Sitting back in my chair and enjoying a short relaxing after-lunch break, I scan my eyes around the desks at my weekend natural medicine class. I see the usual suspects: bottles of mineral water, fruit, a few tubs of raw almonds and it looks like someone’s brought in pond algae but…what’s this - bottles of pills on everyone’s desks?! Poly-pharmacy is not something you’d expect from a natural medicine class. So why are these health enthusiasts supplementing themselves to the brim and why aren’t I?
It’s a steep learning curve starting out on a natural medicine course; and it’s even tougher when your background is in hardcore science – like mine is. You have to give up all your preconceptions with regards to current medical thought and launch yourself in to the sometimes weird but always wonderful world of ‘naturopathy’ – the concept that the body can heal itself through natural means. As you learn more and more about these amazing natural cures, you can sometimes find yourself convinced that you are in need of an ever-increasing number of remedies to combat the modern toxic lifestyle: digestive enzymes to make up for those lost in over-processed foods, detox supplements to rid the body of the nasty chemicals that make their way into our everyday diet and various pills and potions to encourage fleeting energy levels. Considering this, it is no surprise that some people feel genuinely better after taking these remedies, but surely not every person is in need of them – we’re all different after all. So to what extent are they feeding their bodies and to what extent are they simply feeding their minds? After all, belief is a powerful medicine indeed.
There is a growing body of evidence to show that feelings, such as stress, can manifest as physical problems. In fact, researchers have found a significant link between emotional disturbances and gut problems, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and they term this connection the ‘brain-gut axis’. This means that someone can experience digestive problems without actually having an identifiable illness. Instead, their anxieties lodge themselves in the gut and give rise to conditions such as bloating, constipation and diarrhoea – common symptoms of IBS. Specialists in the treatment of IBS, for example those at St. Mark’s Hospital in London, have found that dealing with the root cause of the problem, i.e. the mind, has a remarkable effect on the patient’s road to recovery. Thus, hypnotherapy has been used by Withington Hospital in Manchester as a viable treatment for IBS sufferers and boasted a 71% success rate.*
And it doesn’t just end there. The mind has been linked to cases of infertility and skin disorders as well as muscle cramps and menstrual problems. The effect of the mind on the body has also been highlighted in the placebo effect, where a patient believes they are receiving treatment but are in fact being given an ineffectual ‘remedy’, such as a sugar pill. In some cases, the patient will experience a clinically observable effect (such as a symptom or recovery) and, under these circumstances, it is the patient believing that something will happen that causes their body to exhibit a physical reaction.
It is often the placebo effect that is cited be sceptics when a person gains recovery thanks to a natural remedy and is used as a derogatory term to suggest that there is no scientific basis to the treatment. However, given the evident power of the mind to not only cure problems but also to cause them perhaps it is about time we focus more on helping the mind to help the body!
* Reported in the Daily Mail, 25th January 2011