Obvious Answers

In science, some answers are obvious. For example, last week two studies reported on the health effects of massage. In one, massage of the hands and feet helped console people who were grieving from the loss of a loved one to cancer. In the other, different types of massage were evaluated for their effect on lower back pain.

In the consolation study, the researchers noted that soft tissue massage stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter oxytocin from the pituitary gland. Among other actions, oxytocin affects the amygdala in reducing the fear response. In other words, it mellows you out. Biochemistry aside, there’s no doubt that the kind touch of another human being has a positive health effect—which in conventional science is often dismissed as a “fake” placebo effect.

In the back pain study, the researchers noted that massage for back pain works best when joined with physical activity, including stretching. The research, an evaluation of five clinical trials, was unable to identify a superior method, although all methods had a positive effect. The answers these researchers found are obvious for much the same reasons as the first study. However, this study points to an important blind spot in conventional science. They’re focused on the intervention and not on the specific, actual act of a specific practitioner treating a specific person at a specific time and place.

In other words, conventional science abstracts from the actual experience of bodywork. My own experience is that the benefit of bodywork depends as much on the practitioner, time, and place as it does on the technique. So it’s important to point out that conventional science produces general, abstract knowledge that, while important, tells only half the story. The other half is the specific, actual people and place where treatment is given.

Another aspect of this study that struck me is that healing is supported best by the combination of treatment and the actually use of the body doing what it’s adapted to do: move.

On that note, another research project with obvious answers comes from a study of how workplace stress affects health. Twenty-eight hundred employees at an upstate New York company were the subjects for the study. The company was in turmoil, clouded by economic uncertainty, many people were being laid off, and those who remained had the work of those fired piled onto their own. The study’s subjects were white-collar workers with comfortable incomes and good educations. Their working conditions were stressful and sedentary.

Observing that people adapted to this stressful workplace by consuming comfort foods and avoiding physical activity, the researchers asked whether “interventions” to improve employee diet and exercise would offset the effect of workplace stress as measured by weight gain and loss. So they split up the employees into two groups. One group received support in changing their diet and getting some exercise. The other group was left to their own devises.

No surprises here: the change in diet didn’t make a difference, but the change in physical activity did. There’s no surprise with the change in diet because the researchers encouraged conventional food pyramid fare that has it’s own version of comfort foods. I have no doubt that a hunter-gatherer diet would have made a difference.

There are two obvious answers in this research. The first is that human beings are exquisitely adapted for moving, not so well-adapted for sitting at a desk or on a couch. So when the body is allowed to do what it is so exquisitely adapted to do, it takes care of itself and heals the effects of stress.

I should note, however, that the human body is also exquisitely adapted to recover from stress. Comfort foods are well-known to lift spirits. And being sedentary—also known as resting—is a necessity for recovering from stress.

So that’s the first obvious answer: we’re adapted to move and we’re adapted to recover from stress, even if in a maladapted way. The second obvious answer in this research is that the problem is not just diet and exercise but the work environment. These people work in an environment in which they are being constantly hunted. “Constantly” is the operative word here. So far as their body is concerned, at work they’re in the cage with the predator all the time. In a stressful workplace, there’s no opportunity to recover.

The researchers recognize this. But like all conventional science, “interventions” are focused on individual actions. After all, neither the researchers nor the workers have the power to change the workplace.

It seems to me that an essential part of any healthcare system is building the capacity of people to control their workplace—no hunting the employees, nice hunter-gatherer meals and snacks, pleasant opportunities for physical activity, and regular massages.

Our book Too Much Medicine, Not Enough Health has more about stress, diet, physical activity, and the health effects of controlling your environment.