Germ Theory vs Psychoneuroimmunology
In the distant past we blamed evil spirits for our afflictions. In more recent times we discovered and blamed germs. As seen in Module B, from the successes of his vaccines through the later discovery of antibiotics, Pasteur's idea that germs cause disease appeared a convincing one. Yet it begs the obvious question: why doesn't everyone who is exposed to a germ get the disease?
A view addressing this obvious flaw in the germ theory was first proposed by Claude Bernard, a contemporary of Pasteur, who introduced the concept of homeostasis. He showed that the body is continually rebuilding and rebalancing itself, that what is happening in one part of our body is connected to what happens in another, and that our body, through lowering its resistance, has much more to do with our getting sick than do outside agents.
At any moment in time, our body, due to random accidents in the normal process of cell division, contains thousands of cancer cells. As part of its routine housekeeping, our immune system recognizes these as foreign and destroys them. When we expose ourselves to cigarette smoke, polluted air, radioactivity, or carcinogenic chemicals, the number of cancer cells produced in our body is increased, but this fact in itself does not cause cancer. Our immune system must fail to do its housekeeping before a tumor can grow. The same is true in the case of bacteria and viruses.
A rapidly growing field of mind-body medicine, known as psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), has proven that our psychological state and our physical health are intimately connected. Once thought to be independent of the brain, we now know that our immune system is influenced by our thoughts. Simply put, the fact is that our mental state affects our physical health.
Chronic distress, anxiety, or tension weakens the immune system,* leaving us more susceptible to arthritis, heart disease, kidney trouble, even cancer and AIDS. We all know from experience that the opposite is also true: our physical health affects our mental health.
Despite modern medicine's denial, the idea that disease is a manifestation of the psyche is not new. The knowledge that matter and energy are not separate forces but different forms of the same thing, was central to the healing practices of our ancestors, who until recently, were considered "superstitious," and ignorant. (continues)
* It is important to remember that the way we respond to stress is more important than the stress itself. Not everyone faced with losses or stressful changes gets ill.