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The Power to Heal — Can we think ourselves better?

Each of us possesses the correct software encoded into our DNA to create a whole new body. We have the mechanisms with which to grow new parts and eradicate nasty infections. All we need is the command to make it happen.

What if that too, is within our control?

Most of us regard our bodies as though they are a self-governing sack of organs and tissues. Our autonomic or parasympathetic nervous system keeps it all ticking over, freeing our conscious mind to think about higher skills, such as planning and decision-making.

Few of us believe that we can alter our bodily functions and processes merely by thinking about them. We see it as a separate entity, one which is regulated by chemical controllers such as hormones and enzymes. Illnesses and disease are something related to a neurological or chemical imbalance, or an invading organism, requiring a specialist doctor to tinker with our mechanics using drug therapy or surgery to set it straight.

From the time of conception to the very last breath, we give ourselves no other responsibilities over our physical selves than the supply of oxygen, nutrition, and exercise. We treat our bodies like vintage cars, popping the hood once in a while to check the oil and tweaked the air mix in the carburettor. We forget that the parasympathetic nervous system controlling us is just another part of our immensely complex brains. It is integral to all other regions, allowing us to override functions when it suits us.

If we could not assume control over our breathing, we could not swim underwater. If we could not take control of our bladder sphincters, we would all be incontinent at all times.

So, if we can override such critical mechanisms as breathing, it should be possible to direct smaller components such as infection control, healing or pain reception.

Consider this, we know how our lungs work. They inflate and deflate in a cyclical fashion according to pressure changes in our thorax. To all intents and purposes, this process continues in a seamless fashion throughout our entire lives without conscious control, yet even while you are reading this, you are able to hold your breath preventing the life-giving gases from entering your bloodstream. In less than a millisecond, a stray thought can stop this perfectly balanced gaseous exchange system.

Why can’t we direct our bodies to heal itself?

Perhaps we can.

There are examples of medical miracles every day, some of them utterly astonishing. Take the example of arteriogenesis. This phenomenon occurs in patients who have experienced some sort of cardiac arrest when a blockage has prevented oxygen-rich blood from being delivered to the heart muscle. As with most living things, starve it of oxygen and it begins to die. The necrotic tissue in that region must be physically bypassed so that the remaining healthy tissues of the heart can continue to function.

In many cases, this requires a lengthy and traumatic procedure where arteries or veins are harvested from elsewhere in the body and grafted to the healthy sections of the heart. For some though, investigatory procedures prior to bypass surgery have uncovered brand-new blood vessels automatically generated by the body while waiting for surgery, rendering procedure unnecessary. It may sound like science-fiction, but it happens frequently enough to warrant research grants into discovering the trigger for this self-healing ability. I can vouch for this phenomenon since that is precisely what happened to my father some 18 years ago.

Schaper et al, Max-Planck-Institute for Heart and Lung Research, Arteriogenesis Research Group, in Germany claim that it is simply a factor brought about by stresses placed on veins near to the blocked vessel, triggering a change into arterial vessels to compensate. Other groups, such as Nora Gatzke et al, 2018, have focused on replicating this phenomenon by altering blood chemistry. Others claim that rigorous exercise can be a contributing factor, but what about those who are scheduled for surgery, and who are medically unfit, yet still manage to grow their own bypass like my dad?

Studies into spontaneous arteriogenesis have been undertaken from as early as 1875, when Scottish anatomist, physiologist, and surgeon, Sir John Hunter (1728–1793), examined a male deer, whose carotid artery was blocked. In less than a week, the buck developed a small branch of nearby vessels to compensate and went on to live a long and healthy life.

There are numerous creatures in the animal kingdom that have mastered the ability to self-heal from; eels, lampreys and axolotls, starfish and many more besides. Why should it be restricted to a few amphibians and fish, and not be possible for us? Perhaps it is as simple as thinking about not breathing, or slowing down a racing heartbeat.

If our brain regions are as interconnected as neurologists tell us, it follows that we should also be able to override the perception of pain or be able to influence the rate of repairs for injuries.

If we can convince our nervous system that there is a problem, one will manifest.

Take functional disorders, for example. These are symptoms experienced by a patient, even when no physical cause is evident. They used to be referred to as ‘psychosomatic illnesses’, and were often treated harshly by medical practitioners. Dismissed as time wasters or attention seekers, these people suffered from extreme pain, discomfort or in some severe cases, paralysis, plus the added indignity of being labelled as a charlatan or malingerer.

Thankfully today, those in the medical profession are more enlightened and less critical of people whose debilitating illnesses stem from a neurological malfunction. Yes, their symptoms are all in the mind, but it does not lessen their distress. In all cases, those who have the condition are diagnosed as having medically unexplained symptoms, meaning that their suffering is real even if there is no underlying cause.

The dangers of misdiagnosis are also real. If symptoms correspond to a critical medical problem, they may receive damaging drugs or inappropriate treatments. Where functional disorders are suspected, primitive tests are used, such as jabbing with a needle, or applying a painful ‘sternal rub’ where a tender spot on the chest is repeatedly pressed, to see if the patient is truly paralysed or faking. For someone who is partially paralysed, that might feel like abuse.

What causes functional disorders?

Sigmund Freud believed that they were a result of past psychological traumas. Other neurologists believe that they are triggered by physical illness or disease. Statistical analysis has shown that 24% of functional disorder sufferers were abused in childhood, lending support to Freud’s claims.

Another common association is a former traumatic car crash, or a similar event, where the physical injury heals, but the pain persists. To illustrate this, former dancer, Jamie Lacelle, suffered a mystery illness which included pain in her hip. For some time after the illness had subsided, the hip problem continued, and worsened over the following months, to the point where she began dragging her leg. Eventually, Lacelle was wheelchair bound, in pain, and having regular spasms in her leg.

Medical tests revealed that there were no physiological causes for her pain. The entire issue was manufactured by her nervous system. With a sympathetic specialist, who broke the news to her that it was a disconnect in her brain causing the symptoms, and tailored physiotherapy, she is now on her way to recovery.

The power of suggestion, or the nocebo effect, is a dangerous one. There are countless incidents of those in clinical trials who report strange side effects of medication, dizziness, nausea, headaches and such, despite them being in the sugar pill control group.

Mind over temperature.

Herbert Benson, Professor of Medicine at Harvard University, studied Tibetan monks for twenty years. In one experiment, he monitored their ability to dry cold, wet sheets on their bodies, while meditating in a room that registered 40 degrees Fahrenheit, or 4.4 degrees Celcius. Under such conditions, the average person would begin shivering almost immediately, as their core temperature dropped, with a possibility of death, as their systems shut down. For those meditating monks, each wet sheet took approximately one hour to dry, proving their mastery over their own autonomic nervous system.

If we can simply instruct ourselves to improve when there are no physical problems, can we do the same for other neurological complaints? Our nervous system has the capacity to cause physical symptoms, it should be able to reverse them too. Can we trigger the processes to regenerate that which is broken, or send white blood cells to attack viruses and foreign objects?

At the very least, meditative practices have shown to decrease stress-related disorders, such as high blood pressure, which in turn has a positive impact on the heart’s physiology. If monks can alter their basal metabolic rates simply by meditating, then we have the capacity to alter many other bodily processes.

Perhaps one day in the near future, doctors will hand out prescriptions for retreats in the Himalayas rather than a handful of blood pressure pills and statins.

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