This article is written for Evolving Wellness by Dr. Larry M. Berkelhammer, PhD.
A significant segment of the population lives with more than one chronic health challenge. The pharmaceutical industry makes drugs for almost every type of chronic condition. However, only a handful of these drugs, such as antibiotics, actually cure disease. Most of them simply control symptoms to varying degrees, and they are not without side-effects. In addition, until the generic form becomes available, the price is often beyond what people can afford. Because of a wide variation in human genotypes, every commercially made medicine has different effects on different people. Even within the same genotypes, commercially made drugs commonly interact with each other, further complicating the side-effects.
Endogenous pharmacy is the term used to describe drugs that are prescribed by the doctor within—the brain—and these are the most effective drugs produced in the world. Endogenously produced drugs are synthesized in the brain as well as in other organs. What makes these the most effective drugs?
- They are without side effects.
- If one is in perfect health, they are dispensed in exactly the right formula, dose, and schedule.
- They are designed for the unique genetics of each one of us.
- All of this occurs without any conscious awareness of the process.
- They are free.
To give you an example of just one category of endogenously produced drugs—catecholamines—our thoughts, beliefs, images, and attitudes directly affect our emotions, and our emotions directly affect neurotransmitter substances such as the catecholamines—norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine. Catecholamines help us respond appropriately to stress. For example, they help us increase heart rate, muscle contraction, cardiac output, raise blood pressure and glucose.
In the modern world, the greatest source of stress is from our own negative attributions that we assign to situations that are actually quite benign. For example, we could be sitting in a traffic jam and react physiologically as if our lives were in danger. This results in a catecholamine release that not only is of no useful purpose at that moment, it is deleterious to our health.
The biochemistry of the experience of hope, joy, and other pleasant emotions is correlated with a decrease in catecholamines. These are wonderful drugs when they are made at the right time, but dangerous drugs when they are produced when we don’t need them. This is true of all the other classes of endogenously produced drugs as well. Mental training allows us to greatly influence which endogenous drugs are produced. Each endogenously produced drug has very specific effects.
You might wonder if the drugs prescribed by the brain and produced in the body have fairly mild effects compared to those made by the pharmaceutical industry, but this is not the case. For example, endorphins are three times more powerful than their exogenous analogs—commercially made morphine and its derivatives. Endogenously produced serotonin is a more powerful anxiolytic and antidepressant than anything the pharmaceutical industry produces. Our endogenously produced pharmacopeia can produce profound results. The endogenous drug oxytocin causes us to bond with others, and the endogenous drug dopamine creates a feeling of well-being.
Unfortunately, there does not yet appear to be a single documented case of anyone who has developed the type of mastery that would enable him or her to consciously and intentionally synthesize the perfect endogenously produced drugs, at will, in the right dose and on the right schedule. However, we all can develop the ability to positively influence our endogenous pharmacies. All it takes is the cultivation of certain skills through mental training. There are many methods of mental training, such as neurofeedback and other forms of biofeedback, various forms of self-hypnosis and mental imagery, some forms of yoga and the internal martial arts. However, the most evidence-based method is mindfulness training.
The Role of Mindfulness Training
Based on the latest advances in psychology and psychophysiology research, the ancient practice of mindfulness training seems to be the single most effective form of mental training to cultivate the skills that can contribute to improved health. Although mindfulness practice clearly does not provide direct access to the endogenous pharmacy—nor is it intended to—there is increasing evidence that mindfulness practice is good for health in a more general way.
Mindfulness is a practice of simply training the mind to focus attention on our immediate experience, and to practice with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance. I recommend learning this practice by signing up for an MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) class. These 8-week classes are available in every large metropolitan area in the country and around the world. You can also learn by going to a Buddhist meditation center, such as Spirit Rock in Woodacre, California or the worldwide Vipassana Meditation Courses.
One of my mentors, physiological psychologist Dr. Jeanne Achterberg, described the connection between the mind and body this way: “No thought, no emotion, is without biochemical, electrochemical activity; and the activity leaves no cell untouched.” Her message has often served as a reminder to me that we need to pay attention to the chatter going on in our minds, because our lives and certainly our health may depend on it.
About the Author
Larry Berkelhammer, PhD, is a researcher and psychophysiologist who uses his blog, LarryBerkelhammer.com, to show how learning to live with conscious intention can maximize health and well-being.