The human body is an ecosystem of immense complexity, each part related to all others, all playing a role in forming the whole that is us. This is a truly holistic view, to see the connection between the parts and realize that what we think of as psychological imbalance is in fact something that effects the entire body. This notion of mental issues as “all in your head” is antiquated, a relic of an era where the mind and body were thought to be separate entities that shared a living room. A remarkable example of this is the connection between the nervous system and immune function. We may be familiar with the fact that stress has a suppressive effect on immune function, but as we go deeper into the rabbit hole of Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) we find remarkable insights into the direct link between the mind and immune system.
In 1975 an experiment was conducted on rats to explore how the immune system and nervous system was linked—and the results were astonishing. The experiment involved giving rats saccharin water (a sweet sugar substitute) mixed with a drug that both causes nausea and suppresses immune function. After giving this mix for a long enough time for classical conditioning to take place, they discovered something that had profound implications. Classical conditioning is essentially when one stimulus is linked (such as ringing a bell) to another stimulus (the sight of food), so that eventually just the sound of the bell will cause Pavlov’s proverbial dog to drool. What they did not expect however, in the case of the rats, was what happened when they gave just the saccharin water on its own without the drug—many of the rats died from suppressed immune systems. In other words, just the taste of the saccharin caused immune suppression, even when there was no immune suppressing drug mixed into it. Essentially, the rats nervous system had linked the taste of saccharin with the effects of the drug, so just the taste caused a measurable decrease in antibodies. This experiment showed that the nervous system is incredibly linked with the immune system, and that our immune system “learns” from our experiences.
To add to this, the discovery of a rich network of nerves that lead to the spleen, thymus and even directly to immune cells shows that the nervous system has a direct impact on the immune system. Even emotional and psychological states have been found to have influence on our immunity through neurotransmitters that act on immune cells, and emerging research points to how chronic illness leads to high levels of certain Inflammatory Interleukins such as IL1, IL2 & IL6—that are associated with depression, anxiety, and even psychiatric disorders. Our nervous systems and our immune function are so interdependent that they can be thought to be a team of defense against pathogens, and in these times this insight is deeply important. To have a healthy body it is crucial to have a healthy mind, and vice versa. Unchecked stress is likely one of the key causes of depressed immune function, so the question is: what can we do to support ourselves when the threats to our immune system and chronic stress are rampant?
Mindfulness practices are of course one of the most effective in relieving stress, so a daily practice is crucial in supporting immune function. Here is an incredibly simple technique of mindfulness you can do anytime you have 5 minutes. I have found this technique to be very effective for me because it incorporates a cognitive, emotional and a visualization component. Meditation and mindfulness practices are very individual in that some you will find easy and love, while others are like watching paint dry. So, for those who have been distracted or discouraged from meditation by the “monkey mind”, it makes all the difference to find a technique that resonates with you and dare I say, that you find enjoyable! (Isn’t the purpose of the full lotus posture to cause pain?)
Adaptogenic herbs are another avenue for the those seeking natural ways to increase their resilience to stress and regulate stress hormone like cortisol. This class of herbs increase the adaptive energy of the organism and increase resistance to stress. In essence they help us to adapt to the various stresses we encounter in life, whether they be stress from work deadlines or the physical stresses of running on a treadmill; adaptogens help the body adapt to and overcome everyday stress. My personal favorites are Ashwagandha, Eleuthero root, Panax ginseng, Rhodiola and Licorice. Check out 5 Key Botanicals for Chronic Stress: Adaptogens to learn more about the specifics of how these herbs can help relieve stress, lower cortisol levels, and help with feeling run down from nervous system overactivity. Out of these adaptogenic herbs licorice (glycyrrhiza glabra) is particularly fascinating because it not only has some research showing it can lower cortisol levels but also a long traditional use as an immune supportive herb.
Changing our mentality towards stress is a subtle but incredibly effective way to counteract the harmful aspects of stress. Research on the stress response has led to an understanding that stress in and of itself does not necessarily cause negative effects, and in fact eustress can be beneficial to health. Eustress is stress that is perceived as being beneficial to oneself or a stressor that one sees as a positive challenge that they can overcome. Distress, on the other hand, is a negatively perceived stressor that one feels they are unable to adapt to or cope with. These long-term stresses become persistent and can lead to avoidance, anxiety, withdrawal and eventually exhaustion. The key takeaway from this distinction is that it is often our perception of a stress that makes it either helpful or harmful to us. Based on this understanding, one of the most powerful techniques of directly countering stress is to reframe the stressful situation.
3 Ways to turn Bad Stress into Good Stress
1) This can be done through a variety of means but the most important is taking responsibility for the situation. If it is possible to change the situation and that is what you wish, then you always have the ability to make that decision—but if it is something that you desire to do (such as starting a new creative activity for example) then remember the reasons why you want to do it in the first place. If nothing can be done at all to change the situation then simply accepting the stress as a challenge or a temporary circumstance can be immensely helpful.
2) Another way to reframe stress to purposely take up challenging activities that you find rewarding and that you can grow and become better at. When we confront stressful challenges and find that we can actually stand up to them and perhaps even excel, we build up self-efficacy—which makes the stresses of life seem like minor challenges. In my experience, one of the best ways to build self-efficacy is to set challenges for yourself and rise to the occasion—whether that is writing 1,000 words, going for a jog or setting time for meditation; or any other activity meaningful to you—each success will give you the confidence that you can overcome stresses and will snowball into motivation to continue doing so!
The key to building self-efficacy is to set goals that are small enough to be successful and build up from there. So instead of setting an alarm at 4am if you’re trying to wake up earlier, set it for 10 minutes earlier every day. Or instead of deciding that you’ll meditate for 2 hours every day when you are a newbie, do 5 minutes daily instead. Often, we set unrealistic goals that inevitably end up in disappointment and lower our view of ourselves and our abilities. I love one of Jordan Peterson’s oft repeated maxims “What is something I can do today, that I would do, that would lead to an improvement of my life?” Small victories snowball into the momentum that becomes motivation and makes the hurdles of life seem like a great opportunity for practicing your jumps.
3) Positive self-talk and reframing an event in optimistic light can be very helpful in turning a stressor into an ally. Often the default mode of the mind in the face of something that causes us stress is “I can’t do this” or “I can’t believe this is happening” or “why me?”—but these only diminish our ability to actually adapt to the situation. Instead, cultivating an attitude that you are your own biggest ally can be instrumental: such as telling yourself that you’re capable of rising to the challenge, or encouraging yourself as you would to another person in distress. Often we have an internal dialogue about who we are, or what we are not capable of that is filled with such negativity that we would never say it aloud to someone—yet we constantly berate ourselves instead of being understanding, compassionate and encouraging towards our weaknesses. Even to think of something that can be potentially stressful as an opportunity for growth can revolutionize our lives. So if we dread getting on that treadmill, thinking of it only as 30 minutes of pain, reframing it as a choice that we make so we can be healthy enough to enjoy our lives and feel good about how we look will instantly give a motivation boost.
TL;DR: Keep Calm & Boost Immunity
When we see beneficial stressors as challenges to overcome and remove destructive stressors from our lives we often see that our overall health improves, our mentality becomes more resilient and we have more fulfillment from our lives—this is what leads to a robust immune system. I believe we have much more control over our mind state and immune health than we give ourselves credit for, and in these times of fears around infection one of the most important things we can do to protect ourselves is to take care of minds through mindfulness, things that support the body naturally like adaptogenic herbs and to reframe how we respond to stress— so that it becomes a force for growth rather than a force that leads to illness. All aspects of our lives are important, our relationships, our lifestyle, our movement, how we perceive ourselves and our place in the world—and they all play into not only our mental health but our overall bodily health. Our body is a marvel of nature, a holistic ecosystem where every part has a crucial role to play. So, during these trying times, staying calm may be one of the best thing we can do to support our immune health!
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