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Photo by Ben White

Here in the West we’re only beginning to acknowledge how mental and physical health are interconnected. The brain is an organ after all, just like the heart and the liver, and it impacts every other part and system of the body, including the immune system. Considering this, it might not be surprising to you that research is emerging indicating mindfulness is correlated with a healthy immune response.

The immune system is an interconnected web of structures and mechanisms that distinguish between benign and harmful agents within the body. It’s sometimes called the “floating brain,” because of the way it communicates with the nervous system through chemical messengers. A well known example of this is cortisol, which is released in response to stress and is a major activator of inflammation.

Stress over a long period of time can deplete our immunologic health. This leads to increased inflammation in the body, which in turn increases our susceptibility to disease and infections. Learning to control the controllable aspects of the nervous system can help us mediate these immune responses – and mindfulness is one way to do so. Research is showing that mindfulness has nervous system calming and anti-inflammatory effects.

A comprehensive review (Black & Slavich, 2016) of randomized controlled trials examining the effects of mindfulness meditation on aspects of the immune system revealed possible effects on inflammation, cell-mediated immunity, and biological aging. They included:

  • Reduced markers of inflammation
  • Increased number of CD-4 cells (helper cells that are involved in sending signals to other cells telling them to destroy infections)
  • Increased telomerase activity (promoting the stability and preventing the deterioration of chromosomes)

In an eight-week study of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (Creswell, et. al., 2009) in which 50 HIV-positive men meditated daily for 30-45 minutes, researchers at UCLA found that, compared with a control group, the more training sessions the men attended the higher their CD-4 cell count, which is associated with healthier immune functioning.

University of Wisconsin Madison professor Richard Davidson led a study (Davidson, et. al., 2003) investigating whether mindfulness meditation could alter brain and immune function. After eight weeks, people who were injected with the flu vaccine and were part of a group receiving mindfulness training showed greater levels of antibodies than the control group.

What is the connection between the practice of mindfulness and a healthier immune system? Some proposed mechanisms include:

  • decreased stress and rumination combined with improved emotional and nervous system regulation may help: 1) lower cortisol levels and decrease inflammation, and 2) maintain healthy gut microbiota diversity (microbial balance in the gut is key to the development and maintenance of the immune system)
  • brain structures responsible for regulating the immune response are the same structures that are most impacted by mindfulness meditation (prefrontal cortex, right anterior insula, and right hippocampus)

Although mindfulness certainly isn’t a panacea, more and more research is indicating that it offers a variety of benefits for both body and mind and carries the potential to contribute to our collective wellbeing though improved health and happiness.

I got out of bed on two strong legs.
It might have been otherwise.

I ate cereal, sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach.
It might have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill to the birch wood.
All morning I did the work I love.
At noon I lay down with my mate.
It might have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks.
It might have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls, and planned another day just like this day.
But one day, I know, it will be otherwise.

— Jane Kenyon, Otherwise

 

Resources:

Black, D. S., & Slavich, G. M. (2016). Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1373(1), 13–24. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4940234/

Creswell, J. D., Myers, H. F., Cole, S. W., & Irwin, M. R. (2009). Mindfulness meditation training effects on CD4+ T lymphocytes in HIV-1 infected adults: a small randomized controlled trial. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 23(2), 184–188. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2725018/

Davidson, RJ, et al. (2003).  Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med.  Jul-Aug;65(4):564-70. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12883106

Goleman, D. & Davidon, R. (2016). Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. Avery.

Wolkin, J. (2016). Train Your Brain to Boost Your Immune System: New research suggests mindfulness can strengthen our natural defenses. Mindful Magazine; March Special Edition. https://www.mindful.org/train-brain-boost-immune-system/

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