In recent years, we have begun to more deeply understand how the mind-body connection influences our health and well-being. Physical and emotional health are more intricately intertwined than we previously understood. Mental health can have a significant impact on our physical health in a variety of ways, both positive and negative.
Can Mental Health Affect the Immune System?
There is emerging research seeking to understand the depth of the connection between the immune system and mental health. It is already understood that there is a correlation between mental disorders and susceptibility to inflammation-related illnesses and other immune system dysfunction.
But, it was poorly understood how direct the connection is between the immune system and mental health. Until recently, it was believed that the brain operated completely separately from the immune system. But, a new 2015 study found that there is a direct pathway between the brain and the immune system via the lymphatic system. The immune system can actually send signals that cross directly into the brain, disrupting normal function and possibly triggering mood disorders.
One of these connections involves the influence that mental disorders, such as depression, have on the release of inflammatory cytokines, immune cells that increase inflammation. Multiple studies have identified that the cytokines released as part of an inflammatory response can get into the brain and directly alter its function. The cytokines have been found to directly disrupt brain chemicals responsible for motivation, anxiety, arousal and motor activity.
From this new perspective, you can see that the brain and immune system constantly communicate in a way that can make you either healthy or sick. It is still a “chicken or egg” situation — did the cytokines disrupt the brain or did the brain trigger the cytokines? But research is moving ever closer to understanding the mind-body connection in a deeper away.
Chronic Stress and the Immune System
Dr. Carla Marie Manly, author of the book Joy from Fear, is a leading expert in the immune system and mental health. She identifies a few common mental conditions that are having a major impact on our physical health — chronic stress, depression and anxiety.
Chronic stress is the most impactful health concern of our modern time because many of us are extremely stressed. Uncontrolled stress has put significant strain on our physical and mental health. We live in a world where our natural, instinctual “fight or flight” stress response is constantly triggered. This response in itself isn’t harmful — it is a protective response that has kept us safe for centuries. However, many of us now live in a constant state of fear and anxiety, which is having a serious impact on our health.
Dr. Manly explains how the constant state of fight or flight works: “When you feel threatened by a stimulus, your body kicks into action to protect you. On a wholly unconscious level, a step-by-step process occurs almost instantaneously within your body. First, the brain’s amygdalae — two small, almond-shaped groups of nuclei that are part of your limbic system — send signals to activate your autonomic nervous system. Biochemical changes occur in your sympathetic nervous system and the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis.”
When this response is triggered, Dr. Manly explains that this leads to a “range of adrenaline-charged responses” that begins to take over your body and mind. You may experience increased sweating, tight muscles, a faster heart rate and other physical stress responses. Stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, surge. Your body’s goal is to conserve energy to be redirected to where it is most needed: your heart and muscles. Other functions, like digestion, slow down.
These responses can be triggered by an actual threat or just a perceived threat, such as a stressful conversation at work. The problem is that when the body responds to non-life threatening situations in this way, it can be damaging to our health over time.
According to Dr. Manly, “research continues to show that chronically elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline can lead to health issues that include chronic inflammation, a weakened immune system, and an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.”
Anxiety, Depression and the Immune System
Anxiety and depression are common mental health disorders that impact almost every aspect of our lives. They can interfere with sleep, relationships, work and motivation. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “People with an anxiety disorder are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor and six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who do not suffer from anxiety disorders.”
Depression can have a similar impact on health. Dr. Manly explains, “according to research by the CDC, depression co-occurs in 17% of cardiovascular cases, 23% of cerebrovascular cases, 27% of diabetes patients, and over 40% of cancer patients.” With these statistics in mind, there is no question that there is a significant relationship between physical and mental health.
How to Support Your Immune System and Mental Health
Even if you struggle with mental health, it doesn’t mean you are destined to face a life of illness and poor immune function. There is a lot you can do to help your brain and immunity.
Supporting your immune system through lifestyle changes is a great place to start. A well-balanced diet can help your mental health as well. A diet based on whole foods such as lean protein, fruits, vegetables and whole grains can provide the foundation for well-being. The addition of immune-supporting supplements, such as whey protein can be beneficial for a healthy mind and body.
Regular exercise, restful sleep, meditation and other forms of stress management are a critical part of mental and physical health. Aim to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity daily and sleep 7-9 hours nightly.
Attitude matters as well when it comes to the immune system and mental health. Going forward always remember, as Dr. Manly says, “a positive mindset and generally good mental health have been repeatedly connected to a longer lifespan, greater physical health in general, and an increased rate of healing after illness.”