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Dr. David Servan-Schreiber on Living Healthier

David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D., is the author of The Instinct to Heal: Curing Stress, Anxiety, and Depression Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy, originally a bestselling book in Europe that has been translated into 26 languages. The book describes the foundation of Servan-Schreiber’s work: natural treatment methods for depression, anxiety and stress. He’s a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and one of the original seven members of the United States board of Doctors Without Borders, he continues to train therapists and develop mental health programs for crisis victims. In this interview, Servan-Schreiber talks about the importance of dealing with stress

What’s your definition of living a healthier life?

Being healthy is when all the body’s biochemical reactions are functioning harmoniously. It’s not the individual organs functioning properly, but the balance of relationships between the different organs that matters most. If I were to name a single dimension of life that affects health the most, I’d say it’s relationships. Emotionally affective relationships have the greatest impact on our physiology. For example, people who have lost a spouse are at much higher risk of a heart attack, and elderly folks who live alone but have a pet are much more resistant to infection. Another kind of relationship important for good health involves getting in touch with the different parts of ourselves. For me, all this connectedness is like spirituality. It’s the same process; health is being in relation.

What would you advise someone during the first 30 days of living healthier?

Obviously, I’m emphasizing the importance of relationships. For some people, the easiest thing would be to start a relationship with the body, which might mean techniques such as yoga, meditation, exercise and nutrition. All of these are ways to get closer, more aware, more intimate with your body. For others, it’s relationships with others, a social connectedness. I don’t know if there’s a single answer for everyone.

Do you believe that people have an inner ability to heal?

In my book, The Instinct to Heal, I describe the key concept that we all have a natural, instinctive ability to return to balance. I’m fascinated with methods that help build on our mental mechanisms of healing that relate and accompany, rather than go against, the grain of what the body does naturally.

Your book also focuses on seven natural treatments for stress-related conditions that draw on the brain’s own healing powers. What are some of these treatments?

Cardiac coherence: It’s based on a 5,000-year-old tradition in ayurvedic medicine and yoga that balances the body’s systems by concentrating the attention on the breath. Bringing coherence to heart rhythms is similar, and is associated with resistance to stress, reduction of anxiety and prevention of panic attacks and depression. Not working on coherence or letting chaos rule at level of heart rhythms is connected to these psychological problems.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR: This is effective for treating the consequences of traumatic emotional experiences, from divorce to rape to incest. When something traumatic happens to us, it’s often locked in the nervous system in the form of a dysfunctional memory that’s activated anytime we think about anything remotely related to the initial trauma.

During sleep and dreams, in particular, the brain reorganizes whatever happened that day, and puts these new memories into context with everything else that has happened in our lives. While we dream, we move our eyes very quickly back and forth behind closed eyelids. A researcher discovered that a person with a locked traumatic memory who’s induced to do the same kind of eye movements while awake during a therapy session seems to trigger the memory digestion process, which allows for a rapid resolution of the traumatic memory. More than 16 studies now show this result, and the American Psychiatric Association recently published guidelines for the treatment of traumatic stress that acknowledge the effectiveness of EMDR. EMDR is exciting because a number of these studies show a resolution of traumatic symptoms in three sessions for roughly 80% to 90% of patients.

Dawn or sunrise simulation: helps people with depression, especially Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), during the winter months when daytime has less sunlight than other times of the year. The idea is based on a very old concept: For 200 million years, every life form on the planet transitioned from sleep to wakefulness with one single signal, the progressive appearance of light with the sunrise. This light was detected through closed eyelids and induced a progressive and smooth transition of all the biological rhythms so that body temperature started to rise progressively over about 45 minutes, cortisol secretion started, REM [rapid eye movement] sleep decreased and disappeared so that dreams are wrapped up before awakening, and so on. The point is that we wake up progressively and find ourselves awake without an abrupt signal, which changed about 200 years ago with the invention of the alarm clock.

Getting back to nutrition, do you believe the French diet is healthier?

Well, the strength of the French diet is that it doesn’t make you want to eat between meals so it’s more balanced in that sense. But the French diet is not as good as the Greek diet or the Korean diet or the Japanese diet. True, it’s not as bad as the American and the British diets. The French spend perhaps the largest proportion of their income on food, which means they buy more wholesome products and they eat more balanced meals. One of the most hurtful things that Americans did was to embark on this “low-fat” craze for so many years, because if you don’t have fat in your diet, then you’re hungry. You compensate by eating things that have no fat but sugar and carbohydrates, instead.

What are the main differences you see in medicine in the United States compared to medicine in Europe?

The greatest strength of the U.S. model, which is now becoming a standard in Europe, is “evidence-based medicine.” There has to be evidence to show what you’re doing. In Europe, however, there’s a tradition of openness to the idea of wholeness, to the integration of the emotional and physical aspects of a person and openness to other traditions that have not been part of American medicine. Americans are becoming much
more open, which they haven’t been for a very long time. The French, on the other hand, took to acupuncture more than anybody else; something like 5% of French physicians are qualified as acupuncturists. And the tradition of phytotherapy [herbal treatment] has always been strong in France and Germany.

Do you think alternative treatments will become more accepted in this country?

Yes, and what makes me optimistic is that physicians are interested, and physicians are good people in general. When they see something that’s working and has few side effects, they eventually come around and embrace it. It takes a long time; the FDA took 20 years to approve the use of lithium to treat bipolar disorders. It was not patentable, it was a natural product and it made no sense that a salt [lithium carbonate] would treat this condition. Same thing with EMDR, which has taken forever to incorporate into mainstream medicine. But it is happening.

For more information about Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, visit www.instincttoheal.org.

Posted: 12/28/07