Joan Borysenko on Mind-Body Medicine


Plenary Speech at 2013 EMDRIA Conference in Austin, TX

Article by Dana Terrell, LCSW, EAC

Joan.BorysenkoJoan Borysenko, Ph.D. (originally a cancer cell biologist and psychologist and now leader of the Mind-Body Center in Boulder, Colorado) opened the EMDRIA Conference with the first plenary presentation. A link to her website is at the close of this article.

She shared that Mind-Body Medicine was born on Anzio Beach during WW II when a compassionate RN ran out of morphine.  The nurse instead gave a shot of saline when morphine was requested.  She was gratified to see that the pain was relieved due to expectation of relief.  We know of this as the “placebo effect”.  Joan highlighted the positive things that can be learned when we look with more appreciation at mind-body medicine.  In fact, Dr. Borysenko stated that the best predictor of physical health is mental health.  Thus, is it important to keep in mind all the things that don’t need healing and do work, and give thanks for that. (Gratitude promotes mental health.)

Have you ever noticed that if we stub our toe, all we notice is the pain in our toe while all the rest of us is doing quite well!

The Importance of Relationship in Healing

The second slide in her presentation addressed the importance of relationship in healing.  In fact she said, “It’s all about relationship.”  Having a dog or a pet promotes health.  After a heart attack, the risk of death is 5% if you don’t have a dog.  If you have a dog, risk drops to 1%.  She consciously turns to her husband (or dog) to help when she is stressed, as she knows it releases oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins, helping the body to relax, the mind to become more spacious.  The same thing happens in psychotherapy when a client comes into the office of the trusted therapist.

Dr. Borysenko quoted the ACES Study, which demonstrated the effect of negative childhood experiences on health in adulthood.  With an ACES score of 4, the chance of COPD is increased 390%, the risk of depression is increased 500% and the risk of a suicide attempt is increased 1220% over a person with an ACES score of 0.

For articles giving more info about the ACES Study click here

To find your ACES Score, link here  

A key question is:  What can be done to promote the healing of people with such experiences?  Joan began to answer that question soon.

But first, she explained a little about the new field of Epigenetics, and the study of the telomeres, which are the ends of genes.  She describes them like the end of shoelaces, which keep the lace from unraveling.  Once the telomeres get too short, they can’t divide anymore.  Growth cannot happen.  The BEST PROTECTION?  Exercise.

She quoted Elizabeth Blackburn at UCSF: “the shortening of telomeres [which are] necessary for cell division and renewal is associated with an increase in cancer, depression, pulmonary fibrosis, dementia, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis.”

Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is a new field, which Joan said has the most elegant studies with humans.  She gave some results from PNI research at Ohio State Medical School by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD and Ronald Glaser, PhD.  The effects of stress they noted:

Delays wound healing

Impairs response to vaccines

Impairs ability to control latent herpes viruses

Escalates proinflammatory cytokines

Alzheimer’s caregivers have shortened telomeres

A bad marriage is particularly dangerous to women’s immune system (men appear to endure the stress differently)

How to protect?  Address and resolve stress.  If you haven’t been able to do so on your own or with the support of friends and loved ones, get professional help.  As Joan said, mental health is the best predictor of physical health.

Stress, Depression and BDNF

BDNF is Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, a substance that helps the brain manage stress.  When we experience chronic stress, this can trigger many psychiatric disorders, including depression, via dysregulation of the HPA axis in the brain (Hypothalamic-pituitary axis).  More and more research is showing that stress causing an inflammation response, rather than brain chemistry, is the chief causative factor in depression.

For more info about this,

link to article about depression

How to protect our HPA Axis in the brain?  BDNF can regulate it.  Folate helps you make more BDNF.  Folate is found in fresh greens, such as spinach, kale, chard, mustard greens, and dark leafy greens for salad.  Dr. Borysenko stated she believes that EMDR would also help increase BDNF. She recommends researching this possibility.

She added this list of dietary choices that help BDNF:

Mediterranean diet rich in nuts, vegetables, fish, colored fruits

Curcumin (found in turmeric)

Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA)

Walnuts and avocados

Low carb diet

Coffee (many will be happy to hear this!)

Fasting and calorie restriction

Choices that will decrease our necessary BDNF:

Diets high in saturated fat

Refined carbohydrates (sugar, flour, etc.)

A sedentary lifestyle

“We Have an Epidemic of Depression”

Dr. Borysenko wrote:  “The Standard American Diet (SAD) and plugged-in lifestyle creates depression. And although we may network electronically, social support is critical for both immunity and neuronal health.   We have an epidemic of depression.  Add ACES to that and we have a perfect storm.”  Social support is more powerful, face-to-face than through technology.  Below are the benefits of social support:

Boosted immune system

More BDNF in the brain to regulate the HPA

Neural plasticity (brain flexibility of thought, feelings, behavior)

“Neglect and Loneliness are the worst,” Joan said.  Thus, we need each other and we need help to regulate each other’s nervous system.  Without this in childhood, the brain doesn’t develop fully then.  Thus, it is important to provide it in adulthood (the brain can still grow and develop).  It is never too late to grow a better brain, or a better support system.  Think of these like you think of a garden.  It needs seeds, good soil, amendments when the soil isn’t good, water and sun.  Support systems need the same things.

Dr. Borysenko went on to discuss Epigenetics, which is a large and fascinating topic  by itself.  That will be shared in a future article.

Summing Up — Ways to protect health:

1.  Exercise

2.  Address and resolve stress (whether from past or present)

3.  Seek psychotherapy (I recommend EMDR – Joan thinks it may increase BDNF)

4.  Eat fresh greens, such as spinach, kale, chard, mustard greens, and dark leafy greens for salad.  Also add the other recommended dietary choices to your life.

5.  Improve your support system and your access to face-to-face contact with your supporters.

For more about Joan Borysenko, PhD link to her website here.

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©2013 Dana Terrell, LCSW, EAC