• Cover Story

Dr. Esther Sternberg on "The Science of Healing"

JUNE 2012: FINDING THE BALANCE WITHIN

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent magazine
Photo by Steve Barrett

“There is a turning point in the course of healing when you go from the dark side to the light, when your interest in the world revives, and despair gives way to hope,” writes Dr. Esther Sternberg in “Healing Spaces,” the 2009 book that led her to create the PBS Special “The Science of Healing,” which airs this month.

Internationally recognized for her discoveries of the science of the mind-body interaction in illness and healing, Dr. Esther Sternberg has become a force in collaborative initiatives on mind-body-stress-wellness and environment inter-relationships.

Her books, Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being, and The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, are informative and scientifically based inspirations to doctors and laymen alike in dealing with the complexities and 21st century frontiers of stress, healing, and wellness.

Having studied, and experienced, the science of healing for decades, Dr. Sternberg has an intimate relationship with the art and science of what it means to journey from illness to wellness.

“As you lie in bed, you suddenly notice the dappled sunlight on the blinds and you no longer turn your head and shield your eyes,” she writes. “You become aware of birdsong outside the window and the soothing whir of the ventilation system down the hall. You no longer dread the effort needed to get up, but take your first cautious steps, like a child, to explore the new-found space around you. This is the point when the destructive forces of illness give way to healing. In every sense, it is a turning point—a turning of your mind’s awareness from a focus on your inner self to a focus on the outer world.”

We recently had the opportunity to talk with her about her books, her documentary, and her personal experience with healing.

Be Inkandescent: You were trained as a rheumatologist and are well-known for your ability to translate complex scientific subjects for lay audiences, and you have testified before Congress and advised the World Health Organization. How did you initially become interested in the field of healing?

Dr. Sternberg: It was a patient who first changed the course of my career. It was 1979, during the last months of my training as a rheumatologist, when he came in with an auto-immune inflammatory scarring illness. He had a severe case of epilepsy, and the neurosurgeons who were treating him were wondering if the medication they prescribed for the epilepsy was causing the inflammatory illness.

It was a dramatic case, for the patient couldn’t function with this incredibly severe form of epilepsy that he had. He was in tremendous pain and couldn’t move his arms and legs; he couldn’t even take a drink of water without having a seizure. And what was also interesting to me at the time was the realization that the drug being used to help him with the epilepsy, which was used to alter his brain chemistry, could have an unintended consequence on his immune system.

At the time, that was a shocking concept for my colleagues, that the brain could have something to do with the immune system and that the immune system could have something to do with emotional health. But for me, it was something that I had seen with my own eyes. It was then I decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my career studying how the brain and the immune system communicated. And, by changing something in the brain, how you could trigger an auto-immune disease, and a healing.

Be Inkandescent: And that question led you to do research on rats to study the part of the brain that controls the stress response, which is important in susceptibility to inflammatory diseases like arthritis.

Dr. Sternberg: Yes, that was in 1989 when I came to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). At that time, the notion that the brain and the immune system were connected, and that the brain might have something to do with auto-immune disease, was still not accepted by the academic medical community. But it has been fully accepted for thousands of years by the general public that stress could make you sick, that believing could make you well, that disease can affect your emotions, and that the social world had something to do with health.

In scientific terms, until the mid to late-1990s, we didn’t really have the tools to fully explain how the brain and the immune system talk to each other, how those communications are important in maintaining health—and how, when they are broken, disease results.

Be Inkandescent: You’ve been quoted as saying that you got into healing through the back door.

Dr. Sternberg: That’s true. I was very much grounded in the conventional scientific method, and almost serendipitously discovered that the brain’s stress response is important in auto-immune diseases like arthritis. When you discover that, and can prove it on a molecular, neurobiological, and hormonal basis in animals, then it’s possible to step back and consider what it is about the brain and emotions that can help us heal.

What is also interesting about my journey into this science is that because of my initial research, I ended up doing research with the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Mind-Body Interactions through the 1990s. There, I was fortunate to interact with other scientists from different fields of study—psychologists, psychophysiologists, and brain imagers—whom I wouldn’t have been likely to work with had I stayed in my own field of rheumatology. Scientists often work in silos, but now my thinking was broadened by working with others who looked at the healing process from different perspectives.

Be Inkandescent: You also have a firsthand experience with healing yourself from arthritis.

Dr. Sternberg: Yes, that’s right, and it was a fascinating turn of events. Here I was in the 1980s and 1990s doing this research, and in 1996 I went through a period of extreme stress in my own life when my mother was dying of breast cancer.

Don’t stop now! Click here for more of Dr. Sternberg’s advice, and her Healing Tips for Entrepreneurs.

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