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The Nocebo Effect: Can You Think Yourself Sick?

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The Body is Not A Textbook

When it comes to healing the body, I’m the type practitioner who believes it’s more an art form than a science, but only because I’ve witnessed what happens when we reduce the body to a textbook.

 

You see, for many years, I made my body a textbook. I figured the more I knew the better, and set out to learn everything I could about the intricacies of internal human landscape as I worked to heal my own debilitating conditions. I was the woman “doing everything right,” by all evidence-based standards, but who was still mired in fear, doubt and a host of physical ailments that left me hanging by a thread. And, not only was I caught in this puzzling web of confusion, but I still see it time and time again in my practice in women dealing not only with whatever diagnoses or host of symptoms they’re plagued with, but also burn out from all the routines, rituals, supplements and protocols of which they’re strictly adhering.

 

To be fair, these prescriptions and recommendations are helpful. For short term data-collection, plans and supplemental support can absolutely be useful, and I’ll never be one to refute the power of cleansing leafy greens or gut-healing bone broth. Yet, ultimately, finding out what the body needs to repair itself requires more than a pantry full of vitamins and piles of expensive doctor bills. Rather, it requires a gentle, subtle tuning in that starts with our beliefs about it’s ability to do so.

 

Many of us have heard of the placebo effect in medicine and health, but less so the Nocebo effect. While the placebo effect demonstrates the positive correlation between the mind-body connection (the body’s ability to heal itself), the nocebo effect points to it’s negative implications. Essentially, the nocebo effect is a branch of mind-body healing dedicated to understanding the correlation between the negative beliefs we hold about our body and how they manifest physically and mentally.

 

What I I want to discuss in this post is how certain beliefs and thoughts you may harboring could be holding you back from that which you want – to live a healthy, free and happy life.

 

Understanding the Mind-Body Connection

 

The mind is powerful, this we know. But just how powerful is less charted territory, particularly because our Western medicine culture doesn’t leave a lot of room for anecdotal, or what is often termed woo-woo, evidence. Without good hypothesis and proof, we don’t consider research like that to be valid. And we certainly don’t find clinical evidence to be enough to constitute fact. Meaning that just because I see something repeated in my practice, doesn’t mean it’s true. But, nonetheless, when all else fails and we’ve tested every lab imaginable with no movement toward improvement, its worth looking into what else could be causing the block.

 

Enter: Mind-body healing. Unfortunately, it’s still last on the list for most people after all other efforts have failed, but then again, I don’t really care how you got here, only that you did.

 

To demonstrate the Nocebo Effect in action, let’s take a look at a few examples that have been recorded throughout the years:

 

·      In a controlled study done for a new chemotherapy drug, control patients were given saline water as their placebo, yet 30% of them lost their hair.

 

·      In another study, control patients were given a sugar pill they were told could cause nausea. 80% of them vomited.

 

·      Patients on antidepressants who were reporting a decrease in depression were told they would be getting randomized placebos – meaning they may or may not be continuing their medication. Both patients who continued their medication, and those on the placebo, reported a returning and worsening of symptoms.

 

Now, these are just three of many studies done on the same topic, but they aptly showcase what I mean when I say “the mind is king.” In other words, what you think you shall see. NOT what you see, you shall think.

 

Our brain’s ability to construct our reality is real, and worth examining if we find ourselves unable to kick certain illnesses, symptoms, beliefs, patterns or conditions.

 

How to Know If The Nocebo Effect is Affecting You

 

I often tell my clients to start out writing a list of things they believe to be true about their bodies. For example: If someone is struggling with chronic fatigue, they may list out beliefs like:

 

I’m always tired.

I can’t exercise without needing a nap.

I don’t’ sleep well.

I never know how my body will feel.

I’m just kind of a weak and sickly person. Always have been, always will be.

 

Someone who is trying and failing to lose weight may believe things like:

 

I can’t quit sugar, I’ve tried hundreds of times

Working out is really hard

I just look at food and gain weight

My love handles get bigger every year

My body was just built to be big

 

Bear in mind that these will vary depending on whatever it is you’re considering a struggle.

Then, after they’ve done that, I ask them to see how many on their list serve them well and how many do not. And by serve them, I mean are helpful to their healing. Most of the time, there are very few which serve them, and many, many that hinder their efforts and cause emotional responses like depression, anxiety, sadness, hopelessness and powerlessness.

 

When we get clear on what our beliefs about our body or condition or life circumstances are, it becomes easier to see what sorts of responses are resulting as a consequence. Simply put, if I wake up everyday believing that I am tired and didn’t get enough sleep, that is what I will most likely find to be true day in and day out.

 

While the Nocebo Effect isn’t widely understood from a scientific viewpoint (it’s hard to get approval for studies that knowingly cause harm), some researchers point to the stress effect that negative beliefs or thoughts can have on the body and attribute the physical decline that occurs in response to the Nocebo Effect. In other words, your worrisome and stressful thoughts about your condition trigger a physical stress response in your body which causes all kinds of symptom manifestations.

 

Yet, this doesn’t necessarily describe the “how” behind the specificity like the cases listed above. But, whether or not we have a fully functional explanation, it’s clear to see that the mind plays a HUGE role in whether or not the body will be able to heal, and I see this in my practice often. Which is exactly why I believe healing the mind and body must be done congruently. When we talk about root cause medicine, we’re referring to finding the root of the problem and digging it out so to speak to the issue can resolve. When the root cause is a belief, that must be addressed as well and can start with something as little as being willing to notice the beliefs that are working for your benefit, and the ones that are not, and then working to replace them slowly.

 

Even a statement as tiny as, “I don’t know if my body will ever heal, but I’m willing to hold out hope,” can be enough to open up the door of possibilities previously closed to you by your unwillingness to see them.

 

We know that the power of the placebo effect is real and mighty and can lead to dramatic, spontaneous healings in the body and mind. With that said, it would only make sense that the opposite it true as well, in which case, paying attention to our daily, even moment-to-moment, thoughts about our life could and would be worthwhile.

 

Til next time,

Sy

 

 

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How Food Affects Your Mood: Part 1, Anxiety and Nutrition


A Real-Food Approach to Anxiety

Anxiety and mood disorders are huge topics when it comes to health and wellness. In fact, millions of people are currently on prescription anti-anxiety medication and struggle with the effects of their condition daily. As someone who battled chronic anxiety and panic attacks for over 20 years, I understand just how crippling and mind-numbing it can be. Not only does anxiety play a large role in our emotional wellbeing, but more and more research is pointing to the physical effects stress has on our bodies as well. While there are several factors to consider when it comes to managing your anxiety, one of the most influential and foundational facets is nutrition. Generally speaking, our nutrition has either the ability to bring us closer to wellness or closer to disease, depending on how we incorporate it into our lives. My aim in this series is to discuss the ways in which food can restore health and vitality and to give you some simple tips for nutritionally calming down your nervous system.

 

Simply put, your nervous system is directly affected by what you eat. When we eat food, it gets broken down by our digestive system into small nutrients like sugars, amino acids or fatty acids which can then be used by our body for various functions. For example: Amino acids are needed to make neurotransmitters that help our brain to feel happy, alert and energetic, and we get them from protein-containing foods such as meat, fish and eggs. Certain foods are higher in nutrients than others, which is what makes them part of a healthy diet. These nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine, which we’ll refer to from here on out as The Gut.

 

One of the ways we can increase levels of anxiety is by not getting enough of these nutrient building-blocks in our diet. Like we mentioned above, many of the neurotransmitters and hormones that our brain needs to work optimally are made out of nutrients such as amino acids and essential fatty acids. Before we digest them, these are known as proteins and fats, but what we don’t realize it that not all nutrients are created equal. When we eat processed, synthetic foods (mostly found on the shelves of grocery stores), many of the nutrients have been destroyed through the manufacturing line, including vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, proteins and complex carbohydrates. This means we are left with a lifeless food that our bodies aren’t quite sure how to use. As we become more and more deficient in these essential building blocks, we become less and less able to manufacture our feel-good brain chemicals which leads to all kinds of imbalances, including anxiety. While it might seem over-generalized, the statement, “you are what you eat,” couldn’t be more true.

 

Tips for Nutrient Density

Eating a nutrient-dense diet means that our food is coming from real sources which have been minimally processed to retain the most nutrients possible. It also means avoiding foods we call pseudo-foods, or in other words, foods which have been made with ingredients that disrupt our health such as high amounts of sugar, synthetic vitamins and minerals, chemical preservatives and fillers, artificial flavors and colors, sugar substitutes and other hard-to-pronounce items. But, you may be wondering at this point how to determine which foods fall into this category and which foods you should be avoiding? Below, I’ve outlined three easy principles to get you started on the path to real-food living and towards greater health and less anxiety.

 

1.     Shop the perimeter. This advice has been used a lot, but that’s because it still rings true. Most of the foods you should be eating (meats, vegetables, fruits, eggs, etc.) are found on the outside aisles of the grocery store rather than down the middle lanes. There are definitely exceptions to this rule such as with nuts, seeds and some healthy snacks, but as a general rule of thumb, you will do well with shopping the perimeter. To further nourish your body, look for pasture-raised meats and eggs, organic vegetables and fruits and minimally-processed condiments and snacks. If you are eating foods with labels, make sure you check the ingredient list for items you can recognize. If it sounds like a chemical, it probably is, and you’ll be better off looking for another brand or alternative option to drop in your cart. Shopping at local farmer’s markets is also a great way to ensure you’re getting fresh, vibrant and whole foods into your diet.

 

2.     Don’t Fear Fat. Sadly, we’ve spent many years fearing healthy fats and thus created the low-fat/no-fat fad that’s just now starting to get debunked. Healthy fats do many things for our body, but they are particularly nourishing and soothing to our nervous systems because of how they interact with our blood sugar. If you’re currently experiencing anxiety, adding in one source of fat into every meal can greatly reduce low blood sugar episodes which tend to look and feel a lot like anxiety. Healthy sources include: fattier cuts of meat including beef, fish (especially salmon), seafood, whole eggs, organ meats, butter and ghee from grass-fed cows, olive and olive oil, avocado and avocado oil, coconut oil, coconut milk, sprouted or soaked nuts and seeds, nut butters and raw cheeses and milks.

 

3.     Limit Sugar Intake. In part 3 of this series, we’ll dive even deeper into sugar’s effects on the body and brain, but for now, realize that sugar can significantly impact your mood, and usually for the worse. While sugar gives us an instant “high” and makes us feel good temporarily, it’s usually followed by a crash and burn where we feel terrible. This usually shows up as jitteriness, headaches, shakiness, extreme hunger, irritability or racing thoughts, which are eerily similar to anxiety attacks. For the best results, aim to eat no more than 25-30 grams of sugar a day, mostly coming from natural sources or sweeteners like fruit, raw honey or dark chocolate. At first this can be difficult, but as your blood sugar begins to even out and cravings are diminished, you’ll see energy levels increase and anxiety levels decrease.

 

 Navigating the waters of anxiety can be tough, but with a compassionate, curious approach, you can dramatically shift the way you interact with the world and learn to live free from fear, worry and panic. Stay tuned for part two of this series where we’ll talk about how food sensitivities could be triggering an immune response in your body and revving up stress and anxiety. Now go enjoy some yummy, healthy food! 

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