The book starts by confirming that stress is indeed the killer. Our stress response, also commonly referred to as the fight-or-flight response, is triggered when a human brain perceives a threat. The survival mechanism activates the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream and shutting down peripheral functions, such as digestion, reproduction, repair and maintenance. In today’s world, the stress response is activated not only when you are on your bike dodging a lorry, but with any minor trigger such as an email from your boss or a SMS from a real estate agent. Our brain, it appears, isn’t sophisticated enough to tell the difference between a real threat and a minor annoyance. As a result, many of us live in a perpetual state of chronic stress with devastating consequences for our health and well-being.
The good news is that our bodies are able to counterbalance stress with the so-called relaxation response. “When the relaxation response is elicited, stress hormones drop, health-inducing relaxation hormones that counter the stress hormones are released, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, and the body returns to homeostasis.” What’s more, Dr. Rankin argues that our bodies can repair and heal themselves with little intervention, provided adequate relaxation response. I find this rather intuitive, especially in relation to minor illnesses, such as a common cold. These days when you catch a cold, you rarely take a day off to recuperate. Instead, you keep dragging yourself to the office, stoically enduring the symptoms and taking days or even weeks to recover. In addition, sick people now take antibiotics, intended for bacterial infections, to treat common cold viruses. And yet you and I know well that if only we allowed ourselves a day or two of proper rest with plenty of sleep, switched off phones and the proverbial chicken soup, we would get well quicker.
Dr. Rankin suggests that the two most important ingredients of a successful treatment for any disease are positive beliefs and nurturing care. This is why non-traditional methods such as shiatsu, acupuncture, cognitive behavioural therapy, hypnotherapy etc. can be successful without apparent medical foundations. All of these treatments help us relax, which is what switches on the healing parasympathetic nervous system. The potency of the mind is also evident from the well documented placebo effect, and the author gives examples of several studies demonstrating how positive mental attitude can result in a cure without actual drugs. The reverse is also true: human beings can “think themselves sick”. For example, a study by Woods, Natterson and Silverman in 1966 showed that 79% of medical students reported developing symptoms suggestive of the illnesses they were studying. “In another study, hospitalised patients were given sugar water and told it would make them throw up. 80% of them vomited.”
Dr. Rankin is convinced that our lifestyle choices have profound effects on our health. She sites an article “Balancing Life-Style and Genomics Research for Disease Prevention”, published in Science in 2002 by Walter Willett, which stated that “less than 2% of disease, such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s chorea and beta thalassemia, result from a single faulty gene, and only about 5% of cancer and cardiac-disease patients can attribute their diseases to heredity.” This means that the majority of illnesses can be explained by environmental factors such as nutrition and lifestyle. The author goes further to propose that our relationships, our work, a sense of fulfilment, spirituality and sex life determine whether we end up sick or thrive. She talks about some of her patients, who exercised regularly, ate clean, drank green juice, practised mindfulness, but failed to recognise how their unhappy marriages or stressful jobs were affecting their well-being. Loneliness, frustration, anxiety, financial worries and depression were constantly triggering their brains to elicit stress responses, grinding down the immune system and wrecking hormonal havoc. No wonder her patients ended up with chronic diseases despite seemingly healthy lifestyles. Conversely, we all have friends who work in TV or finance, drink beer, eat pizza and exercise only sporadically but feel well most of the time. If they love what they do and enjoy life, their physical health reflects their states of mind.
Throughout Mind Over Medicine Dr. Rankin demonstrates how happiness and optimism are related to health. A couple of studies mentioned in the book are worth highlighting. One study performed on rats explored the relationship between cancer survival and pessimism. One group of rats was given a mild, escapable shock: the rats could avoid it once they learned how. The second group of rats was given a mild inescapable shock. The third group was given no shock at all. All rats in the experiment were implanted with cancer cells. The scientists expected that under normal conditions about half of the rats would reject the tumour and live. Within a month, 50% of the unshocked rats died and 50% fought off cancer. Rats who were given escapable shocks learned how to avoid them; 70% of those rats fought off the tumour. The helpless rats who could not escape the shocks fared worst: only 27% of them survived. The scientists concluded that resilient, optimistic people are likely to have better chances in recovering from the serious illnesses as well.
Another study seems to support Rankin’s theory that authenticity and happiness matter. Steve Cole and his colleagues at UCLA investigated HIV-positive gay men to determine whether how “out” or “closeted” they were with their homosexuality affected their disease progression. HIV infection advanced more quickly in direct proportion to how “in the closet” the patients were. Those who were mostly or all the way in the closet died 21% faster.
Dr. Rankin urges us to examine our lives, diagnose areas of imbalance and write our own prescriptions. She defines happiness as "appreciation of life as a whole" or “how much enthusiasm you feel when you wake up every day.” As such, she recommends addressing the very roots of what is causing you stress: your relationships, your job, your work/life balance, your realisation in life. If you hardly see your kids because of the constant travel for work, if you have not had a chance to read fiction for months, if your job is always making you anxious, isn’t time to implement changes? If your partner / mother / friend keeps nagging you, would it help to distance yourself from them? What else is sabotaging your life and your health?
It is vital to incorporate daily relaxation practice to help our minds and bodies recover from inevitable stress responses. Unsurprisingly, the author recommends meditation, which has been well documented to be effective in activating the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing pain, stress, anxiety, blood pressure, improving cognitive function, immune function and raising quality of life. But there are other mindfulness techniques which can elicit relaxation response: praying, walking, yoga, tai-chi, knitting, playing a musical instrument, jogging, cooking, painting, patting a pet, visualisation exercises, etc. What works best for you?
If your body has been whispering to you for years, don’t wait for it to start yelling. Can you think of anything more important than your health?