Contributor: Leonard Calabrese, DO
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We know about the power of diet and exercise in our effort to train and maintain our immune systems. But there’s something I consider an even more powerful modifier of immunologic health: achieving optimal mental and spiritual health.
The basis of this belief lies in the fact that the brain is intimately connected to every organ in the body, especially the immune system. It may seem a bit counterintuitive that our brain is directly connected to our vital organs, but think about it for a moment: Have you ever had a gut feeling about something? Well, that’s exactly what I’m talking about, for sometimes our thoughts are manifested in other organ systems, like when we have that queasy feeling in our stomach that something bad is about to happen.
How does stress affect the immune system?
What about immunity? Well, remember what your mother told you about not getting over done? Not burning the candle at both ends, physically or mentally? Turns out that was a solid bit of counsel, for in those situations we can undoubtedly run down our immune system, which can lead to an increase in bodily inflammation — something we don’t want. Bodily inflammation increases our propensity for numerous diseases and leaves us vulnerable to common infections.
The reasons for this are complex, but let me try to break it down simply. Stress in its acute form, the so-called fight-or-flight response, is good. Our ancestors learned this when they were threatened by saber-toothed tigers. Stress on a chronic level (such as worries about job or financial security, relationships, health of yourself or your loved ones) is not good, and over time, it can knock down our immunologic health.
There are numerous sophisticated neuro-immunologic pathways that underpin this phenomenon, but this is beyond the scope of our discussion today. Think about it in two major categories: the brain under polar circumstances (i.e. calm and happy, versus stressed and depressed) puts out a dramatically different set of chemical mediators (including cortisol – one of the master switches of inflammation).
The brain also discharges nervous signals along two alternative pathways: the sympathetic system (designed to rev us up acutely, but takes a toll chronically) and the parasympathetic system (designed to calm us and has been shown experimentally to be associated with anti-inflammatory properties). The trick is learning how to control these to achieve optimal immunologic health.
Training the immune system through stress reduction
There are now copious amounts of evidence that training the immune system through stress reduction can be done through practicing what some have called mind-body medicine. Under this heading are a number of techniques that can, when practiced over time, have calming effects for the mind and spirit as well as anti-inflammatory effects. I caution you now, however, that although this is not a too-good-to-be-true claim, it takes diligence and hard work to achieve. But it’s within the reach of all of us.
Some have categorized these practices into two types: “bottom up,” those that emphasize a prominent physical component such as yoga or Tai Chi, and “top down,” which center on mindful practice such as meditation. Here it becomes even more complex because mindfulness techniques such as meditation come in many forms and practice types and can be done short-term or lifelong. There is evidence that even a single day of mindfulness training can have a tangible effect on the way our genes are turned on and off.
Beware, however, of false and overblown claims about meditation. It is not a simple fix but, over time, can be immeasurably calming and helpful to reaching our goal of immunologic health. If you want to take the advanced course, I recommend reading “Altered Traits,” a new book by Drs. Goleman and Davison. It’s one of the best reads of the year for me. They are world leaders in this area and present this in an intelligent and balanced way for all.
If you want to get started as a novice, I personally recommend trying an online guided meditation program such as Head Space and the Cleveland Clinic’s Stress Free Now program. You can start with a few minutes, a few times a week and see if it’s for you.
I do both, and they can be tailored to your needs as a novice or an experienced mind-body practitioner. There’s no better time to get going than now.