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Common Disorders Best Treated with a Mind-Body Approach

June 05, 20238 min read

Part of the reason why so many people suffer from chronic conditions and struggle to heal is because they don’t treat the mind and body together. Pills, therapy, and diets aren’t going to be effective if the nervous system is chronically stressed, hypervigilant, or dysregulated.

Nervous system

You can think of yourself as a brain that’s attached to your body via your nervous system. Your entire existence is having thoughts/emotions in your mind, and interacting with the world through your body. Disorder in any of these parts influences the other parts. That’s why when you’re nervous, your stomach might feel tight and your heart might flutter. Similarly, if you’re in pain, hormonally imbalanced, or ate something that upset your stomach, you’re going to feel shitty.

The nervous system is the key to addressing mind-body disorders. When you’re stressed, depressed, and on high alert, your body switches to “fight or flight mode” (or how I call it, “fight, flight, freeze, or people please mode” – more on this in a future post). Your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) and sympathetic nervous system are activated to pump out hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline, and divert blood away from your gut to your muscles. This worked great when your ancestors could fight or run away from their threats, but this reaction is mostly maladaptive now. Unfortunately, the nervous system can’t distinguish between a tiger chasing you and a demanding boss.

Lifestyle modifications are a lot easier when mental health isn’t interfering. You could look at a lot of these conditions as “lifestyle diseases” and you wouldn’t be wrong. But we know that mentally distressed people tend to partake in unhealthy behaviours like drinking, smoking, eating processed foods, and watching TV all day/night to cope, which perpetuates worsened health outcomes.

Here are a few examples of common disorders that are best treated with a mind-body approach:

Cardiovascular Disorders

(heart disease, heart attacks, hypertension, stroke, etc.)

When your nervous system is stressed, your heart pumps harder and blood pressure goes up. Over time, this damages your blood vessels, heart, and feeds into a cascade of dysregulation. Conversely, when you feel your heart beating fast, this can make you feel anxious. So you can see how limited any cardiovascular treatment will be if you don’t work on how your nervous system handles stress. Furthermore, mental distress can exacerbate illness through unhealthy behaviours like those mentioned above. Cardiovascular disease is one of those “lifestyle” diseases, and it’s a lot easier to improve your lifestyle if you also take care of your mental health.

Digestive Disorders

(irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, pain, inflammatory bowel syndrome, etc.)

Have you ever heard of the Enteric Nervous System? It’s a whole separate autonomic nervous system in the gut! This part of your body works best when you’re relaxed in “rest and digest” mode. Pills or diets for bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or pain won’t work as well if your gut isn’t relaxed. There’s a lot of exciting research on gut health and mental health. We have a ton of friendly bacteria in our guts – our “gut microbiome” - who not only help us digest food, but also regulate our mood and immune system. When everything is working normally, your gut microbiome digests food to create 95% of the serotonin in our bodies!! Serotonin is a main neurotransmitter for mood, sleep, and sexual desire, and is the target of a lot of antidepressant medications. When your gut is dysregulated, harmful inflammatory molecules are created instead, which make your gut leaky and enter your bloodstream to make you feel crappy.

Immune Disorders

(frequent infections, allergies, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac disease, etc.)

Immune disorders are also heavily influenced by our experiences of stress and the gut microbiome. In fact, a large proportion of the immune system is in the gut, so it’s easy to see how dysregulation can ripple out from the digestive system. It’s well-established that a lot of people who develop immune and autoimmune conditions reported at least 1 episode of immense stress in the year prior. Unfortunately, the stress of living with a dysregulated immune system creates a vicious cycle which is too common in mind-body disorders. Temporary inflammation from acute stress is essential for the immune system to defend against pathogens and heal, but when this lasts more than a few days, dysregulation and disease are more likely to occur. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) lead to exaggerated and disordered immune reactions, and women are particularly more prone to suffer from stress-related diseases. Fortunately, treating mental health also helps to treat immune conditions, as demonstrated by promising studies on mindfulness practices and antidepressants.

Mental Health Disorders

(depression, anxiety, panic attacks, trauma, insomnia, chronic fatigue, burnout, headaches, etc.)

To your nervous system, you’re either safe or in danger. This is why an important part of healing is showing your nervous system how to feel safe with body therapies like exercise, yoga, acupuncture, tai chi, hydrotherapy, dancing, tapping, etc. We know this stuff works, and is essentially risk-free compared to pharmaceuticals. There is a lot of research exploring the mechanisms behind how body therapies improve mental health. One of them is simply that “feel good” chemicals are produced such as endorphins. Intentionally putting your body through stress also teaches your nervous system how to regulate itself by increasing tolerance to stress in a safe, controlled way. Your mind and body become more flexible against what your environment throws at you. On the behavioural side, accomplishing body therapies activates your reward systems which helps a lot of people break free from the chains of hopelessness and low self-efficacy. Also, a lot of these body therapies stimulate neuroplasticity, which is a fancy word for your brain’s ability to learn and adapt. Our minds and bodies become more rigid as we get older, so it’s important to keep blood flowing and neural connections building.

Metabolic Disorders

(diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, polycystic ovarian syndrome, aging, etc.)

When the HPA axis and sympathetic nervous system are activated in response to stress/danger, the body does its best to prepare for threats. Hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released to mobilize blood sugar so more fuel is immediately available in the blood. This becomes problematic when your mind and body are kept in this excitable state for more than short periods of time because excessive blood sugar leads to insulin resistance. These systems also become more sensitive to stressors, and over time, they become dysregulated so that the risk of developing metabolic disorders increases. As long as these systems are activated, brain regions continue to be stimulated to seek calorically dense, unhealthy foods, which end up being stored as organ fat because most people aren’t burning those calories. Again, since metabolic diseases are “lifestyle” diseases, it’s counterproductive to keep throwing pills and diets at the body when the nervous system is stressed.

Chronic Pain

(fibromyalgia, chronic body pain, etc.)

Pain that is experienced for more than 3 months is considered chronic pain, and is usually more of a nervous system problem than a body problem. We know that the presence of pain doesn’t necessarily mean that something is damaged in the body because of phenomena like “Phantom Limb” pain. This is when someone loses a limb but continues to feel pain in that missing limb! Pain doesn’t come from the limb, it comes from pain pathways in the nervous system. This is why the experience of chronic pain can change depending on stress and emotions. Pain is supposed to be a danger signal, but just like everything else that involves the nervous system, it can become a learned maladaptive response. Body therapies can be helpful to temporarily relieve pain, but unless the mind is also treated, pain pathways will continue to reinforce themselves.

Skin Disorders

(psoriasis, eczema, acne, hives, etc.)

Many skin disorders are also caused or exacerbated by nervous system dysfunction. The cascades of hormones that are released in response to stress have been shown to increase skin inflammation and itching, and impair skin barrier function and wound healing. Being stressed also makes it harder to resist scratching the skin, and damaged skin causes more stress, so this often becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of suffering. Just like the other disorders discussed above, treating the mind and body together not only helps the nervous system build resilience to stress and learn to relax, but also helps to implement lifestyle behaviours which heal instead of damage the body.

Thanks for reading my first ever blog post! I hope this expanded your understanding of why certain conditions are best treated with a mind-body approach. The human mind and body are so marvelously complex, but it’s an exciting time for healthcare as more people accept wholistic, integrative approaches to health as the way of the future.

If you have any questions, please send me a message through my contact form, social media, or by booking a free consultation. If you’d like to stay updated on future content, please sign up for my newsletter and/or follow me on social media 😊.

In health,

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References

Mind and body: how the health of the body impacts on neuropsychiatry

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3866391/

Viewpoint: Role of Mind–body Therapies in the Management of Cardiovascular Disorders

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6159445/

Depression and the Link with Cardiovascular Disease

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4800172/

Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5641835/

Psychological Stress, Intestinal Barrier Dysfunctions, and Autoimmune Disorders: An Overview

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7477358/

Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465119/

The Role of Exercise in Management of Mental Health Disorders: An Integrative Review

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8020774/

Acupuncture for Psychological Disorders Caused by Chronic Pain: A Review and Future Directions

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7873369/

The multiple roles of life stress in metabolic disorders

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36224493/

Sociality, Hierarchy, Health: Comparative Biodemography: A Collection of Papers. (Chapter 11: Stress and Metabolic Disease)

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK242443/

The Pain Management Workbook

https://www.zoffness.com/books

Stress and Skin: An Overview of Mind Body Therapies as a Treatment Strategy in Dermatology

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8480446/

mind bodynervous systemstresslifestylemental healthcardiovascular diseasedigestiongut microbiomeimmune systemautoimmunemetabolic diseasechronic painpainskin disease
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Dr. Mike Tung, ND

Naturopathic Doctor and creator of the S.T.O.R.Y. Method for mental health, chronic pain, and other medically unexplainable symptoms.

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