THE BLOG
10/27/2010 08:33 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mind Body Medicine: Can What You Think and Feel Affect Your Physical Health?

How you think and feel emotionally can contribute to your physical health and well-being -- it's just that simple. The list of scientific studies demonstrating that point comes from diverse fields of study including medicine, neuroscience, immunology, genetics, psychiatry and psychology.

Integrative medicine is fast becoming the examplar of approaches to healthcare based on the importance of treating the whole person -- taking into account body and mind -- in health promotion, disease treatment and prevention. The mind influences the body, and the body influences the mind.

It is now well known that chronic stress is a significant contributor to illness and the leading cause of death worldwide. Psychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression are on the rise in adults and children, and they are estimated to affect as many as one in two adults at some point in the lifespan. Science shows that stress affects a wide range of physiological states in the body, particularly the immune response, but also factors important in aging (like telomere shortening). A recent study of social anxiety conducted at UCLA illustrates the powerful role such anxiety can have on our body's inflammatory response, and other research is showing how body illnesses like irritable bowel disease have associated brain states.

Thus the mind is a powerful vehicle for reducing body health. But conversely, it may be a powerful vehicle for enhancing it, as well.

Yet modern medicine provides very little in the way of a doctor's prescription to treat our mind states when dealing with health issues. We may be told to relax or be less stressed, but very often there is no remedy to do so (aside from momentary release in prescription meds when severe enough). It is where the role of mind-body practices like meditation, tai chi, yoga, or other forms of tailored exercises for mental health is needed.

Research, albeit still limited, is indicating that mindfulness practices (exercises that increase present-moment awareness) are very beneficial to health and well-being, influencing a wide range of physiological and subjective states including:

  • Boosting the immune response in cancer and HIV patients.
  • Reducing pain in chronic pain patients, including sufferers of arthritis, back pain, and headaches, among others.
  • Improving the effectiveness of behavioral change programs like smoking reduction, weight loss, and substance abuse.
  • Enhancing heart health when coupled with an integrative health care.
  • Reducing the risk for relapse in clinical depression by half compared to a standard treatment protocol.
  • Reducing anxiety and stress across a wide range of physical and mental health disorders.

The mechanisms of how mindfulness alters brain and body physiology is under investigation by labs around the world, but preliminary findings demonstrate changes in brain function and structure, immune cytokines, stress hormones and gene expression patterns, to name a few.

The means by which mindfulness influences health and well-being will be a topic of science for decades to come, but what is already suggested is that it alters our relationship with thoughts and emotions so that there is a level of "decentering" that arises, where our experiences are seen as less attached. In a way, there is a greater sense of awareness that these experience are part of the human condition and less personal or attached to oneself. By practicing mindfulness exercises (a whole host of practices is available from books, courses and free downloads) on a regular basis, we can learn to relate to life's experiences (whether that is an illness, a pain or a negative mental thought) with greater ease and equanimity.

Scientific evidence suggests that this can and does enhance our health, regardless of the particular circumstances that may be hindering it.

For more information see, "Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness" (Smalley and Winston, 2010). To get free mindfulness practices, go to www.marc.ucla.edu and click on "Mindfulness Meditations."