A general recognition that a relationship exists between mind and body is at least as old as the biblical Old Testament writings. In the book of Proverbs, for example, one reads, "A cheerful heart is good medicine,/ but a crushed spirit dries up the bones" (Proverbs 17:22). Hippocrates (460-377 b.c.e.), generally considered the "father of medicine," sought to understand how the body could heal itself and what factors could slow or prevent this process. He clearly perceived a relationship between physical health and what is now termed "stress," though his understanding was shallow.
Several physiologists of the nineteenth century made contributions; however, it was not until the twentieth century that the classic studies of American physiologist Walter B. Cannon proved the link scientifically. Cannon and his student Phillip Bard began their analysis of stress and physiological arousal to disprove the idea espoused by others, that emotion follows physiological arousal.
Cannon found a variety of stressors that led to the release of the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline (or, properly now, epinephrine and norepinephrine). Heat, cold, oxygen deprivation, and fright all led to hor monal changes as well as a number of additional physiological adaptations. Cannon was excited about this discovery and impressed with the body's remarkable ability to react to stressors. All these changes were aimed at preparing the body for what Cannon termed the "fight-or-flight" response. It was Selye's task to build on Cannon's work. His description of the reaction subsequently termed the general adaptation syndrome first appeared in a scientific journal in 1936. As knowledge of the stress concept began to spread, interest by the public as well as the research community increased.
Literally tens of thousands of stress research studies conducted throughout the world were completed during the last half of the twentieth century. Of particular importance was the discovery by three American scientists that the brain produces morphinelike antistress substances. The discovery of these substances, named endorphins, won a 1977 Nobel Prize for the scientists involved and opened a whole new area of research.
Research has shown that the brain itself produces neuropeptides, or brain message transmitters, which may also be produced by macrophages— white blood cells that attack viruses and bacteria. Because some forms of stress-reduction, such as relaxation, also seem to result in production of neuropeptides, if the brain could be caused to produce more of these substances, the immune system could be strengthened. The hope remains that someday an endorphin-type drug could be used to counter some of the unhealthy effects of stress, ensuring better health and longer lives. Better health and longer lives are available even today, however, for all people who are willing to make lifestyle changes based on current knowledge.
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