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That bad cold punctually paying a visit during the stressful exam session, those skin rashes not leaving us ‘til the moment we meet that scary deadline… These are not mere coincidences.
Our mental health influences our body’s response more than we might think. Heard of the brain-body axis? Well, imagine a wide highway, long enough to travel throughout your entire body. Signals from the brain are habitual commuters on this route. Starting from different brain regions, they move towards different body systems.
Highway in the brain
Among all this traffic, however there is one path that is catching a great deal of attention right now. Scientists call it ”the neuro-immune connection” and, as you might expect, it links our brain to our immune system. This connection goes both ways: the brain sends messages to the immune cells, and this immune system likewise sends inputs to our nervous system. Want an example? Our immune system is constantly on edge, prepared to fight enemies. Such enemies, for example: viruses and bacteria, may infect our body, and an inflammatory response is generally put in place to handle this. It has been shown that people with on-going inflammation frequently report mental fog and a depressed mood. At the same time, people diagnosed with clinical depression or anxiety report inflammations and are at higher risk to contract infections. These examples demonstrate that our immune response affects our mental state as well as our mood influencing our immune liability.
This phenomenon is so well-documented in psychiatry that researchers even started talking of “immune-psychiatry”. Leboyer and colleagues at the INSERM Institute in Paris study this neuro-immune crosstalk. What their data show is that small immune proteins – so-called cytokines – are quite important for keeping a healthy brain. During an infection, these cytokines multiply, driving fast on the neuro-immune highway to enter the brain. An excess of these cytokines alters communication across brain regions and seems to increase risk of depression, schizophrenia, and autism. This means a lot when it comes to treating patients. Doctors all over the world, in fact, are now looking at immune-based therapy as a way to reduce symptoms and improve patients’ mental fitness.
But how can we make use of this neuro-immune connection in our daily life?
Every day we are exposed to viruses or bacteria, to the point that these represent some of our biggest enemies. The recent outbreak of COVID-19 infection clearly demonstrates this vulnerability. As the number of cases skyrockets, the web is increasingly filled with suggestions on how to enhance our immune response.
Well, it is right now that neuro-immune crosstalk becomes critical. Keeping a healthy brain has the unexpected effect of making us more resistant to infections. Positive emotions and mood improve our immune system and are associated with lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. To increase our positive emotions, we may want to minimize stress, engage ourselves in positive thinking and self-care. Easier said than done, but certainly worth a try! Mindfulness meditation, yoga practice, and social contact – even when virtual – have all been shown to be beneficial to our mental health.
Let’s unroll that yoga mat or maybe call that friend we haven’t heard from in a long time. By working to uplift our mood, we can make our immune system stronger than before!
Photo credit: Top Image concession of Lazare via Pixabay.