How do mood and stress affect your physical health?

Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is the study of the interaction between mental processes and the nervous and immune systems. Modern medicine’s interest in the relationship between psychiatric disorders and the immune function began in the mid-1800s.  

In the 1930s Walter Cannon, a Harvard professor of physiology, observed in animals that their state of anxiety, distress, or rage, halted all movements of the stomach, proving the powerful impact of the freeze, fight or flight response on the digestive system. 

At around the same time, Hans Selye, a researcher in the USA and Canada, put laboratory animals under different physically and mentally adverse conditions to elicit what became known as the ‘stress response’. He observed that under difficult conditions the body was forced to work extremely hard to heal and recover, and that the result of unremitting stress was huge damage to the endocrine system, which is responsible for releasing hormones that control many important functions. 

Mid-20th century studies of human psychiatric patients reported immune alterations in psychotic individuals compared with non-psychiatric control subjects, and in 1975 the term “psychoneuroimmunology” was coined after research with rats demonstrated the nervous system can affect the immune system.

In the 1970s Swiss researchers showed that not only can the brain influence immune processes, but also the immune response itself can affect the brain. Later researchers discovered a network of nerves leading to blood vessels as well as cells of the immune system, providing one of the first indications of how neuro-immune interaction occurs. 

Further research has shown that the immune and endocrine systems are modulated not only by the brain but also by the central nervous system. 

The research to date shows that stressors such as anxiety, fear, tension, anger and sadness do impact immunity and lead to actual physiological health change. We know that chronic stress keeps the body in a damaging permanent state of arousal; the potential health consequences of chronic stress include increased rates of infection, poor wound healing, higher cancer risk, and worsening of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. 

Recent research has proved the huge positive physiological impacts of anti-stress techniques including meditation, yoga, Quigong, relaxation, visualization – and human love.

Psychiatry, immunology and neurology are clearly all closely linked – offering immense scope for new therapeutic opportunities, including the use of stress management and relaxation techniques to treat physiological disease. But significant research is still required into precisely how behaviour induces alterations of immune function, and how immune alterations induce behavioural changes. 

So what can you do stop stress damaging your health?

In addition to eating and drinking healthily, exercising regularly, limiting alcohol, and getting enough good rest and sleep, plan to minimise your emotional stressors and maximise your opportunities for joy, happiness and fulfilment.  

Be curious – score on a scale of 1 to 10 the level of stress you experience, perhaps from your personal aspirations and emotions or feelings, your work, your personal relationships and responsibilities, and your working and living environment. 

Again, on a scale of 1 to 10, score the level of enjoyment and relaxation you experience from engaging with your friends and family, your community, and with the natural world, from spirituality, from creativity and self-expression (such as painting, writing, singing, music, dancing, reading, listening to music), from practicing relaxation techniques, mindfulness, meditation or yoga.

Now plan some positive changes to adjust your scores!

If you feel like you are struggling with managing your stress levels, please come and see us in Healthright and our knowledgeable staff will advise you according to your individual requirements. 

Healthright’s aim for 2021 is to help you improve your immune system naturally and safely.  

Come and ask us how.  We look forward to seeing you again very soon.