Everything is Psychosomatic



Everything is Psychosomatic

by Merrily Manthey, M.S.

"Everything is psychosomatic," announced Dr. Candace Pert, PhD, in the midst of her plenary session. She was speaking at the Sixth Functional Medicine Symposium, May 1999 in Tucson, Arizona. I wondered how many in the 600-person audience believed this statement. As I looked around me, MDs, scientists, DOs, other healers from the Western medical tradition along with naturopathic physicians, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and herbalists were giving equally rapt attention to Dr. Pert. Offered by the extraordinary person who discovered neuropeptides in 1972, it seemed a tantalizing moment in her presentation on the "Molecules of Emotion." We were about to learn how intercellular communication between the body and mind impacts our well being and being well.

Neuropeptides are chemicals produced by our bodies that are the actual biological underpinnings of our awareness. Pert says we manifest these biological underpinnings through our emotions, beliefs, and expectations. Her groundbreaking research has provided evidence of the biochemical basis for awareness and consciousness, validating what Eastern philosophers, shamans, and alternative practitioners have known and practiced for centuries. The body is not a mindless machine; the body and mind are one.


The term "psychosomatic" brings various images to mind, but usually, as the dictionary says, denotes a physical disorder that is caused by or notably influenced by the emotional state of the patient. The word "psycho" comes from the Greek meaning breath, spirit, soul, mind. "Somatic" refers to the body, or "soma" in Greek, referring to the physical. Soma in biology refers to the body of an organism. If Candace Pert says, "everything is psychosomatic," we may have to consider creating a new charter for the practice of health care. From my clinical experience, I would have to agree with her.

And what would that charter look like? Before I offer my thoughts on that foundational challenge, it seems important to first bring another concept into the picture: the concept of conscious control of bodily systems.

Conscious control?

Surprisingly, we can consciously change our skin temperature, heart rates, and even the drip of acid into our stomach. Biofeedback research beginning in the 1960s at the Menninger Clinic provides intriguing evidence of the conscious control of what was then called the autonomic nervous system. Beyond biofeedback experiments and clinical outcomes, recent data offer additional surprises. For example, did you know that you can control your immune system?

In pivotal experiments by Howard Hall at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio (1990), it was shown that conscious intervention could directly affect cellular function in the immune system. The experiments utilized self-regulatory practices such as relaxation and guided imagery, self-hypnosis, biofeedback training, and autogenic training (for managing stress). Using several control groups, Hall showed that those who utilized these techniques could with their conscious mind increase the stickiness of their white blood cells, as measured by saliva and blood tests. Up until his work, there were anecdotal reports of an association between hypnotherapy and clinical improvements in warts and asthma, both of which may be mediated by immune changes under subconscious control. But there were no measurements of change at the cellular level, and no work demonstrating the potential for conscious control.

If the immune system can be altered by conscious intervention, what does this mean for the treatment of major diseases such as cancer? The idea that emotions are linked to cancer has been around for a while. I first gathered retrospective data from researchers in the 1970s relative to personality traits and illness. I was startled to discover patterns of responding to one’s experiences seemed to correlate to certain diseases. Cancer seemed to be related to unresolved emotions; worry, repression of feelings and thoughts.

In the 1940s, Wilhelm Reich proposed the then heretical idea that cancer is a result of the failure to express emotions, especially sexual emotions. Reich was ridiculed by the medical and scientific establishment and persecuted by the US government. In Pert’s account of the persecution, "it was perhaps the only time in history that the government of the United States held an official book burning, calling for all available copies of Reich’s life’s work to be rounded up by the FDA and incinerated." Work done in the 1980s by Lydia Temoshok, a psychologist then at UCSF, showed that cancer patients, who kept emotions such as anger under the surface, remaining ignorant of their existence, had slower recovery rates than those who were more expressive. Another trait common to these patients was self-denial, stemming from an unawareness of their own basic emotional needs. The immune systems were stronger and tumors smaller for those in touch with their emotions.

Can suppressed anger or other "negative" emotions cause cancer? Recent studies including those done by David Spiegel of Stanford have convincingly shown that being able to express emotions like anger and grief can improve survival rates in cancer patients.

In her fascinating book, Molecules of Emotion, Pert provides a theoretical model to explain why this might be so. Since emotional expression is always tied to a specific flow of peptides in the body, the chronic suppression of emotions results in a massive disturbance of the psychosomatic network. Pert wonders, could being in touch with our emotions facilitate the flow of the peptides that help destroy errant cells? Is emotional health important to physical health? And, if so, what is emotional health? These are important questions to start thinking about if we take the links between body and mind seriously. And if we take the body/mind linkage seriously, we will need to define and create the new charter or foundation on which to design an efficacious health care system. Perhaps we can begin a dialogue in succeeding articles.

Reprinted from CHOICES, Summer 1999    Newsletter of Citizens for Alternative Health Care