“WE CAN either change the complexities of life—an unlikely event, for they are likely to increase —or develop ways that enable us to cope more effectively.” From The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson — quoted in Jeffrey Rediger’s Cured.
“Stay parasympathetic” as an email sign-off is particularly ironic because those words encourage cutting down on technology use —which can stimulate the opposite, fight-or-flight (sympathetic) mode of the nervous system. Accessing the parasympathetic, rest-and-digest mode, however, can require even more drastic measures: closing the eyes entirely, slowing the breath, taking a walk outdoors.
When Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, who died last month, published The Relaxation Response in 1975 about the effects of stress on the body, he risked professional disgrace— because his first human subjects were meditators, at the time considered very fringe. But Benson offered trustworthy evidence that diminishing stress by way of mental activity (meditation) could reduce high blood pressure—thought to be caused by disease in the kidneys —and, even more, that the regular meditators’ “extremely low” resting blood pressure resulted in long-term positive physiological changes throughout the body.
“There’s More to Burnout Than Being Tired” screamed the headline on a New York Times article last week—listing pandemic-related insomnia as the number one symptom: “chronic stress interferes with the neurological and hormonal system that regulates sleep…and your sleeplessness could exacerbate the problem.” By then, there was a new stressor: the Ukraine War.
Now “even mainstream medicine accepts that our stress levels and thought patterns…can impact our physical health,” writes Harvard psychiatrist and McLean Hospital medical director Jeffrey Rediger in his book Cured. Rediger explains that Benson’s meditators engaged the part of the nervous system that enables rest, the ideal conditions that are “becoming essential for surviving and thriving in the modern era: turning off the flow of stress hormones…and allowing the body to recalibrate and heal.”
The stress response is one of Rediger’s four pillars—along with the immune system, nutrition and identity—in each person’s “biological environment” that support healing. But in writing Cured, Rediger risked professional scorn, not unlike Benson, by investigating spontaneous remissions in patients dying from end-stage diseases—lupus, debilitating Type 2 diabetes and many kinds of cancer— that had spread into the organs, from which “you don’t come back,” Rediger writes.
Physicians generally dismiss cases of spontaneous healing, because most occur in isolation–far removed from one another in time, geography and disease category—and have insufficient documentation of both the diagnosis and the remission, Rediger explains. Also, medical training persuades doctors to focus on the pathology and ignore the story, especially if the story appears to be one of miraculous recovery.
“This compelling book is the result of 17 years spent tracking these people down and verifying their stories,” writes Washington Post editor Mary Hadar, who notes that Western medicine “waits for people to get sick rather than strengthening their immune systems so they won’t become sick.” But, Hadar points out, “every doctor knows the placebo effect is real: The mind can change what’s happening in the body.”
Jeffrey Rediger discovered a database compiled in the early 1990s by the California-based Institute of Noetic Sciences—that researches consciousness and the mind—which listed 3,500 references to “spontaneous healing” culled from about 800 medical journals. As he began to study individual cases, Rediger found that, for each person, after receiving a fatal diagnosis “something changed”—that the cause of healing came not from an external pill or a procedure but from within.
Diet, for example, varied among individuals—with some vegetarian but others ketogenic and meat-based and with each patient designing their own based on what made them feel good and on what they believed, from their reading and research, could help them heal. After Rediger eliminated sugar and processed foods from his own diet, he wrote, “It’s nearly impossible for me to get ill any longer.”
What the recovering patients had in common was adopting an “anti-inflammatory lifestyle”—changing diet but also adding activities like exercise and meditation—to shift the body into the parasympathetic mode, which can support all four pillars to help with healing. Using the analogy of gears on a standard transmission car, Rediger explains, high gears that are best suited for highway driving will damage the car if used on a steep hill: persistent stress over time keeps people’s bodies in the damaging higher gears.
Based on both mental activity and personal identity, perception plays an important role in reducing the toxic kind of “threat stress,” according to findings from the British Whitehall study that followed 18,000 men between the ages of 20 and 64 for ten years. If the men perceived instead the “challenge stress” that can lead to high performance and responded more positively — for example, thinking “I’ve got this”— their bodies remained healthier.
Critics of Cured point out that “from a scientific standpoint, there is a severe issue of selection bias…[no] stories about people who became ill and then changed their diet, avoided stress, embraced love…and still died anyway,” according to the Guardian review.
Another criticism is the implication that “if you get sick, and stay sick, you have no one to blame but yourself.” Rediger is “aware that his ideas may be perceived as victim-blaming,” explains Mary Hadar. But he “responds that his goal is empowerment…Don’t be discouraged by the [poor prognosis] statistics… don’t give in to despair.” According to Rediger, “we have more power than we know when it comes to healing.”
In the late 1970s, despite various counterculture brushes with yoga and meditation, I attended one of Herbert Benson’s early stress seminars thinking the topic too flaky—I had been sent as a medical reporter and had no other interest. What swayed me was observing many in the audience of medical practitioners willingly engage in exercises that included short meditations. By 2006, the Benson-Henry Institute was an established part of Mass General Hospital researching the effects, mechanisms and clinical applications of “mind/body approaches to medicine.”
Today my best method for in-the-moment engagement of the parasympathetic mode involves focusing on the exhale: slowing it down, extending it past what feels natural and then holding the breath before inhaling.
—Mary Carpenter regularly reports on topical issues in health and medicine.
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