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Russ Gerber

Belief and Its Effect On Our Health

Are we questioning deeply enough the health consequences of what we believe?

Penny Sarchet doesn't think of herself as a detective, but she's been acting like one.

She received a prize for her science essay on the nocebo effect, one of the winning entries in a writing contest sponsored by the Wellcome Trust in association with the Guardian and The Observer, who had been on the lookout throughout the UK for the next generation of outstanding science writers.

Like any good detective, Sarchet carefully examined the evidence, the scientific research, on nocebos (harmful effects linked to a harmless substance -- the opposite of placebo effect). This led her to some compelling observations about the link between a negative mental state and physical suffering.

She saw that in a doctor-patient relationship the patient's belief makes a world of difference as to that person's health. What a doctor says and what the patient believes may be more closely tied to the patient's outcome than what the doctor does physically.

If a doctor's warnings about possible negative side effects increases the likelihood of the patient experiencing pain or suffering, as research consistently suggests will happen, the leading culprit is the patient's mental state. Fear or a deep pessimism that they won't get better can be the underlying enemy to health. Sachet concludes: "As scientists begin to determine how the nocebo works, we would do well to use their findings to manage that most 21st century of all diseases -- anxiety."

The flip-side of the belief coin is the health benefit linked to a positive mental state -- the placebo effect.

According to a landmark review, positive expectations are associated with better health. Science Daily reported that the reviewers of more than 160 studies on the mind-body connection were shocked by the consistency they saw in the data. Over and over the evidence showed that a person's positive beliefs are a strong influence for good on their health.

Exploration of a mind-body connection has a rich history, easily traceable back to the last half of the 19th century when Mary Baker Eddy, author of the landmark book Science and Health, came to conclusions parallel to what today's researchers discover as they connect the dots of a placebo and nocebo effect. In her book she noted: "The physical side of this research was aided by hints from homeopathy, sustaining my final conclusion that mortal belief, instead of the drug, governed the action of material medicine."

What's the bigger picture here? The sleuth instinct in us may sense a need to revise fundamental assumptions about health and rethink common health practices.

If the root driver of the body's health (good or bad) lies in what's occupying our mind, it’s important to be much more alert to what's tugging at us for attention.

Most people don't question how often they hear, read, ruminate on and talk about unhealthiness. They take for granted that the risks, symptoms, aches and pains they hear about from every direction are involuntary. Since they don't question many of them they don't realize the good effect that comes from reversing such thinking.

What could happen if we seriously pursued what adds to hope? What builds confidence? What thoughts and conversation about health could counteract fear, rather than adding to it? Consider how an increase in spirituality -- compassion, prayer, forgiveness and the like – could ground us in positive expectations, and purge negative ones, which could have a positive impact on our health.

I suspect that sooner or later we'll see what Penny Sarchet and others have uncovered -- that what we take in and believe has a direct correlation to our health. The days of thinking that the body operates independent of our beliefs are fast fading away.

Originally published in Huffington Post

About the Author

Russ Gerber spent many years in news programming, most notably with the Christian Science Monitor. He is passionate about the health care debate.