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Emotions and the Mind-Body Connection
am 31. März 2000
Over recent years the evidence that cancer and heart disease are caused by psychological factors, and can therefore be treated more effectively by psychotherapy than by other methods, has become increasingly clear. The work by Michael Marmot has shown this in Coronary Heart Disease of British Civil Servants. David Spiegel has shown this in a randomised trial of late-stage breast cancer patients and Hans Eysenck has shown it in several randomised trials of stressed people who were either cancer prone or heart disease prone. But none of the mechanisms proposed so far have provided a satisfactory explanation for how psychotherapy might reverse such degenerative diseases or prevent them.
The importance of the book is that it explains in an easy to understand way how the emotions control the cells of the body and thereby are a major contributory factor to diseases such as cancer, coronary heart disease, arthritis, etc.
According to Dr Pert the emotions are the link between the mind (thoughts) and the body. Molecules of emotion run every system in our body. This communication system is the body-mind's intelligence and it is wise enough to keep us healthy.
Before the discovery of cell receptors it was believed that the main control mechanism for the body was the nervous system operating via the brain, spinal cord, nerves and sensory receptors. The sensory receptors activated the brain via messages sent via the central nervous system. This process uses electrical impulses in the neurons, and two chemical neuro-transmitters, acetylcholine and nor epinephrine, in the synaptic cleft between the neurons. This caused the mechanism of the brain to be referred to as essentially electrical.
The second mechanism discovered more recently involves receptors on the cells, and neuropeptides circulating in the extracellular fluid, the blood and the cerebrospinal fluid. This gives rise to the concept of the chemical brain. The mechanism operates over a longer time scale and over longer distances. It also allows these information molecules to communicate across different systems, such as the endocrine, neurological, gastrointestinal and even the immune system at locations where they share channels. How does this second system work?
The two main factors in the process are the cell receptors and the ligands made up of neuropeptides (pp.22-3).
The cell receptors are large molecules made up of proteins, tiny amino acids strung together in crumpled chains. The lie like lily pads on the surface of a pond, the cell membrane, with roots enmeshed in the surface. They are sensing molecules or scanners for the cell.
They are receptive to "binding" preferentially with other substances diffusing through the extra cellular fluid, like sex with a preferred mate on a cellular level. When this substance touches the receptor it tickles it and arouses it to change shape to suit the visitor. The ligand (or binding substance) and the receptor strike the same note or frequency that rings a bell that opens the doorway to the cell and information enters the cell.
In this way receptors are the control buttons on the cell surface allowing substances flowing past the cell to control the cell's major functions - effectively linking the body's trillions of cells as integral parts of the organism's brain. This chemical brain acts in a similar way to the body's endocrine system whose hormones can travel the length and breadth of our bodies (p.139).
Events impact on individuals in a way depending on how receptive they are to the event. A traumatic event might not be accepted. It might become a repressed emotion and get stored in the unconscious mind, ie the body, via the release of neuropeptide ligands, and these memories are held in their receptors (p.147).
The immune system is also involved because it can communicate not only with the endocrine system, but also with the nervous system and the brain (p.164).
The mind then is that which holds the network together, often acting below our consciousness, linking and coordinating the major systems and their organs and cells in an intelligently orchestrated symphony of life (p.185).
Disease is caused by unexpressed emotions being stored. Disease-related stress produces information overload, the mind-body network being so taxed by unprocessed sensory input in the form of suppressed trauma and undigested emotions that it has become bogged down and cannot flow freely. The autonomic nervous system, regulated by peptide flow (such as breathing, blood flow, immunity, digestion and elimination) collapse upsetting the normal healing process. Meditation, by allowing the long-buried thoughts and feelings to surface, gets the peptides flowing again, returning the body and the emotions to health (p.243).
The book is essentially a chronological account of Candace Pert's frustrating experiences as a medical scientist in a male dominated profession. It takes us through her scientific discovery phase and describes what happens when a woman scientist comes up against male egos vying for the top prizes. She ultimately refuses to sacrifice her principles for the sake of ambition and leaves her beloved profession in a series of self-awareness experiences. As she drifts into the alternative health area she finds her true fulfilment and the reader is the beneficiary.
The reader can therefore learn some of the science and politics of orthodox medicine, and at the same time learn some of the principles of the self-awareness movement, all in the context of an interesting novel.
Those wanting to see a summary of the mechanism will find it very frustrating because the various bits are described in different parts of the book.