Supporting Your Immune System:

The Mind/Body Connection & the Immune System

By Jenn Fay

Emotions & the Immune System

    Have you ever wondered why some people tend to catch every cold and flu virus while others manage to avoid them? According to Candace Pert, author of the book Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel, there are a number a contributing factors that come into play with regards to our ability to avoid getting sick. The mind-body connection is being recognized by some doctors and referred to as psychoneuroimmunology. Itís been discovered that emotions have a role in the immune systemís ability to fight off viruses.

    Emotional health has to do with our worldview. Do we have more than we can handle from demands of our jobs, families, friends, and other interests? Do we feel our lives are not our own but dictated by others? If so, this is an unempowered worldview where we feel control is outside ourselves. We may even feel like victims without options.

    On the other end of the spectrum is another worldview where we pause to acknowledge the beauty all around us, where we believe there are new adventures in each day and we feel positively connected to others. With this view we accept that stress is a part of life and that it can actually serve to push us forward to be more, and that we have a choice in how we respond to stress. A positive response to stress could be to set boundaries, knowing this allows us to take care of ourselves so that we have more to give. 

    When we feel a loss of control, we have lost that sense of ease about life and physiologically, we send the message to our body that we are in danger and need to be on alert. In contrast, when we feel in control of our lives we send our body the message that everything is manageable, we know we are capable of handling whatever comes along.


Mind-Body Connection

    Although the immune system is fairly automated, it is influenced by thoughts and emotions. The neuropeptides that communicate thoughts and emotions throughout the body also control the routing and migration of white blood cells, which destroy disease-bearing organisms. Additionally, these neuropeptides bind to cells the same way viruses do. For example, the cold virus (reovirus) binds to the same receptors as norepinephrine, which the body manufactures when we feel happy and energized. So, with a confident, upbeat attitude, we fill up the receptors (where colds can bind) with norepinephrine, leaving nowhere for the cold virus to settle and reproduce. Edward Blalock, an immunologist, believes, ďNo state of mind exists that is not reflected by a state of the immune system.Ē

    Thereís another hazard to a negative world-view: stress causes the fight or flight response to work overtime, not allowing the body to return to its calm natural state. The adrenal glands become exhausted by continually pumping adrenaline into the body because the sympathetic nervous system is continually ready to fight or flee. This high alert status diverts energy from digestive and immune functions, making both systems chronically sluggish and creates a real shortage of the neurotransmitters that deliver messages of well-being throughout the body. This sets up the perfect environment for viruses to move in undetected by a slow immune system. 


Choose a Lifestyle for Health

    So, whatís the average stressed person to do? There are lifestyle changes that will support the immune system Ė having a daily yoga & mediation practice, choosing healthy foods, getting plenty of sleep, and taking vitamin supplements are a great start. However, research is showing that it may not be what we do as much as it is what we believe about what we do. Here is where the greatest mind-body connection exists - WITHIN OUR BELIEF SYSTEM. If we set our intention and develop a real sense of knowing with certainty that a practice or activity is beneficial, it will be.

    I believe these practices contribute to my overall health: honoring my emotions by acknowledging and expressing them; honoring the wisdom of my body by resting when Iím tired, eating when hungry, and practicing yoga; taking time for reflection and meditation which helps me know what is meaningful in my life instead of functioning on automatic pilot and in this sacred time I feel and acknowledge the Divine Presence; and take time to relax because I deserve to enjoy working, playing, and doing nothing, which can be very productive to my creative juices. With these practices I send a strong message to my body, mind, and spirit that I care and love myself. That is why a yoga practice is so powerful for me - it includes many of these aspects. For example, I care for my body as I stretch, strengthen, and relax the muscles; I focus the mind on the present sensations, which allows it to rest from the chatter; and during relaxation/meditation I relax into the peacefulness of a quiet mind and body, which allows me to reflect and remember who I really am, a spiritual being having a physical experience and feel the Divine Presence.


Yoga Boosts Our Immunity

    We can strengthen our mind-body connection through our beliefs by logically understanding how yoga boosts our immune system. For example, good circulation is extremely important. We want the immune cells moving freely throughout the bloodstream and lymphatic fluids so they can communicate with the organs of the immune system - pituitary gland, pineal body, hypothalamus, lymphatic tissues, and other immune cell sites like the gastrointestinal track, respiratory track, and skin.  

    The yoga poses that most help the immune system are inversions, forward bends, and passive poses. In a gentle yoga class inversions include legs up the wall and modified shoulder stand, which improve blood flow to the endocrine glands (organs and tissue of the immune system mentioned above). Inversions change the flow of blood in the body, which energizes and stabilizes the whole system. While in the pose imagine squeezing out stale blood and toxins. After the pose imagine a soaking action going on where our tissues are drenched with new healthy immune cells. Krishna Raman, author of the book A Matter of Health, explains that inversions also push blood into our bone marrow, increasing the bodyís ability to produce immune cells.

    As for forward bends, we tend to do supported standing forward bends with out knees bent & hands on thighs and sometimes have the weight of the body in a chair seat, or sitting on the floor and resting the head on a bolster or chair seat. Some wonderful passive poses are the seated supported twist to a bolster, crocodile (lying on the stomach), and supported bound angle where cushions support the back and head while our feet come together with knees open. 

    Here are some recommendations from well-known yoga instructor Patricia Walden on how to maintain a healthy immune system:

     So, we know we have choices about how we respond in every situation and choosing not to respond is also a response. Try choosing to rise above those things that seem unfair, knowing we canít see the whole picture. Hold on to a sense of peace, knowing there is some sort of Divine Order at the heart of all circumstances. These attitudes and believes will also serve to help our immune system function at its best as it receives our message that all is well.