The Emotional and Physical Health Connection
by Craig von Buseck
Doctors have pondered the connection between our mental and physical health for centuries. Until the 1800s, most believed that emotions were linked to disease and advised patients to visit spas or seaside resorts when they were ill. Gradually emotions lost favor as other causes of illness, such as bacteria or toxins, emerged and new treatments such as antibiotics cured illness after illness.
At the same time, they have been rediscovering the links between stress and health. Today, we accept that there is a powerful mind-body connection through which emotional, mental, social, spiritual and behavioral factors can directly affect our health.
According to the National Institutes of Health, over the past 20 years, mind-body medicine has provided evidence that psychological factors can play a major role in such illnesses as heart disease, and that mind-body techniques can aid in their treatment. Clinical trials have indicated mind-body therapies to be helpful in managing arthritis and other chronic pain conditions. There is also evidence they can help to improve psychological functioning and quality of life and may help to ease symptoms of disease.1
According to Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP, there’s now solid science behind the correlation of emotional experience and a host of diseases and health conditions, from heart disease and depression to obesity and chronic pain.
Our language is filled with expressions of how emotion affects the body: tension and stress gives me a knot in my stomach, overwhelming sadness makes me feel all choked up, a difficult person is a pain in the neck.
More seriously, a recent study showed that sudden emotional shock can cause heart attacks even in healthy people. Called “broken heart syndrome,” these heart attacks were related to the loss of a loved one, fear of an event or activity, or sudden accidents. Notably, most of the sufferers were women.
First is the general effect of stress, which triggers the adrenals to produce cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol is very helpful in small doses (as part of the fight or flight response) but sustained high cortisol levels (the result of unremitting stress) have very destructive effects on the body, including weight gain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, suppression of immune function and acceleration of aging.
Second is the effect of unresolved emotional issues on systemic inflammation. Medical research has recently implicated inflammation as a contributing factor in a host of diseases, including cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
Third is the effect of emotions on particular organs. Many alternative practitioners attribute illness in a specific organ to a specific cause. While this is controversial in Western medicine, it has been well documented in medical literature that “Type A” personalities have much higher rates of heart disease, and that women who suffered childhood sexual abuse have higher rates of dysmenorrhea and pelvic pain. The mechanism of action may be peptide chains formed as part of the biochemistry of emotion that bind to receptor sites in specific organs, a concept pioneered by the renowned biochemist Dr. Candace Pert.2
“This new science is forcing the medical community to take more seriously the popular notions of the mind-body connection,” says Esther M. Sternberg, M.D., director of the Integrative Neural Immune Program at the National Institute of Mental Health. In response to stressful events, our bodies pump out hormones. These hormones aren’t necessarily harmful and can be very useful, says Dr. Sternberg, author of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions. “The problem is when the stress response goes on for too long,” she says. “That’s when you get sick. Hormones weaken the immune system’s ability to fight disease.”
Our emotions have a capacity to harm and heal—not just psychologically but physically.
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