Recently I interviewed Mark Pettus, MD, who is the author of It’s All in Your Head: Change Your Mind, Change Your Health. We talked about how we can “train the brain to be addicted to health”—I love the way he phrases that. Through diet, lifestyle and dietary supplements we can help influence the brain’s biologic response.
My conversation with Dr. Pettus reminded me of the fascinating science of epigenetics, which demonstrates that we can positively and proactively influence how our genes behave—our DNA is not our destiny. I’ve written on this subject in this blog previously and in the book I co-authored with my good friend Dr. Lise Alschuler, Five to Thrive: Your Cutting-Edge Cancer Prevention Plan.
Why am I so interested in epigenetics? I am a member of the largest known family in North America who carries a mutation of the BRCA1 cell repair gene, which dramatically increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. I had ovarian cancer at age 33 so I’m very interested in influencing my other cell repair genes to help prevent breast cancer or a cancer recurrence.
So what does the neuroplasticity of the brain and epigenetics have in common? Both give us hope, which is a significant ingredient to true healing.
I would argue that it is my hope that provides me with a significant advantage in my quest to prevent cancer. University of Chicago scholar Nancy Snow wrote in the Science of Virtues research project, “People who lack hope seem to lack zest for life.” She goes on to say, “Hope in all of its complexity has been widely found to be beneficial to persons suffering from physical and mental illness…”
Jerry Groopman, MD, author of The Anatomy of Hope, writes that hope is different than merely thinking positively because hope requires an understanding and acknowledgement of the obstacles. He says there is “no room for delusion” if we are to be truly hopeful. “For my patients,” Groopman writes, “hope, true hope, has proved as important as any medication I might prescribe or any procedure I might perform.”
But what stimulates the hope that can sometimes lie dormant within us? Knowledge—knowing what has happened, what may happen and that we have the ability to influence outcomes. Because you see, the most powerful medicines known to man are not in the doctor’s office, the pharmacy or the science lab. They are in your brain. Chemicals in the brain can help facilitate healing. We have access to these healing chemicals 24/7 and that should give us hope. Our beliefs and expectations—the foundation in which hope is built—can trigger the release of these healing chemicals.
Feeling hopeful can enhance mood, take away pain, and help us live life with more vitality. And best of all, hope has no side effects.
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tunes without the words, and never stops at all.” —Emily Dickinson