Scientists are finding more and more proof of the remarkable way our emotions can affect our immune system.
For nearly three centuries, the idea that our emotions could impact our physical health remained scientific taboo. The evidence that emotions affect wellness has grown year after year, and it's become a scientific certainty. Good feelings, scientists now know, have healing effects on the body, and researchers studying everything from the flu to HIV continue to find eye-opening evidence that a person's mind-set can influence their immunity and the rate at which they heal from injuries and illness.
Have you ever noticed that you usually get colds a few days after a setback or bad experience in your life?
It is well documented that people have more heart attacks on Monday mornings (when the work week begins) than any other day of the week, and that death rates peak during the days after Christmas for Christians and after Chinese New Year for the Chinese. Since these are times of high emotion, one way or another, it seems clear that emotions correlate with the state of people’s health and illness. Major diseases, cancer and even accidents have been similarly linked to emotional reactions.
The source of disease is any challenge that the body is unable to cope with, whether it is a harmful substance or a bad feeling. Disease is a manifestation of an unstable process, a pattern of disharmonious relationships. When defenses are weakened and resources exhausted, a multiplicity of factors conspire to permit illness. The adage, “The man is not sick because he has an illness, but has an illness because he is sick”, aptly expresses this view.
Long before scientists began shedding light on how our minds and bodies interact, an intuitive understanding of this dialogue between the body and emotions emerged and permeated our vocabulary. We use “feeling sick” as a grab-bag term for both the sensory symptoms — fever, fatigue, nausea — and the psychological malaise, of emotions like sadness and apathy.
No researcher has done more to illuminate the invisible threads that weave mind and body together than Dr. Esther Sternberg. Her groundbreaking work on the link between the central nervous system and the immune system, exploring how immune molecules made in the blood can trigger brain function that profoundly affects our emotions.
Feelings of pleasure and well-being have a positive effect. They indicate that you are thriving and your immune system responds by working at peak efficiency. The feeling of exultation that follows successfully dealing with a challenge actually energizes your immune system.
The opposite of pleasure and well-being is hopelessness. Just as animals separated from the herd often quickly die from disease, humans who feel chronic hopelessness are extremely vulnerable to disease and even cancer. Experiments have shown that your immune system is significantly weakened by helpless reactions to stress.
"When it comes to our health," says Martin Seligman, PhD, (an expert in the field of positive psychology and author of Flourish), "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.
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?
Neuropeptides are a category of specialized proteins. Neuropeptides and their receptors are substrates of emotions, and they are in constant communication with the immune system, the mechanism through which health and disease are created.
Neuropeptides received attention since their discovery by Candace Pert in the 1970’s and raised the legitimacy of mind-body research and understanding. This was because these messengers of emotions were discovered throughout the body, not just in the brain as previously thought.
Many of these, such as endorphins, are directly associated with emotions. Each of your immune cells have receptors for all of these chemical messengers. They are in two-way communications with your brain but in particular with your limbic (emotional) system, where 85-95% of the receptors are concentrated. This part of your brain is the seat of your deep emotions and instinctive drives.
Neuropeptides create the experience of moods, pain and pleasure and are found in every part of our bodies. They are believed to facilitate an intimate communication between the immune system and our emotions. If our body is experiencing sensations like tightness in the chest or an upset stomach, it is not just because our brains signal the stress alert. We actually feel the stress and pleasurable emotions throughout our bodies.
Natural Killer Cell Activity
One important part of the body's immune system is the natural killer cells. These amazing fighting units have the ability to recognize and selectively kill both cancer cells and virus-infected cells. Experimenters have actually measured variations in natural killer cell activity based on interactions between stress and attitude.
Natural killer blood cells work to destroy tumor cells, diseased tissue or invading viruses, bacteria etc. The levels of natural killer blood cells are considered indicative of immune strength. Psychological stress reduces our natural killer cells and can increase disease severity. Stressed medical students tested on the day of their exams showed significantly lowered immune markers including lowered natural killer blood cells. 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 natural killer cell activity than socially active students.
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. 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 a hormone that is excreted during stress. Along with adrenaline, 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. Grief suppresses immune health. A study of bereaved spouses showed that they had elevated cortisol and decreased natural killer cell production. Grief, separation, heartbreak and divorce have also been proven to increase cortisol secretions.
Interestingly, the body can not decipher true threats from threats that are 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. This is a strong point to consider 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 natural killer blood 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.
In Norman Cousin’s Anatomy of an Illness, he writes about how he cured himself of a terminal illness.
What he was suggesting from his experience was that state of mind, thoughts and feelings, all of which were completely ignored by the medical model, did in fact play a major role in his recovery. He postulated that laughter had triggered a release of endorphins, which, elevated his mood and somehow brought about a total remission of his disease.
Research has showed that the immune system can be altered by conscious intervention, such as guided imagery, biofeedback training, etc. What does this mean for the treatment of major diseases and illnesses? The idea that emotions are linked to cancer has been around for a while. It has been shown that immune systems are stronger and tumors smaller for those in touch with their emotions.
Since emotional expression is tied to a specific flow of peptides in the body, chronic suppression of emotions results in a disturbance of the physical, emotional network. Many psychologists have interpreted depression as suppressed anger. Freud described depression as “anger redirected against oneself”. We now know what this looks like at a cellular level.
Let’s consider cancer as an example. It is a fact that we all have a number of tiny cancerous tumors growing in our bodies. The part of the immune system that is responsible for the destruction of these errant cells consists of those natural killer cells, whose job it is to attack these tumors, destroy them and rid the body of any growth. In most cases, these cells do their job coordinating brain and body peptides and their receptors- and these tiny tumors never grow large enough to cause a problem.
But, what happens when the flow of peptides is disrupted? Can we learn to consciously intervene to make sure our natural killer cells keep doing their job? Can being in touch with our emotions allow the flow of the peptides that direct these killer cells? Is emotional health important to physical health? And, if so, what is emotional health? These questions need to be addressed as we better understand the links between the physical and emotional body!
Pert, Ph.D., Candace. Molecules of Emotion. 1997