Our grandmothers were right. “Don’t get so upset,” they used to implore us. “You’ll worry yourself sick!” What Nana knew instinctively is now supported by scientific studies that show a powerful link between our emotions and our health. This link is known as the mind-body connection.
“The majority of patients I see have a huge emotional component to their illnesses,” says Afua Bromley, an acupuncturist at Acupuncture St. Louis in Webster Groves. “People who worry excessively, for example, tend to be more susceptible to digestive ailments such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome and gastric reflux. They’re more prone to chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, too. Too much stress suppresses the immune system and leaves the body more vulnerable to a number of ailments, including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.”
Bromley, who was a pre-med chemistry major until the end of her junior year at Washington University, later earned a master’s degree in Oriental medicine. “Western medicine tends to separate the physical and emotional, but Chinese medicine views the body as a continuum,” she says. “I never dismiss pain or illness as being all in the mind, but the relationship between stress and illness is undeniable. In trying to find the root cause of a patient’s ailments, I often find that they’re working 70- to 90-hour weeks and refusing to take vacations. They over-schedule their children, too. There’s no way you can keep doing that long term and stay well. We need to take care of our physical and emotional health.”
To ease stress, she recommends meditation, exercise and a balanced diet. “Eat more fruits and vegetables, along with some whole grains and proteins,” she advises. “Eat less pre-packaged foods, artificial ingredients place more stress on the body. And spend more time with your family and friends.”
Dr. Cheryl Shea, a chiropractor and acupuncturist at Complete Wellness Center in Kirkwood, also sees a strong relationship between the mind and body. “Stress creates a cascade of chemical and hormonal changes that affect every function of our bodies,” she says. Under stress, she explains, the body goes into fight-or-flight mode, and resources such as blood, oxygen and nutrients are diverted. “I see patients who are constantly in survival mode, which means that their bodies aren’t able to repair themselves and function efficiently,” says Shea. “Fight-or-flight mode is fine when we’re actually in danger, but the body was never meant to be under siege all the time. Stress promotes inflammation throughout the body, shuts down digestive function, and can cause or worsen hypertension, depression, insulin resistance, thyroid problems and skin ailments.”
But there’s an upside. One of the principles behind the mind-body connection is that the same mechanism that contributes to illness can also aid in healing. “We can improve our body’s health by improving our emotional health, and vice versa,” Shea says. “Both chiropractic and acupuncture help balance the nervous system.”
Like Bromley, she takes a holistic approach, often recommending simple lifestyle changes to her clients. “Diet, exercise and relaxation can make a remarkable difference,” she says, adding that one of her patients significantly lowered his high blood pressure by doing simple breathing exercises.
“I’m always puzzled when doctors minimize the placebo effect,” she says. “If a patient can be ‘cured’ of a symptom by taking a sugar pill, doesn’t that show the power of the mind? You can’t separate the heart from the body. Mainstream medicine is catching on to the fact that the part of healing we can’t always see or quantify is as important as the physical side.”