Regarding your health, you may have often wondered how much of a particular symptom or illness is physical and how much is of the mind. The answer to this is not straightforward and there are a number of important dimensions to this issue. Firstly, the question is mainly based on a misconception. There is no such thing as a separate body and separate mind, we are integrated and whole. Occasionally it may be useful to artificially separate the two and act as if they are not one and the same. In particular, Western Culture (including medicine, science and religion) promotes this idea and we often go through life as if our bodies were something separate from our minds. If you are of a certain vintage, you will be familiar with the “body bad, mind good” school lesson, which compounds this idea of a separate mind and body. Eastern cultures on the other hand, tend to be much more holistic in their approach to physiology.
Secondly, every single symptom and illness has both physical and mental components, every symptom and illness is, after all, experienced in the mind. Both the physical and mental components affect each other (through our hormonal, immune and nervous systems) and it is interesting to observe how individuals with apparently the same illness can have very different outcomes. Thirdly, as the ancient philosophers taught, everything is experienced through the mind and therefore, is of the mind. Shakespeare put it slightly differently when he said that there is nothing either good or bad in the world, but thinking about it makes it so. One final factor to consider in this context is that every illness has a documented placebo effect. In other words, if you believe a therapy is going to improve your health, then there is a good chance that it will (the likelihood varies with each illness). This is so, regardless of the nature of the “therapy”
Another related issue to be considered in terms of managing our health, is our current lifestyles, which have dramatically changed in very recent times. It is worth reminding ourselves that in the past humans have, since they began walking on two legs (and before), led quite different lifestyles. For example, electrification in Ireland happened predominantly in the 1930s to the late 1950s. Before that, our lives were governed by the seasons and especially by the amount of daylight available. When darkness came, we retired to our cabins and rested. In wintertime, there was a lot of resting. The important regulatory systems in our bodies, the nervous system, our hormones and the immune system were adapted over millennia to these natural cycles and organised our body systems appropriately. Then there was very abrupt and dramatic change which continues today at rapid pace. There are bright lights, bright screens and loud noises at all hours of the day and we are constantly on the go or being bamboozled by new information. We are continuously available and have become obsessed with our phones and social media (very unsocial !). Our regulatory systems seem always to be in drive mode and we lead our lives on an adrenaline rush, often giving ourselves further stimulation with caffeine and other drugs. In terms of health, some people may think they can get away with this, but most cannot. There is consequently, a whole new set of common ill-health’s in which “stress” plays a role. Cardiovascular disease, anxiety, depression, cancer, inflammatory diseases, skin disorders, allergy and irritable bowel syndrome are some well-known examples. The adrenaline rush is not only bad for your health but also impacts adversely on our relationships with others and the wider world around us.
For the first time also, one of our major problems in this part of the world, is not that we have insufficient availability of food, but we now have too much. We can observe too, that the quality of our food has changed and become highly processed to fit in with our “busy” lives. We also turn to food, not just to satisfy our nutritional needs but to satisfy deep seated emotional needs. We often eat because we are bored, angry, depressed, anxious or simply because we cannot sit still. As a consequence, obesity has become a major problem and in Ireland, we may soon have the most obese population in Europe. We all know that obesity is bad for your heart and lungs, your ability to use glucose as a fuel (type 11 diabetes), your joints, your energy levels and your overall sense of wellness. What was not understood until recently, is that obesity is an important cause of cancer and contributor to inflammatory disease. Recent studies are suggesting that as many as one in five cases of cancer are now linked to obesity. With certain types of cancer (e.g. oesophageal cancer) obesity may be involved in as much as forty percent of cases. Obesity is also associated with an increased risk of inflammatory disease such as atherosclerosis (causing plaque build-up in blood vessels), arthritis, asthma and type two diabetes. It is now apparent, that obesity itself is an inflammatory process. What this means in simple terms, is that obesity activates the immune system. Cells of the immune system don’t like fat accumulation and they invade fatty tissue. This in turn produces excess factors which cause cell growth and may promote cancer (essentially an abnormality of cell growth) and other diseases.
The good news is that there are some straightforward ways in which we can rectify the situation and restore important balance to our lives. To the previously mentioned appropriate eating, exercise, smoking cessation and reducing alcohol, we need to also promote taking time out and actively relaxing. Actively relaxing may at first seem a contradiction in terms, but put simply, it means taking active steps to relax and restore balance and control to your whole being. It means also learning to be more at ease with oneself and trying to live more completely in each moment. There are many ways to do this, meditation or mindfulness are very useful, but taking time out for yourself, be it in hobbies, past times or simply sitting still are important as well. You should to do this every day and preferably be “unavailable” for at least thirty minutes every day. This requires discipline and time for it to have an effect. However, there are many reliable studies showing that meditation or mindfulness practice re-sets your nervous system, your hormones and immune system and helps to restore normal regulation and wellbeing. However, you cannot reverse the habits of a lifetime in a few weeks or even months. It takes time for balance to be restored and your regulatory pathways to be returned to what nature has designed over hundreds of thousands of years. Eat well, exercise well and relax well (but preferably not with a cup of coffee!).
(Prof Jackson is a Health and Fitness Consultant at Body Health and Fitness, Sandyford, Dublin.)