Ancient Brain, Modern World: Unpacking the Mind-Body Connection

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

Over the past five years, I have seen more commercials for Prevagen than I can count. You know, it's the pill that is touted as the "number one pharmacist recommended memory support". The commercials are filled with "real customers" who have gotten "real results" and it all looks pretty convincing if one can ignore the disclaimer at the bottom of the screen.

Every time I see ads for Prevagen, I get mad. Not blisteringly angry, but really irritated.

As a specialist in dementia risk reduction, I know the science behind their claims is shoddy. A quick online search reveals years of complaints and lawsuits. Last month, in fact, the Food and Drug Administration forced Prevagen to agree to stop marketing the supplement with claims that it can improve memory. It has not been clinically proven to do anything.

And this is the crux of my deep dislike of Prevagen: it oversimplifies a complex, multi-factorial condition (dementia) and tells people that if they just take this pill, their memory will be better. That's it. No nutrition. No exercise. No stress management. People can just keep living their lives exactly the way they are and just by taking this supplement derived from jellyfish, have a strong and sharp mind. It's a total crock.

Or is it?

How we think changes the way our body feels and functions; how our body feels and functions changes the way we think. Physical symptoms result from our mental state, and vice versa. This is the essence of the mind-body connection. We experience the power of the mind-body connection all the time, without really even noticing it.

Scientists are just beginning to understand what ancient cultures have known for millennia: the power of the mind-body connection is huge. In one study from 2018, people living with intense, chronic pain were given a placebo and told it was strong pain medication. About half of the people who took the placebo reported a drastic reduction in pain - up to 30 percent. Think about that: they took a sugar pill and it reduced their pain far beyond what opioid-based pain relievers can do...just because they believed it was a real drug.

Or how about another study in which researchers discovered that people with dissociative personality disorder ("multiple personalities") can have different blood pressure, hormone levels, allergies, and even vision...depending on which personality is expressed.

How the mind-body connection works

When we are afraid, angry, upset, or excited, our body responds by pumping out hormones that boost our heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. We may start to sweat or experience tunnel vision. Once the crisis passes and we mentally calm down, our body also calms down. This peak-and-valley rollercoaster is driven by our central nervous system bringing signals to different parts of the body telling it to get ready to fight or flee, and then signaling that the danger has passed and it's okay to relax.

We humans are very, very good at noticing threats and bad situations. It's a biological survival mechanism that is handed down to us through tens of thousands of years of human evolution...and it's a key factor in how our species came to dominate the planet.

This elevated threat sensitivity served our species well as we made our way out of the cradle of humanity and spread across the globe. Combined with our brain's unique ability to rehash the past and rehearse for the future, this threat sensitivity helped us learn how to survive and live long enough to pass that knowledge down to our offspring.

So, we see there is a survival component to our strong emotional responses and the resulting physical reactions. But how does that survival mechanism translate into our present-day lifestyle? Not very well.

Most of us no longer need to flee from lions on the savannah. In truth, our external sources of stress like traffic, finances, work demands, and family struggles are rather mundane from a survival are the internal sources of stress like our thoughts and the negative ways that we interpret situations.

In the modern world, these stressors are everywhere all the time. And even though they are generally not life-threatening, our body doesn't know the difference between a lion running towards us and someone cutting us off in traffic. Our brain senses danger, pumps out adrenaline and cortisol and activates the sympathetic nervous system. The problem is, the threats don't stop coming and our stress response system stays activated for days, months, or even years. This leads to chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and dementia.

How to use the mind-body connection for better brain health

As in any self-improvement endeavor, awareness is the first step. Now that we are aware of the existence and power of the mind-body connection, we can begin taking a whole-person approach to symptoms we are experiencing and refrain from oversimplifying and tying everything to a strictly physical cause. The fact is, most of us are walking around with strong, negative emotions literally trapped in our bodies. We can change our life - and our health - by dealing with them instead of ignoring them.

We can use reframing techniques to change how we choose to be in relationship with stress. Stress in and of itself is not a "bad" thing. It is just how we respond to stressors that are generally beyond our control. With practice, we can transform our mindset to see stressful events not as distressing, but as challenging opportunities for personal growth. We can shift from I can't control what happens to me to I can control how I respond to what happens to me.

Purposefully shifting our mindset also shifts our biological stress response and we go from living in the highly-aroused sympathetic nervous system filled with adrenaline and triggered responses, to basking in the restoration and healing of the parasympathetic nervous system. This switches off our inflammatory genes and builds our telomeres back up, effectively reversing aging.

Building a mindfulness practice is the best way to put some space between what we are experiencing and our response to what we are experiencing. By learning to work with our thoughts, mindfulness helps us learn to consciously counteract our survival-based negativity bias. When we begin to notice our habits of mind and our internal soundtrack, we can learn to disentangle our self from our thoughts. Our stress levels plummet when we learn to live consciously in the present moment, rather than continually rehashing our past and rehearsing our future.

Based on what we've learned about the mind-body connection, maybe I should give the Prevagen marketing team a break. Maybe the people in their commercials really do notice improvements in their memory after taking Prevagen. Maybe what they're experiencing is the placebo effect and the power of the mind-body connection. They believe it works, so it does. Maybe.

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