Psychoneuroimmunology is quite a mouthful… but it’s also proving to be quite a mindful too! This wonderful, relatively new science, is pulling together the mind and body in exactly the way that Plato described, nearly 2,400 years ago. So here we are, 30+ years into a science we’re calling new, when the founding fathers of medicine told us that we couldn’t fix the mind without fixing the body, and we couldn’t fix the body without fixing the mind. Today PNI is one of the main contributors illuminating this truth.
We hope that by the end of this article you will better understand how your thoughts and feelings are constantly shaping the cellular activities in your body, leading to a multitude of biological events and changes, which in turn feed back to the mind, influencing your experience of the world. This biological-emotional-psychological loop holds the secrets to the mental and physical health solutions we’re often seeking.
PNI – The science of emotions
As a ground-breaking neuroscientist, Dr. Candace Pert’s research helped to create the foundation for an entirely new interdisciplinary branch of science called “Psycho-Neuro-Immunology” or PNI.
PNI unites the three classically separated sciences of neuroscience, immunology and endocrinology and their associated glands and organs into a multidirectional communication network, linked by information carrying molecules called (neuro)peptides. Pert provided PNI with a clear scientific language to use, that of peptides and their receptors, also known as “information substances,” thereby helping to legitimise the field.
Pert notes that her preferred term was “Psychoimmunoneuroendocrinology” recognising the inclusion of the endocrine system, but the simpler name of PNI became the accepted term in scientific circles. The more popular name for PNI, soon became “mind-body medicine.” Here’s Pert’s summary of what is meant by mind-body medicine:
“Thus, we might refer to the whole system as a psychosomatic information network, linking ‘psyche,’ which comprises all that is of an ostensibly nonmaterial nature, such as mind, emotion and soul, to ‘soma,’ which is the material world of molecules, cells and organs. Mind and body, psyche and soma.”
Dr. Pert’s research provides scientific evidence that a biochemical basis for awareness and consciousness exists, that the mind and body are indeed one and that our emotions and feelings are the bridge that links the two. She explains:
“The chemicals that are running our body and our brain are the same chemicals that are involved in emotion. And that says to me that we’d better pay more attention to emotions with respect to health.”
Using Pert’s research as a foundation, we now have a new scientific understanding of the power of our minds and our feelings to directly and profoundly affect our health and well-being. This new science explains that we are one system; the brain is integrated into the body at a molecular level and therefore neither can be treated separately without the other being directly affected. According to Pert, our bodies could be described as our subconscious minds:
“In the end I find I can’t separate brain from body. Consciousness isn’t just in the head. Nor is it a question of the power of the mind over the body…because they’re flip sides of the same thing. Mind doesn’t dominate body, it becomes body.”
Peptides and receptors: the molecules of emotion
What exactly is a molecule of emotion?
The first component is the one Pert discovered nearly 40 years ago that launched her scientific career—the complex molecule known as the receptor, and more specifically—the opiate receptor. She developed a method to measure it and therefore, in a backwards sort of way, prove its existence. This discovery would explain the mechanism by which such opiates as heroin or morphine create their powerful effect on the body, the mind and the emotions. Coincidentally, Pert had a personal experience that had birthed a growing fascination about how these substances caused such a powerful effect on the body, mind and emotions simultaneously.
After a bad fall while horseback riding, she found herself in the hospital, being given a morphine derivative to relieve the pain of a compressed lumbar vertebra. She marvelled at the combination of both the pain killing effect and the mental and emotional changes induced by the drug. Pert noted the euphoria and blissful altered state she experienced every time she received an injection. She so liked the opiate’s “wonderful feeling of being deeply nourished and satisfied” that she considered continuing on the drug for her pain when she was released from the hospital.
Although she eventually decided against that option, her intense physical and emotional experience intrigued her and she wondered about this overlap of physical and emotional effects from a single drug. Many have wondered how such drugs as heroin, marijuana, Librium and cocaine are able to create such intense emotional shifts. This hospital experience would later trigger an interest in proving the existence of the opiate receptor as Pert’s doctoral focus.
How our emotions and thoughts become our physical body
Receptors sit on the surface of cells and number in the hundreds of thousands on the average cell; specialised cells such as neurons might have millions of receptors surrounding them.
These receptors act as tiny scanners and sensors which wait patiently until the exact chemical key comes along that will fit into them, much like a regular key is made to only fit into one specific lock. These chemical keys are called ligands and the most common of these is known as a (neuro)peptide, accounting for nearly 95% of known ligands. Pert describes what happens next as “quite amazing.” The peptide delivers its chemical message to the receptor, which then transmits this message deep within the cell, triggering a chain of biochemical reactions which can create huge changes within the cell – of either a positive or negative nature. Pert calls the peptides the second component of the molecules of emotion. She offers an analogy:
“If the cell is the engine that drives all life, then the receptors are the buttons on the control panel of that engine, and a specific peptide is the finger that pushes that button and gets things started.”
Pert then asked the logical question: If we all have the opiate receptor present on the cells within our bodies, then must it not follow that our bodies have the ability to make our own endogenous version of morphine? Why else would these receptors already be present on our cells?
Within three years she was proved correct when the natural opiate substance manufactured within the body was discovered and eventually became known as an “endorphin,” a shortened version of “endogenous morphine.” The implications in this discovery are profound and suggest that we may in fact have a “natural pharmacopeia” potential already present within us. Perhaps someday we will all be capable of manufacturing our own natural biochemicals at will – in effect orchestrating our own healing. According to Pert, this concept is not as far-fetched as it sounds and perhaps not so far off either.
There are those who would say this is already with us in cases of spontaneous remission, spiritual healing and other ‘miraculous’ events.
Implications for disease and healing: the power of unhealed feelings
Emotions are real – they exist in time and space and are located throughout our minds and bodies. If we accept the concept that peptides and their receptors are the actual biochemicals of emotion, then their presence in the body’s nervous system and nerve cells shows us that the body can be thought of as the unconscious or subconscious mind. Pert explains further:
“As investigations continue, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the role of peptides is not limited to eliciting simple and singular actions from individual cells and organs systems. Rather, peptides serve to weave the body’s organs and systems into a single web that reacts to both internal and external environmental changes with complex, subtly orchestrated responses. Peptides are the sheet music containing the notes, phrases and rhythms that allow the orchestra – your body – to play as an integrated entity. And the music that results is the tone or feeling that you experience subjectively as your emotions.”
Can the kinds and numbers of emotion-linked peptides at receptor sites on our cells influence whether we will stay well or get sick? Pert suggests that this is indeed the case and offers the example of viral illness:
“Viruses use these same receptors to enter into a cell, and depending on how much of the . . . natural peptide for that receptor is around, the virus will have an easier or harder time getting into the cell. So our emotional state will affect whether we’ll get sick from the same loading dose of a virus.”
This would also explain why some people get much sicker than others from an identical exposure to a virus. Pert suggests that an elevated mood of happiness, positive expectation or hope might therefore offer some protection against a virus.
Pert had a particular interest in cancer and wondered about the emotional and psychological dimension in terms of its evolution within the body. As a result of her research she concluded that any treatment regimen needed to pay specific attention to the mind as part of any healing strategy.
“We are all aware of the bias built into the Western idea that the mind is totally in the head, a function of the brain. But your body is not there just to carry around your head. I believe the research findings… indicate that we need to start thinking about how the mind manifests itself in various parts of the body and, beyond that, how we can bring that process into consciousness…the neuropeptides and their receptors are the substrates of the emotions, and they are in constant communication with the immune system, the mechanism through which health and disease are created.”
“Think of (stress-related disease) in terms of an information overload, a situation in which the mind-body network is so taxed by unprocessed sensory input in the form of suppressed trauma or undigested emotions that it has become bogged down and cannot flow freely, sometimes even working against itself, at cross-purposes.”
Your brain may not be in charge
In a July 2004 interview with New Dimensions Radio, Pert and her husband and research partner, immunologist Michael Ruff, discussed the highly complex psychosomatic communication networks of the information molecules we are all made of. They explain that we are not “brain centric” at all and that a state of mind is in actuality a state of consciousness in the body as well. The origins of illness really are within us.
Science and medicine have long been convinced that thoughts and emotions originate in the brain. In an interesting twist, Pert and Ruff disagree and suggest that “thoughts and emotions bubble up from the body to the brain, where we can process and verbalise them according to our expectations, beliefs and other filters – some get through and others don’t.” And then, Pert says, the frontal cortex of the brain creates stories and assigns meaning around those thoughts and emotions that do get through.
Our research an experience at Reach tells that this is actually a dual carriageway. There is not a one-sided conversation taking place, as we illustrate in The Four Aspects of the Mind.
Our immune systems can learn and respond
Pert tell us that neuroscience has now proved that immune cells can be conditioned to respond to stimuli, much like Pavlov’s dogs were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell. Psychologist Robert Ader, at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, gave laboratory rats an immune-suppressing drug flavoured with sweet-tasting saccharin. Eventually the rats became so conditioned to the effects that giving them only the saccharin and no drug at all caused their immune systems to become depressed – at the unconscious and autonomic level. Pert comments:
“We know that the immune system, like the central nervous system, has memory and the capacity to learn. Thus, it could be said that intelligence is located not only in the brain but in cells that are distributed throughout the body, and that the traditional separation of mental processes, including emotions, from the body is no longer valid.”
Later, in pivotal studies at the Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, scientist Howard Hall proved that the immune system could also be conditioned consciously using self-regulatory practices such as self-hypnosis, biofeedback, guided imagery, relaxation and autogenic training. Using several control groups, Hall demonstrated that with conscious preparation, through using one of the types of practices noted above, individuals could consciously control the stickiness of their white blood cells, as measured by both blood and saliva tests. Pert then asks the obvious question: “If the immune system can be altered by conscious intervention, what does this mean for the treatment of major diseases such as cancer?”
Can suppressing anger or other emotions contribute to the development of cancer? – a theory proposed by Dr. Lydia Temoshok. Since expressing emotions contributes to a free flowing network of peptides and cellular communication in the body, Dr. Pert says yes – absolutely.
“My research has shown me that when emotions are expressed….all systems are united and made whole. When emotions are repressed, denied, not allowed to be whatever they may be, our network pathways get blocked, stopping the flow of the vital feel-good unifying chemicals that run both our biology and our behaviour.”
A general theory of cancer suggests that we all have errant or mutated cancer cells created in our bodies every day, yet only some individuals will go on to develop the disease. Normally our immune systems destroy these errant cells, yet in individuals whose immune systems are severely compromised, this mechanism fails. If the immune system is influenced by the “molecules of emotion” and the peptide/receptor system in the body, then what happens if the free flow of peptides is interrupted on a continual basis by the repressed emotions of a lifetime? Pert says it’s not too hard to figure out what might happen in such a case:
“I believe all emotions are healthy, because emotions are what unite the mind and the body. Anger, fear, sadness, the so-called negative emotions, are as healthy (need to be expressed) as peace, courage and joy. To repress these emotions and not let them flow freely is to set up a dis-integrity in the system, causing it to act at cross-purposes rather than as a unified whole. The stress this creates, which takes the form of blockages and insufficient flow of peptide signals to maintain function at the cellular level, is what sets up the weakened conditions that can lead to disease.”
“All honest emotions are positive emotions. Health is not just a matter of thinking ‘happy thoughts.’ Sometimes the biggest impetus to healing can come from jump-starting the immune system with a burst of long-repressed anger. How and where it’s expressed is up to you – in a room by yourself, in a group therapy situation where the group dynamic can often facilitate the expression of long-buried feelings, or in a spontaneous exchange with a family member or friend. The key is to express it (appropriately) and then let it go, so that it doesn’t fester, or build, or escalate out of control.”
Hopefully at this point you have come to see the intimate conversation that is taking place between brain, body and mind. At all times this is a two-way conversation where thoughts, feelings and emotions created in the mind set off a series of biochemical reactions. These in turn create either a state of wellness or disease.
The opposite is also true – the body, wherever there is a lack of coherence, can send its disturbances via countless pathways to the brain and the mind, unsettling us and disturbing our equilibrium.
We are not innocent bystanders in this relationship. In fact, we can become skilled facilitators within this conversation. What this means is maintaining a level of integrity throughout the system. What does that look like?
In practice we need to be honest with ourselves about our feelings and emotions and find positive ways to resolve and heal them. We also need to give the body the necessary nutrients and resources it needs to ensure its full participation in that conversation. Just as the mind needs to be fed with positive activities and pastimes, which are its nutrients, the body must also get the necessary vitamins, amino acids, minerals and fats to complete its innumerable tasks.
It’s important to add, seeking resolution for those things harboured within the deep recesses of our minds, is a vital part of being truly liberated. Finding a safe space in which to express these feelings with someone and/or engaging in introspective activities are arguably the best ways of doing this.
PNI is therefore encouraging us to not simply look for our solutions in modern medicine or even alternative medicine. These are valuable factors in a much bigger story – because without changing our inner landscape and the environments in which we operate, not much else will change as we inadvertently become obstacles to our own healing.
To explore this topic further, take a look at the excellent work of Professor Steptoe, Bruce Lipton, Dr. Kelly Turner and the field of epigenetics, which could be described as a discipline, albeit exploring different avenues, which is very much moving in the same direction as PNI, that is, healing needs to have a systemic philosophy and practice if we are to treat all the known and unknown causal factors.
Finally, the more you can weave kindness and compassion into your daily existence the more your system works in harmony with the wider ecosystem, meaning you become a positive contributor to the world.