Mental Health Impacts on Immunity

Everyone has heard that they need to have a more positive outlook or stress is bad for their health.  Try telling that to someone who is sick and has more bad days than good!  It’s not an easy place to be those with any chronic disease, let alone autoimmunity or cancer, but there’s some evidence to suggest that having a positive outlook and a healthy mental state pays dividends in the immunity department!

There is a field of research called psychoneuroimmunology.  Let’s break that down: pyscho (mental)-neuro (nervous system)-immunology (immune system).  There’s an entire of field of research targeted at uncovering the mysteries of how these systems work together.  Do we have it figured out? Nope.  I don’t even think that will happen in my lifetime.  Just because we don’t have the mechanisms explained, doesn’t mean we don’t see some of the correlative effects of optimistic attitudes like:

  • -better natural killer cell activity (NK cells keep cancer in check and help you fight infections)
  • better ratios of helper to suppressor T-cells (T-cells tipped out of balance equals autoimmunity)
  • -increased sIgA function (this is crazy important for the gut barrier that can be compromised in autoimmunity)

Ways to improve mental outlook

There’s nothing more frustrating than recognizing that your attitude sucks, you have negative self-talk, and maybe even some depression and someone telling you to “stop, be more positive.”  What does that even mean?!  Of course, I’d be more positive if I knew how!!!!  These tips are going to feel forced initially, but I will list some helpful suggestions in order of ease.  The top of the list is where you should start if you feel stuck and “being positive” feels forced.  The better you get, work your way down!  Be gentle, because some people take years before they can do some of the lower list comfortably.

  • volunteer– find an organization that helps people, and simply show up to help.  Animal shelters, soup kitchens, Habitat for Humanity, after-school programs.  You ALWAYS have a positive mood when you’ve made another person’s life better.
  • random acts of kindness– randomly throughout your day, do something small for someone that you may not have done otherwise.  Buy their coffee, open a door, let them out in traffic, give a stranger a compliment, look at someone and smile.  Little things go a long way.
  • write and send thank you cards– not only does this task make you think of people who mean something to you, but it also gives you a purpose to remember why your thankful for them, and then you will also feel amazing when they feel good about someone recognizing them and being grateful for their presence.  I do this every year around Thanksgiving, but this is an insta-feel-good anytime you’re feeling down.
  • start a gratitude journal– simply writing 3 things you are grateful for down every day for 21 days without repeating any will force your brain to focus on the blessings.  Your brain will begin to search for these things as a part of everyday life.
  • meditate– being able to practice checking in with yourself, letting go of expectations, knowing that how you are in the moment is enough and exactly how it’s supposed to be is extremely freeing.  Try downloading the headspace app or purchase one of Chopra Center’s meditation series.  I LOVE the Chopra meditations because they start with telling you what to focus on and how to relate it to your life.  You’ll be better at starting yourself as time goes by.

When you think about the fact that cancer patients in studies have been proven to have better outcomes when they visualize and create positive environments over those with negative thoughts, it’s definitely worth a shot.  If for no other reason than the opening the door of opportunity in a time when your immune system needs some help, smile and make a small step towards finding the silver lining!  It will pay you back in ways you never imagined. 

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