imagine the body as a biological Internet with trillions of computers and just in the brain alone up to a quadrillion connections -- but the upshot is clear-cut. What you think, do, and say influences your body.

Two obvious correlates follow. The first is that holistic medicine is the only approach that attempts to consider the entire feedback loop, since conventional medical training is all about bits and pieces. The second is that the input that runs the body's feedback loop matches the output. Since the body is not a thing but a dynamic process of information exchange, the familiar cliché from the computer world, "garbage in, garbage out," applies.

It is up to you to keep the messages that course through your body positive instead of negative. No other duty in life is as important or vital to your health and well-being.

The proof lies in some new assumptions that are promising to overturn our conventional approach to illness and wellness:

  • Positive lifestyle changes in diet, exercise, and stress management actually cause your genes to alter their output. They are activated in life-enhancing ways.
  • Meditation seems to affect the production of the enzyme telomerase, which in turn builds telomeres, the end points of each chromosome. The fraying of telomeres is associated with aging; keeping telomeres intact is associated with the health and youthfulness of your genes.
  • It appears that fat isn't as neutral, chemically speaking, as was always assumed. Fat cells send out hormonal signals that appear to have deleterious effects, particularly in triggering inflammation.
  • Inflammation is being associated more and more with illness on every front, including cancer and heart disease. Inflammation is an imbalanced state, the opposite of homeostasis, the body's normal state of dynamic balance.
  • Diseases don't begin when symptoms first appear. In almost every chronic illness that sets in after childhood, there are precursors in cellular structure or genes that extend back to childhood, infancy, or even the womb. In other words, the feedback loop is processing input and output every second of your life, with long-term consequences.
  • Genes are rarely the determinative cause of disease. Far more often they make you susceptible to illness. What determines whether this susceptibility turns into full-blown illness is complex. But it's worth expanding on.

In the next post I'll cover how susceptibility works and what you can do to minimize its effects. What we've seen in this post is that holistic prevention isn't an alternative to something else. You are either preventing or not preventing illness all the time. There is no such thing as benign neglect. The feedback loop is inescapable. Rather than considering that a threat, we can create a new model of well-being that gives you much more control over your health for life. Ultimately, the feedback loop that embraces mind and body is the basis for a quantum leap in health for everyone.

To be continued

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