We live in a world where the advances in modern medicine are heralded as achievements beyond our wildest dreams. Science is truly amazing and will continue to propel human life forward in tremendous ways. However, our journey as scientific healers is in its extreme infancy, and what we see as medicine today will be interpreted as primitive in the decades or centuries to come. I think there is already an aspect of medicine that is incredibly underrepresented, an aspect of human health that many still ignore; the recognition of the integral relationship between the body and mind.
Starting with my interest in the health benefits of mindfulness meditation, I have found that the body, its organs, and its systems are all incredibly interconnected to our mind and experience of consciousness. We often perceive each organ as separate and independent piece of our complicated “machine”, but this is far from the truth. For example, the gut affects the state of the mind, mental health translates into physical health, physical health translates back into mental health, etc. I tend to imagine the body as more of a soup, where everything is just a fluid flowing around, and a change in one area causes a ripple that influences everywhere else. Understanding the entire ecosystem, and how it functions to maintain balance, is at the heart of having true understanding of our own bodies, health, and how to obtain satisfaction in life. These ideas are rooted in core philosophies of eastern medicine, yet our western society often disregards these practices as pseudoscience and unfounded. As science matures, and more research is conducted, this naivety diminishes. It is my hope to share some scientific research that highlights how interconnected all the systems are, to explain the importance and scientific validly of holistic health. This article will provide a brief introduction to these topics. It will be the intent of this entire blog to further develop upon these ideas, as time continues to flow.
To begin, discussion of gut health, microbiota, and how it interacts with the brain is a sure way to articulate the beauty of our inner ecosystem. Many have heard the phrase “you are what you eat”. The cells from the food we consume become the cells that make our body, but this is an extreme oversimplification. Our gut is composed of more than just the organs and juices that process our food. It is also home to 300-500 bacterial species called microbiota (Quigley, 2010). These foreign species that live inside of us, come from the foods we eat, and they have a profound impact on our physical and mental health. A healthy colony of microbiota in our gut wall is essential for selectively allowing nutrients into our systems, while keeping other more harmful molecules such as pathogens out (Househam et al., 2017). Therefore, a healthy microbiota population has a severe impact on immune health. Additionally, microbiota, via the vagus nerve, may have influence over our dietary behavior (Alcock et al., 2014). For example, people who desire chocolate and those who are indifferent to it seem to have different microbiota (Rezzi et al., 2007). Other examples, from mice studies, have shown different mood styles depending on the food given (Bercik et al., 2011). Decreasing stress through probiotics (foods containing gut bacteria) in humans has also been achieved (Messaoudi et al., 2011). So, on top of affecting our immune health, our gut bacteria colony seems to affect our mind by both influencing what we want to eat and our mood. This is a clear example of how the body affects the mind. Not to mention, our mind obviously makes choices in what we eat. Therefore, our mind also affects our body. Hopefully this illustrates the cyclical nature of the influence our mind and body have on each other. Perhaps this also sparks interest in having more attention over our own diets. I know it has for me.
The gut is not the only body part to have this type of relationship with the mind; our heart does as well. The brain has dramatic influence over the heart. Our nervous system contains the autonomic nervous system, and within it are two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system induces the “fight or flight” response, which increases heart rate. The parasympathetic is the opposite and slows heart rate. The heart is continuously receiving signals from both branches and changes its pace accordingly (Armour, 1994). The cardiovascular system also has its own set of sensory neurons, so that it can regulate its pace on its own (Armour, 1994). It is a vital organ for life, and therefore must have robust communication back and forth between itself and the brain, to maintain proper functionality and harmony between the two major systems. This is in part why the heart and cardiovascular systems relay more information to the brain than any other organ in the body (Cameron, 2002). Additionally, this means that its influence over the brain is significant. It seems obvious that our emotional state can influence heart rate. When we get scared or nervous, our heart rate increases. This is something we have all experienced. However, heart rate not only represents our emotional states, but it can also determine them (Mccraty et al., 2009). Many of the afferent neurons sending signals from the heart to the brain innervate with the brain’s thalamus, hypothalamus, and amygdala, which all play a role in emotional processing (Mccraty et al., 2009). More evidence for this theory is found in research that shows panic is frequently generated after unrecognized cardiac arrhythmia (Mccraty et al., 2009). Not only does the mind influence the heart, but so does the heart influence the mind, likely in ways that we do not fully comprehend yet. Nonetheless, I hope it is becoming clear that our mind not only influences the activity of organs, but these organs also influence the mind and brain. Therefore, there seems to be a cyclical interaction and communication between our brain and body that is constantly at work. In which case, the brain is the body, and the body is the brain. It is one giant ecosystem influencing and reacting to itself.
A practice that seems to properly highlight the significance of the mind body relationship is meditation. Meditation can be thought of as both a physical and mental activity. It is mental in the sense that it involves a practice of processing all incoming thoughts, feelings, and emotions in a nonjudgmental way to learn to dereify thoughts (to learn that thoughts are not a part of reality)(Wielgosz et al., 2019). Additionally, it incorporates a physical aspect of breath work. Advanced meditators seem to commonly arrive at a calm breathing frequency of 8 breaths / minute (0.13Hz) (Cysarz & Büssing, 2005), suggesting that the process of meditation leads to certain breathing patterns. Of course, meditation can become even more physical within the practice that we commonly refer to as yoga, Tai Chi （太极）, or Qi Gong (气功). These practices involve a certain orientation to the body and present moments that promote mindfulness.
The mental practice of mindfulness and meditation seem to lead to very healthy mental outcomes. For example, large meta-analysis studies have found that mindfulness-based practices lead to decreased ruminations, stress, anxiety (Greeson et al., 2018; Querstret et al., 2020). These poor mental habits are highly correlated to a wandering mind that is time traveling to the past and future. Mindfulness meditation is amazingly helpful in alleviating these psychological burdens by creating a practice of keeping the mind present. Furthermore, this field of practice not only affects the mind, but also the body. For example, there has been research to suggest that pranayama breathing may aid in the alleviation of asthmatic symptoms (Agnihotri et al., 2016; Jayawardena et al., 2020; Saxena & Saxena, 2009). The main theory behind how meditation leads to all the physical and mental benefits comes from the idea that meditation may increase vagus nerve tone. If this is true, then it has profound implications on the relationship between the mind and body. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body (Bonaz et al., 2017), and is the main nerve for the parasympathetic nervous system. The activation of that nerve alters the state of most organs and systems throughout the body via promoting parasympathetic activity. Given our modern stressful lives, this is something our body is in dire need of. If the practice of meditation, which is largely mental, is truly capable of influencing the activation of this nerve, then the interplay between mind and body should be taken very seriously from a health care point of view. If science continues to promote this finding, then meditation could potentially be one of the most powerful ways we can promote health within ourselves.
Much of this blog will be devoted to the pursuit of the understanding of how the mind and body is related. How is the mind, our experience, and perception of world dictated by both our mental and physical habits? Additionally, how do physical habits influence the mind? Together, we can slowly learn how the body and mind work in a holistic manner, to gain more control over our health and well-being. I look forward to this journey of inquiry, and I hope you will join me on it.
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