Every minute of every day, your body is physically reacting, literally changing, in response to the thoughts that run through your mind. It’s been proven without any doubt that just thinking about something causes your brain to release neurotransmitters, chemical messengers, that allow it to communicate with parts of itself and your nervous system. Neurotransmitters control virtually all of your body’s functions.
Therefore, your mind and body are closely linked, and their relationship can exert a positive influence on your health. Attitudes, beliefs and emotional states ranging from love and compassion to fear and anger can trigger chain reactions that affect your blood chemistry, heart rate and the activity of every cell and organ in your body — from the stomach and digestive tract to the immune system.
For years, medical researchers have known about the powerful link between your mind and the immune system. An entire field of study has been created around it called psychoneuroimmunology. It is the study of how your mind influences your nervous system to affect your immune system.
This connection can work for or against you.
The Mind-Body Connection Is Real
The mind-body connection is not just a theory anymore. Time and time again, science has validated the impact your mind has on your health, in the short-term and over time. Specifically, the research documents the strong negative impact of stress on immune system function.
The mind-body connection happens on both a physical and chemical level. The brain is the hardware that allows you to experience mental states in your mind. Your mind encompasses mental states including thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and emotions. Different mental states can positively or negatively affect your biological functioning. This happens because the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems share a common chemical language, which allows constant communication between the mind and body through messengers like hormones and neurotransmitters.
Stressful thoughts can activate your amygdala, part of the limbic system which acts as your brain’s threat radar. When it sounds the alarm, your body responds with an almost instantaneous sequence of hormonal and physiological changes preparing you to fight or flee for your life. When this happens, you not only end up anxious and on edge but stress hormones levels increase and your sympathetic nervous system and related glands activate. Over time, the brain-body communication of chronic stress damages your brain, your mental and physical health, and your immune system.
Fortunately for us, it works both ways. You can harness your mind-body connection to calm your nervous system and strengthen your immune system.
Mind-Body Medicine Goes Mainstream
Mind-body medicine is also known as integrative medicine. Integrative medicine focuses on strengthening a harmonious connection between a person’s mind and body to maintain or improve health. The mind-body medicine approach creates a partnership among specialists in the medical and mental specialties, including physicians, nurse practitioners, and psychologists, as well as mind-body specialists, such as biofeedback practitioners, chiropractors, nutritionists, spiritual counselors, and yoga teachers. Ideally, the result is an integrated team of caregivers who take a holistic approach in addressing mind, body, and spirit.
In studies at The Integrative Medicine and Health Research Program at Mayo Clinic, mind-body techniques successfully reduced anxiety, improved quality of life for patients and caregivers, and helped people manage stress. Mind-body techniques also proved useful in complementing conventional therapies for conditions such as major depression, sexual distress, spinal cord injuries or cancer.
In other research, medical personnel showed that that practicing mindfulness or being involved in a support group had a positive physical impact on a cellular level. The study demonstrated that telomeres — protein complexes at the end of chromosomes — maintained their length in people with breast cancer who practiced meditation or participated in support groups. In control groups without mind-body interventions, telomeres shortened. Shorter telomeres mean a shorter life.
Using Your Mind to Strengthen Your Body
Here are many mind-body practices that science shows will boost your immune system.
Smiling and Laughter
The act of smiling tells your brain that everything is OK and decreases stress hormones while increasing happy neurochemicals. Science has discovered that when you smile your brain releases mood-boosting dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. Dopamine works on the reward-pleasure circuits in the brain. Serotonin produces an anti-anxiety effect and helps relieve stress and improve mood. Endorphins relieve pain and elevate mood. One study even found that smiling helps your body produce white blood cells to fight illness.
A good laugh causes a similar chemical reaction in your brain that can instantly raise your spirits, reduce pain and stress, and strengthen your immune system. While research on the effects of humor is in its infancy, exposure to humor and laughter has shown positive results on immune system outcomes. Laughter relaxes your whole body and triggers the release of endorphins. In fact, studies have shown that laughter increases the number of T-cells in your body and boosts your immune system.
Listening to music
A review of scientific studies on music and health determined that listening to music has many benefits for your body and mind. In addition to reducing anxiety and helping many aspects of mental health, music can also boost your immune system in the following ways:
- Listening to music was better than prescription medications in reducing stress before surgery.
- People who listened to music had an increase in their levels of Immunoglobulin A (IgA), a type of antibody that is present at mucosal surfaces (digestive tract, lungs, etc.) and helps to prevent infections.
- Music listeners had higher numbers of an immune cell type called “natural killer cells,” whose job it is to attack bacteria, infected cells, and cancerous cells.
- Listening to music reduced levels of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is a stress hormone that has many physiological effects, one of which has a role in promoting obesity.
Mindfulness is merely a way of thinking. At the most basic level, it’s simply being aware of what’s happening as it’s happening. Being mindful means that you become aware of the workings of your mind, at that moment. When practicing mindfulness, you deliberately direct your awareness back into the now. Science shows mindfulness reduces stress, anxiety, and improves many other health conditions.
The health benefits of meditation have been overwhelmingly validated by science. One study from Carnegie Mellon University found meditating for 25 minutes a day for three consecutive days reduced stress levels. Harvard research showed beneficial physical brain changes after just eight weeks of meditation.
Meditation doesn’t have to be difficult. Perhaps the most popular form of meditation, mindfulness meditation, is a great place to start. Or you can begin to practice with just a few minutes each morning or take one-minute meditation breaks throughout your day.
In your brain, imagining an act, feeling, or situation and experiencing it are not that different. Hence, visualization, also called creative imagery, harnesses the mind-body connection and allows you to direct it to your benefit. Just as your mind’s reactions to stress can impair immunity and promote illness, visualization has been shown to stimulate the immune system to better fight disease. Research has validated that visualization influences actual physical changes in your body. You can learn more about how to visualize here and find some guided visualizations specifically for strengthening the immune system here.
Yoga has been shown to have many health benefits. One Harvard study reported that yoga modulates the stress response. The poses, breathing exercises, and meditation techniques in yoga can reduce the impact of stress. The self-soothing practices included in yoga can lessen anxiety and even physical pain. Science has proven that yoga also eases depression and has other neuroprotective benefits.
The adrenal glands play a large part in your immune system and have been shown to be directly affected by stress. Chronic stress and anxiety can lead to adrenal fatigue. Because it reduces stress and cortisol production, yoga can aid in restoring adrenal balance.
A number of studies have shown that slow, diaphragmatic breathing triggers the body’s relaxation response instantly. Slow breathing is the fastest way to calm your brain and body. Science revealed that neurons at the base of the brain stem have a direct connection to the brain’s arousal center. They can either set off the body’s alarms or keep it calm. When you intentionally slow your breathing, these neurons tell your nervous system to calm down. Here are Six Breathing Techniques That Calm Your Brain and Body Instantly.Share this article!
This is so helpful, Debbie. It’s so easy to get stressed in a crisis. If we can remember and use these antidotes, it will make a difference for our immune system. And they’re enjoyable too. I so prefer the feeling of calm and peace I feel when I meditate over curing out fearful thoughts. Thank you!
Brilliant Debbie- I did a live on this topic yesterday- so powerful
Hi Debbie – what a wealth of good info you have here. Funny about the smiling part – I’m a genuine smiler, born that way I think and it’s amazing the way strangers in the street smile at me! Maybe being lucky to be born a natural smiler is what’s stood me in such good stead for all the challenges life has thrown my way over the years.
And visualization, mindfulness and meditation have most definitely supported me through my darkest days. As Sandra said “If we can remember and use these antidotes, it will make a difference for our immune system.”
Keep on smiling, Elle. 🙂