Mind over matter

When science writer Jo Marchant felt a throbbing headache descend, she reached for a jar of candy blue capsules. Metaplacebalin Relaxant Capsules, the label read. One or two capsules to be taken three times per day. Standing by the sink, she downed two, with a glass of water. “It’s hardly a scientific trial,” she writes in Cure (Text Publishing, 2016). “But within 20 minutes or so, the pain really does dissipate.”

Remarkably, Marchant hadn’t just swallowed a new miracle drug. Even more remarkably, she knew the pills were placebos – sugar pills, containing no active ingredients whatsoever. They were sold by a company called APlacebo which, like others of its ilk, capitalises upon humans’ ability to attach meaning to any medical treatment, fake or otherwise. “Neither fake acupuncture nor a fake pill is in itself capable of doing anything,” Marchant writes. “But patients interpret them in different ways, and that in turn creates different changes in their symptoms.”

Marchant conducted this experiment as part of a global exploration of the science of mind over body, and documents the compelling results in Cure. Evidence is mounting that our thoughts, emotions and beliefs can ease pain, heal wounds, fend off infection and heart disease, even slow the progression of AIDS and some cancers. “The science is there,” she says. It was once thought, for instance, that nervous and immune systems had nothing to do with each other. However, it is now known that they are intimately linked and that our senses, including sight, smell and taste, may facilitate their communication. The book is an important reminder of the strong influence our mind has on our physical health. As such, Cure is an important reminder of the strong influence our mind has on our physical health.

For example, it’s widely accepted that chronic stress floods the body with high levels of cortisol, causing inflammation which triggers disease. The work of Australian Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn and her colleagues has specifically investigated the effect of stress on telomeres (small caps on the ends of our chromosomes) and telomerase (the enzyme that replenishes telomeres) in relation to mindfulness meditation. Stress, it seems, shortens telomeres; stress relief may slow the progression of illnesses like cancer in some patients. “It’s not that you can wish these diseases away, but it seems we can prevent and slow their onset with stress management,” Blackburn says.

Want to learn how to better manage stress? Get in touch. Or perhaps you’re looking for a longer read? This is an edited version of a story appeared in the April 2017 issue of Nature & Health.