THE BLOG
05/13/2013 06:18 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2013

Why Friendship Can Save Your Life

With Lissa Rankin, M.D.

We live in an era in which individualism is rewarded and collectivism is seen as weak. We raise our children to be independent and self-reliant. It's so hard for us to ask for help. Interestingly, we also practice medicine this way. We teach our future medical leaders to separate the body into individual disconnected parts. We allow patients to believe that their distinct symptoms are totally isolated and unrelated. If this kind of medical system supported better outcomes, creating healthier and happier communities, then it would be acceptable, and we wouldn't even need to discuss this. But the simple fact is it isn't working, and we are now at the brink of a health revolution through which medical visionaries are now working together to bring in a new era of living well and feeling great.

In my work as a functional medicine doctor, I see the patient as a whole person instead of merely as an assortment of disconnected parts. The body is an extraordinary system; every part is connected via an intricate web of body, mind, and spirit. In functional medicine, we seek the root causes of illness so that we can address the underlying triggers that have thrown the patient off balance. In order to heal properly, the whole patient requires attention; that includes the emotions, thoughts, and spirit of a human being -- not just the physical body.

Throughout the many years I've worked with my patients using this model of medicine, I've been astounded by the resiliency of the human body. It's humbling to realize that, even though I was taught in medical school to believe that a patient's recovery is completely in my hands, in fact, it is the patient who has the most power. My job is to be a facilitator who gently assists the body back to its natural state of health. I do this by encouraging a paradigm shift in the hearts and minds of patients. We discuss the role of whole foods, water, air, light, rest, movement, sleep, rhythm, connection, love, meaning, and purpose. (For more information on the seven fundamental systems in your body that can bring back balance, see my book The Blood Sugar Solution).

We need doctors who understand how well the body reacts when the whole system is treated, not just the symptoms. One doctor in particular, Lissa Rankin, has made a career out of a calling she felt to serve her patients on the most authentic level possible. She inspires me along with the thousands following her online health and wellness community, Owning Pink. She began this site as her own way of revolutionizing health care, encouraging people in need of healing to own all the many facets that make them whole: their relationships, their professional lives, their creative lives, their spiritual lives, their sex lives, their environment, their physical and mental health, and more.

Lissa's work is functional medicine at its best, addressing the truth that we all need each other to lean on, to help heal, to connect, and to flourish. Lissa and I share the belief that there is nothing more productive and exciting than a collective of people united together to combat feelings of loneliness and powerlessness in the face of illness. Because she and I feel a special calling to do this work, I wanted to invite her to share with us some insight into her unique approach to healing. Here are some questions I asked her followed by her comments.

Dr. Mark: On your blog at LissaRankin.com and on your community site, Owning Pink, I see a lot of importance placed on finding one's truth and authentic nature. I, too, encourage my patients to reflect on how to live with more purpose. How can synchronizing this authentic energy with another person help heal a broken mind, body, and spirit?

Lissa: In my first TEDx talk, I introduced a radical new wellness model, which I also discuss in my upcoming book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself (Hay House, May 2013). The wellness model is based on a "cairn," those stacks of balanced stones you tend to see marking trails and sacred landmarks. In the "Whole Health Cairn" wellness model, the foundation is not the body, as it is in so many wellness models that suggest that a healthy body is a prerequisite for a healthy life. Instead, I think the foundation is the part of you I call your "Inner Pilot Light." Call it your intuition, your inner doctor, or your highest self, this part of you always knows what's true for you, even if the rest of you may not want to face your personal truth because it often commands change, and change scares us. Your Inner Pilot Light is always radiant, never extinguished, 100 percent authentic, and will never lead you astray. I help people tap in to their Inner Pilot Light here, but as healers, I believe that's one of the most essential parts of our jobs, not to dictate what our patients should do or prescribe the one and only way to optimal health, but to help our patients tap in to their own unique Inner Pilot Light, so they can make treatment and life decisions that are in alignment with the core of who they are. When you make decisions from this place of truth, the body tends to naturally come back in to alignment with its natural state of health.

Dr. Mark: You speak about the healing power that occurs when a group of men and women come together in a safe, sacred community in which each person feels invited to share the emotions, thoughts, and experiences he or she is having. How has the community you've helped create shaped your current understanding of medicine?

Lissa: When I first started blogging, I had lost both my health and my mojo (which I define as "MOre JOy"), and I was determined to get it back. I thought I was telling my story as part of my healing process, and as a healer, I wanted to offer up my gifts and be of service to others. But I couldn't have anticipated how much the tribe I attracted online would wind up healing me, not just emotionally, but physically.

After having researched Mind Over Medicine, I now realize that the healing provided to me by this community was physiologic. After years of trauma that took place during my medical education and after years of working in the hospital and feeling deeply disconnected and after two divorces, I felt very lonely, and I now understand that my nervous system was on permanent overdrive. What Dr. Walter Cannon at Harvard termed "the stress response" was triggered because my brain felt constantly threatened -- as lonely people's minds often do. When this happens, the body is filled with stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, and the sympathetic nervous system, the "fight or flight" response, gets stuck in the permanent "on" position, which is poison for the body.

Dr. Mark: In your upcoming book, Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself, you talk about the notion that there is good medicine in believing that anything is possible. Can you elaborate on the science behind belief and why invoking a sense of personal empowerment to heal oneself is the missing link in today's health care?

Lissa: In modern medicine, the notion that you can heal yourself seems to have been relegated to the realm of New Age hocus pocus, and yet the medical establishment has been proving that the mind can heal the body for over 50 years. We call it the placebo effect, and we've been trying to outsmart it for decades. It's an inconvenient truth that gets in the way of proving that new treatments are more effective than letting nature take its course.

But the placebo effect is nothing to be avoided. It's something to embrace, because it provides concrete evidence that the body is equipped with innate self-repair mechanisms that have the power to cure, mechanisms that can be turned on with a combination of positive belief and the nurturing care of a healer. The data suggests that the placebo effect works 18-80 percent of the time because it triggers the relaxation response, turning off the stress responses that often accompany illness and flooding the body with healing hormones that allow the body to heal itself.

Dr. Mark: What is the No. 1 thing you want people to know that might surprise them but nonetheless could change their life for the better?

Lissa: I believe we are here on this earth to fully express the divinity within us, to fully self-actualize, if you will. We're so programmed to cover up this divine spark within, to wear masks and pretend to be someone other than who we really are so we can conform more easily to some artificial idea of what makes a good person. And yet, I fully believe that the best thing you can do for your health -- and your life -- is to be unapologetically YOU, to tap in to that Inner Pilot Light, and to let your radiance illuminate the world.

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Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below -- but remember, we can't offer personal medical advice online, so be sure to limit your comments to those about taking back our health!

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, M.D.

Mark Hyman, M.D. is a practicing physician, founder of The UltraWellness Center, a five-time New York Times bestselling author, and an international leader in the field of Functional Medicine. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, watch his videos on YouTube, become a fan on Facebook, and subscribe to his newsletter.

For more by Mark Hyman, M.D., click here.

For more on personal health, click here.

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