By now most everyone understands there are many differences between Traditional Oriental Medicine and modern Western medicine. And not just in Traditional Oriental Medicine’s use of exotic terms and concepts such as Dao (the way of nature), Qi (vital energy), Yin-Yang (fundamental opposing forces in nature), Jing (essence), Ping (balance), Zheng (patterns of disharmony), Jingluo (meridians), etc. But most people are aware there is a fundamental difference in the philosophic approach to treatment, namely in Traditional Oriental Medicine’s focus on total wellness of the body, mind, and spirit. Even medical skeptics will agree this holistic feature gives Traditional Oriental Medicine many advantages over modern Western medicine, particularly in non-emergency situations when immediate medical attention is not needed.
Cultivating wellness and preventing poor health conditions that precede full-blown states of illness, or treating long-term slow-moving chronic diseases, are often pointed out as areas where Traditional Oriental Medicine excels in. The reason is that Traditional Oriental Medicine has built-in holistic principles that allow for the simultaneous treatment of the body and mind, which are both implicated in cultivating wellness, preventing illness, and recovering from chronic diseases. In Traditional Oriental Medicine our consciousness, known as Shen, is completely inseparable from the body. More precisely, by way of coordinating a healthy psycho-emotional life the Shen drives the function of the various organ systems in our body and is at the root of cultivating wellness, preventing disease, and restoring health.
The Role of Epigenetics
While for over two centuries modern Western medicine has used the philosophy of mind-body dualism as the basis for much of its success, recent scientific research has begun to support Traditional Oriental Medicine’s holistic view of health and its long-held acknowledgement of the importance of positive mental attitude in maintaining good health. Recently scientists have begun to understand that, contrary to earlier held concepts in medicine, our genes do not precisely predict disease or control the body’s biology. Recent studies show that there are many factors involved in how genes express themselves and how our cells function. As it turns out, these factors can turn specific chemical signals on or off in your body, which in turn controls genetic expression and cellular activity. These discoveries have led to a new area of scientific medical inquiry known as epigenetics- the study about how various environmental and lifestyle factors such as pollution, toxic chemicals, diet, and chronic psychological and emotional stress influence genetic expression and cellular function.
Through epigenetics, scientists are now understanding that debilitating moods and negative emotional states specifically cause the cells in our bodies to switch from their normal functions to states of uncontrolled, abnormal cell growth and division, which overtime leads to inflammation. This is very important because scientists now believe that inflammation plays a far bigger role in the onset of disease than once believed. In fact the onset of most chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are now directly linked to long-term inflammation and the ongoing triggering of the body’s inflammatory response by various environmental factors, including chronic stress, anxiety, and depression. Modern researchers are now re-discovering what has been made clear in Traditional Oriental Medicine for thousands of years- that the relationship between our mind and what goes on inside the body is very closely connected.
Psycho-emotional Health and Organ Function
In Traditional Oriental Medicine, long-term emotional turmoil manifesting as excessive sadness, anger, stress, worry, and fear, and even excessive joy, can all affect internal organ function. Regardless of whether you believe Traditional Oriental Medicine is merely placebo or a legitimate medical system, most everyone has experienced this theoretical rhetoric in one form or another. Whether it be worrying to the point of feeling anxiety and losing an appetite, or angering to the point of flushing with heat and getting a severe headache, or becoming immersed in so much fear that the stools become loose, most everyone can confirm our emotions impact the body’s physical function. Most everyone is familiar with that sinking and constricting feeling in the chest associated with sadness and having a “broken heart”, or the sensation of “butterflies” in the gut associated with being nervous. These are all very real psychosomatic feelings that most people have experienced and will agree link the mind to the body. And if these emotions linger for a long enough time, Traditional Oriental Medicine holds that they can cause havoc on normal organ function.
The Effects of Placebos and Nocebos on Health
Even placebos are now being recognized as often working equally as well as, or sometimes better than, actual treatment with surgery or prescription medication. A placebo is a harmless and fake medicine or procedure prescribed for the psychological benefit of the patient that is used as a means to prove the efficacy of treatment with an actual real medicine or procedure. To prove whether or not a drug or medical procedure works, patients are given placebos, such as in the form of a mere pill made of sugar, under the pretense that they are receiving actual treatment. Surprisingly, recent research shows that surgery or prescription drugs often do not outperform placebos in the treatment of knee pain, back pain, and depression.
Contrastingly, studies have also shown that psychological or psychosomatic factors such as pessimistic hopeless thinking or negative expectations of treatment or prognosis can produce a detrimental effect on health. Known as the nocebo effect, research shows that people’s health often deteriorates after their condition of health is deemed incurable or unknown by a doctor.
The placebo and nocebo effects clearly demonstrate the power of the mind in being able to change biology. But how is this possible?
Consciousness and Biology
One emerging explanation is that, as has been put forth by Traditional Oriental Medicine for millenia, everything in the universe, including the mind and the cells of the body, is perfused with energy that supports life. When we break the body down to the tiniest possible pieces all we have left is energy surrounded by large amounts of space. At this miniscule view of the body, all energy is merely just information that cannot be created nor destroyed. But it is also information that is changeable and even adaptable. In essence, this energy displays an intelligence, which itself is a characteristic of consciousness. In this light, every cell in the body is filled with consciousness that is constantly moving between the densest and most rarified manifestations of our internal environment as a means to transfer and communicate information.
This explains how when you try to live a life maintaining a high level of consciousness, your body’s cells tend to rejuvenate accordingly and protect the organism from pathogenesis. However if you dwell in emotional fear and its various tentacles such as anger, jealousy, sadness, worry, and so on, the healthy growth of cells becomes abnormal or shuts down completely. Dwelling in fear-based thinking also may send cells into a high alert mode and they begin attacking healthy tissue or becoming self-destructive. These responses by the cell are all done as a means to protect the organism.
By in large the mechanism of this cellular response appears to occur by way of an area in the brain known as the Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal axis (HPA axis). The various stressors we encounter everyday in our environment activate the secretion of specific hormones from the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, which then activate the secretion of hormones from the adrenal gland, triggering the “flight or fight” response by our autonomic nervous system. The “flight or fight” response is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived attack or harmful event, or a threat to survival. Once this response is triggered, the cells of the body record and memorize what to do in case we are faced with a similar situation in the future. This is one of the defining aspects of human physiological function and has been a key to the survival of our species. However, when the HPA axis mechanism is continually activated by stressors in our environment, overtime it weakens function in the body and makes us more susceptible to infections and illnesses.
One of the most fundamental things we can do to counteract this biological response is simply change our belief system and the way we perceive the world around us. To do this effectively, we must first focus on raising and cultivating our level of consciousness. In doing so we can begin to effectively communicate with our bodies the necessary information that encourages optimum cellular activity and function. In this way any programmed beliefs or fears that may be interfering with attaining optimum health can be identified and nulled, and we can begin to reshape our emotional and physical responses to our environment to one that is better suited for living a long, happy, and healthy life.