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Mental medicine

MagazineMay 2014 (Vol. 25 Issue 2)Mental medicine

What we think and feel, moment by moment, has a profound effect on either activating or silencing our genes and the healing molecules within our bodies,says Dr Joe Dispenza

What we think and feel, moment by moment, has a profound effect on either activating or silencing our genes and the healing molecules within our bodies,says Dr Joe Dispenza.


In 1976, American political analyst and magazine editor Norman Cousins published an account in the New England Journal of Medicine of how he had used laughter to reverse a potentially fatal disease. He then later told his story in his best-selling book, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient.1


Cousins's doctor had diagnosed him with a degenerative disorder called 'ankylosing spondylitis'-a form of arthritis that causes the breakdown of collagen, the fibrous proteins that hold our body's cells together-and had given him only a one in 500 chance of recovery. Cousins suffered from tremendous pain and had such difficulty moving his limbs that he could barely turn over in bed. Grainy nodules appeared under his skin and, at his lowest point, his jaw nearly locked shut.


Convinced that a persistent negative emotional state had contributed to his illness, he decided it was equally possible that a more positive emotional state could reverse the damage. While continuing to consult with his doctor, Cousins started a regimen of massive doses of vitamin C and Marx Brothers movies (as well as other humorous films and comedy shows). He found that 10 minutes of hearty laughter gave him two hours of pain-free sleep. Eventually, he made a complete recovery. Cousins, quite simply, laughed himself to health.


How? Although scientists at the time didn't have a way to understand or explain such a miraculous recovery, research now tells us it's likely that newly understood mind-body processes were at work. Cousins's shift of attitude changed his body chemistry, which altered his internal state, enabling him to programme new genes in new ways; he simply downregulated (or turned off) the genes that were causing his illness and upregulated (or turned on) the genes responsible for his recovery.


Many years later, research led by Takashi Hayashi, PhD, at the Foundation for Advancement of International Science in Tsukuba, Japan, showed the same thing.2


In Hayashi's study, diabetic patients who watched an hour-long comedy video upregulated a total of 39 genes, 14 of which were related to natural killer cell activity. While none of these genes was directly involved in blood glucose regulation, the patients' blood glucose levels were better controlled after laughter than after listening to a diabetes health lecture on a different day.


Researchers surmised that laughter influences many genes involved with immune responses that, in turn, contributed to the improved glucose control. The elevated emotion, triggered by the patients' brains, turned on the genetic variations, which activated the natural killer cells and also somehow improved their glucose response-probably in addition to many other beneficial effects.


As Cousins said of placebos back in 1979, "The process works not because of any magic in the tablet, but because the human body is its own best apothecary and because the most successful prescriptions are filled by the body itself."3


Two recent studies from the University of Toledo in Ohio perhaps shed the best light on how the mind alone can determine what someone perceives and experiences.4


For each study, the researchers divided a group of healthy volunteers into two categories-optimists and pessimists-according to how the volunteers answered questions on a diagnostic questionnaire. In the 2005 study, they gave the subjects a placebo, but told them it was a drug that would make them feel unwell. The pessimists had a stronger negative reaction to the pill than the optimists.

In the 2007 study, the researchers again gave the subjects a placebo pill, but told them it would help them sleep better. The optimists reported much better sleep than the pessimists.

Proof positive


So the optimists were more likely to respond positively to a suggestion that something would make them feel better because they were primed to hope for the best future scenario. And the pessimists were more likely to respond negatively to a suggestion that something would make them feel worse because they consciously or unconsciously expected the worst potential outcome. It's as if the optimists were unconsciously making the specific chemicals to help them sleep, while the pessimists were unconsciously making a pharmacy of substances that made them feel unwell.


In other words, in exactly the same environment, those with a positive mindset tend to create positive situations, while those with a negative mindset tend to create negative situations. This is the miracle of our own free-willed, individual, biological engineering.

Although it may seem incredible that your mind could actually be that powerful, the research of the past several decades clearly points to a few empowering truths: What you think is what you experience and, when it comes to your health, that's made possible by the amazing pharmacopoeia that you have within your body, which automatically and exquisitely aligns with your thoughts. This miraculous dispensary activates naturally occurring healing molecules that are already present within your body-delivering different compounds designed to elicit different effects in any number of different circumstances.

How mind affects body


A huge shift in the way we look at genes came when scientists finally mapped the human genome. In 1990, at the beginning of the project, the researchers expected they'd eventually discover that we have 140,000 different genes. They came up with that number because genes manufacture (and supervise the production of) proteins-and the human body manufactures 100,000 different proteins, plus 40,000 regulatory proteins needed to make other proteins. So the scientists mapping the human genome were anticipating that they'd find one gene per protein, but by the end of the project, in 2003, they were shocked to discover that, in fact, humans have only 23,688 genes.


That's not only not enough genes to create our complex bodies and keep them running, but also not even enough genes to keep the brain functioning. So if it's not contained in the genes, where does all of the information come from that's required to create so many proteins and sustain life?


The answer to that question led to a new idea: Genes must work together in systemic cooperation with one another so that many are expressed (turned on) or suppressed (turned off) at the same time within the cell; it's the combination of the genes that are turned on at any one time that produces all the different proteins we depend on for life.


So it makes sense that genes can be activated (turned on) or deactivated (turned off) by the environment outside the cell, which sometimes means the environment inside the body (the emotional, biological, neurological, mental, energetic and even spiritual states of being), and at other times the environment outside the body (trauma, temperature, altitude, toxins, bacteria, viruses, food, alcohol and so on).


Genes are, in fact, classified by the type of stimulus that turns them on and off. For example, experience-dependent or activity-dependent genes are activated when we're having novel experiences, learning new information and healing. These genes generate protein synthesis and chemical messengers to instruct stem cells to morph into whatever types of cells are needed at the time for healing.


Behavioural-state-dependent genes are activated during periods of high emotional arousal, stress or different levels of awareness (including dreaming). They provide a link between our thoughts and our bodies-that is, they're the mind-body connection. These genes offer an understanding of how we can influence our health in states of mind and body that promote wellbeing, physical resilience and healing.


Scientists now believe it's even possible that our genetic expression fluctuates on a moment-to-moment basis. The research is revealing that our thoughts and feelings, as well as our activities-that is, our choices, behaviours and experiences-have profound healing and regenerative effects on our bodies.


Your genes are being affected by your interactions with your family, friends, co-workers and spiritual practices, as well as your sexual habits, your exercise levels and the types of detergents you use. The latest research shows that approximately 90 per cent of genes are engaged in cooperation with signals from the environment.5


As Ernest Rossi, PhD, writes in The Psychobiology of Gene Expression, "Our subjective states of mind, consciously motivated behaviour and our perception of free will can modulate gene expression to optimize health."6


"In reality, genes contribute to our characteristics, but do not determine them," writes Dawson Church, PhD, in his book The Genie in Your Genes. "The tools of our consciousness-including our beliefs, prayers, thoughts, intentions and faith-often correlate much more strongly with our health, longevity and happiness than our genes do."7 The fact is, just as there's more to our bodies than a sack of bones and flesh, there's more to our genes than just stored information.

The power of the calming thought

Two key studies by researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston looked at the effects of meditation, which is known for eliciting peaceful and even blissful states, on gene expression.


In the first study, conducted in 2008, 20 volunteers received eight weeks of training in various mind-body practices (including several types of meditation, yoga and repetitive prayer) known to induce the 'relaxation response', a physiological state of deep rest. The researchers also followed 19 long-term daily practitioners of the same techniques and 19 others who served as controls.


At the end of the study period, the novices showed a change in 1,561 genes (874 upregulated for health and 687 downregulated for stress) as well as reduced blood pressure and reduced heart and respiration rates, while the experienced practitioners had 2,209 differentially expressed genes. Most of the gene changes involved improving the body's response to chronic psychological stress.1

The second study, conducted in 2013, found that eliciting the relaxation response produces changes in gene expression after just one session of meditation among both novices and experienced practitioners alike (with the long-term practitioners, not surprisingly, deriving more benefit).2


Genes that were upregulated included those involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion, while genes that were downregulated included those linked to inflammation and stress.

The relaxation response

When 20 volunteers took up yoga or another mind-body practice, they showed a change in 1,561 genes (874 upregulated for health and 687 downregulated for stress). Experienced practitioners saw even greater changes, while no changes were seen in the control group.

Above the gene


If our genes don't seal our fate and if they actually contain an enormous library of possibilities just waiting to be taken off the shelf and read, then what gives us access to those potentials-potentials that could have a huge effect on our health and wellbeing? The answer lies in a relatively new field of study called epigenetics.


The word 'epigenetics' literally means 'above the gene'. It refers to the control of genes not from within the DNA itself, but from messages coming from outside the cell-in other words, from the environment.


These signals cause a methyl group (one carbon atom attached to three hydrogen atoms) to attach to a specific spot on a gene, and this process (called DNA methylation) is one of the main processes that turns the gene off or on.


Epigenetics teaches that we are, indeed, not doomed by our genes and that a change in human consciousness can produce physical changes, both in structure and function, in the human body. We can modify our genetic destiny by turning on the genes we want and turning off the ones we don't want through working with the various factors in the environment that programme our genes. Some of those signals come from within the body, such as feelings and thoughts, while others come from the body's response to the external environment, such as pollution or sunlight.


Epigenetics studies all of these external signals that tell the cell what to do and when to do it, looking at both the sources that activate, or turn on, gene expression (upregulating) and those that suppress, or turn off, gene expression (downregulating)-as well as the dynamics of energy that adjust the process of cellular function on a moment-to-moment basis. The latest research suggests that even though our DNA code never changes, thousands of combinations, sequences and patterned variations in a single gene are possible (just as thousands of combinations, sequences and patterns of neural networks are possible in the brain).


Going back to the blueprint model, we can change the colour of what we build, the type of materials we use, the scale of the construction and even the positioning of the structure-making an almost infinite number of variations-all without ever changing the actual blueprint.


So when we think our thoughts and feel our feelings, our bodies respond in a complex formula of biological shifts and alterations, and each experience pushes the buttons of real genetic changes within our cells.


The speed of these changes can be truly remarkable. In just three months, a group of 30 men with low-risk prostate cancer were able to upregulate 48 genes (mostly dealing with tumour suppression) and downregulate 453 genes (mostly dealing with tumour promotion) by following an intensive nutrition and lifestyle regimen.8


The men, enrolled in the study by Dean Ornish, MD, at the University of California at San Francisco, lost weight and reduced their abdominal obesity, blood pressure and lipid profile over the course of the study.


As Ornish noted, "It is not really so much about risk-factor reduction or preventing something bad from happening. These changes can occur so quickly you don't have to wait years to see the benefits."9


Even more impressive are the number of epigenetic changes made over a six-month period in a Swedish study of 23 slightly overweight, healthy men who went from being relatively sedentary to attending spinning and aerobics classes an average of just under twice per week.


Researchers at Lund University discovered that the men had epigenetically altered 7,663 genes-almost one-third of all the genes in the entire human genome.10

Unidentical twins


Researchers at the Cancer Epigenetics Laboratory at the Spanish National Cancer Centre in Madrid studied 40 pairs of identical twins, ranging in age from 3 to 74. They found that younger twins who had similar lifestyles and spent more years together had similar epigenetic patterns, whereas older twins, particularly those with dissimilar lifestyles who spent fewer years together, had very different epigenetic patterns.1


For example, the researchers found four times as many differentially expressed genes between one pair of 50-year-old twins as they did between a pair of three-year-old twins.


To use another analogy, the older twin pairs were like exact copies of the same model of a computer that came loaded with similar starter software. But as time went on, each downloaded different additional software programmes. The computer (the DNA) stays the same but, depending on what software a person has downloaded (the epigenetic variations), what the computer does and the way it operates can be rather different.

Sweet brain of youth

On a crisp September day in 1981, eight men in their 70s and 80s took part in a five-day retreat at a monastery in Peterborough, New Hampshire, organized by Harvard University. There they were to pretend that they were at least 22 years younger than they actually were at the time.


When they arrived, they found themselves surrounded by all sorts of environmental cues to help them recreate a younger age. They flipped through old issues of Life and the Saturday Evening Post, they watched movies and television shows popular in 1959, and they listened to recordings of Perry Como and Nat King Cole on the radio. They also talked about 'current' events such as Fidel Castro's rise to power in Cuba, Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev's visit to the United States, and even the feats of baseball star Mickey Mantle and boxing great Floyd Patterson.


A week later, another group of men of the same age were taken to the same monastery and asked to reminisce about being 22 years younger, but not to pretend they weren't their current age.


After each five-day retreat, the researchers took several measurements and compared them with those taken before the start of the study.


Although the bodies of the men from both groups were physiologically younger, structurally as well as functionally, those in the first study group (who pretended they were younger) improved significantly more than the control group, who'd merely reminisced.1


The researchers discovered improvements in height, weight and gait. The men grew taller as their posture straightened, and their joints became more flexible and their fingers lengthened as their arthritis diminished. Their eyesight and hearing got better. Their grip strength improved. Their memory sharpened, and they scored better on tests of mental cognition: the first group improved their scores by 63 per cent compared with 44 per cent for the control (reminiscing) group. The men literally became younger in those five days. By the end of the study, they were playing touch football, some of whom gave up their canes.2


The men were able to turn on the circuits in their brains that reminded them of who they had been 22 years ago, and then their body chemistry somehow magically responded. They didn't just feel younger; they physically became younger, as evidenced by measurement after measurement. The change wasn't just in their minds; it was also in their bodies.

Youthful thinking

Men told to pretend they were 22 years younger scored better on cognition tests than men told to just reminisce about being younger (the controls). The first group improved their scores by 63 per cent compared with 44 per cent in the the control group.

Dr Joe Dispenza

Adapted from Dr. Joe Dispenza's forthcoming book You are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter (Hay House, lb14.99)

Dr Joe Dispenza, international bestselling author of Evolve Your Brain and Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself is an American doctor of chiropractic with extensive postgraduate training in neuroscience.

References

1

N Engl J Med, 1976; 295: 1458-63; Cousins N. Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1979

2

Biomed Res, 2007; 28: 281-5

3

Cousins N. Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1979: 56

4

J Psychosom Res, 2005; 58: 121-7; 2007; 62: 563-70

5

Richardson K. The Making of Intelligence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000

6

Rossi EL. The Psychobiology of Gene Expression: Neuroscience and Neurogenesis in Hypnosis and the Healing Arts. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2002: 9

7

Church D. The Genie in Your Genes: Epigenetic Medicine and the New Biology of Intention. Santa Rosa, CA: Elite Books, 2007: 32

8

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2008; 105: 8369-74

9

Stein L. 'Can Lifestyle Changes Bring out the Best in Genes'. Sci Am, June 17, 2008; www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=can-lifestyle-changes-bring-out-the-best-in-genes

10

PLoS Genet, 2013; 9: e1003572

power of calming thought References

1

PLoS One, 2008; 3: e2576

2

PLoS One, 2013; 8: e62817

unidentical twins References

1

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2005; 102: 10604-9

brain of youth References

1

Langer EJ. Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing. Co., 1989; Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. New York: Ballantine Books, 2009

2

Feinberg C. 'The Mindfulness Chronicles: On the 'Psychology of Possibility'. Harvard Magazine (September-October 2010); http:// harvardmagazine.com/2010/09/the-mindfulness-chronicles


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