As a physician, I was trained to believe that I know your body better than you do. If you get sick, you should hand yourself over to me the way you might bring your broken-down car to a mechanic. With little or no input from you, if the exchange goes well, voila! You’re all fixed up and ready to roll.
The problem is that this dynamic sets us both up for failure.
Your body is a self-healing organism. By bypassing its natural self-repair process and handing all your power over to a doctor, you might be ignoring the very thing you need to heal. This is not a revolutionary idea. As doctors, we learn that the body can heal itself. Our physiology texts teach us that it is brilliantly equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that kill the cancer cells we produce every day, fight infectious agents, repair broken proteins, keep our coronary arteries open and naturally fight the aging process.
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We also learn that our autonomic nervous system has two major operating systems — the sympathetic nervous system, which produces the body’s stress response, also known as “fight or flight”; and the parasympathetic nervous system, which produces the body’s relaxation response, also known as “rest and digest.” This is our homeostatic state, when the body is in equilibrium.
But here’s what they don’t teach in medical school: The body’s natural self-repair mechanisms only fully function when the nervous system is in relaxation response.
How Stress Defeats Healing
Our stress response is there for a reason: If you’re getting chased by a tiger, that burst of cortisoland epinephrine it produces will refocus all of your body’s restorative powers to pump up your blood pressure and heart rate, activate your large muscle groups and save your life. Stress responses were meant to be limited only to life-or limb-threatening dangers, but many modern-day humans are in fight-or-flight all the time.
We all know stress is bad for us, but did you realize that every stressful thought, feeling or belief — we average more than 50 such responses every day — disables the body’s ability to repair itself?
We have an unhealthy relationship with the very notion of stress. We often think it means that we’re too busy (and therefore that we’re worthy and important). But it’s much more than demands on your time and energy. Sure, stress can be running around like a headless chicken, trying to check off your to-do list. But as far as your nervous system is concerned, stress is also social isolation and loneliness. It’s selling your soul for a paycheck. Stress is a pessimistic worldview. It’s toxic relationships. Stress is money worries. It’s knowing you have a song within you that has yet to be sung, or feeling out of touch with your life’s purpose. Stress is negative beliefs about your health. It’s feeling like nobody really gets the real you. It’s pretending to be something that you’re not. And stress is feeling disconnected from your higher power.
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Your brain can’t tell the difference between “I’m getting chased by a tiger!” and “Nobody loves me” or “I’m never going to get well.” As far as the nervous system is concerned, they all signal imminent danger, and that is what stress really is, as far as your body is concerned.
While researching scientific data for my new book, Mind Over Medicine, I learned what really makes us sick: Did you know, for example, that lonely people have double the rate of heart disease than those who are part of a supportive community, and that researchers have found that loneliness may be a greater risk factor for your health than smoking or not exercising? Did you know that optimists have a 77 percent lower risk of heart disease than pessimists, or that happy people live seven to 10 years longer than unhappy people?
Suddenly, it all made sense. As an integrative medicine doctor in posh Marin County, Calif., I never understood how my patients – all health nuts, eating vegan diets or juicing, working out with personal trainers or taking supplements, and sleeping eight hours a night – could be some of the sickest people I’ve ever met. But after my research, I had an epiphany: My patients were sick because they were in chronic repetitive stress response. No amount of kale can counterbalance the poisonous effects of high doses of cortisol and epinephrine on every cell. Their bodies had lost the ability to self-repair.
The Medicine We Really Need
Most of my patients had taken advantage of all that Western medicine had to offer — and great doctors at great institutions had failed them. They turned to alternative practitioners, including acupuncturists, homeopaths and energy healers. But they were still sick because they weren’t getting the medicine they really needed.
The scientific literature shows that to keep the nervous system in relaxation response so the body can heal itself, we need a different kind of medicine. To the nervous system, medicine is being loved just as you are. It’s helping those in need. Medicine is expressing your creative genius. It’s seeing the glass half full, and laughing out loud. Medicine is the unconditional love of animals. It’s speaking your truth, and knowing you belong. Medicine is communing with nature, and nourishing the body with real food. Medicine is tapping into your higher power. It’s being unapologetically you.
When you give yourself this medicine, you turn off your stress responses, turn on your relaxation responses and allow the body to do one of the things it does best – heal.
That’s why you can’t hand your body over to your doctor like you would your car — nobody but you knows the medicine you really need. I’m not suggesting you abandon Western medicine. If you’re in a car accident, having a heart attack or about to deliver a premature baby, get thee to an emergency room, STAT! But if you’ve tried what Western medicine has to offer and you’re still sick, I encourage you to write yourself what I call the Prescription. (Learn more about my Prescription for self-healing here.)
Maybe to finally get well, you need to quit your soul-sucking job or escape a toxic relationship. Maybe you need to meditate more, or move to the country. Maybe you need to find your calling and do your part to save the world. Maybe you need to paint.
Your body is your business because nobody but you knows what triggers your stress responses or, equally important, how you might activate more of your relaxation responses. The power lies in your hands.
So I ask you the question the poet Mary Oliver posed: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
When you start living the answer, your body’s natural self-repair mechanisms will flip on and you will have done everything within your power to heal yourself.
“Heal Yourself: Mind Over Medicine with Lissa Rankin, M.D.” will air in September on PBS stations nationwide including KQED (San Francisco), KPBS (San Diego), KOCE (Southern California) and Georgia Public Television. Check local listings for viewings in your area.