Tag Archives: health

Remembered Wellness

I have just completed reading Timeless Healing – The Power and Biology of Belief by Herbert Benson, the founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. This is the third book by Benson that I have read in the past month, and definitely the most compelling. About two-thirds through the book I took a break to read the Relaxation Response (also by him) and found that book and this one to be excellent complements to one another with each illuminating the other. If you opt to read one, I heartily recommend reading the other and within a short time period of one another.

REMEMBERED WELLNESS – What it is

What drew me to this book was wanting to understand “remembered wellness”, which many of us might know as the “placebo effect.” The placebo effect is the belief a person has to heal based upon projecting “our intense desire for wellness onto the medicine we take” even if the medicine is just a sugar pill with no medicinal chemical ingredients. In addition, as Benson states “…all of us have the ability to “remember” the calm and confidence associated with health and happiness, but not just in an emotional or psychologically soothing way. This memory is also physical.” Hence, Dr Benson’s conclusion that the placebo effect should be renamed and thought of as “remembered wellness.” To me, the simple act of conjuring remembered wellness is more powerful than the thought of taking a pill called a placebo. As marketers know, there’s much to be said for how something is labeled!

In the late 1990s I was diagnosed with a Stage 1 breast cancer. I vividly recall the conversation with Dr Josephson, the breast surgeon who would operate on my left breast.

Me: Will I die.
Dr J: No.
Me: Will I lose my hair?
Dr J: No.
Me: Okay then, let’s do it!

It is important to know that up till that time I was generally a hard core optimist about most things in life, that I had a head of long, curly, thick red hair, and – most important -– I was the mother of 7 and 14 year old sons.

I didn’t give the conversation much thought again till recently, upon reading this book. Early in the book Dr Benson states what is necessary for remembered wellness:

THREE COMPONENTS OF REMEMBERED WELLNESS

  1. Belief and expectancy on the part of the patient
  2. Belief and expectancy on the part of the caregiver
  3. Belief and expectancies generated by a relationship between the patient and the caregiver

As per my conversation with Dr Josephson each of those items would have a big checkmark next to them. And number 3 was surely impacted by my knowing Dr Josephson as the warm, funny, kind mother of one of my older son’s soccer teammates. (Heck, I knew she went to circus camp as an adult!)

None of this was a placebo – I did have surgery, I did have treatment in the form of radiation, and I did take medicine for five years. However, the surgery and my recovery went smoothly and, after reading Benson’s book, I am convinced that my desire for “remembered wellness” played a major positive part in the process. As the book title suggests, Dr Benson spends a large portion of the book discussing the importance of and science behind the impact of belief.

REMEMBERED WELLNESS – It’s opposite

Turns out there is the opposite side of remembered wellness, the “nocebo” effect. If the placebo effect results in a person believing the best about their treatment, the nocebo effect results in a person believing the worst about their treatment. And what the mind believes, the body does; the body responds to the beliefs we have.

Benson refers to Dr Arthur Barsky, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who “reminds us that paying attention to a symptom or problem amplifies it while distractions lessen our experience of it.” Barsky is quoted as stating “the mandate for self-discipline and self-control becomes so burdensome and so arduous that it begins to erode our sense of well-being and makes us feel increasingly insecure about [our] health.”

THE BIOLOGY

Regardless of whether a person believes in the placebo or the nocebo effect, in times of perceived stress the brain will cause specific hormones to be released. The hormones, in turn, cause physical responses within the body. The severity of those responses and how they are dealt with, using one or any combination of what Dr Benson refers to as the three-legged stool of medicine (Health and Well-Being is the seat supported by the three legs of Self-Care, Surgery and Procedures, and Pharmaceuticals) is influenced by the belief held by the individual. I found an interesting and information-packed TED Talk by Lissa Rankin from 2012, Is there scientific proof we can heal ourselves? that pulled together much of what I’ve been mulling over in Benson’s books.

Your thoughts and feelings about the daily experiences of your life both originate from and transmit signals to your body, neurologically and biochemically instructing and changing your health. [p 245]

RELAXATION RESPONSE and REMEMBERED WELLNESS

They seem to go hand-in-hand, these two, with the relaxation response preparing the mind – and hence, the body – for positive receptivity for remembered wellness.

We know that mental focusing techniques that elicit the relaxation response quiet the mind and the body to a more substantial degree and with greater speed than any other means. We know that the experience seems to clean the slate of the mind, making it more receptive and creative. And we know that the experience feels very spiritual to some people, and that spirituality agrees with them, producing better health. [p 213]

Spirituality is a highly personal feeling. People experience and seek out spirituality in their own way, in their own time, and to varying degrees. Spirituality is separate from  religious belief, though it can definitely be a major component of religious belief. It is not so much religious belief that impacts the magnitude of the impact of remembered wellness as it is simply a belief in something, in other words, some sort of spiritual belief.  For more about spirituality and health, visit the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing Taking Charge of your Health & Wellbeing website, which I found when doing a search for What Is Spirituality.

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The Relaxation Response – part 1

I have concurrently been reading two books by Dr Herbert Benson: Timeless Healing – The Power and Biology of Belief, and the Relaxation Response. Dr Benson is the founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr Benson came into my viewfinder as a result of ongoing yoga studies with Jillian Pransky, and participation in last Fall’s online class Being Well in a Digital Age – The Science and Practice of Yoga. I’ve written numerous posts here about the course, including a piece here about the human nervous system that concludes with information about the Relaxation Response and a video of Dr Benson guiding the response.

In doing the above searching it turns out I also wrote about the Relaxation Response in October 2011 after assisting in a workshop entitled Preventing Burnout. (I keep thinking perhaps that blog and this should be merged; it would be so much easier to track related posts!) In that post I included a link to the web site RelaxationResponse.org as well Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response.

You have perhaps heard of the “fight or flight” response. I have also seen “faint” added to the combo. “Fight or flight” is the body’s natural response when it senses a stressful situation. Back in the day, this likely meant a predator was present, and the human had to very quickly figure out what to do as a matter of self-preservation.

In that instance, when faced with a threatening situation, the beating of the human’s heart sped up, their blood pressure increased, they started breathing faster, and their metabolism sped up. To prepare for movement for running or fighting more blood flowed to the muscles in the arms and legs, and muscle tension increased. The signals for these bodily changes were brought about by the release of the hormones adrenalin (epinephrine) and noradrenalin (norepinephrine), which triggered the human’s brain and muscles into action. In perceiving a stressful situation the human automatically released these stress hormones, which in turn caused bodily changes in the human making it possible to react (hopefully with success!) to the perceived stress.

This is all well and good when a life threatening stimulus presents itself to a human. However, in this day and age many of the stimuli that we face are not life-threatening, yet our bodies respond to the stimuli as if it was life-threatening. This presents a problem for the individual because those same stress hormones are released whenever the brain perceives a stressful situation. Dr Benson provides a definition of stress in The Wellness Book: The Comprehensive Guide to Maintaining Health and Treating Stress-Related Illness (another book I recently read).

Stress is the perception of a threat to one’s physical or psychological well-being and the perception that one is unable to cope with that threat.

In The Wellness Book Benson distinguishes between good stress, which can have a positive impact, and distress, which is chronic or excessive stress. Positive stress will dissipate and leave minimal side effects behind; chronic stress does not dissipate and causes actual harm to the body. In particular, chronic stress causes high blood pressure, which is medically known as hypertension, and is considered a precursor to heart attacks and strokes.

There are many ways to respond to the sensation of stress, some that alleviate it in a more beneficial manner, and some, such as overeating or bingeing on unhealthy delectables, excessive drinking of alcohol, or reliance on  drugs that provide temporary respite while causing detrimental side effects. In Benson’s research he found that the Relaxation Response is a built-in, natural response that can be evoked to counteract the effects of the body’s automatic stress response. For more about this, please see The Relaxation Response – part 2.

 

Stroke of Insight redux (this time as a book)

[Not including the links below to blog posts I’ve previously written, the rest of this is a repost of my Goodread’s book review of Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight. ]

If you have yet to see Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk, I urge you to watch it AND to then read her book. I have watched the talk multiple times in the years since it was first made available (my first viewing was described here in 2008), and each time am awed by what she has to say and how she says it.

Jill’s words are inspiring and humbling. This is so for her talk as well as for her book. Her book, especially, resonated with me on multiple levels. My mother had a stroke (which I wrote about here), and so Jill’s description of what happened to her, and her experience going through the immediate aftermath and ensuing treatment, gave me insight into what my mother may have experienced.

I was fascinated on the basic level of learning more about the brain. I find the thought of myself continually changing as I age. It used to be I was simply a human being. Now, having learned over the years more about the brain, and having come to understand that my human body is actually host to a vast variety of microbes, my concept of being human has evolved. Being human is an awesome entity and collection of entities!

As a yoga practitioner and teacher of other yogis, I particularly appreciated the latter portions of Jill’s book where she talks about what she has learned in order to be able to tap into her right brain bliss.

In this age of intense political discourse, where the news can sometimes color the tone of the entire day (and not necessarily in a positive way), the more we understand how to access the positive, healing, joyful parts of our beings, the more healthy and hopeful our lives and the lives of all of us can become.

Arthritis

I woke up this past Monday morning with pain and swelling in my left wrist and by Tuesday, when it had not dissipated, it was time to have it checked out by a doctor. X-rays revealed mild radoiocarpal joint arthritis (also see this Cleveland Clinic article for a clear explanation of arthritis), which prompted me to see an orthopedist on Thursday. The end result is a left wrist splint cock-up and a 10-day prescription for 800mg of Motrin taken 2 times a day to mitigate the swelling and pain.

I am intrigued by this diagnosis as it is yet one more look into my body, and am not fully surprised because having turned 63 recently and knowing that my Aunt (my Mom’s sister) has arthritis, it is something that is not foreign to me. Age sometimes brings with it interesting challenges, plus I have been practicing yoga for over 12 years and a favorite pose has me balancing on my arms in an egg shape.

Thankfully, this appears to have been a mild occurrence, with my arm not currently in the splint as I type. By the end of this coming weekend, if not sooner, wearing the splint will have been  phased out. I am now only wearing it while at school due to teaching in a makerspace; the splint ensures that my left hand is not pressed into inappropriate use for the types of activities that cause the pain, mostly lifting or pushing if my hand is in a certain position.

So what does arthritis look like?

A trained eye can distinguish the arthritis as well as the mild tendonitis identified by the orthopedist. Arthritis occurs when there is an inflammation between the joints, a joint being the place where two bones come together. In a healthy joint cartilage allows for smooth movement between the bones at the joint. Tendonitis refers to inflammation of a tendon, tendons being fiber that attaches muscle to bone. Essentially, the arthritis and tendonitis together have sent a signal that something is amiss and should be tended to!

Being an avid yogi, practicing and also teaching, it is no surprise that yoga is also recommended for people with arthritis. (See these articles from Johns Hopkins and the Arthritis Foundation.) With that said, I suspect an errant move on my part while doing yoga may have exacerbated this instance! Nonetheless, there are two useful books for assisting people with arthritis thru the practice of yoga:

Our Nervous System, explained

I am taking the online course Being Well in a Digital Age – The Science and Practice of Yoga, which partially explains why it has been two years since my last post on this blog. During the first half of 2016 I was studying for my 200-hour yoga teacher certification and blogging at my other web home, Yoga ~ Dance ~ Music ~ Movement. And for large portions of 2015, 2016, and the summer of 2017, my son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren were living with us. Spend time blogging here or with my family; easy decision!

My yoga blog has been the recipient of all yoga-related writing and below is a cross-post of my most recent post, written earlier today. It deals exclusively with the nervous system and how stress impacts and is dealt with by the nervous system. The post is reprinted below.


The lectures by Catherine Spann and Stacy Dockins from Being Well in a Digital Age – The Science and Practice of Yoga have explained the basics of what happens when stress manifests in the human body. A little bit of stress is manageable; a lot of stress begins to break down our capacity to effectively deal with the stress, and that in turn can manifest in the malfunctioning of other body systems.

Our nervous system consists of two parts, the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. I use the word “central” to help remember what the central nervous system consists of – it consists of our brain and spinal cord, the part of our nervous system that runs center or central in our body from our head to the bottom of the spine and is housed in our axial skeleton.

The peripheral nervous system is the communications conduit between the central nervous system and the rest of the body. The word “peripheral” means outlying items or those not centrally located. Again, this helps me remember what the peripheral nervous system deals with – the parts of our nervous system peripheral to the brain and spinal cord, the parts of our nervous system that run through our appendicular skeleton.

The peripheral nervous system consists of the somatic nervous system, which are our voluntary actions, and the autonomic nervous system, which are our unconscious actions such as our heart beating (though we can control that to some extent), and the regulation of digestion, respiration, to name a few of the systems.

Finally, the autonomic nervous system is further composed of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. These two have alliterative words to quickly and easily describe their functions. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight, flight or freeze response, which Catherine likens to putting a lead foot on a gas pedal.  The parasympathetic nervous system invokes the rest and digest response, which Catherine equates to putting on the brakes. All of these systems interact with the hypothalamus in the brain, which along with the pituitary gland and the thalamus are part of the endocrine system.

The last piece of this puzzle is the vagus nerve, the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system. Its role as part of the parasympathetic nervous system involves regulating the heart, lungs and digestive tract. You can read more about this intriguing nerve in 9 Nervy Facts About the Vagus Nerve.

Now we come to stress and how it impacts our nervous system. Stress can be of a short duration, known as acute stress, or it can be chronic stress meaning it is ongoing over a long period of time or simply recurring over and over and over. Our nervous system has a “set point” where it is relatively in balance; this is called homeostasis. Each time our body undergoes some form of stress, our nervous system makes adjustments to return to homeostasis. This adjustment process is known as allostasis. If we are frequently engaged in allostasis it leads to allostatic load, which is the wear and tear on our body systems that often leads to an autonomic imbalance, meaning our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are out of whack.

Eventually allostatic load causes a cycle that over time makes it difficult to reset our nervous system and find our way back to homeostasis. This is where yoga comes in! Yoga can calm the nervous system and strengthen the ability to self-regulate. A calm nervous system can begin the process of allostasis and correcting for the growing internal imbalances.

One way of calming the nervous system is by stimulating the relaxation response as described by Dr Herbert Benson. Deep, slow breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which then positively triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. As noted in a prior post, the combination of movement (the physical part of yoga), breath, mindful attention, and relaxation lead to improved mental health. This combination makes for a powerful self-regulation tool that lets you consciously partner with allostasis to reset your body in homeostasis.

The Secret World Inside Each of Us

This past summer I read, with much interest and delight, Gut by Giulia Enders, and in preparing for this blog post this 20-minute interview with Giulia showed up in a search.

Enders’ book introduced me to the invisible world of my insides. This Fall, the American Museum of Natural History in NYC further opened up my insides for me to see as a result of the exhibit The Secret World Inside You. Not too long ago I scoped out the exhibit in preparation for a possible visit by the 5th graders at the school where I teach.

By now you probably know that there are trillions and trillions of bacteria living in us and on us. Around the same time I visited the AMNH exhibit, my husband and I were spending evenings watching the six episodes of David Eagleman’s The Brain. Between learning about the bacteria and the brain, at one point during a Brain episode I burst out saying “we are simply aliens with skin covering!” We are not so different in our internal look than the many aliens depicted in sci-fi movies; we simply have an outer look that we are used to while we (or certainly, I) continue to be amazed by our inner conglomeration of micro-beings.

Collectively all those trillions and trillions of bacteria weigh about as much as a human brain, which is three pounds. I teach 3rd graders about water, and there are billions of bacteria living in one tiny drop of water. Billions!

It turns out most of our cells and genes are not “human”. Rather, they are microbial, meaning they are teeny tiny life forms that we cannot see, and often only are aware of when something is out of balance resulting in our not feeling well. As Giulia states in the above interview, our microbes are necessary for digestion and most of them aid our immune system, but when they are out of balance or we harbor any of the five percent that are not good for us, we become aware of their existence.

As a result of the museum exhibit I learned there are eight characteristics of bacteria. Bacteria:

  1. are small (very!)
  2. are alive
  3. consume nutrients
  4. move
  5. communicate via chemical signals (and they live in colonies of billions!)
  6. reproduce
  7. swap genes between cells, therefore combining and recombining their DNA, which is why they can become resistant to antibiotics
  8. evolve due to their ability to reproduce and morph their genes

In the early years of an individual’s life the variety of microbes in their body train cells of the immune system to only attack bacteria that are carrying diseases. This is how a human develops immunity, in other words, protection from illnesses and unfriendly bacteria. Autoimmune diseases (such as MS, IBS, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis) occur when a person’s immune system doubles back on itself and attacks its own cells.

As best I understand some of the practical advice that has come out of microbial studies, kids playing in the dirt, petting cats and dogs, and being given the bare minimum of antibiotics, all lead to having a healthier gut micro biome and possibly fewer allergies.

Yes, wash your hands before you eat and after going to the bathroom. But perhaps stop using those microbial foams that dry out your skin and vanquish contact with bacteria that are good for you!