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.

Mental Health Affect the Immune System?

There is emerging

seeking to understand the depth of the connection between the immune system and mental health. It is already
understood that there is a correlation

mental disorders and susceptibility to inflammation-related illnesses and other
immune system dysfunction.

The Immune System and Mental Health

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
, 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)

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.”

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.

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.”

Kade Brittain