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A Synthesis of Healing Therapies

by Amanda Jackson-Russell, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in healing, originally published in issue 47 - December 1999

The array of alternative and complementary therapies available today is utterly mind boggling, even to a dedicated proponent of a 'natural' lifestyle and holistic, drug-free, non-invasive heathcare, never mind the tentative but interested newcomer to the field. The lengthy list of the most well- established therapies – such as acupuncture, homoeopathy, osteopathy, naturopathy, reflexology, herbal medicine and so on – is daunting enough for someone with an inquiring mind to get their head around. Then there are what could be called more obscure therapies (in terms of understanding of mechanisms and also in terms of not yet having been well-researched clinically), although almost as well-established, to get to grips with, like metamorphic technique, crystal healing, colonic hydrotherapy, radionics, flower remedies, iridology and polarity therapy. Add to this the fact that new therapies seem to be appearing almost weekly (if not daily), how is a person supposed to be able to know what particular therapy (or group of therapies) may be helpful for their particular needs?

Healing Mechanisms

Whether the source of the healing influence is psychic/spiritual, energetic/vibrational, mental/emotional or directly physical/biochemical, in the end it has to filter down through all these levels to work on the physical body, and the healing that occurs is ultimately self-healing, in that the innate healing mechanisms of the body-mind are stimulated to restore itself to health. Thus, perhaps it is possible to look at alternative therapies in terms of which healing mechanisms of the body-mind they act primarily on. Before we can do this, however, we need to know what different healing mechanisms exist in the body-mind.

The body's defence system (the immune system)

The most obvious and immediate of the body's healing mechanisms is the immune system. The immune system is a powerful, virtually autonomous defence and healing system, responsible for protecting the body from the potentially deleterious effects of invading 'foreign' organisms – bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. The main organs and structures of the immune system are the bone marrow, the thymus, lymph nodes/glands, unencapsulated lymphoid tissues (such as the tonsils, adenoids, appendix and tissues in the small intestines and genitourinary tract), the spleen, the blood circulation and lymphatic vessels. The activities of the immune system are performed in large part by white blood cells (leukocytes), which include T and B lymphocytes, natural killer cells, phagocytes, mast cells and platelets (fragments of white blood cells).

Many of the successes of modern (orthodox) medicine (antiseptics, antipyretics [fever-lowering agents], analgesics [pain-killers], antibiotics [antibacterials], antiviral and antifungal agents, vaccines, organ transplants and treatments for inflammatory diseases, autoimmune disorders, allergies and cancer) have been due to our increasing knowledge about the nature of infection and the operations of the immune system, with treatments aiming to harness and/or strengthen aspects of immune function. Similarly, many alternative/complementary therapies may act to directly strengthen, regulate and/or stimulate immune system structures and functions – for example, improving lymph flow in lymphatic vessels; reducing inflammation or eliminating infection at the site of a wound; or stimulating T lymphocyte or natural killer cell production or antibody formation.

Brain/mind-body healing mechanisms

Brain-body nervous mechanisms (autonomic nervous system)

The best-known influences of the mind/brain over the body occur via the autonomic nervous system, comprising the sympathetic (adrenergic) nerves, the parasympathetic (cholinergic) nerves, and, as discovered more recently, non-adrenergic non-cholinergic (NANC) nerves. Autonomic nerves innervate all the major organs and physiological systems of the body – heart, airways, eyes, stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, bladder, blood vessels, sweat glands and adrenal glands (the adrenal medulla) – although some parts are served by only one or other of the two main autonomic divisions.

The two main nervous system divisions have roughly opposite actions on the body. The sympathetic division famously mediates the 'fight-or-flight' response, consuming energy and preparing the body for physical and mental activity, i.e. activating stress-induced responses. The parasympathetic division predominates during periods of rest, relaxation and recuperation, saving energy and promoting new cell growth and repair, and digestion, absorption and storage of nutrients.

Although the autonomic nervous system functions for the most part automatically (without our conscious effort), it receives neural input from 'higher' brain centres involved in memory, emotions, moods, sensory-motor processing, motivation and the generation of thoughts themselves. These 'higher' brain functions are thus able to modulate the activities of the autonomic nervous system. In addition, neurohormones released from the brain (the hypothalamus) can influence autonomic activity.

Many therapies promote healing by either directly or indirectly modulating the activities of the autonomic nervous system. The main route is via the relaxation response, which helps to reduce the stressful influences of the sympathetic nervous system and promote the recuperative and restorative activities of the parasympathetic division. Meditation is one of the most effective methods for accessing the relaxation response, but many therapies are inherently relaxing and so are likely to facilitate this response. However, biofeedback techniques have demonstrated that we can also learn to consciously alter autonomic nervous activities at will – for example, to lower blood pressure and heart rate or to reduce gastrointestinal irritability. Some therapies or techniques may, therefore, also involve active stimulation of brain/mind-body healing mechanisms via the autonomic nerves – for example, hypnotherapy, creative visualisation and possibly neuro linguistic programming.

Brain-hormone mechanisms (psychoneuroendocrinology, PNE)

The next best known system of brain/mind-body regulation is the endocrine (or hormonal) system. The major endocrine glands of the body are the thyroid gland, the parathyroid glands, the adrenal glands (the adrenal cortex), the pancreas and the gonads (the ovaries and the testes). These glands each release specific hormones that regulate various body functions such as growth, metabolism and reproduction. All the endocrine glands are under the 'orchestration' of a master gland, the pituitary gland (a tiny structure just underneath the centre of the brain), which secretes a range of 'stimulating' hormones directly into the blood stream (for example, thyroid-stimulating hormone, or TSH) that act on the respective endocrine glands. The pituitary gland is in turn under the influence of the hypothalamus, which secretes a range of 'releasing factors' (for example, thyrotropin-releasing factor, or TRF). Each of these acts on the pituitary gland to cause release of the respective stimulating hormone.

Like the autonomic nervous system, the endocrine system operates for the most part automatically and unconsciously to keep the body's systems functioning properly. However, also like the autonomic nervous system, the endocrine system is capable of being influenced by higher, 'conscious' brain/mind functions. Another common link between the autonomic nervous and endocrine systems occurs at the level of the adrenal glands, and both systems are intimately involved in the body's response to stress through this gland.

Excessive or long-term stress is known to have many debilitating effects on the body, and there is insufficient space here to explore these. Suffice to say that those therapies which promote healing by modulating the activities of the autonomic nervous system and/or by promoting relaxation may also be able to beneficially modulate the activities of the endocrine system, and vice versa. Health problems related to hormonal disorders apparently unrelated to stress may also be helped by psychoneuroendocrine routes. Again, therapies that may be able to access these healing mechanisms are biofeedback, meditation, autogenic training, creative visualisation and hypnotherapy.

Brain-immune mechanism(psychoneuroimmunology, PNI)

A quarter of a century ago, it was assumed that the immune system – our defender against infections – operated entirely autonomously. The idea of a patient's mental state affecting his/her response to disease was anathema to the medical profession. However, physiologists, neuroscientists, immunologists and psychologists working together in the integrated research field of psychoneuroimmunology over the last 25 years have now produced an impressive and indisputable body of evidence to show that the brain is able to influence the activities of the immune system through the autonomic nervous system and the neuroendocrine system.

All the major structures of the immune system (the bone marrow, thymus, spleen, lymph nodes and unencapsulated lymphoid tissues) are innervated by sympathetic, parasympathetic and NANC nerves. In addition, direct appositions have been found between autonomic nerve terminals and lymphocytes or macrophages (i.e. mobile immune cells). Neuropeptides or hormones released by the brain, pituitary and peripheral endocrine glands can stimulate or inhibit a wide range of leukocyte functions. Furthermore, immune cells and cytokines (the polypeptides released by immune cells) can modulate higher brain functions (e.g. in areas involved in emotions and behavioural responses) as well as autonomic and neuroendocrine function. Accordingly, some scientists have suggested that the immune system may act as a sixth sensory system, supplying the brain with sensory information about our internal state of defence.

The research fields of PNI and PNE have mainly documented how stressors, mental illnesses and negative mental states may be associated with adverse health outcomes and diminished measures of immune response. The likely beneficial effects of positive thoughts and emotions on health outcomes and immune responsiveness have yet to be researched to the same convincing level. Nevertheless, the basic evidence from PNI and PNE indicates the potentially important roles of emotions, hope, the will to live, social support and relationships in the balance between health and disease. Theoretically, mind-body therapies that are able to act on conscious or unconscious brain centres to modulate the activities of the autonomic nervous and neuroendocrine systems should be able to influence the activities of the immune system to aid in our fights against infections, allergies, autoimmune disorders, immune deficiency disorders and cancer.

Bioenergy mechanisms ('energy' or 'vibrational' medicine)

Life-force or subtle energy

The major Eastern spiritual philosophies, as well as 'sensitives' (psychics, clairvoyants) both past and present and from the Orient or Western cultures, maintain that our physical bodies are merely a denser representation of subtler levels of our existence, and that our whole being is brought to life and sustained by an underlying soul, spirit, subtle energy, life-force or universal energy. According to the ancient spiritual texts of India (the Vedas), sources of the wisdom of yoga and Ayurveda, the subtle, life-sustaining energy is prana, which flows through the physical body along invisible channels called nadis and is concentrated along the spine in whirling vortices of energy called chakras. In the Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan and other Oriental cultures that are influenced by Taoist philosophy, the universal life-force or energy is Chi (or Qi). Chi flows along invisible channels in the body called meridians and can be manipulated through the acupuncture points. In either system, the vital energy (prana or Chi) must be in state of balance and flow freely in the body in order for health to exist. Psychics claim to be able to see subtle energies, colours, hues or light surrounding the physical body – the aura – and many believe that changes or anomalies in the nature of a person's aura reflect physical, mental or emotional problems.

Purely 'vibrational' forms of healing (spiritual, crystal and colour healing, radionics) are held to operate by influencing a person's subtle energy via means that are not overtly physical (thought, prayer, meditation, spiritual intervention, contact with the person's 'higher self', channelling of universal energy, electromagnetic radiation). Other energy therapies (acupuncture, reflexology, shiatsu, Reiki, yoga, Tai Chi) use methods that appear more tangible to manipulate, balance, unblock or restore the subtle energy.

Bioelectromagnetic energy

Physiological and biophysical scientists have been industrious over the last couple of decades in gathering data in support of the existence of electromagnetic radiation from living organisms and also in demonstrating that energy radiation from outside the living body can have profound effects on life, growth, development and health in general. Today, there is solid evidence that all living creatures emit – albeit quite weak – electromagnetic radiation that is measurable by validated scientific instruments. The main sources of bioelectromagnetic radiation are the heart and the brain. Moreover, data exist to indicate that external electromagnetic fields can influence the body's natural field, both negatively and positively, and certain frequencies of electromagnetic radiation can have healing effects on body tissues.

Bioelectromagnetic energy and concepts of life-force or subtle energy

How bioelectromagnetic fields measurable by scientific instrumentation may relate to a 'life-force' or subtle energy is as yet unknown. Similarly, whether 'vibrational' or 'subtle energy' therapies can exert healing effects through manipulation of an organism's electromagnetic energy field is only just beginning to be explored. Nevertheless, it has been shown that healers can alter the bioenergy fields of their patients during healing and that the brain waves of healees frequently synchronise with those of the healer (in the alpha state) during healing. Furthermore, points of lowered electrical resistance have been detected on the body which correlate with known acupuncture points. And, as mentioned above, externally applied electromagnetic fields have been shown to be capable of having either negative (detrimental) and positive (healing) effects on body tissues, depending on their nature (e.g. frequency, amplitude, and when pulsed or applied continuously). It may be that bioelectromagnetic fields can also be influenced by crystals (quartz crystals are known to have the ability to receive, amplify and transmit electromagnetic waves). Colour and light therapies may be able to affect an organism's bioenergy field, since these too are forms of electromagnetic radiation. Sound therapies are known to affect brain electrical activity, which may represent carrier waves for higher frequency bioelectromagnetic energy. Finally, it has been suggested that therapies such as homoeopathy and Bach flower remedies – which are claimed to work at a subtle energy level – may influence health through physico-chemical or electromagnetic mechanisms operating at cellular, molecular, atomic or even subatomic levels.

Healing Therapies

Alternative/complementary therapies can be divided broadly into eight main categories, as shown in Table 1(tables not on this site). Many therapies fall into more than one of these categories. In all likelihood, most healing therapies tap into some or all of the known self-healing mechanisms to varying degrees. But most therapies appear to tap into one or two mechanisms the most strongly and other ones incidentally. Table 2 suggests which categories of therapies use which healing mechanisms.

Touch/massage/manipulation therapies mainly help to optimise the conditions for healing (e.g. reducing muscle tension, improving blood flow, correcting structural misalignments), including aiding the immune system by improving lymph flow; some aid mind-body mechanisms though the induction of relaxation; some (such as acupuncture) incorporate pain-relief mechanisms by stimulating the release of natural pain-killing molecules (enkephalins and/or endorphins); and most probably also aid the flow of subtle or bioelectromagnetic energy. Movement/ postural therapies similarly mainly help to optimise conditions for healing to take place. Mind-body (relaxation) therapies primarily harness the mind-brain-body mechanisms of the autonomic nervous system, neuroendocrine system and brain-immune links, while the psychological therapies aim mainly at mental/emotional healing processes. Subtle energy therapies by definition primarily aim to balance the bioenergy system of the body-mind; they may also harness mind-body mechanisms (through the meditative state induced and through positive thought processes), aid immune system function directly, and generally restore conditions conducive to self-healing. Finally, cleansing therapies and the herbal, chemical and nutrient therapies are mainly concerned with optimising the body's state to achieve healing, including enhancing immune system function.

Choosing Appropriate Therapies

In any disease, or dis-ease, situation, it would seem sensible to use or combine therapies in order to achieve positive effects on the three main health-regulating mechanisms, namely the immune system, mind-brain-body mechanisms and the bioenergy system. In addition, the individual's particular state of health should be assessed in the context of optimising conditions for healing if this appears necessary – for example, examination of appropriate nutritional requirements, removal of possible allergens or infections, correcting any structural abnormalities if appropriate, and reducing any muscle tension, pain or other discomfort. Further, the individual's mental/emotional wellbeing needs to be considered to determine whether this needs to be addressed directly.

I have attempted to analyse the broad range of therapies mentioned in this article according to which healing mechanisms each primarily (and possibly secondarily) utilises, and the results are presented in Table 3. I hope that this analysis may be useful to seekers of complementary medical treatment, enabling them to achieve a 'synthesis' of options appropriate to particular needs. It would be prudent, however, to also seek the advice and views of adequately qualified and experienced practitioners of the individual therapies selected before attempting to combine therapies. In addition, it is always advisable to seek advice from a medically qualified doctor for any serious or potentially serious condition.


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About Amanda Jackson-Russell, Ph.D.

Amanda Jackson-Russell has a BSc Hons degree in Physiology and a Ph.D. in Neuro- pharmacology. She also holds a teacher's diploma from the British Wheel of Yoga. Amanda practices spiritual healing at the Esher NFSH (National Federation of Spiritual Healers) Centre in Surrey, and works as a freelance Medical Writer and Editor in both orthodox and complementary medicine. She is the author of What is the Alternative? Puncturing the Myths of Complementary Medicines, published by South Street Press (Garnet Publishing Ltd), 1999. She can be contacted on Tel/Fax: +44 (0)1372 279841.

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