Writer’s Wednesday: Mind Over Medicine by Lissa Rankin, M.D. + The Role of Skepticism in Health

Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself by Lissa Rankin, M.D., is a difficult one for me. On one hand I am a skeptic at heart and I tend to question most things in life – whether that be religion, work, lifestyle and health. As an example I am gluten free, even though I am not (to my knowledge) Celiac. And you know, gluten free is all a fad… Although my decision came after reading about an Italian study that showed 75% of women with Endometriosis do better on a gluten free diet, you could easily – from a skeptical perspective – pick it apart: It wasn’t a double-blind study, there was no control that people really stayed gluten free, etc. But I decided that it was a good enough reason for me to give gluten free a proper chance. After I reached my initial goal of 3 months I already felt much better, and since then I have halved my consumption of pain killers. Which is anecdotal evidence, and therefore counts for practically nothing in most skeptical communities.

Furthermore, I know that I do much better when I follow a primal/paleo diet and cut out all grains, legumes, processed/refined sugar and most dairy. I always stay gluten free, but I can tell you when I eat processed food (including processed gluten free foods) and particularly anything rich in sugar, my body reacts. Strongly. Again, this is anecdotal evidence and even though I could link you to hundreds and probably thousands of blog posts from people who are paleo/primal and where these lifestyle changes have improved their health and wellness, it is still “just” anecdotal evidence. Or worse, “all in our head”, a statement which I am particularly sensitive to as I have had several doctors tell me that my period pains were “all in  my head” and that I just needed to get over myself. This happened for years until I finally saw an OB/GYN specialized in Endometriosis who straight away recognized my symptoms and had me booked in for a laparoscopy (the only way to diagnose Endometriosis). Turns out, it was not all in my head.

With that being said, I do think our head and our mind can play a massive role on our health, wellness and recovery. We know that our mind can play a huge effect on our body, so that we might get better when given a sugar pill as long as we believe it is the real medicine, aka the placebo effect. Similarly we might experience side effects from medicine – even if we have received no real medicine – this is also known as the nocebo effect. It is a fine line though, I don’t believe in “the law of attraction” – that it is out “fault” if we become ill, but I do think our mind can play a huge role in our getting better. What I don’t understand is how often the conventional medical community will completely disregard the placebo effect as a useful tool in helping people to heal. At the end of the day, if I halved my pain from going gluten free I don’t really care if it’s the placebo effect – I care about how I feel and my health.

mind over medicine While I did not agree with everything that Lissa writes in Mind Over Medicine, I thought it was very thought-provoking and a great read to start thinking about these issues. I really loved her own journey from a more “standard” medical approach, to beginning to look at the role that our mind plays in our health. Her dedication to her dad (who was also a very skeptical doctor) was very heart-warming:

I hugged Mom and mused about what my father would think about this book if he had read it. The whole time I researched it, his voice was the voice in the back of my head, questioning me, prodding me, pushing me to go deeper, serving as the ultimate skeptic I was trying to win over.

I also really appreciated her focus on providing references for her statements:

Throughout this book, I make every effort to back up what might seem like far-out statements with scientific references. Because I know that what I’m about to teach you will raise eyebrows, I’ve written this book just for the people who are skeptical, as I was. I’ve laid out the book to walk you through my argument as if a jury of my physician peers were judging me.

Lissa starts of by talking about the different thoughts around how placebo works; 1) they think they will get better, 2) classical conditioning, 3) emotional support, 4) other treatment and 5) disease resolves itself. She goes on to talk about how negative thinking has been shown to have an effect on our body and how our thoughts can actually change the way our DNA expresses itself.

Lipton says, “When we shift the mind’s interpretation of illness from fear and danger to positive belief, the brain responds biochemically, the blood changes the body’s cell culture, and the cells change on a biological level.”

When our beliefs are hopeful and optimistic, the mind releases chemicals that put the body in a state of physiological rest, controlled primarily by the parasympathetic nervous system, and in this state of rest, the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms are free to get to work fixing what’s broken in the body.

Talking about the use of alternative treatments (this is where I get very skeptical, to be honest):

Instead of dismissing such treatments, I’d like to make the argument that perhaps nontraditional healing modalities work not so much because of the modality being practiced as because of the potent combination of positive belief in the healing method, the nurturing care offered by the practitioner, and the relaxation responses these treatments induce. Perhaps these modalities are, in fact, highly effective— but not via the means we might expect.

In conventional medical wisdom, we call anything that doesn’t outperform placebo “quackery.” But haven’t we lost sight of the real goal? I suggest we reconsider our evaluation standards regarding the efficacy of medical treatments. If the patient is getting better, does it really matter whether the treatment is better than placebo? Is resolution of symptoms and cure of disease not the ultimate goal? Does it really matter how we achieve such a goal?

One thing that turns out to be very important is whether or not we FEEL in control of our health and our lives:

Psychological states can directly affect the outcome of remission from some diseases, at least those that are immune-mediated, as many cancers are. This may explain why optimists are healthier than pessimists. Because of their healthier explanatory styles in the face of negative life events , optimists are more likely to learn healthy adaptations in response to life’s shocks, making them immune to states of helplessness. Pessimists, on the other hand, feel like life’s shocks are inescapable, and like the listless, helpless rats, they get depressed and their immune systems weaken . Over the course of a lifetime, fewer episodes of learned helplessness may keep the immune system stronger, reduce stress responses and their negative health outcomes, and reduce the likelihood of disease.

Radical self-care also involves things like setting boundaries, living in alignment with your truth, surrounding yourself with love and a sense of connection, and spending time doing what you love. You need radical self-care, not just in your health habits, but in the rest of your life.

Merely knowing what needs to change isn’t enough. The hardest part of the process is mustering up the guts to actually do what you know you need to do.

Whole Health Cairn

Whole Health Cairn

Lissa goes on to talk about the importance of happiness, how we can deal with our own negative thoughts and beliefs. She also goes into great detail about the importance of balance in our lives, what she calls the ‘whole health cairn’ – if one of the stones/parts in our lives isn’t balanced, our physical health is often the first to go. Lissa ends by giving us suggestions on how we can write our own individual prescription to help us create more balance and vitality in our life.


What are your thoughts around skepticism, health and wellness? Can diet or alternative medicine play a role? Will you or have you already read Mind Over Medicine?
Find me and add me on Goodreads, to keep up with everything else I read.

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    1. July 2015 Twitterature | Becky's Kaleidoscope

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