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Psychosomatic illness

General characteristics

General characteristics

Psychosomatic disorders describe health conditions in the body that are strongly influenced by the mind and emotions or disorders of the mind and emotions that are caused by physical problems. The word comes form the Greek for 'mind' or 'soul' (psyche) and 'body' (soma). The fact that the conditions are created by the mind does not make them any less 'real' for the sufferer.

The impact of the mind and the emotions on overall health has been postulated for centuries but is more recently gaining increased credibility and becoming less of an esoteric subject as more and more professionals recognise that most (if not all) disease states have a psychosomatic component. The exact mechanisms for the mind and emotions causing or exacerbating physical disease is unknown but hormonal, immune and nervous responses to stress and anxiety are thought to play a major role. Many areas of the body are profoundly sensitive to the effects of the mind and emotions such as the hypothalamus, the thyroid and parathyroid glands, the adrenal glands, the pancreas, the heart and respiratory rate, the skin, the muscles and so on. These types of physical responses to the effects of the mind and emotions are also responsible for the sometimes profound healing actions of the placebo effect, further enhancing the idea that the mind has a powerful effect over the body.

The following types of disorders are thought to have psychological factors involved in the disease process: hypochondriasis (when a person is convinced they have a serious disease when they don't), body image problems, pain disorders (with no discernible physical cause), depression, anxiety disorders, digestive disorders such as IBS and stomach ulcers, high blood pressure and heart attacks, conditions such as ME, MS and chronic fatigue syndrome, phobias, some food allergies/ sensitivities, sexual dysfunction, respiratory conditions and bed wetting for example. Obviously, there can be definite and observable physical reasons for these types of conditions and not all heart attacks will be caused by stress or the emotions. For example, stomach ulcers can be caused by the presence of a certain bacteria - H. pylori - but not all people with this bacteria in their stomach will develop an ulcer or other symptoms of any kind. What makes one person develop a stomach ulcer whilst 4 others (who have the same bacteria present) never develop an ulcer? Genetics, nutrition, lifestyle, traumatic events and the like will all have an impact but perhaps the biggest factor in illness is the personality and mind of the individual.

Healing objectives need to focus on supplying the basics of good health such as good nutrition and regular exercise with an emphasis on reducing stress and anxiety (and their physical effects), establishing and nurturing a positive and optimistic state of mind and providing encouragement to engage more fully with the mind/body connection. If you can worry yourself ill then it makes perfect sense that you can hope and smile yourself better again.


Diet and lifestyle

Diet and lifestyle

Many disorders involving the physical effects of the mind and emotions can benefit from correcting nutritional deficiencies. Increasing the levels of calcium and magnesium may improve many conditions involving panic attacks, phobias and similar problems. Good food sources include dark green leaves, fresh carrots, sesame seeds and tahini, raw live yoghurt, whole grains, seeds and nuts, broccoli and other green vegetables and bananas.

B vitamins, B 12 in particular, are also vital for healthy nervous functioning and for combating the effects of stress, low levels can often be found in mental illness. Good B12 sources include sardines (very high levels), salmon, seaweeds, yeast and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, tempeh and miso. Dark green leaves and vegetables as well as legumes contain other B vitamins.

Avoid sugary, processed junk foods and refined carbohydrates as these will rob the body of health generally and can lead to nutritional deficiencies and disease states.


Useful herbs

Useful herbs

The adaptogenic herbs can help to ease the effects that chronic or severe stress has on the health of the body and mind. Herbs such as reishi (and other medicinal mushrooms), siberian ginseng, astragalus, schizandra berries, pau d'arco, rhodiola and ashwagandha can all be used either singly or a few in combination to help restore vitality several months. See individual entries for exact doses and uses.

Siberian ginseng (eleuthrococcus) is particularly useful for restoring function and vitality to the adrenal glands, the organs that can become depleted in chronic or acute stress situations. Take a teaspoon of tincture 3 times daily for several months or powder in capsules, up to 3  a day.

Herbs that are restorative and provide valuable nutrients to the nervous system include skullcap, vervain, st johns wort, chamomile, oatstraw, nettle and wood betony. Use in tincture or tea form (equal parts of each) and take a teaspoon of tincture 3 times daily or 3 cups of tea daily.


Natural healing

Natural healing

A healthy gut bacterial population will go a long way to easing many psychosomatic type conditions. Certain 'bad' bacteria in the bowel can give rise to excessive amounts of ammonia being produced which can cause havoc with the nervous system and brain. Taking probiotics can help to increase the population of healthy bacteria which can decrease the numbers of the disease causing bacteria.


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