Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, www.wholehealthmedicineinstitute.com, and the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself. She is on a grass roots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself. Lissa blogs at www.LissaRankin.com and also created two online communities – www.HealHealthCareNow.com and www.OwningPink.com. She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.
Intrigued but skeptical that the mind could heal the body, Dr. Rankin (a traditionally western-trained physician) pored over hundreds of objectively evaluated, peer-reviewed studies from medical journals to find proof (not just thoughts and feelings) to substantiate that the mind can heal the body and, that there are clear physiological mechanisms that explain how this happens. She learned that the body is equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that the mind has the power to flip on or off. In Mind Over Medicine, Dr. Rankin explains how this process works (proves through medical literature that is does work) and teaches practical techniques to activate the body’s natural self-healing mechanism, while shutting off the processes that predispose us to illness.
TA: Why are both doctors and patients afraid of the idea that we have the power to heal our own bodies?
LR: It’s a narcissistic wound for physicians: I went to school for 12 years, and practiced for 8 years, ostensibly so that I would know the body better than you would know the body, and so that I would have the power to cure. I think the same is true for patients in some ways. It can be scary for patients to embrace and expect that they can heal their bodies, because that then places the responsibility on themselves for their healing. So we have this agreement in modern medicine where the patient gets to hand their power over to the doctor, and then the doctor is responsible for “fixing” the patient. Yet, if we start to shift how both doctor and patient think, then it starts to shift the entire paradigm.
For example, I came to realize during my own healing journey (and in medical research) that patients know their bodies better than any doctor. While I may know anatomy and physiology, and I may have a better knowledge of how to wield a scalpel than a patient, when it comes right down to it – we each have within us this inner doctor that is our North Star…that is our guiding compass back to health. We’ve been proving this in the medical establishment for over 50 years. In the 1950’s we discovered that all clinical trials needed to have placebo arms because usually between 18-80 percent (average about 30 percent) of patients in clinical trials would get better from being given nothing but sugar pills. So the mind can heal the body.
Lissa Rankin gives a talk on the “Scientific Proof that We Can Heal Ourselves”
TA: Please explain the “stress response” and the “relaxation response”, and why stress reduction is so important in the healing process.
LR: We know that the body has natural self-repair mechanisms. In our physiology texts, it’s well known that the body knows how to repair broken proteins, kill cancer cells, fight infections, retard aging, and more. Yet this was the big “aha” for me and a true epiphany for me in studying all of this. There are two operating systems of the nervous system. One is the sympathetic nervous system (or what Walter Cannon at Harvard called the stress response). This is the fight or flight emergency response which kicks in when the body is at risk; when life and limb are at risk, and it’s there to protect you in case you’re getting chased by a tiger.
The opposite is the parasympathetic nervous system, or what Herbert Benton at Harvard called the relaxation response. This is the homeostatic state of the body. What I didn’t realize is that, while the body has these natural self-repair mechanisms, those self-repair mechanisms only function when the body is the relaxation response.
They are not supposed to be, but our bodies are in stress response more than 50 times per day in modern life, and so every time we’re in stress response, our bodies are unable to heal themselves.
TA: What sparked your interest in spontaneous remissions?
LR: My curiosity about spontaneous remissions began when I was working in an integrative medicine practice in Marin County, California, which is one of the healthiest places on the planet if you look at the health behaviors of the residents here. My patients from the inner city of Chicago were sick; and I understood why they were sick. They were eating poorly, weren’t exercising, were smokers or drinkers and were not taking their medication. However, my patients in Marin County were drinking their green juice, eating a vegan diet, working out with personal trainers, taking 20 supplements a day, seeing the best health care providers at Stanford and USCF and a variety of alternative health care providers. And some of them were the sickest people I’d ever met! This didn’t make any sense to me. Based on what I had understood about nutrition and exercise and that sort of thing, Marin County residents should have been the healthiest people on the planet, and yet they weren’t.
So I started revamping my intake form and asking my patients different types of questions. I asked about their romantic lives; their creative lives and their spiritual lives, their sex lives, and how financially stable they felt, and whether or not they felt like they had found their calling and were happy at work (those sorts of questions). I started asking people things like: if your illness showed up to instruct you about how to live your life more in alignment with your truth, what would it be telling you? And then the mother-lode question was this one: what does your body need in order to heal?
What I started discovering was that, people had very intuitive answers to those questions. My patients started saying things like “I need to quit my job” or “I need to leave my husband”, or “I need to go to art school and pursue that dream I had.” Some of my patients got really brave and they started actually doing what they had prescribed for themselves. Then they started having spontaneous remissions that made no sense to me. I hadn’t done anything. I hadn’t fixed them. I hadn’t given them any treatment. However, it led me to start investigating spontaneous remissions.
Lissa Rankin reveals a Shocking Truth about our health:
TA: Please speak to what you learned about spontaneous remissions in your research.
LR: I came across “The Spontaneous Remissions Project” database, which contains over 3500 case studies in the medical literature of patients who had “incurable” or “chronic” or “terminal” illnesses. These were case studies written up by doctors that were considered medical mysteries. Doctors couldn’t explain why these patients suddenly got better. Cases included everything from stage 4 cancers that went into remission, to an HIV positive patient who became HIV negative to heart disease that went away, to kidney failures that disappeared, to more common illnesses like thyroid disease or high blood pressure or diabetes that vanished. I mean, you name it – and it was in there! It was totally paradigm-shifting for me.
TA: Do both the conscious and subconscious minds play active roles in the healing process, and if yes, how?
LR: As long as you believe that you’ve got a chronic illness, that you’re incurable, that you’re gonna have to take medication for the rest of your life, that will manifest. You will be incurable and chronic as long as you believe you will be. The challenge is that many of us have been programmed with negative beliefs about our health from the time when we are very young. Most of us get downloaded a program from our parents by the time we are 6 years old.
By the time I was 33 years old, I was taking medications for a whole variety of illnesses that my doctor told me were chronic and incurable. I believed them. And, when I started doing my research and investigating the kinds of case studies that I found in “The Spontaneous Remissions Project” and elsewhere in the medical literature, I suddenly realized that there was a case study out there, at least one for every illness I was facing.
Physiologists used to believe that the human body was incapable of running a mile in less than 4 minutes, as no athlete had ever done it. So, Roger Bannister ran the mile in 3 minutes and 59 seconds. All of a sudden, athletes all over the world started breaking the 4 minute mark. Now, almost every world-class runner has run a sub 4-minute mile. The belief in the subconscious mind is very important because, even if your conscious mind says “I believe I can heal myself”, you’re only operating from your conscious mind about 5% of the time; 95% of the time, when you’re not really thinking about thinking, you’re operating from that subconscious program (that was downloaded when you were 6 years old), when you might have been told, “you’re a sickly person,” or “cancer runs in our family,” or whatever other negative health belief – like “I’m always going to be struggling with my weight.”
So the trick is not just to change our conscious beliefs, but to change our subconscious operating programs. There are a bunch of tips in the book about how you can go about shifting your subconscious beliefs. Because, until you believe you can get well, you can’t.
TA: How do our social connections/support, friendships, relationships and spiritual community, affect our health?
LR: Essentially, the health of the body is the sum total of our rich, precious inner experience. It’s important that we’re not just healthy in what we eat, or whether or not we exercise. It’s also important that we have healthy relationships; a healthy professional life, creative life, spiritual life, sex life, financial life; that we live in a healthy environment, and that we have healthy thoughts and beliefs. Let’s say you’re in a romantic relationship and it’s going really well. That’s going to be very healthy for the body because it calms the amygdala (which puts the body into relaxation response), and bathes every cell with healing hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, nitric oxide, endorphins. All of these things flip on the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms.
However, if you’re in a relationship that’s toxic, then it’s going to trigger the amygdala to feel threatened, and the amygdala is going to turn on the stress response. The body is then going to be bathed with poisonous hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, which over time can harm the body in a variety of ways – not the least of which is turning off the body’s natural self-repair mechanism. Each of those facets of who we are – our relationships, our work life, our financial life…can be either stressors or relaxers – so it’s really about looking at those various aspects of our lives and identifying where we might be triggering stress responses, and making an action plan to reduce them.
We also want to make proactive decisions about how to increase our relaxation responses. These things can be easy, fun and pleasurable. While it may be challenging to get out of your soul-sucking job, or consider leaving a relationship that isn’t healthy, it’s very easy to add in things that will activate your relaxation response. These can include adding a meditation practice, laughter, playing with animals, expressing yourself creatively, gathering in spiritual community, having sex, doing Tai Chi, Qi Gong, massage, yoga – all known relaxation response activators. One of my favorites is the healing act of generosity. We can be proactive.
TA: Please speak a bit about how your research revealed the factors involved in extending life expectancy.
LR: There’s copious data demonstrating that all of these factors – healthy relationships, healthy work life, etc., affects your longevity. There is a great story I tell in the book about the people of Rosetta, PA. These people were a group of Italian immigrants who came over from the old country and re-created their lives here in the new country. They were living in this little hillside town in Rosetta, PA. A cardiologist was visiting the town and having a drink with the local doctor at the bar, and the local doctor was saying, “It’s just strange; these people of Rosetta never die of heart disease. They seem to be dying of old age.”
So the cardiologist sent in a team of researchers to find out why the people of Rosetta were so healthy. The researchers found it wasn’t what the residents ate; they ate pizza and pasta and meatballs fried in lard; they were smokers, they drank wine every Sunday and they weren’t consuming olive oil because it costs too much. They thought it might be something genetic, but they looked at people who came from the same village in Italy who settled elsewhere in the United States, and those that were not in Rosetta had the same rate of heart disease as everybody else.
Ultimately, they found that all regions where people live longer – like Okinawa in Japan, Ikaria in Greece, Loma Linda in CA, and Rosetta in PA – had multigenerational homes, and people taking care of each other. If somebody got sick, the community nurtured them. If somebody was down on their luck financially, they would give them money, etc. The researchers finally concluded that the overwhelm that lonely people face in daily life triggers stress responses that turns off self-repair mechanisms that put the body at risk.
Longevity is a function of how strong your community is…how loved you feel…how much you love your work and how optimistic you are. Optimists have a 77% lower risk of heart disease than pessimists. Happy people live 7-10 years longer than unhappy people. All of these things contribute to our longevity as much or more, than what we eat or whether or not we exercise.