The immune system is a complex integration of parts – some fixed, many roaming – that work continuously to protect the body from microbial attack, viruses, and cancer. Immune function is dependant upon psychological, neurological, nutritional, environmental, and hormonal factors. Our good health depends on a properly functioning and well-supported immune system.
The best way to look after our immune system is to take a broad approach that goes beyond hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial-everything (neither of which are a good idea – our immune system needs good bacteria, and even some bad bacteria to practice on now and then). A better approach takes into consideration stress levels, lifestyle, exercise, diet, supplements, botanical medicine, and the avoidance of toxins as well as unnecessary exposure to pathogenic microbes (I think we can all agree that licking the poles on the subway would be rather foolhardy).
The workings of the immune system are intrinsically interconnected with the nervous system, endocrine system, and digestive system. All these connections are significant, but it is the connection with the nervous system that I am going to focus on now.
Your immune system is not only impacted, but is largely directed by your thoughts and emotions. At its simplest, your immune system is able to function much better when you are happy, and tends to be impaired when you feel sad or depressed.
It’s not only your immune system that responds to emotions this way. The science behind the mind-body connection explains how all the seemingly separate physical systems of the body are intertwined not only with each other, but also with our conscious and unconscious mind.
Let’s take a closer look at the immune system’s role in this fascinating tangle.
First it’s helpful to understand what makes up the immune system. It is composed of lymphatic vessels and organs, such as your spleen and tonsils, which have fixed locations in the body; as well as white blood cells and other specialized cells, which reside in various tissues and travel around in your body. They’re like the cops that move about on patrol, looking for robbers. While the majority of your immune system hangs out in your intestines, there is no one place in your body that the immune system is housed; it’s a largely mobile system.
There is a very direct communication pathway between the brain and the immune system, consisting of various types of peptides which both brain and immune cells generate and send to the other as messengers, and which each in turn has the capacity to receive and respond to. This is to say, the brain does not only inform the immune system about what emotion is being currently experienced, but also that the immune system can send its own information to the brain. The discoverer of these peptides, Dr. Candace Pert, explains: “The immune cells are making the same chemicals that we conceive of as controlling mood in the brain. …They manufacture information chemicals that can regulate mood or emotion. This is yet another instance of the two-way communication between brain and body.”[i]
There is no hierarchy; no master and worker scenario.
These peptides, which as the chemical substances passed back and forth between the communicating body systems as messengers, have been discovered to be the physical substance of emotions. Dr. Pert, calls them “molecules of emotion.”
It is these emotional messengers that can guide the immune system. How? The mobile immune cells – white blood cells, macrophages, and so on – can essentially follow peptides, seeking to bond with them. Bonding is what allows for the transfer of information, and the receiving of information from, in this case, the brain. In order to make that connection and receive the information, the immune cell can follow the peptide through the body. So not only is the message itself of significance, but the journey to receive the message can drive the immune system, and dictate where in your body your immune cells travel![ii]
An abundance of research supports the idea that positive emotions improve immune function, whereas negative emotions suppress it.
In one study, people who recalled a happy memory showed healthy resilience against the influenza virus, while those who recalled unhappy memories had a significantly suppressed immune response to the same viral exposure. Those who felt the worst emotionally had only half the immune activity as those who already had a suppressed immune response![iii]
In another study, a selection of people with mental health imbalances practiced group drumming for 10 weeks and experienced a shift from a pro-inflammatory state to an anti-inflammatory state, as well as significant improvements in their mental health. These positive changes were maintained after a three-month follow up.[iv]
Many studies have shown mindfulness meditation, visualization, or guided imagery, and yoga to be extremely beneficial in cancer treatment.[v]
There is more and more scientific evidence that the thoughts and emotions one regularly experiences are a massive determinant of one’s state of health. Stem cell biologist Bruce Lipton, Ph.D., states that nearly every major illness is linked to chronic stress.[vi] Indeed, the immune system is truly holistic.
Doctors Michael Murray and Joseph Pizzorno refer to what they call “immune power” traits, and suggest that they are: a positive mental attitude; an effective strategy for dealing with stress (when stress happens); and a capacity to affectively deal with life’s trauma’s and challenges (so that perhaps stress doesn’t happen to begin with, or at least to a lesser extent)[vii].
A comprehensive defence against microbes, viruses, and cancer can now include not only hand-washing, vitamin C, and echinacea, but also doing things that make you feel happy (maybe try group drumming?), spending time with loved ones, reconnecting with nature, being silly, and even laughing at comedy movies. I guess now that the weather’s starting to get cooler, I should probably re-watch Wayne’s World yet again – for my health!
Keep laughing, friends (and party on)!
[i] Pert, Candace. 2003. Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine, Scribner, NY. 183
[ii] ibid. 163
[iii] Davidson RJ, Dalton KM, Dolski I, Jackson DC, Kalin NH, Muller D, Rosenkranz MA, and Rvff CD. Affective style and in vivo immune response: Neurobehavioral mechanisms. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2003;100(19):11148-11152
[iv] Ascenso S, Carvalho LA, Fancourt D, Perkins R, Steptoe A, and Williamon A. Affects of Group Drumming Interventions on Anxiety, Depression, Social Resilience and Inflammatory Immune Response Among Mental Health Service Users. PLoS One. 2016;11(3)e0151136
Rush SE, Sharma M. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction as a Stress Management Intervention for Cancer Care: A Systematic Review. J Evid Based Complementary Alternative Medicine 2016; pii: 2156587216661467. [Epub ahead of print]
[vi] Lipton, Bruce. 2008. The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles. Hay House, Inc., U.S.A. 121
[vii] Murray MT and Pizzorno J. 2012. The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, 3rd ed. Atria, NY. 727.