When we talk about health, the first thing most of us think about is the state of our physical bodies. However, when we think about emotions, mood, and mental well being, most people think of something separate from our health and our bodies – an abstract part of our selves we often refer to as the mind.
As a practitioner of acupuncture and Oriental medicine, I was not taught that these two things, body and mind, are connected: I was taught that they are one and the same thing. In Chinese medicine, the state of the body and the mind are two sides of the same coin, mutually dependent and interconnected. As one who sees and treats a broad range of ailments ranging from the overtly physical (e. g. back pain, headaches, dermatitis) to what seems entirely psychological (e. g.depression, anxiety, excess stress), I can say with conviction that there is almost always a connection between the mental and physical. For instance, physical symptoms can be a manifestation of emotional turmoil or duress. Psychological problems can arise from an imbalance in daily activities, including poor sleep, diet, and exercise (these are the Big 3 lifestyle over which we can exert profound control and thereby deeply benefit our health).
So as not to be overly abstract, let us look at an example. Skin diseases such as dermatitis occur for a variety of reasons and are typically treated with topical solutions, often with limited success. In Oriental medicine such diseases are seen as the result of internal disharmonies typically found within the digestive system. Modern Western medicine has recently discovered that digestive disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Leaky Gut are linked to eczema, dermatitis, and a host of other diseases. So what does all this have to do with the Mind/Body connection? Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Leaky Gut, and many other digestive disorders are directly or indirectly linked to our “mind” in the form of our nervous system and endocrine system. Our body reacts to the stimuli perceived by our brains, inhibiting one system in favor of another. When we are overly stressed our sympathetic nervous system dominates causing a cascade of consequences including weakened digestion and increased cortisol production, all of which directly detract from our health and lead to issues such as Leaky Gut, which in turn increases the likelihood of dermatitis.
Ulcers are another perfect example: when two scientists originally proposed that ulcers were due to bacteria, they were laughed out of their jobs. Everyone knew that ulcers were due to stress, plain and simple. These two scientists were later vindicated when it was revealed the H. Pylori was indeed responsible for ulcers. What was not understood at that time was the effect of stress as an immune system suppressant. Due to excessive stress, some people were more likely to develop ulcers because H. Pylori, which is bacteria common to most people, was given a chance to grow in more than usual. Similarly, many bacterial and viral infections occur when our immune systems are weakened, not merely because we were exposed to a pathogen (we are exposed to infectious pathogens daily). It is often when our mind is out of balance that our body suffers, and vice versa.