The other day, I went for treatment from a doctor of Chinese Medicine and bodyworker for a variety of health symptoms. In his bodywork treatment, I could tell he understood the injuries I had sustained, starting with birth, without really acknowledging or discussing them with me. I was so impressed, until he did too much. I left feeling worse than when I went in and was sore for days. When I eventually talked with him about it, he got quite upset with me, telling me that I resisted treatment and had to “surrender.” I explained to him that I felt he needed to understand trauma and how the body can renegotiate that, especially the quality of his relationship with the client on the table. He responded: “It is not my job to have people feel heard.” I knew this was absolutely not true. Recent findings on the relational nature of our nervous system support how attunement from the practitioner plays key role in people’s health and wellbeing. In fact, this interpersonal neurobiology plays a key role in current trends in integrative medicine or the use of several therapeutic skills to support the whole person.
It used to be that Western medicine was about dividing, reducing and specializing, for example the defined fields of practice such as endocrinology, orthopedics, psychotherapy, gynecology, etc. Those who studied therapies of any kind were reduced to special trainings in their field of practice. These days, however, practitioners of all sorts have been crossing borders, mixing, matching, even blurring therapeutic boundaries. Decades after Dr. Andrew Weil popularized integrative medicine and practitioners embodying it have dotted the map, there is such a groundswell of support from science that supports integration that it cannot be ignored. In fact, what was once considered “alternative” can now be seen as supported by proven facts, measured, real, especially with recent advances in neuroscience, mindfulness and cellular biology. Many practitioners of healing arts have studied additional modalities to help people, including medical doctors who have studied acupuncture, nurses who have studied touch therapies, bodyworkers who are integrating trauma resolution techniques, and counselors integrating mindfulness meditation and energy medicine. These long–term therapists practicing integration who have been on the leading edge of a wave in medicine (the vanguard) are now supported by many others in the curl and in the sea to the horizon and beyond.
I have been a practitioner in the leading edge for years. For the past 10 years, I have been integrating several areas of my practice: pre and perinatal therapies, somatic practices (massage and craniosacral therapy), attachment research, human and child development, indigenous knowledge, neuroscience and nature-based education but I have found it has not been easy to neatly fold them together. Ironically, it has been the latest scientific discoveries that have allowed me to do that. As I stand within these discoveries and look around, I see that I am no longer on the leading edge, but am buoyed up by others now; it is a rising tide. Let me explain.
I pick Andrew Weil, MD as one who started the modern movement towards integrated medicine. He practices his craft at a center in Arizona. He defines integrative medicine as “healing-oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person, including all aspects of lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between practitioner and patient, is informed by evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapies.” The decade from 1990-2000 witnessed an exponential rise of therapies that addressed “the whole person,” including the creation and growth of the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. Now a National Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), it dispenses millions of dollars to research centers across the United States, including Weil’s center in Arizona. The NCCAM budget for 2012 was $128 million.
These days, millions of dollars are being spent on studies of therapies such as homeopathy, nutrition, Chinese medicine, massage, energy medicine, yoga, meditation, mindfulness in collaboration with or integrated into western medical approaches. The rise of meditation and mindfulness in conjunction with neuroscience in particular has supported the integration of therapies with great speed. It is this particular wave, the confluence of brain imaging, advances in neuroscience and mindfulness, that now pulls so many of us together into the new therapeutic vanguard. It all boils down to the body and the changes evoked by the environment around it and within it. Something so basic to human health, but something hard to define, measure and apply until now. For me, it helps define human health and development as the understanding of how we are all about patterns, inside and out.
Although epigenetics, or the study of how the environment affects the way genes work has been around for decades, it has only recently been accepted as more than theory. When I first became a health practitioner in the 1990’s, the human genome project was just beginning. Medical consumers were told that health was defined by their genes and this mammoth project of mapping out the genome would allow people to see what was in store for them. Scientists projected discovering over 125,000 genes. However, they only discovered 25,000, far fewer than what was thought to be needed to account for all the variations in human development. Scientists were then forced to consider that the environment around a gene could actually turn it on or off. The study of identical twins was particularly revealing. Although they have exactly the same genes, twins change as they grow, especially if their health practices and environments are different. One twin can remain healthy while another can get cancer or other serious illness.
Our internal chemical soup affects genes. Thus, stress-relieving practices, positive thoughts, mindfulness practices, nutrition, medicines, energy medicine and more play a definite role. Thoughts, feelings, emotions, experiences all trigger physiological responses co-creating an internal pattern with our genetic predisposition. Internal receptors for different chemicals generated by experiences or ingested in some form influence development. In addition, the way we are made prenatally, born, and then come into relationship with our caregivers also shapes the way we think and feel. Indeed, the relationship between patient and practitioner has become part of Integrated Medicine[k1] .
Our emotional states and the field of therapeutic practice that supports them (called affect regulation or attachment therapies) is another way to affect the pattern. Traditionally confined to psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, we can now witness the impact of emotional attunement in many other therapeutic domains. Even the field of neuroscience supports the concept of emotional attunement. Studies have shown that compassion, happiness and connection lead to more regulated heart rates (the science of heart variability) and ever greater levels of health. Examinations of the heart with sensitive instruments have detected an electric field generated by the heartbeat pulses that extend up to twenty feet around the body. HeartMath, the science that looks at heart variability can be applied to many fields of practice, including child development, psychotherapy, mindfulness practice, cardiology, prenatal health, and more. The saying “you have good energy,” or even the hip quip “good vibes” all have a basis in science.
In my private practice I support many pregnant women. The field of epigenetics can help us understand how genes get selected for babies based on how the mother’s body and mind reads and experiences the world around her. Is it safe? Is it calm? Or is it stressful? Is it dangerous? We are more than our nutrition although that plays a key role in how our bodies are made. The same is true for fathers. And if people are conceived, born and brought up stressful environments, we now know that the experience informs their body and mind. We also know that even if that happens, we can work to repattern these experiences with mind-body interventions, and change unhealthy patterns from the inside out.
So, the many health practitioners who understand the mind-body connection and the whole person can feel good: recent achievements in neuroscience support your work. For those who have understood and practiced energy medicine, you have been right. Those vibrations you have felt, generated, explained to others and applied to health practices can now be measured and understood. For yogis, bodyworkers, psychologists, therapists of all kinds, you can join the ranks of those who practice epigenetics. Imagine, if you will these many practices, including medical specialized fields all like many small waves on a sandy beach. If you stand on the edge, you can watch each little wave ripple up the beach to your toes. But if you shift you gaze up a look out to sea, you will see a larger wave, one where perhaps other waves have come together and enlarged its form. This is the new vanguard.
Affective Neuroscience Laboratory and the Center of Investigating Healthy Minds: www.investigatinghealthyminds.org
Andrew Weil and Integrated Medicine: www.drweil.com
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: http://www.nccam.nih.org
Time Article: Why Your DNA Is Not Your Destiny: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1952313,00.html
NOVA documentary on Twins: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/epigenetics.html
Movie: The Ghost in Your Genes: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/genes/