Psychoneuroimmunology is the branch of biomedical science that explores the relationships between the nervous system, emotions, and the endocrine and immune systems; it is concerned with the links between our states of mind and our states of health. It is one piece of a very complex puzzle – the puzzle of what creates and maintains health and well-being.
Allergies, colds and other types of infections, autoimmune diseases, and cancer are illnesses that all arise from immune system dysfunction. While virtually everyone catches occasional colds or has had an infection of some kind, people vary in how frequently they experience these problems and most never experience the more serious consequences of immune dysfunction, such as cancer. Since most people are faced with similar immune challenges, why do some stay healthy and some do not? Why do some people’s immune systems seem to hum along while other people succumb to various types of illness? Of course this is a complicated question and the causes of illness are many and multi-factored. Genetics play a part, as do lifestyle choices, and even luck is a factor, but a very significant contributor to immune system function, and therefore to health, is your state of mind.
The profound role played by mental and emotional states in the creation of illness has long been recognized by healers and practitioners of traditional medicine. Thus, the Astangahradaya Sustrasthana, the classic Ayurvedic text complied around 600 A.D. states:
“….poor prognosis is given to those who are afflicted by intensely negative emotions; hatred, violence, grief, ingratitude, and other distorted expressions of raga (desire, passion) are much stronger than the body’s ability to maintain balance. When the patient is unwilling or unable to abandon these passions they will create new diseases just as fast as the doctor can remove the old ones.”
As ancient as our recognition of the mind/body connection is, it has been largely neglected in the development of modern medicine which, since the 17th century, has been ruled by Rene Descartes’ “Doctrine of Dualism”, which defines the mind and body as separate and unrelated things. The renewed interest in Western medicine in the mind/body connection and the discovery of its routes and mechanisms of operation, through the emerging field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), represents one of the most significant and promising medical advances of the last several decades and is paving the way for the introduction of holistic practices into mainstream medicine.
So what exactly is this mind/body connection? The basic premise of mind/body medicine is that our thoughts, moods, and feelings influence our bodies at the physical level and express themselves in our health and that the state of our physical body, in turns affects how we feel and can even play a role in creating our personality. The brain has often been called the organ of the mind. It is the source and executor of all that we think, feel and do and it is through the brain’s structural and chemical connections with our other organs, glands, and tissues that feelings influence health and health influences feelings.
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