The Science of Healing Naturally
Marin's health trailblazers discuss the mind's power to prevent disease. Part 1 of 2.
MOOD SWINGS, PANTS that no longer button, pain, embarrassing digestive woes and spaciness are common but not normal. This is your body’s way of telling you that something is up. While it may seem like a minor disturbance, a chronic symptom may indicate more serious trouble to come. As a local integrative health coach and author, I’ve helped many clients discover that the problems indicated by these warning signs are reversible. Though the symptoms are varied, the root cause of issues like these is often the same: inflammation. And while many of life’s strains cause inflammation — toxins, environmental pollution, hormone imbalances, viruses, and certain medications such as antibiotics and NSAIDs, two of the biggest offenders are food and mood. What we eat (and drink) and how we think and feel affects us every day, impacting our wellbeing. Since the 1980s, when I wrote nutrition articles for Self magazine, unfortunate food fads have teased us, such as the grapefruit and cookie diets or the explosion in the popularity of processed low-fat, high-sugar convenience and fast foods that many of us grew up on.
The latter trend, still going strong, has caused soaring rates of inflammation-related conditions, from irritable bowel syndrome and food intolerances to cancer. Meanwhile, as mind-body research has also uncovered triggers of inflammation in our emotions, we now understand several steps that can reverse chronic symptoms and prevent disease. I’ve asked four nationally recognized health specialists and authors from Marin to join me in this two-part series as we describe up-to-date health strategies you can use to feel your best. This month we tackle mood; next month, food.
WHAT IS INFLAMMATION? Inflammation is a normal immune-system response to protect the body against harmful bacteria, viruses and other foreign invaders and repair damaged tissue. But when we introduce toxins over time — whether environmental or emotional — the immune system can become overactive, triggering a perilous chronic state of inflammation. Recent studies have discovered the intimate relationship between the microbiome — the 100 trillion microbes that live in our gut — and our immune system cells, 80 percent of which share digestive real estate with the microbiome. Many complications stemming from inflammation, therefore, begin with imbalances in our microbiome. Further, our lifestyle choices also influence our inherited genes, determining whether or not our immune system will be activated and whether diseases will develop.
Chronic inflammation incites trouble in our digestive system, joints, muscles, nerves and organs, with or without causing obvious symptoms. If ignored for years, inflammation, a ticking time bomb, can lead to obesity, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, depression, cancer and heart disease. The good news: you can reverse inflammation and many diseases with smart lifestyle choices.
MOOD AS MEDICINE
While we’ve evolved to recover from the short bouts of agitation and fear needed to dodge a saber-toothed tiger or face a looming deadline, the body is not so good at dealing with unresolved conflict. As stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released over an extended time, inflammation ensues. The aphorism “never go to bed angry” directly applies to good health: a recent study at Ohio State University’s Institute for Behavior Medicine Research found that a stressful day today obstructs the bodily benefits of a healthful meal tomorrow. Life’s daily pressures can sabotage even our healthful pursuits.
The mind, as we know, is intimately connected to well-being. “Calming the mind is as important as healthy food is to cooling inflammation,” says Elson Haas, M.D., founder and director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin, a 32-year-old integrative medicine facility in San Rafael. Haas is author of 11 books on health, nutrition and detoxification, including most recently Staying Healthy with NEW Medicine: Integrating Natural, Eastern, and Western Approaches for Optimal Health. “Everything we are exposed to physically, emotionally and psychologically has an effect upon our health and our ability to maintain it. Natural medicine is based on the premise that the body has the innate ability to heal itself.”
Recent major-university research in neuroscience and positive psychology has examined how emotions impact our physiology. As one might expect, toxic thoughts and emotions such as chronic anger, loneliness, stress, shame and sadness cause inflammation, hormone imbalances, impaired immunity, blood pressure elevation, high cholesterol and illnesses ranging from heart disease and cancer to depression. Conversely, states of calmness, mindfulness and happiness have profound positive benefits, from improved sleep and energy to better cancer survival rates, longer telomeres (the end pieces of DNA that shorten as we age) and even a reversal of the damage wrought by negative thoughts and emotions. Contentment literally works at the cellular level, balancing the immune system and safeguarding us against stress.
In one study at the University of Pittsburgh, 350 adults rated their experience with nine positive emotions including feeling energetic, pleased and calm, before being exposed to the common cold. Those with the highest positive scores were least likely to become sick after infection. In another study, 81 graduate students undergoing the same type of assessment received a hepatitis B vaccine. Again, those with the most positive experiences were two times likelier to have a high antibody response to the vaccine, a sign of a hardy immune system. Other studies found that positivity lowered the incidence of long-term health conditions and extended life by seven to 10 years.
For another mind-body example, consider the placebo effect. Sometimes when study subjects believe they are receiving medicine, but are actually administered dummy pills, they recover from an illness anyway. The simple belief in a positive outcome produced an immune recharge. Think about it: when was the last time you got sick just before a vacation?
“While life throws unavoidable stressful situations our way, research has uncovered that it’s not simply an event that causes stress,” says Haas. “It’s the way you interpret the event that affects your stress response, your sense of control, resilience, attitude, behaviors, and, ultimately, your health.”
Regularly engaging in stress-reducing mental exercises is like an emotional detox, disrupting habitual negative thought patterns, promoting joy and enabling the body to thrive. Fortunately for us, our brains are capable of neuroplasticity — the ability to form new neural connections — allowing us to alter our perspective and mood. Regardless of your disposition, you can develop more positivity, nudging your emotional state in order to improve your health, by fostering “learned optimism” — a positive psychology concept — to bring about more joy.
How does one do this? Multiple studies find that engaging in positive relationships with others, whether a partner or friend, is hands-down the healthiest activity. Making positive social connections releases the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin and decreases stress.
Additional research shows that after 21 consecutive days of keeping a gratitude journal — writing for a few minutes daily about what you feel deeply grateful for — brain neurons are rewired to help us savor more. Other proven positive pursuits include behaving with kindness towards others, altering self-destructive thoughts, noticing things that are going well throughout the day and seeking out pleasant everyday experiences such as taking a walk with your partner outdoors in nature after dinner. For other concrete techniques, visit UC Berkeley’s Greater Good in Action webpage.
Our current culture keeps us extremely busy and just a few minutes a day of calming practices can improve mood and immunity. “From a peaceful center, we can respond instead of react,” says Jack Kornfield, Ph.D., meditation teacher, author, Buddhist elder and founder of the Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre. “Unconscious reactions and fear create problems. Considered and compassionate responses bring peace. With a peaceful and kind heart, whatever happens can be met with wisdom.”
Meditation allows us to calm the body and eavesdrop on our everpresent mind chatter, improving our ability to stay focused on the present and freeing us from attachments to past and future worries, to-do lists and other anxiety-provoking ideas. Yoga, a moving form of meditation, offers similar calming benefits plus improved muscle tone, balance and lymphatic circulation to aid the immune system.
Such practices also produce physiological changes in the brain. A recent study at Harvard University found that just 27 minutes per day of mindfulness meditation significantly increased the gray matter of the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with compassion and introspection, and decreased gray matter in the amygdala, the brain’s anxiety and stress center.
According to the National Institutes of Health, this increase in gray matter can also reduce chronic pain and depression. As if that wasn’t enough, both meditation and yoga flood the brain and body with feelgood neurotransmitters and hormones, such as serotonin, melatonin, DHEA and endorphins, and the practices lower the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, thereby improving mood and energy, decreasing inflammation and enabling the immune system and organs to do their best. If you aren’t a yogi or a meditator, physical exercise, laughter, dance and singing are effective alternatives.
As I write in my book Gutsy, so much of what we think and feel comes from habit — a set of behaviors, emotional reactions, beliefs and perceptions that are on autopilot. It takes continual prioritization in even a small part of your daily activities to turn new mood-boosting practices into healthy habits. The rewards are well worth the effort. “It’s like building an anti-stress muscle — the more you practice, the more fit you become in managing stressful moments,” Haas writes in Ultimate Immunity (co-authored with Sondra Barrett, Ph.D.). He also recommends that we slow down, rest and sleep seven to nine hours for similar benefits.
With all this talk about happiness, though, it is important to note that well-being is not about being cheerful all the time. Studies show maintaining a range of emotions helps us actually experience happiness and keeps us from becoming manic. The aim is not to erase negative feelings, but rather to add more peace, awareness and joy to life for a shift in perspective and health.
Tips to Encourage Happiness and Calm
Connect with a loved one or pet. Relationships with other creatures (animal or human) are one of the primary ways we find happiness. Connection elicits positive emotions and releases the feel-good hormones serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins. To connect with an animal, volunteer or visit with the Marin Humane Society.
Give to and do for others. Like connection, philanthropic pursuits build feelings of happiness as well as purpose and meaning. My top pick for volunteering: Ceres Community Project of Marin, where adult mentors and teens cook healthy meals for cancer patients and their families.
Meditate in Marin. Marin General Hospital offers free mindfulness meditation and relaxation classes every Monday morning. Spirit Rock in Woodacre provides a variety of fee-based programs at various levels. Soulstice Spa in Sausalito offers fee-based meditation and mindfulness classes every day of the week.
Yoga in Marin. Both meditation and yoga impact hormones by reducing stress and promoting calm. As a moving meditation, yoga offers strengthening and toning, with breath work to help you get centered. With a plethora of studios here in Marin, there is sure to be one near you.
Exercise. Physical exercise relieves stress, raises endorphins that boost mood, helps flush toxins through increased circulation and sweat and reduces inflammation, provided we don’t overdo it. Also, studies show that the sense of accomplishment in achieving an exercise goal gives us a feeling of happiness.
Breathe Deeply. Deep diaphragmatic breathing, allowing the belly to expand, calms the mind and the sympathetic nervous system involved in the fight-or-flight response and can lower blood pressure and heart rate.
Hug someone. Research shows that giving and/or receiving four hugs daily increases the happiness hormones serotonin and oxytocin.
Laugh. Laughter and comedy are great brain “workouts” that can improve everything from happiness hormone levels to heart health.
Go complaint-free. Try going an hour without grumbling and grousing, and focus on the positive things in your life. Next, try a day, a week, and so on.
Dispute negative thinking with evidence to the contrary. For example, think back to times when you were sure disaster would prevail, only to find that, in fact, nothing bad happened. This is especially important for those of us who think in black and white and always/never terms.
Replace, don’t erase. It is important to note that squelching thoughts doesn’t work. The mind does not understand not thinking about something. For example, when we think, “I am not going to think about having that vanilla latte,” that’s then exactly what we do think about. Rather than try to ignore certain thoughts, focus on substituting new thoughts; think of finding a great healthy smoothie, for instance, versus banishing the vanilla latte.
Share your good news. Studies show that telling of happy events brings even more happiness.
Nan Foster is an integrative health coach living in Marin and author of Gutsy: The Food-Mood Method to Revitalize Your Health Beyond Conventional Medicine.