How Not To Die Of A Broken Heart

It’s been gratifying to see, lately, how the holistic approach to health, which we support at The Therapy Book, is being increasingly ratified by scientific evidence that mind, body and spirit all have an important role to play in the health of the individual.

The scientific evidence underpinning holistic medicine is mainly coming from the field of psychoneuroimmunology. We’ll call it PNI from here on in, although the word makes more sense when you break it down into its separate components: ‘psycho’ refers to the mind, ‘neuro’ applies to the nervous system and ‘immunology’ to the immune system.

PNI is a multidisciplinary approach to health which includes psychiatry, psychology and behavourial medicine (psycho) along with neuroscience (‘neuro’) and immunology.

However, PNI is not just the domain of the scientist. Anyone who blushes easily at the slightest sign of embarrassment, or who finds facing a meal just before a job interview or college exam knows what PNI is — they just probably wouldn’t call it that.

So what is PNI?

As Deepak Chopra MD simply puts it: “Every cell in your body is eavesdropping on your thoughts.”

As a prominent writer on ayurveda, spirituality and mind-body medicine, Deepak Chopra’s views on PNI carry some weight with scientists because he was originally an endocrinologist who later moved over to holistic medicine.

As he says in his book: Ageless Body Timeless Mind.

“The revolution we call mind-body medicine was based on this simple discovery: Wherever thought goes, a chemical goes with it. This insight has turned into a powerful tool that allows us to understand, for example, why recent widows are twice as likely to develop breast cancer, and why the chronically depressed are four times more likely to get sick. In both cases, distressed mental states get converted into the bio-chemicals that create diseases.”

He is referring to the now well-known and common syndrome of spouses from long-standing marriages following their other halves to the grave within two years of their demise. The reason for this is very often because the essential ingredients to ensure the smooth running of their immune systems have ceased working so well. These essential ingredients are called T-lymphocytes and they are produced by the thymus gland which sits just on top of the heart.

Dying of a broken heart

So why do the thymus glands of the recently bereaved so often fail?

Well, if we go back to the ancient Greeks, we can see that they may have understood something about this syndrome. The word ‘thymus’ comes the Greek ‘thumos’ which means heart, soul, desire, life.  So its very name reflects the importance to good health of the desire for life, or will to live, famously known to doctors as a key requirement for a patient recovering from a critical illness.

It is wonderful how sensitive and intelligent the body really is. If we lose the will to live through sadness in our hearts, or a feeling of irreplaceable loss, it’s as if it hears us and starts to shut down the immune system, via the thymus gland. Bereaved spouses can literally die of a broken heart.

But it’s not just bereavement which can precipitate immune system breakdown. Virtually any kind of emotional stress can trigger changes in brain chemistry which, in turn, causes changes in the sympathetic nervous system and hormonal system, and these ultimately impair immune function. The body can then easily contract infections, get invaded by viruses including HIV or even develop cancer.

The study of PNI includes data gathering of psychosocial stressors and/or interventions which can lead to actual health changes. To date, medical research has accumulated a lot of PNI data relating to infectious disease and wound healing, and much more is expected in the future.

Treating the whole person

It cannot be denied that being able to show with verifiable and authoritative data that contracting cancer is directly related to one’s psycho-neuro-immunological response would be a huge step forward in finding the cure for cancer, which is so far limited to a method which poisons the whole body in the hope of killing the primary cause.

Once PNI is better understood, perhaps our grandchildren will consider the chemotherapy approach as primitive as we do medieval doctors’ use of leeches.

But this is why the study of the whole person, and not just the symptoms they’re presenting with, is so essential. If they are presenting with a bad back, the reasons for it may not be purely physical.

Holistic therapists aim to discover what in their client’s life will be directly impacting on the health of their physical body. Hopefully, the medical scientists whose work underpins that of our GPs, surgeons and consultants will soon have enough PNI data for regular hospital staff to feel confident enough to make treatment decisions based on that view too.


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