Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI): nutrition with a twist
Evolutionary biology is a great scientific platform on which to rely when it comes to choosing nutritional interventions because it offers a level of safety second to none. As humans, we can look to the evolution of mammals for a solid logic of how our bodies evolved through mechanisms of survival. These same mechanisms are the ones which determine our health today. Besides, health interventions based on the science of evolution strive to look at both physiology and behaviour and therefore look at the bigger picture putting body and mind together. PNI is the science that emerged from the need to relate human physiology to human behaviour in order to make better sense of chronic disease. Firstly, by relying on an evolutionary perspective, PNI ensures there is ample evidence confirming interventions. It focuses on hardwired chemical pathways that apply to all humans and explain the expression of our ancient genes in the mordern world. This means the therapeutic advice is based on thousands of years of evidence of how humans interact with their environment and respond to external stimuli. It leaves no room for experimentation with sudden trends or diets made popular by celebrities. It also means the emerging research bringing further clues to how disease develops is interpreted in en effort to make the links between what we learnt from the past and what is different in the present. Secondly, instead of taking diet out of context by over-emphasizing nutritional influences at the risk of an unrealistic approach, PNI keeps the therapy in perspective and considers many other aspects of a person’s life as integral to the process. This means every client is seen as individual within a wider context defined by their history, present circumstances, emotional influences, preferences and behaviour. The therapy becomes personal and interventions are finely tuned to individual needs. Thirdly, PNI looks at behaviour and personality in order to make possible the links between external influences and individual coping strategies for survival. This means a lot more than diet is taken in consideration and clinical discussions extend far beyond the realm of food. In this effort to physiologically connect mind and body for a better understanding of the person as a whole, PNI opens therapeutic possibilities to widen the positive outcomes and impact on multiple aspects of an individual’s life.
The Mind-Body Connection
Where is the mind? Is it in the brain? Or is it elsewhere? Whether it resides in multiple organs or in a particular place, the important point is that there is no separation and what goes on in the mind affects the body in the same way as what goes on in the body affects the mind.
Personality in Health and Disease
Have you ever wondered whether your patterns of behaviour might make you more susceptible to certain diseases? Could there be such a link? Looking at studies on animal behaviour, particularly mammals, we can learn a lot about the chemical drive behind many of our choices. From there, it is not so difficult to observe some patterns of behaviours, prompted by the surrounding circumstances and outside pressures, that can lead to emotional traps and even physical symptoms.
Today there is research on which we can rely in order to trust that ‘gut feeling’ which tells us there is more to our bodies than isolated physiological needs. In fact, everything is connected and as research progresses, we find more evidence of how these connections affect us systemically. Mental and emotional health is important for our physical wellbeing and you can’t have one without the other.
A Systems-Biology Approach
Instead of looking through a key-hole, we aim to zoom out and focus on the whole picture. The problem is not the thyroid, the heart, the pancreas, the intestines, the brain or the liver. The problem is systemic though symptoms may start to manifest through individual organs. You can look at single organs and try to tackle the symptoms in isolation but to understand the real underlying causes you must consider:
- What the body is trying to achieve with a change in organ function
- Why that change has become necessary (what kind of adaptation does it offer in return)
- What factors (external and internal ones) promote the conditions to trigger the changes in body function
- How can you manipulate the environmental input to alter the body’s response
- What are the available tools you currently have to tackle the problem
- How can you implement a plan of action simple to execute in practical terms
- What is the cost/benefit for you
This is what is called a ‘systems-biology approach’ and it should be translated into simple and yet effective strategies to apply in real everyday life. My job is to translate the science into lay terms with practical application value. The therapy should therefore be ‘ecological’ to you (i.e. it should make sense and fit with what you need to thrive and achieve optimum health within your own environment).
For all these reasons, I say you need more than a simple diet plan.