How Beliefs Affect Our Health
Article At A Glance
You’ve probably heard that our beliefs affect our health. Studies show that our beliefs may even be able to rewire our genetics. Learn about the amazing power of our thoughts, lifestyle, and environment to increase overall health and well-being.
Belief is a powerful thing. Studies show that beliefs affect our health and healing. In a 2001 study, researchers told a group of Parkinson’s patients that they were receiving a highly effective new drug that would improve their motor symptoms. However, the patients only received an injection of saline.
Half of the patients experienced an improvement in their motor systems because the damaged nigrostriatal dopamine system in their brains actually started producing more dopamine—up to 200 percent more in some cases—simply because they believed they were receiving an effective medication.
In a study of 180 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, sham surgery proved to be equally as effective at relieving pain as two different types of real knee surgery (debridement and arthroscopic lavage). Over the course of the two years following the surgeries, the three groups of patients reported the same levels of pain relief. This outcome led the researchers to wonder if the money spent on these types of surgeries could be better spent elsewhere.
In 2016, researchers did a meta-analysis of studies that tested the efficacy of beta-blockers for treating high blood pressure. After analyzing 23 studies that included 11,067 participants, they found that “blood pressure was lowered in placebo groups with significant and robust effect sizes.” While hypertension is often treated with medication, the researchers concluded that “in light of these strong placebo responses, placebo mechanisms need to be considered in order to improve antihypertensive treatment.”
Healing and the Placebo Effect
The placebo effect is often dismissed as being irrelevant to health and healing. How often have we ourselves said, “It’s just the placebo effect?”
But, the results of the placebo effect—more accurately called the perception or belief effect, according to Dr. Bruce Lipton—are quite real, and that’s why some clinical trials compare treatments to placebos. Belief is such a powerful healer that pharmaceutical companies must prove that their medication works better than placebo in order to receive FDA approval.
Much of medical history is based on the placebo effect. Before the mid-20th century, medicine was not tightly regulated and few treatments were tested in clinical trials. The most important aspect of many treatments was that they gave the patient something to believe in. So, treatments that seem odd to us today became widely used for certain ailments, and whether or not the actual treatment was effective was fairly irrelevant; people believed that it was going to work, so it often did.
Back then, scientists didn’t understand on a cellular level why belief healed people. Now they do, and this knowledge is allowing us to understand why people with positive attitudes live longer, have better overall health, and can even heal from “incurable” diseases.
There Are No Incurable Diseases
Yale University surgeon Bernie Siegel analyzed why some of his cancer patients with poor prognoses survived while others with better prognoses died. He concluded that there are no incurable diseases, only incurable patients. This idea puts a tremendous amount of responsibility in patients’ hands—especially in a world where we’ve been raised to trust doctors to make decisions about our health rather than ourselves.
Dr. Joe Dispenza writes in his book You Are the Placebo that a doctor’s diagnosis is a modern-day voodoo curse. When a doctor tells a patient that their condition is incurable, the patients whose health tends to decline are the ones who accept their prognoses as fact. But the people who end up healing themselves and recovering from their incurable condition are the ones who do not accept their prognoses. They expect to get better, so they often do.
Unfortunately, the nocebo effect—believing that an outcome will be bad—is just as powerful. There is the much-cited case of Sam Londe, a retired shoe salesman who was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He passed away soon after his diagnosis, but his autopsy revealed no trace of esophageal cancer. There were just a few small spots of cancer on his liver and lung, but not nearly enough to have killed him. His doctor, Clifton Meador, worried that his diagnosis had removed hope, and the case haunted him for decades afterward.
Placebos and Their “Side Effects”
Many clinical trials find that people who receive the placebo experience some of the same side effects as the participants who receive the actual drug. A meta-analysis of 12 trials of the COVID vaccine, which included 45,000 people, found that up to three-quarters of the negative side effects of the vaccine can be attributed to the nocebo effect. Researchers told the participants that they might experience certain side effects like fever, headache, and fatigue, and so they did. More than 35 percent of participants who received a placebo reported these negative side effects, compared to just 46% of those in active vaccine groups.
Epigenetics: Our Malleable Genes
In the wake of the Human Genome Project, we like to blame health conditions on predetermined genetics; we’re always looking for the specific gene that’s active in the majority of people who have a certain disease. But in reality, only about 2 percent of diseases can be blamed on single genes and can be considered truly unavoidable. The vast majority of us are born with genetics that can allow us to be healthy throughout our lives—given the right environmental conditions.
There are indeed genes that are correlated with many health conditions, but the science of epigenetics has proven that it’s the environment that determines whether or not these genes get expressed or suppressed. According to epigenetics expert Dr. Kenneth Pelletier, author of Change Your Genes, Change Your Life, research shows that only 5 percent of an adult’s genes are unchangeable; the other 95 percent can be turned on and off by environmental factors.
Environmental Factors That Affect Our Genes
What exactly is the “environment?” The environment that affects our genes includes factors outside our body that we may have limited control over and inside our body that we potentially have total control over. Environmental factors that we have less control over include exposure to toxins, pesticides, pollutants, viruses, bacteria, mold, and climate. Some of these, depending on where we live, may be completely unavoidable or very difficult to avoid.
Environmental factors that we can have total control over include the food and drinks we consume, how much and what type of exercise we do, the medications we take, our stress level, how much sleep we get, and yes—even our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.
Genes do not randomly turn themselves on and off. The majority of genes are inactive until an environmental signal tells them to turn on. And once they’re turned on, they require an environmental signal in order to be turned off.
Environment, Lifestyle, and Our Health
Knowing that we have this tremendous power to determine which of our genes get expressed and ultimately determine our health is incredibly empowering and motivating. Here are some examples:
A 2008 study of men with prostate cancer tested the effects of an intensive nutrition and lifestyle intervention on the activity of their genes. The changes in their diet and lifestyle resulted in switching the activity of over 500 genes in just 90 days. Forty-eight genes were up-regulated (turned on), and 453 genes were down-regulated (turned off). Many of the gene switches significantly changed the biological processes that had caused cancer in the first place, including tumorigenesis and protein metabolism and modification.
Beliefs, Our Health, and the Immune System
Studies of telomeres (protective end caps on chromosomes that determine cellular aging) found that pessimism and perceived stress both have negative effects. One study found that “women with the highest levels of perceived stress have telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of at least one decade of additional aging compared to low-stress women.” Another study found that pessimism was independently associated with shorter telomere length, as well as a weaker immune system.
And a 2013 study of slightly overweight, sedentary men found that by exercising just twice a week for six months, the men altered the activity of 7,000 genes—that’s almost 30 percent of the total human genome.
Even more incredible is the fact that when we change our genetic activity, we can pass those changes on to our children. In fact, a study of mice showed that genetic changes were present at least four generations later!
How Belief Affects Our Health at the Cellular Level
A thought is an electrochemical reaction. The approximately 100 billion neurons in our brain communicate with each other by sending electrical signals. Chemical neurotransmitters are released at each synapse (the connection between neurons) to allow for the transmission of the electrical signal to the next neuron.
Every time we think a thought, our brain also makes a protein called a neuropeptide. Neuropeptides send messages to our body, which then has a corresponding emotion. This is why neuropeptides are referred to as Molecules of Emotion.
The outer layer of every cell in our body is called the cell membrane. To us, it looks like the cell’s skin, but it actually operates as the cell’s nervous system.
There are thousands of receptors that extend both inward and outward from the cell’s membrane. Some of these receptors respond to physical signals, like neuropeptides and hormones, and others respond to energetic signals like light, sound, and radio frequencies. The input that the receptors receive affects the behavior and structure of the cell. So as we have thoughts and experience emotions, the activity and structure of the trillions of cells throughout our body are affected.
Within the nucleus of the cell lies the cell’s DNA. Regulatory proteins surround the DNA like a protective sleeve, preventing the DNA from being read. The only way to remove that sleeve of proteins is with—you guessed it—an environmental signal. When a signal from the environment triggers the protein sleeve to change shape and detach from the DNA, the DNA is exposed. A regulatory protein reads the genetic information, and RNA (ribonucleic acid, which acts as a messenger carrying instructions from DNA for controlling the synthesis of proteins) is produced. The RNA then exits the nucleus of the cell. The gene is now active and has the potential to affect your health.
The Takeaway on Genes and the Environment
One class of genes, known as IEGs (immediate early genes), take only seconds to reach full expression once they’re turned on. IEGs often control the expression of hundreds of genes and thousands of proteins throughout the body. The fact that these genes can be switched on and off so rapidly could potentially explain cases of fast, miraculous healing that seem implausible.
The important takeaway from this is that the whole sequence of events starts outside the cell, with the signal being sent from the environment. Genes don’t get expressed unless the environment tells them to be expressed. So when we take control of our environment by consciously choosing our beliefs and how we live our daily lives, we take control of our cellular health.
This can be clearly seen in simple scientific experiments. When cells are put into an optimal growth medium in a petri dish, the cells thrive. When the same cells are put into a suboptimal growth medium, they become weak and die.