Mind and matter

Chemicals can have a direct impact on health and behaviour. Alcohol, nicotine and other recreational drugs affect people physically. And the power of chemistry to change behaviour and personality is apparent to anyone who has contact with the modern treatment of many mental health conditions.

The reverse—that behavioural changes can alter body chemistry—has never been as clear. Archimedes’ interest was sparked by recent studies linking behaviour with physical changes in the human body. For example, smokers deprived of their cigarettes were tested on their perception of time. After only 24 hours without nicotine, time passed more slowly for them. The researchers attributed this to hormonal changes.

Likewise, a large study in Norway has provided concrete evidence that anxiety makes people more susceptible to cancer. The link may be changes in the immune system. Earlier research has shown that depression can have a massive impact on the immune system, and New Scientist recently reported that the bliss radiated by experienced Buddhist monks was reflected in the physical activity of the left prefrontal lobes of the brain—the seat of positive emotions.

The connection between psychological and physical well-being has long been a part of many holistic Asian health systems—in India, China, Korea and Japan, for example. The attitude of Western doctors is typically that of a biological mechanic—fix the physical and the psychological will take care of itself. In fact, the Western medical establishment has historically regarded traditional Asian medicine with healthy scepticism and some outright hostility, though these attitudes are changing. The general public has been less reticent—as the recent recall of products manufactured by Pan Pharmaceuticals Ltd shows, complementary medicines account for a substantial proportion of discretionary health spending.

In Australia, the link between mental and physical health is acknowledged in specialist fields like psychological medicine. But that awareness does not always translate into the daily routine of teaching hospitals. Archimedes became aware of this recently when an elderly relative was recovering in hospital after a fall. Physically, she mended well—but an important part of her therapy was getting her to move and do things for herself. That involved talking to her, stimulating her and encouraging her on a long-term basis.

Not only was there no time for the overworked nursing staff to do this, but many of them were unequipped and unprepared to undertake such work. It was only taken care of when she was moved to a specialist rehabilitation hospital. This could have been serious. Any elderly patient unwilling or unable to move in a large metropolitan teaching hospital naturally increases his or her risk of infections and diseases that could be life-threatening.

This is still a controversial area. Further work is important—a firm statistical link has not yet been demonstrated between a ‘will to live’ and increased chances of survival. But perhaps even more important is to take the findings of psychological medicine a little more seriously, and factor them into the day-to-day operation of our hospitals.

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.



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