The Emotional Immune System by Tarilee Cornish, Certified Nutritional Practitioner
Could stress and worry be holding you back from reaching your health goals? Adopting some enjoyable prescriptions for a healthier immune system may help you to synergize your immune system with your other healing efforts. Pleasure and relaxation may be just what the doctor will be ordering in the future. The volume of scientific evidence in Mind Body Medicine continues to expand and with it, our acceptance of the importance of emotional and mental states to our physical health
Our emotional and mental health are entwined with our physical health. In order to boost physical healing, we need to reduce the amount of stress, fear, and conflict and increase the amount of love, pleasure and laughter in our lives. Pursuing even the best of therapeutic supports in a life that is saturated with stress could be seen as analogous to eating wonderfully healthy foods but failing to drink.
Pleasure, love, social connection, harmony, and self regulation techniques like meditation, all fuel happiness and have been scientifically proven to have a powerful positive impact on our immune health and healing. However many of us don't prioritize these pleasant parts of our lives. In fact, a low sense of self worth may prevent some of us from seeking the very relaxing and happy activities that could relieve the physical ailments that amplify suffering. This is a difficult trap to escape from. The good news is that even if this is the case and at first we're not fully at ease with the pursuit of emotional happiness, we can just keep practicing it until it becomes comfortable.
Even a dutiful pursuit of happiness can have the desired effect eventually. When happiness seeking behaviour is repeated often enough it becomes a natural survival habit. Regardless of whether we "throw ourselves into it" fully, we can't help but feel an increase in positive feelings. These good feelings exponentially reinforce our drive to pursue more fun and they also enhance our self worth and encourage social behavior. Eventually the practice just becomes a natural part of who we are as happier, healthier people surrounded by a nourishing social environment.
The Chemistry of Emotions
Emotions trigger a cascade of biochemical changes in our bodies that affect the way our bodies function and how we feel. Our nervous and endocrine systems communicate bi directionally with our immune system in the "language" of hormones and neuropeptides. This means that our emotions can induce health or illness and, in turn our state of health can induce emotions. Armed with this information we can begin to understand answers to questions like:
Why do optimists live longer? How does happiness improve immune function: Why do stress and depression slow healing and the immune defense against cancer? Discoveries in the fascinating fields of applied psychophysiology, health psychology, biopsychiatry and psychoneuroimmunology have documented many of the biochemical intersections of the body and mind in terms of immune health. Here are some examples.
Natural killer blood cells (NK cells) work to destroy tumour cells, diseased tissue or invading viruses, bacteria etc. As a first defense role in controlling infection in the early stages of infection or damaged, the levels of NK cells are considered indicative of immune strength. Psychological stress reduces our Natural Killer cells and can increase disease severity. 4 5 Stressed medical students tested on the day of their exams showed significantly lowered immune markers including lowered NK cell.6 Lack of social bonding also impacts the levels of these cells as was shown in a study that observed that lonely medical students had lower levels of NK cell activity than socially active students.8
Oxytocin, is a hormone released during emotional bonding, sexual intimacy, as well as during childbirth and in preparation for breast feeding. Scientists think it supports maternal behaviors as well as social recognition, trust, and bonding. It also regulates blood pressure, body temperature, wound healing and even relief from pain.1 2 So we only get to receive the full benefits of this beautiful hormone when we are celebrating love in one of its many forms.
Cortisol is also a hormone that is excreted during stress. Along with adrenaline, during stress, it plays an important part of the "fight or flight" response, helping prepare the body for emergency action. Too much cortisol for too long contributes to high blood pressure, reduced mental performance, blood sugar problems, thyroid suppression, "bad" cholesterol build up and increased abdominal fat. Low saliva levels are interpreted to mean the subject is experiencing little stress and high levels are correlated with high stress. Grief suppresses immune health. A study of bereaved spouses showed that they had elevated cortisol and decreased NK cell lysis . Grief, separation, heartbreak and divorce have also been proven to increase cortisol secretions. 7
Interestingly, the body can not decipher true threats from imagined. Our body will respond with cortisol and other toxic biochemical stress reactions in a similar manner whether we are worrying and imagining a danger or stressful event or actually experiencing it. Here's a strong point to keep in mind when choosing our thoughts!
Immunoglobin A is a specialized protein called an antibody that is produced by white blood cells to battle foreign pathogens such as bacteria. It supports the immune system of the mucous membranes and is the bodies most prolific and important anti body. Similar to NK cells, the more Immunoglobin A measured through the blood, the stronger immune function is. Studies show that when we are calm and happy, this chemical is at it's highest levels and when we are frightened or angry, it is reduced.
Rate of Healing and Overall Resilience
Conflict and lack of anger control can reduce our ability to heal. For example couples in conflict were shown to have slower healing blisters than those in harmony. In another study children exposed to psychosocial stress suffered more illness and more fevers. 10 The children of parents exhibiting stress symptoms also suffered more illness. 10
Neuropeptides are another category of specialized protein. They have a particularly interesting role in the transmission of emotional reactions within the body. Neuropeptides received attention because their discovery by Candice Pert in the 1970's amplified our scientific mind body understanding. Their discovery raised the legitimacy of mind body research significantly. This was because these messengers of emotion were discovered throughout the body, not just in the brain as previously thought. Neuropeptides create the experience of moods, pain and pleasure and are found in every part of our bodies. Neuropeptides are believed to facilitate an intimate communication between the immune system and our emotions. If our body is experiencing emotional sensations like tightness in the chest or an upset stomach it is not just because our brains signal the stress alert. We literally feel stress (and pleasurable emotions) throughout our body!
Bowel Immune Function
Bowel health is another crucial, though little understood measure of immune health. According to and article in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, bowel biology is made up of "microflora, a large bacteria community that colonizes the gut with metabolic activity equal to an organ." This microflora plays a significant role in our immune function at least partially via our intestinal mucous membrane.3
Our immune health is strongly influenced by our digestive and bowel health, which are themselves affected by stress in a couple of ways. Negative emotions trigger the release of pro-inflammatory agents that worsen intestinal conditions such as colitis, Crohns and irritable bowel syndrome. 11 12 Inflammatory bowel conditions such as these may also irritate the immune mucosa lining of the gut and may result in frequent elimination which can lower populations of beneficial bacteria which play a large role in immune function.
Sleep Derived Immune Strength
Sleep health, like bowel health, is also related to immune function. Unlike bowel health, sleep is well known by most of us for its importance for both happiness and health, perhaps because the effects of sleep loss can be felt so immediately. There is no shortage of science supporting the relationship between sleep and stress. Studies have shown that deprivation of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep causes psychological disturbances, such as apathy, depression, irritability, confusion, disorientation, hallucinations, impaired memory, and paranoia. As most of us know, sleep also has a paradoxical relationship with stress. Too much stress interrupts sleep which then causes more stress.
Sleep loss lowers immune function too. Even just one night of disturbed sleep can decrease production and activity of white blood cells and T cells. 13 One study showed that chronic sleep deprivation can leave children at a higher risk of catching colds, flu, and other infectious diseases. Sleep shortages increase daily stress (and therefore immunity) by interfering with memory and focus and the ability to organize information.14
Many different kinds of unpleasant stressors seem to have a similar deleterious effect on the immune system and the above information reinforces the idea that happiness is necessary for health.
The Healing Power of Happiness
You may already have been aware of some of these facts. Perhaps you've also been the recipient of the trite, useless advice that is often offered in relation to it. "Avoid stress." Of course if we are sentient and alive in our modern world, stress will always be a part of our living in it. But the situation is far from hopeless. Since we know that our health and our state of mind affect each other, this means that we can learn conscious habits and behavioral responses to shift these mind~body interactions so that they work out in our favour. Luckily, the prescription is a fun one. Happiness for health and health for happiness!
Who needs an excuse to have fun? Strange as it may seem, some people do need to be persuaded to have fun. As mentioned above, people with low self worth may require a shift in attitude before actively seeking out fun in their lives. However once they come to understand the full impact that pleasure can have on their health they may choose to actively pursue it and in the process, reduce some of the suffering that causes their feelings of low self worth.
In addition, may many goal oriented, work driven people may need persuading. In keeping with their approach to life, these people may need to see happiness as something productive before they will make time for it. And, as we will see in the following exploration, happiness does indeed support productivity in very practical ways. Still, it's important not to attack it's pursuit as yet another project. Happiness is a productive (and medicinal) objective but rather than strike out to achieve some fun, we can just drink it up in all its delicious pleasure as we give ourselves permission to revel in it and skip the guilt!
The rest of this article will illustrate that happy, calm, loving feelings and steady, centred states of mind not only boost our quality of life, they improve biochemical markers of immune function.
There are several very pleasant Actions for Happiness that we can deliberately build into our lives such as laughing, sleeping, dancing, singing and exercising. In addition there are Aspirations for Happiness, which are also within our control but involve some circumstantial components as well as other people. These include tender love, social bonding, romantic love and therapeutic interventions. Finally there is Self Regulation for Health and Happiness. Once related skills are developed this is entirely within our control. As well as helping us feel calmer and have equanimity with life's stresses self regulation can help us learn how to we incorporate a mindfulness awareness into our moment to moment existence. This helps enhance our enjoyment of pleasure while reducing our suffering from discomfort and pain.
Actions for Health and Happiness
Laughter Therapy really does work! The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor defines humour therapy as :" any intervention that promotes health and wellness by stimulating a playful discovery, expression, or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life's situations [and can] be used as a complementary treatment of illness to facilitate healing or coping, whether physical, emotional, cognitive, social, or spiritual."
Humour boosts NK cell activity, lowers cortisol levels, pain thresholds, physical stress tolerance and overall well being. For example, two studies that involved subjects watching funny videos observed a variety of these changes. One study was of cancer patients and another of healthy men. One of their findings of note was that the immune boost from laughing can last up to twelve hours.15
Laughter was also shown to foster closer relationships between individuals, and we know from other studies that social bonds foster healing.15 As an added bonus, laughter increases the heart's activity and stimulates blood circulation while exercising the respiratory system. These benefits can help keep us in shape to do even more laughing, not to mention, dancing and singing, which are also good for our health! 16
Dance and Sing:
Creative expression in sound and movement can heal. German researchers discovered superior immune activity in the singers they studied. 18 Dancing has also been shown to improve immune function. Both singing and dancing incorporate stretching, cardiovascular activity, and the "cultural mediation of body, mind, emotion and mind." It is thought this may cancel out the impact of pain or stress because it is so engaging and meaningful. There may also be benefits related to the confidence boosting potential for mastery of movement and sound and the altered or spiritual states that dancing and singing can create. 19 The celebration of play through dancing and singing has great healing potential but so does the relaxing, rejuvenation of good rest.
Sleep-for prevention and for healing:
The state of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is experienced a few times per night after we fall deeply asleep. It promotes emotional healing, brain restoration, and growth. Brief napping is also therapeutic. Naps can leave us in a better mood, and more alert. In fact, that extra edge can last for up to 10 hours after we wake up from a nap.17
Researchers seem to agree on the benefits of moderate regular exercise to boost immune function and mood though some studies have concluded that too much vigorous exercise weakens immune health. 20; 21 Although exercise that is too vigorous may cause strain, a interesting experiment with college women showed that regular vigorous exercise increased their perception of their health. Not surprisingly, a higher perception of health has been linked to better immunity.22 We could conclude from these somewhat contradictory results that only moderate exercise at a rate suitable for our health and fitness level is appropriate.
Conscious control is related to self regulation except that it's much more specific. Fascinating research has verified our human ability to consciously control many physiological functions that are not usually thought of as voluntary. In fact, we can learn to control our brainwaves, our skin temperature, respiration and cardiovascular functions as well as other autonomic process. Astonishingly, a doctor working at McMaster University in Hamilton showed that subjects could even learn conscious control of individual neurons and muscle cells! 32 (The exciting implications of this research are many. If we can control single cells through our thoughts, we could potentially learn to impact any body function or any part of our body.
We've looked at the ways that we can intentionally impact our happiness level. Another way we can boost our emotional and mental health is to aspire to aspire to create loving, mutually beneficial social connections (Aspirations for Happiness). By building the above Actions for Health into our lives we boost our happiness reserves to that we can bring the best of ourselves our social lives and thus attract the same in others. Following are some great reasons to give ourselves to this aim.
Aspirations for Health and Happiness
We are social creatures, this is no surprise. It's simple, bonding boosts immunity. The more time we spend around people, the healthier we are and the longer we live.24
Love for a pet or a favourite person boosts our health. Measurable stress reduction may occur after as little as five minutes of interaction with a pet dog. And just being in the presence of or looking at a favourite person elicits calming, positive changes in the central nervous, endocrine and immune systems.23
Romantic and Sexual Love:
Romantic love and sexual activity have their place in our health care too. Intimacy supports the immune system, reduces anxiety, buffers us against depression, while an active sex life helps us live longer with stronger cardiovascular health, pain tolerance and immune function. A healthy sex life even reduces our chances of cancer and depression. Scientists are not sure of the exact reasons for all these benefits but the current leading theory is that it's the hormone oxitocin. It is released during childbirth and is thought to assist with bonding between mother and infant. We now know that it increases during ovulation and is also released during orgasm, at up to five times its normal blood level! 25
In times of severe sickness or significant emotional disruptions, professional supports may be in order. Psychosocial interventions such as support groups, counseling and relaxation training can improve immune markers and reduce disease severity.4 5 When dealing with a major illness such as cancer or clinical depression, many people seek support through therapy programs at their local hospital. Cancer patients with metastatic breast cancer who participated in weekly supportive group therapy sessions (including self hypnosis for pain for pain), live longer than non participants.26 Participating in relaxation training can also support healing through a significant enhancement in NK cell activity and a decrease in stress symptoms. 26
Happiness and Joy
Happiness and joy trigger positive immune responses. For example, in one study subjects were exposed to fragrances and emotional pictures that elicited positive emotions. Their immune system showed reduced cortisol levels and increased immunoglobulin A counts. Another study showed that people with positive life outlooks are less vulnerable to cancer, HIV, cardiovascular disease and auto immune conditions.27
Self Regulation for Health and Happiness
There are many fun antidotes to stress like some of the ones we've been discussing. For those of us willing to devote a little bit of concentration to the exercise we can improve how our brain and body actually respond to stress. This is called self regulation and there are many possible methods. Practices like mindfulness, compassion or concentration meditation and even Tai Chi or yogic breathing (pranayama) can all amplify our resilience to emotional, physical and mental stress. They also enhance self awareness.
To some degree, even just becoming conscious of our thought patterns can empower our health. When we notice negative thoughts going through our mind, one thing we can do is just replace the thought with a more positive one, just as we might switch the channel from a TV station we don't' like. This way we save ourselves from the toxic biochemistry that would be associated with the continuation of that thought. Meditative techniques help us develop discipline and the deeper self awareness required to make choices about how we think and act.
Many of these practices, most of which originated in the East, are becoming popular around the world as the word spreads that we may be able to control how much we suffer from difficult circumstances.
In fact, participation in self regulation training techniques has been shown to realize actual changes in our brain that help stress roll off of us more easily.
When researchers scanned the brains of meditating Buddhist monks using an MRI, they were able to observe the monks extraordinarily calm responses to emotionally charged film images. Even while watching disturbing images of war they were able to respond with equanimity.28 In another study of meditators, brain changes associated with emotional steadiness were observed using EEG technology (brain electrodes.) Attention, interception and sensory processing were more developed in meditation participants than in controls. 29 Meditative activities not only boosts our immune system, they help prevent stress. A regular practice helps us build an inner steadiness that leads to resilience against stress.
Is your life out of control?
If life keeps throwing you curve balls; if you feel more pain and disappointment in your world than peace, please keep all of the above information in mind to help inspire you to try fun, love and self regulation as possible stress remedies. Grim endurance and resentment really don't help and there are no awards at the end no matter how much we survive. In addition to seeking pleasure, relaxation and fun, what might help, is to truly follow the rather cliché advice, "loosen up". When examined carefully it's clear that this is actually some "hands on" mindfulness advice. The phrase is actually wisely instructional regarding the release of tension. Tension is a form of resistance to whatever we are experiencing and it's the opposite of acceptance and it breeds further mental, emotional and physical tension.
According to mindfulness teacher, Shinzen Young, resistance amplifies and expands suffering. "Loosening" those "tights" however, can help us to allow difficult emotions (or other sensations) to flow through and out of us more easily. When we tighten around them instead, they tend to congeal and stick around longer than necessary, holding all sorts of health stresses with them. "Loosening up" is something we can do physically and mentally and any readings or recordings in mindfulness meditation will present some version of this approach.
Mindfulness meditation is unique to other meditation techniques in it's emphasis on the observation of and acceptance of our inner states and emotions. The immune system benefits from this method may well be related to this increased equanimity with ourselves as well as with life's stresses. Proven benefits include better mood, lessened anxiety and a more positive outlook.29
Mindful communication and anger management can also be considered forms of self regulation. In a couples study about the benefit of anger control, researchers found that the greater the anger control the faster the blisters healed.31
Mindfulness is helpful for the health and comfort of the body but it's also a useful way to cope with a erratic or angst ridden mind. Since the one thing we do have a lot of control over is the way we steer our mental navigation of the pressures in our world, inner management and inner nurturing is one of the best ways to enhance our moment to moment experiences. We're all alone in our heads and so it's really up to us to learn how to "detoxify" the anxiety and any "toxic" thoughts that we might be harboring. The simple (but not easy) practice of being truly present in this moment by dismissing fantasies, memories or plans (which represent the past or the future), can bring great relief from the fear and resentment that cause us to suffer emotionally. Mindfulness meditation can greatly improve our ability to cope with physical discomfort as well and there are many excellent information sources available on the topic for further reading if your interest has been awakened.
Tai Chi and Yoga
Tai Chi is another healthy form of self regulation that is also getting a lot of attention in recent decades. Tai Chi Chuan originates from ancient Chinese martial arts and consists of a slow, focused exercise that is described by some as "movement meditation". A 25-week study funded by the National Institute of Aging and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine demonstrated that Tai Chi effectively strengthens the immune system. Yoga breathing can be powerful as well, normalizing heart rate and increasing lymphocyte levels (an indicator of improved immune function.)30
Inviting a better quality of life, and health, into our lives
There are very practical things that we may be able to do to reduce stress like turning the cell phone off, putting email on manual send and receive, and setting up work hours that protect play and relationship time, even if this means that we make less time for work. Studies show that making more time for quality of life and relationships produces greater happiness than making more money! In addition, investing in inner self regulatory activities can have just as much impact on our happiness and health, especially when combined as part of a healthy balance of health care, pleasure and meditative pursuits.
We may derive hopefulness and a sense of a more tangible grip on our body experiences when we remember out our emotional health dramatically affects our health. So, whenever possible, we can try to direct our choices with overall quality of life in mind.
Tarilee Cornish is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner with a special interest in immune and digestive recovery including general detoxification and recovery from food allergies and candida overgrowth. She is especially passionate about pure healing food choices that have a democratic, ecological and compassionate production and distribution chain.
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Research Recognition Award Paper Research Foundations of EMG Biofeedback in Rehabilitation 1, John V. Basmajian 2 McMaster University
Tarilee Cornish is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner with a special interest in immune and digestive recovery including general detoxification and recovery from food allergies and candida overgrowth. She is especially passionate about pure healing food choices that have a democratic, ecological and compassionate production and distribution chain. Tarilee is a moderator on the WholeApproach Support Forum.