Epigenetics and the mind-body connection
The happier you are, the healthier you’ll be. Sound too good to be true? Not according to science. How we feel and what we think can directly affect our bodies by changing the structure of our brains and the functioning of our immune systems. OK. I get it. You’ve heard this before from lots of “new age” people, etc., but now there is hard science to back it up. A recent study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry showed that “mindfulness meditation increased connectivity in the regions of the brain that controlled higher-level thinking in stressed-out adults.” What’s more, the study showed that mindfulness meditation can change the structure of the brain and the workings of the immune system too. And surprise, surprise, scientists are seeing evidence that even your genes are susceptible. Your emotions and your health play a role in determining which of your genes are “turned off” or “turned on,” and – hold on to your hats – possibly even what your future children will inherit from you. Let’s take a closer look at this science.
What the heck is Epigenetics?
Epigenetics, which means “control above the genes,” has upended our conventional understanding of genetic control. Epigenetics is the science of how environmental signals select, modify and regulate gene activity. Put simply, our genes are constantly being remodeled in response to what we experience, i.e., our perceptions of life shape our biology. The character of our life is based upon how we perceive it. The famous poem Invictus, written by the English poet William Ernest Henley, had it right: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” We are the masters of our fates! We can create the lives and the health we want. This post will look at how many of the beliefs moving you through life are false and self-limiting and, hopefully, inspire you to change those beliefs. I’m hoping the information I share with you will mean that you no longer ask yourself: “If I could be anybody, who would I be?” The answer to that should be: “I want to be me!”
Medicate, medicate, medicate
Many people walk around like ticking time bombs waiting for some terrible disease to afflict them because their parents, siblings or other relatives had the same disease. People tend to attribute failing health to the inadequacies of their biochemical mechanics rather than to a combination of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual causes. And that makes us turn to drugs. We aren’t mindless pill-popping machines that automatically turn to drugs (and in some cases, surgery) when we’re mentally or physically out of tune. Don’t get me wrong, drugs and surgery are powerful tools when not overused. It’s just that physicians opt far too often, in my opinion, for medications instead of taking a more holistic approach that features rest, recovery, nutrition, exercise and sleep. Look at what we do with “unruly” children. Today, the first choice seems to be to medicate them to correct their imbalances rather than seeking to find out what is going on in their bodies, minds and spirits. When I was young, children like these were merely called over-active – no medication needed – just physical activity, conversations and lots of TLC (Tender Loving Care). I know because I was one of those children!
Genes aren’t set in concrete at birth
“Some diseases are caused by single-gene disorders, of course, but the diseases most prevalent today – heart disease, cancer, diabetes – are the result of a complex interaction of multiple genes and our lifestyles. Epigenetic research has found that genes are not set in concrete at birth (Pray 2004; Silverman 2004) but can be modified by nutrition, stress and emotions. Almost every major illness that people acquire has been linked to chronic stress (Segerstrom and Miller 2004; Kopp and Rethelyi 2004; McEwen and Lasky 2002; McEwen and Seeman 1999), according to Dr.Lipton.” Let me make one thing clear though. Science isn’t saying that people who have developed a disease such as cancer are at fault themselves. Far from it! There is much about this terrible disease that we still don’t understand. What’s happening is that science is starting to look at other – more holistic – approaches that can hopefully make us less likely to develop cancer and speed our recovery if we do contract it.
Simple process but tough work
So, how do we set about harnessing the power of our minds to produce positive results in our bodies? There are no magic wands, silver bullets or pixie dust to help us. The process is simple, but the work is tough. It all starts with developing a positive mindset. I’ve seen firsthand what the power of the mind can do – in China and in India. I’ve witnessed people lowering and raising their blood pressure at will, performing amazing feats of strength and endurance, walking (not running) across hot coals without getting burned and using acupuncture to diminish pain by moving “chi” around the body, the latter up close and personal after injuring my knee at a Kung Fu training camp in China in the 1990s.
The Biology of Belief
“Thoughts, the mind’s energy, directly influence how the physical brain controls the body’s physiology,” according to Dr. Bruce Lipton, author of The Biology of Belief – Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles. Harnessing the power of your mind can be more effective than the drugs you’ve been told to believe you need, says Lipton. Let’s be clear that simply thinking positive thoughts won’t always lead to a physical cure. You’ll need more than just “positive thinking” to take control of your body and your life. It’s a critical start though. When we shift our minds toward positive, life-generating thoughts, we eliminate energy-draining and debilitating negative thoughts.
Conscious mind versus the subconscious mind
Remember, the conscious mind is creative and can conjure up “positive thoughts.” The subconscious mind contains all your stimulus-response tapes from your learned experiences. The subconsciousness mind will play the same behavioral responses to life’s signals repeatedly. If you don’t believe me, look at how you respond to what are often trivial actions. If you go ballistic over some small incident, you can be sure that something – probably from your childhood – is allowing someone to “push your buttons.” Then you’ve just experienced a simple stimulus-response of a behavior program stored in your subconscious mind. But it doesn’t have to be like this. There’s a way to take control!
Stop playing those “old tapes”
The conscious mind offers us free will, meaning that we are not just the victims of our “programming.” But to do that, we must be fully conscious, or the subconscious mind will take over the second your conscious mind isn’t paying attention. But what exactly is going on in the subconscious mind? It’s playing the tapes of “learned behavior.” These are the behaviors and beliefs we got from our parents, peers and teachers, and those behaviors may conflict with the goals of our conscious mind. We often see evidence of the battles we engage in with our subconscious mind when we try to undo the programming we received as children. Perhaps that’s why some people continually seek out jobs that they fail at, remain at jobs that they hate or stay in toxic relationships because they think “don’t deserve a better life.”
If you can change your mind you can change your body
Ponder this finding. “Breast cancer survivors who either practiced mindfulness meditation or participated in a support group showed a decrease in cell aging, which can be an indicator of better resistance to many diseases including cancer, according to a study published in the journal Cancer. Moreover, additional studies indicate that positive emotions, such as gratitude, can reduce chronic inflammation and decrease harmful levels of stress hormones.
Henry Ford and Mahatma Gandhi
The mind is much more powerful than we believe. We’ve all heard of the “placebo” effect and how it can improve health, but have you considered the opposite? This is the “nocebo” effect – when your mind is engaged in negative suggestions that can damage your health. As Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can, or you can’t – you’re right!” Our beliefs are powerful. Perhaps Mahatma Gandhi said it best: “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. And your values become your destiny.” So, what’s the takeaway? When you increase positive emotions and learn to control negative ones, you’re not only improving your physical health, you’re increasing the likelihood that you’ll live a long, happy life. Now, more than ever, “we are what we believe we are.”
For more information about this fascinating subject, check out Dr. Lissa Rankin’s Ted Talk about spontaneous healing, titled “Is There Scientific Proof We Can Heal Ourselves?”