“DNA is not our destiny. It doesn’t control our lives. Our bodies can respond to our environment or our relationship to life in a healthful way,” said Dr. Joan Borysenko in an interview I had with her at the Health Freedom Expo in Schaumburg.
Dr. Borysenko is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, and earned her doctorate in medical sciences from the Harvard Medical School, where she completed post-doctoral training in cancer cell biology. Her first faculty position was at the Tufts University College of Medicine in Boston.
But after the death of her father from cancer, she became more interested in “the person with the illness than in the disease itself,” and returned to Harvard Medical School to complete a second postdoctoral fellowship, this time in the new field of behavioral medicine.
Today she is the author and co-author of 14 books and numerous audio and video programs. She is also a lecturer and program speaker.
“We are learning that every cell has six feet of DNA — that would be a tangled mess except that it is wound around a protein called histone, like a spool. It can be wound looser or tighter — either silencing genes or allowing their expression — according in part to one’s emotions,” Joan explained.
Looking for how thought affects our bodies and health has directed her attention to recent research into epigenetics — the study of changes in gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence.
“At Harvard in the 1980s, I was growing cancer cells in tissue culture. I was looking at the effect of different fatty acids added to the tissue culture to see what it would do. Different fatty acids affected the way cells looked and behaved,” Borysenko recalled. “We didn’t talk about epigenetics back then. But here is the take-home point: Our bodies own 50 trillion cells, which are nourished by our intrinsic tissue culture medium, which is changed by every thought and emotion we have.
“If we are feeling peaceful, connected, hopeful, grateful or forgiving, we have a very different profile of hormones and neurotransmitters in our blood and lymph than if we are feeling angry, hostile or helpless.”
She says she’s always known that our belief system affects our biology.
“Now we can see how what you’re thinking is affecting what genes express,” Borysenko said.
She says one’s spirituality — “a commitment to a life of depth and compassion that connects each of us to a larger whole” — can be a very beneficial part of one’s life.
“In this time of global change and uncertainty, there’s a thirst for meaning and purpose — a dawning realization that happiness isn’t a commodity that can be bought with a gold card. Fulfillment and joy arise naturally from the capacity to be present to life as it’s unfolding and to listen for — and discern — the best possibilities in any situation, with informed, compassionate action,” Joan has written.
She shared with me her experience of how this spirituality helped her overcome obsessive compulsive disorder as a child.
When Joan was 10 she came down with a serious mental illness. It began after she watched a frightening movie with her mother about Africa, and started dreaming about headhunters and snakes. The dreams became more real than daily life, and she became psychotic and began to hallucinate. She turned to rituals to relieve the terror she felt.
“What I had was obsessive compulsive disorder,” she recalled. “The rituals grew in numbers as the months went by.”
“My parents took me to a psychiatrist in Boston, but back then, there was no treatment for this at all.”
Then a remarkable thing happened.
“After several months of this suffering, one day I sat down and prayed,” she said. “We were not a family that generally prayed. But I had a very extraordinary experience — the terror went away — and was replaced by an inexplicable sense of peace. This was the Biblical sense of peace — ‘that passes all understanding.’ I felt deeply connected to everything. I recognized the life-source itself was love.”
She said she had that elusive moment of clarity, too.
“I absolutely knew I could recover from this illness, and I knew how to do it — it all came to me,” she explained.
What came to her was this poem:
“Somewhere in the darkest night, there always shines a little light.
“This light up in the heavens shines to help our God watch over us.
“When a small child is born, the light her soul does adorn
“And so we must know, even though we cannot see
“That this light burns far into the night, to help our God watch over us.”
“I thought that, if every time I went to do a ritual, I could try repeating this poem instead,” she said. “And within three or four days, I got completely better, no more hallucinations or nightmares. All was well.”
Thinking further about Joan’s experience, if a child can discern this presence of the divine so clearly that it solves a debilitating mental illness, what might happen to each of us in our individual search for health, if these ideas are appreciated and applied to daily living?
Thomas (Tim) Mitchinson, of Naperville, is a self-syndicated columnist writing on the relationship between thought, spirituality and health, and trends in that field. He is also the media spokesman for Christian Science in Illinois.