Mainstream medicine explores the route from mind to body

February 14, 1993|By Ann Egerton


Bill Moyers.


364 pages. $25.

Changing life habits. Self-hypnosis. Yoga. Meditation. Group therapy. These approaches to medicine no longer stem from grandmother, or from the hippie down the street, or through techniques of a psychiatric counselor. As Bill Moyers reports in "Healing and the Mind," the companion volume to a five-part PBS television series by the same name, these methods are being examined scientifically and incorporated successfully by mainstream physicians as a complement to (but never a substitute for) the technology that characterizes medicine today.

While Mr. Moyers interviews a disparate group of doctors at large, small, public and private institutions, their common bond is that each tries to make his patients' bodies better through closer contact with their minds and spirits. One doctor finds that extended communication between doctor and patient helps the latter's recovery. Another finds that health care clinics (with nutritionists, social workers and perhaps translators) in neighborhoods that are more convenient for the patient provide a healthier environment than does the big, impersonal hospital across town.

Another physician finds, in a scientific study, that a combination of meditation, stress-reduction exercises, group therapy, walking and a vegetarian diet improves blood flow to the heart and diminishes chest pains in 82 percent of the people in his program. Still another teaches self-hypnosis to children with chronic pain. The children's visualized imagery changes the physiology in their brains and reduces their pain; the doctor monitoring the program doesn't know why.

Most of the mind/body approaches Mr. Moyers investigates are old -- going back at least to Hippocrates. Mainstream doctors find that people with chronic pain can learn to meditate and, in doing so, move into their stress or pain, and gradually find inner stillness and peace.

At the end of an eight-week course in meditation and yoga at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, patients not only had a reduction of their stress and pain, and lower blood pressure (for up to three years), but also had measurable changes in their attitudes and personalities. No one knows why.

Meanwhile, back at the laboratory, scientists are learning more about the chemical connections between the mind and the body. The most astonishing recent discovery is that the neuropeptides and receptors that "are the biochemical correlates of emotions" are not just in the brain, but throughout the body as well, including the immune system. We're realizing that emotions are both mental and physical, and that physiology affects mental functioning, and vice versa.

We then go to China, where traditional Chinese medicine exists side by side with Western technologies. Chinese medicine has nothing to do with chemistry but with the harmonious flow of Chi, which is vital energy. To obtain a healthy amount of Chi, people are prescribed potions made from various herbs or such natural items as gecko or shark fins. Acupuncture, massage (far more sophisticated than ours) and exercise -- often outside and in groups of several thousand -- are other remedies. Few scientific studies have been made of the efficacy of these treatments, but they've been around for 23 centuries.

Many of the practices -- American and Chinese -- described here are inexpensive as well as effective. This beautifully illustrated and well-researched book is especially timely as America's health care system is under scrutiny. Nevertheless, most of the treatments, if in the wrong hands, would be frightening opportunities for quackery, and I wish that Mr. Moyers had said so.

Ms. Egerton is a writer living in Baltimore.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.