The Mind-Body Connection Explained

(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on Nov 22nd, 2012)

The Mind-Body ConnectionMore and more people are accepting the idea that the systems of our bodies cannot be isolated and dealt with one at a time. We are a network of integrated functions but one thing seems to still get left out. Our brains! We tend to think that our brains are all by themselves and above it all (please excuse the easy pun) when they are just another system in the network of our body. The knowledge of this mind-body connection is out there already with ideas like, “Mind over Matter” and the “Power of Positive Thinking but most people do not put much stock in it because they cannot feel a direct connection of voluntary control.

Let’s look at the pathways that make up the mind-body connection to explore what it truly means. Regulation of organ function such as heart rate, blood vessel expansion and contraction, and intestinal contraction is regulated through connection with the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which is made up of your Sympathetic Nervous System (Fight or Flight responses) and your Parasympathetic Nervous System (Rest and Digest responses). These parallel systems are pretty much autonomous but there is some control exerted by the brain on the balance between the two through inhibition of nerve signals and some hormonal control via the hypothalamus.

This is all outside of the limits of our voluntary control but one of the amazing aspects of the nervous system is that the system’s output (signals to the organs and our interpretation of sensations) is partially dependent on its input. This is how we can influence this network. Through purposeful deep breathing or sipping water we can stimulate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) thus tipping the balance in that direction and increasing all the other functions associated with it. Vice versa we can stimulate the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) by mentally exciting ourselves like before a big game or a performance.

There are many examples of controlling the body through the mind in daily life that most people either don’t know about or don’t associate with the mind. There is quite a bit of research supporting the idea of Mindful Eating where focusing on the food you are eating or eating with friends and having a discussion increases the ease and efficiency of digestion. This is most likely (still theoretical at this point) due to the release of hormones from the hypothalamus that act upon the stomach to release the necessary acid and increase the muscular contractions. And you thought those Sunday family dinners were just to make Mom happy!

Another such example has been getting a lot of media attention in the last few years. It is meditation and the health benefits that come from it. Through focusing the mind and centering our thoughts we can lower blood pressure, aid digestion, improve cardiac function, and many more amazing benefits.

Our immune systems are also tied up in this network and the nervous system can stimulate immune cell production throughout the body to help defend ourselves. This is all part of the “Neuroendocrine System” where the nervous system influences the glands to either produce hormones or new cells, such as in the lymph glands.

It is not just our organ function that we can alter with the power of the mind. All of our sensations of pressure, pain, temperature, etc, travel through the spine and the across different areas of the brain. Throughout the spine and brain there are thousands of millions (probably an underestimate) of very small neurons (nerve cells) that go between nerves from different signal sources (e.g.; pain from the big toe and muscle stretch/length from the bottom of the foot). These are called “Interneurons” and they allow communication between the difference pathways in the spinal cord so that the signal reaching the brain can be prioritized. This is how chiropractic treatments can decrease pain but that’s a story for another day. Modern technology has enabled us to use these intersecting neurons to change our perception of the sensations in our bodies. This is called Biofeedback and it has been used with great success with chronic pain patients. Electrodes on the scalp or MRI machines are used to measure brain activity and a computer turns this into a visual aid which the patient then tried to manipulate just by thinking about it. Through trial and error the patient learns how to manipulate this graphic which actually represents manipulating brain function (through the pathways of interneurons in the spine and brain). This marvel of medical technology and computer engineering has allowed people to overcome crippling conditions just with the power of their mind. It has even been shown to be able to lower blood pressure in some cases.

So is it really that surprising to hear that therapies like chiropractic, acupuncture, and massage, which have a documented effect on the nervous system, can influence the rest of the body? It always makes me smile when a patient comes back to me after a little while and says, “You know, Doc. Since I started seeing you my stomach has been better.”

So I encourage everyone to be mindful of the way we treat our bodies and think about slowing down and focusing on what we are doing as we do it. Take some time and learn what makes up you.

Thanks for reading,
Dr. Ben

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