By Antony Chatham, M.Phil., MSW, LCSW
We are constantly protected from invaders like bacteria, virus, fungi, and toxins, by our immune system. But can our thoughts and emotions affect our immune warriors? Yes.
A group of Harvard University scientists, for example, found that in healthy people, simply recalling an angry experience from their past caused a six-hour dip in levels of the antibody immunoglobulin A (IgA) which is the first line of defense against infection.
Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), over the last 40 years, has already established that our thoughts affect our immune system. PNI researchers study how our emotions and thoughts impact our brain, hormones, and nervous system and also our immune system’s ability to protect us. In addition, these studies have pointed out that changes in the immune and endocrine systems create changes in our nervous system which lead to changes in our emotions. The study of the connections between the mind and the neural, immune, and endocrine (hormonal) systems is the core of the discipline of psychoneuroimmunology. The basic premise of this approach is the concept that the mind and body are inseparable. It follows that stress affects the body’s ability to resist disease. The brain influences all sorts of physiological processes once thought not to be centrally regulated. The researchers in the field found that there are effects of psychological factors on many diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and inflammatory bowel disease.
One of the new findings in the field, as reported by Maier, S., professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, is that what we call sickness is an orchestrated process designed by the immune system to produce energy for fighting infection and to preserve energy through behavior changes. Knowing that signals from the brain--in particular the hypothalamus--trigger these sickness responses, Maier and his colleagues set out to tear apart the molecular machinery at work. The first step was to figure out how the brain knows there is an infection in the first place.
Affective Immunology: is a relatively new interdisciplinary area of research dedicated to the study of the link between emotions, affects, and immunology. A number of studies have shown that both an imbalanced or improved emotional state can significantly influence the way our immune system works. D’Acquisto, F., University of Roehampton, London, finds a parallel between emotions and immune system - emotions and immune responses are the ways in which a person responds to the environment: they mirror each other, and they are dynamic and continuously changing. Further research, the author noticed, that living in a mentally and physically stimulating environment has a beneficial effect on the immune response.
There are some current researchers, like Klæbo Reitan, of the University of Norway, who study the connection between psychoses and the immune system. “We know that people with mental disorders are more susceptible than the general population to various inflammations in the body and to immune system disorders. This indicates that an interaction exists.” says Klæbo Reitan.
Autoimmune Diseases are the consequences of the inability of the immune system to distinguish the self from the non-self. The function of the immune system is to protect the host from a universe of pathogenic microbes, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, cancer cells, allergens, and so on. The immune system also helps the host eliminate toxic or allergenic substances that enter through mucosal surfaces. The key role of the immune system’s ability to mobilize a response to an invading pathogen, toxin, or allergen, D’Aquisto mentions, is in its ability to distinguish self from non-self. The host uses both innate and adaptive mechanisms to detect and eliminate pathogenic microbes, and both of these mechanisms include self, nonself discrimination. Autoimmune diseases are caused by the inability of our immune system to do this.
Chronic stress can cause autoimmune problems: Many studies have shown that the experience of chronic stress can do this to the system. L. Stajanovich (Belgrade University), for example, explains that even though nearly 50% of autoimmune diseases may be caused by genetic, environmental, hormonal, and immunological influences, the other 50% of autoimmune disorders are attributed to physical and psychological stress.
Moreover, many retrospective studies, she adds, found that a high proportion (up to 80%) of patients reported uncommon emotional stress before their disease onset.
Long term stress is also shown to increase susceptibility to some cancers indicating that the immune system failed: In a study, a Stanford University researcher, Dhabhar, F., has shown that long-term stress suppresses or dysregulates innate and adaptive immune responses by altering the Type 1-Type 2 cytokine balance, inducing low-grade chronic inflammation, and suppressing numbers, trafficking, and function of immunoprotective cells. Chronic stress may also increase susceptibility to some types of cancer by suppressing Type 1 cytokines and protective T-cells and increasing regulatory/suppressor T-cell function.
Depression can cause autoimmune problems: Christopher Pryce (University of Zurich) noticed that up to 50% of patients with autoimmune diseases show an impairment of health-related quality of life and exhibit depression-like symptoms. The immune system not only leads to inflammation in affected organs, but also mediates behavior abnormalities including fatigue and depression-like symptoms.
A Gut Feeling: Microbiome-brain-immune interactions modulate social and affective behaviors: Sylvia, K. and Demas, G. of Indiana University, have shown that social and affective behaviors of people are affected when the microbiome-brain-immune interactions are compromised. Recent work, according to them, suggests that the gut microbiome may also play a critical role in modulating behavior neurotransmitters and cytokines are more impaired in mentally challenged people than in the general population.
Chronic stress acts as a trigger for anxiety and depression by initiating changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the immune system. Both experimental and clinical evidence shows that a rise in the concentrations of pro-inflammatory cytokines and glucocorticoids, as occurs in chronically stressful situations and in depression, contribute to the behavioral changes associated with depression.
A Penn State University study (2018) showed that negative moods - such as sadness and anger - are associated with higher levels of inflammation and may be a signal of poor health.
Inflammation is part of the body’s immune response to such things as infections, wounds, and damage to tissues. Chronic inflammation can contribute to numerous diseases and conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Inflammation is an indicator of the connection of certain emotions to the immune system.
Researchers from Emory and Harvard Universities have shown that there is a strong correlation between inflammation in the body and certain affective disorders. Heightened concentrations of inflammatory signals, including cytokines and C-reactive protein, have been described in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder (PD), and phobias (agoraphobia, social phobia, etc.).
Being heard could improve immunity: A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine reported that HIV patients who wrote about their worries for 30 minutes a day, four days in a row experienced a drop in their viral load and a rise in infection-fighting T-cells. Another study, in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, found that breast cancer patients who talked about their feelings regarding cancer had to schedule fewer doctors’ visits for cancer-related problems.
Positive Psychology focuses on strengths and positive characteristics instead of on psycho-pathology and what’s not working in people’s lives. Along with this approach there is a body of both research and clinical development to enhance your ability to cultivate the skills for creating positive emotional states and greater capability to enjoy life. “When it comes to our health,” says Seligman, “there are essentially four things under our control: the decision not to smoke, a commitment to exercise, the quality of our diet, and our level of optimism. And optimism is at least as beneficial as the others.” Scientists don’t yet fully understand the biological mechanisms at work, but they know that negative feelings like stress, sadness, and worry cause a spike in the hormone cortisol, which in turn suppresses the immune system.
We know tai chi has all sorts of benefits, and here’s one more: In research conducted at UCLA, 61 older adults took tai chi classes three times a week, while 61 others attended health education classes. At the end of four months, both groups received a dose of the shingles vaccine—and the tai chi group achieved twice the level of immunity. “It’s likely the meditation component that is causing the effect,” says study author Irwin, M., he adds, “Which means it’s possible other forms of meditative exercise, like yoga, would lead to a similar boost.”
Sheldon Cohen, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University found in a study that subjects who had the least variety of social relationships were 4.2 times more likely to catch a cold than those with strong social ties. In another of Cohen’s studies, he assessed 193 subjects to determine their level of positive emotions (including happiness, calmness, and liveliness). Again, he exposed participants to a virus—and found that people who scored low on positive emotions were three times as likely to succumb to the bug. What’s intriguing about this phenomenon, says Lara M. Stepleman, an assistant professor of psychiatry and health behavior at the Medical College of Georgia, is that “we all have the ability to choose an optimistic mind-set. And with practice, we can get better at it.”
It is possible to boost our immune function through mindfulness meditation: a randomized, controlled study on the effects on brain and immune function of an 8-week clinical training program in mindfulness meditation applied in a work environment with healthy employees conducted by researchers in University of Wisconsin (and J Kabat-Zinn) showed: significant increases in left-sided anterior activation, a pattern previously associated with positive affect, in the meditators compared with the non- meditators. They also found significant increases in antibody titers to influenza vaccine among subjects in the meditation compared with those in the wait-list control group; and the magnitude of increase in left-sided activation predicted the magnitude of antibody titer rise to the vaccine.
Studies in the field of affective immunology suggests that adopting a healthier diet, developing a stable emotional intelligence, improving one’s socioeconomic conditions, and ceasing unhealthy habits such as drinking or smoking, have all been reported to be beneficial for both the emotional and immunological responses. The Life Transformation Program at Hippocrates Institute seems to integrate all these suggestions. Positive energy can create a stronger immune system; optimism pays!