By Debbonnaire Kovacs, Nov. 12, 2015 Dr. Lee Berk, MPH, DrPH, a specialist in preventive care and lifestyle health at Loma Linda, started getting interested in the health field in about sixth grade. It’s not that unusual to find a sixth grade boy interested in “being a doctor when he grows up,” but young Lee’s interest was different.
“I began reading—with great interest—a magazine I think was called Life and Health. I don’t know why I was so interested. It was put out by the Adventist church relevant to optimizing health or reducing the potential of getting sick. I found that fascinating! It generated a flavor of intrigue and interest. I would read and ask why?”
As he grew older, Berk’s favorite books became the Bible and Ministry of Healing. Both spoke of a strong link between mind and body, about laughter and faith and positive attitudes being not only good for a person’s health, but even able to heal if one did get sick. They both also said that clinging to negative emotions and beliefs made one sick. Berk was still asking why. He became convinced that, “We needed to do serious, scientific research to show the validity of this.”
He was surprised at the level of opposition he met in some factions of the Adventist community. It seemed strange to him that this denomination had such a strong “health message” but was almost entirely focused on what he called “classical medicine—the somatic model, the bio-chemical model, [in which] everything is somatically oriented.”
When Berk was 18, his family moved from Manitoba, Canada, to California (he credits the weather as the deciding factor). Because of differences in the education systems of Canada and the US, he still had to do some high school work here, but he was surprised and delighted to learn that he could take the remaining high school classes at night and begin junior college during the day.
Berk says, “There’s been a lot of wisdom along the road here, which makes me think there was somebody directing my direction” in life. He attended Valley College in San Bernardino. Later, however, still following his dream of being, not a doctor to cure sick people, but a doctor who keeps people from getting sick in the first place, Berk earned his MPH and then DrPH (Doctor of Public Health) in Preventive Medicine, a new degree offering at the time, at Loma Linda’s then-newly renamed and revamped School of Public Health.
In our conversation, Berk passionately cited, more than once, his desire to contribute to “health optimization, risk factor reduction, lifestyle health. How can we prevent you getting ill and reduce risk factors you currently have?”
Newly minted Dr. Berk took this passion in directions not always understood or appreciated by some in the church, though he was has been supported and encouraged by the college (now university). But even that support was sometimes strained, at least in the early days. When he proposed to do a study on the famous “merry heart doeth good” passage [“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones, Prov. 17:22] he hit a wall. Berk felt that if it was true at all, “there had to be physiological changes.” He believed he would find a scientifically verifiable connection between joyful laughter and health. Not all agreed with him.
But Berk persisted. He repeatedly said to me, “I don’t know why I seem to keep being called or pulled into this direction.” He added, “What I learned through my whole early career in academics was not intelligence, but persistence.” His persistence paid off when his proposal was approved around 1988 or 89. The next miracle occurred soon after.
“Somehow—I have no idea how—Norman Cousins heard about our preliminary study into the effects of laughter.” What happened next is a fascinating story in itself, but the end result was, Cousins wanted to help fund a serious experiment; to whom should he write a check, and for how much?
Berk (after “picking myself up off the floor!”) promised two things: they wouldn’t publish without proper scientific methodology, and they would publish what they found.
The team studied specific stress hormones: cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, to learn if these could be suppressed by something “so simple as watching a humorous video.” If they did find this was possible, their next step would be to “look at some aspects of the immune system very quickly.”
The studies were carefully constructed; in fact, Berk gave me far more details than I can use in this article! Here’s the heart of it: “We had students watch humorous videos, with IV angio-catheters in their arms so we could take blood at different times and check for stress hormones and so forth. It was very complex.”
Toward the end of this study, they were even featured on CBS 60 Minutes. Berk said he didn’t know how they heard about it, but he suspected Cousins.
The study was “very successful. We fell on the floor in disbelief!” Stress hormones were drastically reduced while laughing. They published a landmark paper on the subject.
Next, as promised, they began looking at the immune system. “Through the 1990s, we chipped away at that, presenting peer-reviewed abstracts and bits and pieces of our continuing research—the immune system could be modulated, changed in a beneficial direction, with mirthful laughter. In 2000/01 in the Journal of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, we compiled all our immune data and published. This was our second landmark paper.”
There was another miracle yet to come. Norman Cousins had been “chomping at the bit” to say that the natural killer cells, responsible for going after cancer and viral cells, were affected by laughter. Berk kept “reining him in,” saying, no, that could not yet be stated.
“The day we learned those killer cells were modulated by laughter—I called him that day.” Berk paused. “He died two days later.” There was a moment of silence on the phone line. Norman Cousins, whom Berk credits with the “paradigm shift” that made possible today’s understanding of the mind-body connection, lived long enough to see his beliefs validated.
The Seventh-day Adventist church has known about the mind-body connection since our beginnings. Berk is frustrated with the level of opposition his studies still receive at some levels in the church.
“Your faith has biology. Your belief system—go read that first page [in Ministry of Healing] on mind cure. I literally am holding in my left hand as I speak to you an original copy. My wife’s grandmother worked for Kellogg at Battle Creek Sanitarium; this was her book. The reality is, faith has biology. That should not be a surprising statement… You cannot have a thought that does not have biological, neurological, physical components.”
He began to read to me from Ellen White’s statements: “The relation that exists between the mind and the body is very intimate. When one is affected, the other sympathizes. The condition of the mind affects the health to a far greater degree than many realize. Many of the diseases from which men suffer are the result of mental depression. Grief, anxiety, discontent, remorse, guilt, distrust, all tend to break down the life forces and to invite decay and death.”
“I don’t walk around and hit everybody over head with this,” Berk said, “but…what she’s saying is that all of these can suppress the immune system, can regulate hormones. This is not mystical. This is the way we are made. This is saying, look at the connection here!” He read more.
Courage, hope, faith, sympathy, love, promote health and prolong life. A contented mind, a cheerful spirit, is health to the body and strength to the soul. “A merry [rejoicing] heart doeth good like a medicine.” Proverbs 17:22.
In the treatment of the sick the effect of mental influence should not be overlooked. Rightly used, this influence affords one of the most effective agencies for combating disease.
“I don’t know how much more one can say about mind/body connection,” said Dr. Berk. I could almost hear him shaking his head.
Ministry of Healing was published in September, 1905, and was the culmination of over 40 years of writing and speaking on the subject of health by White. Millennia before her, the Bible had said the same thing. Dr. Lee Berk, whose latest study is on the overwhelmingly positive effects of 70% dark chocolate on the brain, waits for the day when this church will reclaim the forefront of this field of preventive medicine that it once had.