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Excerpt from "Holistic Pain Relief"

Mind-Body Medicine

by Dr. Heather Tick

Hippocrates is the earliest recorded physician and medical philosopher, and we credit him with founding Western medicine. He practiced and philosophized over two thousand years ago. He was a holistic healer, which means he treated patients as a whole and not as a collection of parts, where each part could be treated as though it were separate from the others. Holism suggests the body cannot be separated from the mind and spirit. In general, the ancient healers, including aboriginal Americans, Africans, and others, were holistic.

Science took a turn away from holism during the seventeenth century, when René Descartes, often regarded as the father of modern philosophy, published a treatise endorsing dualism. It is perhaps no coincidence that this new attitude toward medicine was directly in line with church doctrine of the time — the church had severe ways of influencing scientific philosophers. In any case, Descartes’s ideas pushed science down the path of a mind-body split. This left the mind and spirit in the unchallenged domain of the church while allowing medical science to investigate the despirited body.

This focus on the physical body led to countless useful discoveries. During the time after Descartes, we learned a lot about anatomy, physiology, the heart, and circulation. These were important discoveries that gave us the foundation for our understanding of the human body. But the human is more than the sum of the body’s physical parts, just as music is more than the sum of the instruments used to play it. Since Descartes, allopathic medicine has focused almost exclusively on the physical body, and the interconnection between the mind and body has been only rarely discussed.

Looking at the body as a machine has limited our ability to understand some of the complex workings of our system. Dualism has kept us from seeing that all conditions affect both mind and body. Over the past forty years, scientific discoveries have pushed medicine back toward holism. New research studies have shown us that the mind and the body use the same system of communication. Holism has been reborn as mind-body medicine.

To better understand the body-mind, let’s review some of the scientific evidence for a body-wide communication system. The gut has 100 million neurons, or nerve cells — enough for a small brain. It produces 80 percent of our melatonin, which we used to think came only from the pineal gland in the brain, and it produces 80 percent of our serotonin, which is supposed to be the brain chemical that improves our mood. Why does our gut make chemicals associated with brain function? We don’t yet really know, but maybe it explains why we have “gut feelings.”

The human heart is best known as the pump that circulates blood to every part of the body. It also has between forty thousand and ninety thousand nerve cells, puts out an electromagnetic field that spreads eight feet around us in all directions, and makes and releases both norepinephrine, which is a stress hormone and neurotransmitter, and dopamine, another brain chemical. This is fascinating because every language and culture has expressions involving emotions and instincts associated with the heart. It seems the heart is way more than just a sophisticated pump, but we have unanswered questions about the heart’s other functions. What can we perceive from the electromagnetic field of others? Is this what we refer to when we say someone has a real presence — an energy we like or don’t like? The neurotransmitters in the heart are the same ones known to create emotional responses in our brain. Are they responsible for the age-old words heartfelt, downhearted, and heartbreak, or the age-old saying “Follow your heart”?

The immune system defends the body from foreign invaders, such as infections. Lymphocytes are types of immune cells called white blood cells. They can produce natural painkillers and the stress hormone ACTH. This hormone usually comes from the endocrine system, which is a system of several hormone-producing glands, including the thyroid and adrenal glands. Monocytes are another type of white blood cell, and they have receptors for every known neurotransmitter, the chemical messengers once thought to be mainly brain communication molecules. It turns out that when we are under stress, monocytes can even produce those same neurotransmitters!

So it seems our immune cells are talking to the glands in our endocrine system using brain language. Most of the immune system is also closely connected with the gut. In fact, 70–80 percent of the immune system lies beside the small intestine. The gut also makes chemicals that talk to the brain and are associated with our thoughts, feelings, and moods. Of course, all the parts of our nervous system are connected to one another too. These connections allow our mind, our brain, and our body to each influence the function of the others. It turns out that there is a body-wide communication system that uses the same system of messengers, and all of our parts communicate with and influence all the other parts. It is not that we “think” ourselves into pain or out of it, or that we make up our problems. What we think can change how we experience the problems we have and how the body reacts. The reaction goes from mind to brain to body and back again.

There is just one interconnected and complicated system that uses the same methods of communication throughout our mind, brain, and body. This information is useful in treating all forms of illness but is especially important in pain medicine. To live with less pain, we must learn how our body interacts with the rest of the body-mind and learn ways to help this complicated system help itself.

# # #

Dr. Heather Tick is the author of Holistic Pain Relief and has been an integrative medical practitioner for over 20 years. A sought-after speaker, she lives in Seattle and works at the University of Washington, where she is the first Gunn-Loke Endowed Professor for Integrative Pain Medicine. Visit her online at http://www.heathertickmd.com

Adapted from the book Holistic Pain Relief ©2013 by Dr. Heather Tick. Published with permission of New World Library http://www.newworldlibrary.com

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