Sunday, March 17, 2013

Part 1: Mind Games

Can I just say I hate needles? Still, one of the simplest ways to serve other people is to give blood or platelets.

I started giving blood regularly when I was eighteen, just barely starting college. Years later I learned that I could give platelets and watch a movie while donating. Fun! Then one day, I went to give blood and the woman asking all the questions asked me if I'd been feeling weak.

No. I had a lot of energy, felt completely fine, but she said my iron count was so low that if it went down any more they'd send me to the emergency room.

Wow. Um... So I walked away (deferred for the first time) and halfway back to class I suddenly felt weak and tired. I sat down on a bench and slept for three hours, missed several classes. Until that moment, I had no idea that being low on iron might be any kind of problem. She said I should feel weak--I started feeling weak. She said I should be tired--I started feeling tired.

Years later I was giving platelets and one of the phlebotomists (which sounds like something that grows in a diseased swamp) told me about a citrate reaction--she becomes short of breath, her fingers and toes go numb and start to cramp...Can you see the punchline? Half an hour later, boom, I was having the identical reaction. It had never occurred to me previously that a reaction to donating platelets was possible. I think it stems from my dislike of needles....and the brain's desire to give me what it thinks I want.

The role of the brain in our health is interesting, and I think it has far more to say on this subject than most of us want to admit.

1 The Brain is lazy. If there's a way to get out of doing something, it will take that path
2 The Brain is in control. Not only in control of the autonomics but also pain impulses, the use of nutrients and many other processes
3 The Brain is not an autonomous organ. If you tell it what to do, it will try to obey
4 The Brain will try to give you what it thinks you want or need

When I was going to college I always got sick over spring break, without fail. For some reason I never got sick during the school year. Always on the breaks. Was this because the germs were only present during the two weeks prior to the breaks? Somehow I don't think so. Was it because my immunity slowly ground down during the school year? Maybe, but that doesn't account for the fact that I was always healthy again by the time classes started.

The fact is, I knew I didn't have time to be sick. I had classes to be to, tests to take. I couldn't be down for any length of time. So if I started to get a sniffle, I told my brain to stop it and forged on.

Did it work? Is illness all psychosomatic? If we knew how, could we stop illness, aging, diabetes, cancer?

I think to some extent this may be exactly the case. The problem is, where do we draw the line?

Next week I will discuss "The Brain: Your Best Frenemy"

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