Chronic inflammation incites trouble
in our digestive system, joints, muscles,
nerves and organs, with or without
causing obvious symptoms. If ignored
for years, inflammation, a ticking time
bomb, can lead to obesity, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, depression, cancer and
heart disease. The good news: you can
reverse inflammation and many diseases
with smart lifestyle choices.
MOOD AS MEDICINE
While we’ve evolved to recover from the
short bouts of agitation and fear needed to
dodge a saber-toothed tiger or face a looming deadline, the body is not so good at
dealing with unresolved conflict. As
stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released over an extended time,
inflammation ensues. The aphorism
“never go to bed angry” directly applies
to good health: a recent study at Ohio
State University’s Institute for Behavior
Medicine Research found that a stressful day today obstructs the bodily
benefits of a healthful meal tomorrow. Life’s daily pressures can sabotage
even our healthful pursuits.
The mind, as we know, is intimately connected to well-being.
“Calming the mind is as important as healthy food is to cooling inflam-
mation,” says Elson Haas, M.D., founder and director of the Preventive
Medical Center of Marin, a 32-year-old integrative medicine facility in
San Rafael. Haas is author of 11 books on health, nutrition and detoxi-
fication, including most recently Staying Healthy with NEW Medicine:
Integrating Natural, Eastern, and Western Approaches for Optimal
Health. “Everything we are exposed to physically, emotionally and
psychologically has an effect upon our health and our ability to main-
tain it. Natural medicine is based on the premise that the body has the
innate ability to heal itself.”
Recent major-university research in neuroscience and positive psy-
chology has examined how emotions impact our physiology. As one might
expect, toxic thoughts and emotions such as chronic anger, loneliness,
stress, shame and sadness cause inflammation, hormone imbalances,
impaired immunity, blood pressure elevation, high cholesterol and ill-
nesses ranging from heart disease and cancer to depression. Conversely,
states of calmness, mindfulness and happiness have profound positive
benefits, from improved sleep and energy to better cancer survival rates,
longer telomeres (the end pieces of DNA that shorten as we age) and even
a reversal of the damage wrought by negative thoughts and emotions.
Contentment literally works at the cellular level, balancing the immune
system and safeguarding us against stress.
In one study at the University of Pittsburgh, 350 adults rated their
experience with nine positive emotions including feeling energetic,
For another mind-body example, con-
sider the placebo effect. Sometimes when
study subjects believe they are receiving
medicine, but are actually administered
dummy pills, they recover from an illness
any way. The simple belief in a positive
outcome produced an immune recharge.
Think about it: when was the last time you
got sick just before a vacation?
“While life throws unavoidable stressful situations our way, research
has uncovered that it’s not simply an event that causes stress,” says
Haas. “It’s the way you interpret the event that affects your stress
response, your sense of control, resilience, attitude, behaviors, and,
ultimately, your health.”
Regularly engaging in stress-reducing mental exercises is like an emo-
tional detox, disrupting habitual negative thought patterns, promoting joy
and enabling the body to thrive. Fortunately for us, our brains are capable
of neuroplasticity — the ability to form new neural connections — allow-
ing us to alter our perspective and mood. Regardless of your disposition,
you can develop more positivity, nudging your emotional state in order
to improve your health, by fostering “learned optimism” — a positive
psychology concept — to bring about more joy.
How does one do this? Multiple studies find that engaging in positive
relationships with others, whether a partner or friend, is hands-down
the healthiest activity. Making positive social connections releases the
“cuddle hormone” oxytocin and decreases stress.
Additional research shows that after 21 consecutive days of keeping
a gratitude journal — writing for a few minutes daily about what you
feel deeply grateful for — brain neurons are rewired to help us savor
more. Other proven positive pursuits include behaving with kindness
towards others, altering self-destructive thoughts, noticing things that
are going well throughout the day and seeking out pleasant everyday
experiences such as taking a walk with your partner outdoors in nature
after dinner. For other concrete techniques, visit UC Berkeley’s Greater
Good in Action webpage.
While we’ve evolved to recover
from the short bouts of agitation and
fear needed to dodge a saber-toothed
tiger or face a looming deadline,
the body is not so good at dealing
with unresolved conflict.