By Antony Chatham, M.Phil., MSW, LCSW

We are constantly protected from invaders like bacteria, virus, fungi, and toxins, by our immune system. But can our thoughts and emotions affect our immune warriors? Yes.

A group of Harvard University scientists, for example, found that in healthy people, simply recalling an angry experience from their past caused a six-hour dip in levels of the antibody immunoglobulin A (IgA) which is the first line of defense against infection.

Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), over the last 40 years, has already established that our thoughts affect our immune system. PNI researchers study how our emotions and thoughts impact our brain, hormones, and nervous system and also our immune system’s ability to protect us. In addition, these studies have pointed out that changes in the immune and endocrine systems create changes in our nervous system which lead to changes in our emotions. The study of the connections between the mind and the neural, immune, and endocrine (hormonal) systems is the core of the discipline of psychoneuroimmunology. The basic premise of this approach is the concept that the mind and body are inseparable. It follows that stress affects the body’s ability to resist disease. The brain influences all sorts of physiological processes once thought not to be centrally regulated. The researchers in the field found that there are effects of psychological factors on many diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and inflammatory bowel disease.

One of the new findings in the field, as reported by Maier, S., professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, is that what we call sickness is an orchestrated process designed by the immune system to produce energy for fighting infection and to preserve energy through behavior changes. Knowing that signals from the brain–in particular the hypothalamus–trigger these sickness responses, Maier and his colleagues set out to tear apart the molecular machinery at work. The first step was to figure out how the brain knows there is an infection in the first place.

Affective Immunology: is a relatively new interdisciplinary area of research dedicated to the study of the link between emotions, affects, and immunology. A number of studies have shown that both an imbalanced or improved emotional state can significantly influence the way our immune system works. D’Acquisto, F., University of Roehampton, London, finds a parallel between emotions and immune system – emotions and immune responses are the ways in which a person responds to the environment: they mirror each other, and they are dynamic and continuously changing. Further research, the author noticed, that living in a mentally and physically stimulating environment has a beneficial effect on the immune response.

There are some current researchers, like Klæbo Reitan, of the University of Norway, who study the connection between psychoses and the immune system. “We know that people with mental disorders are more susceptible than the general population to various inflammations in the body and to immune system disorders. This indicates that an interaction exists.” says Klæbo Reitan.

Autoimmune Diseases are the consequences of the inability of the immune system to distinguish the self from the non-self. The function of the immune system is to protect the host from a universe of pathogenic microbes, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, cancer cells, allergens, and so on. The immune system also helps the host eliminate toxic or allergenic substances that enter through mucosal surfaces. The key role of the immune system’s ability to mobilize a response to an invading pathogen, toxin, or allergen, D’Aquisto mentions, is in its ability to distinguish self from non-self. The host uses both innate and adaptive mechanisms to detect and eliminate pathogenic microbes, and both of these mechanisms include self, nonself discrimination. Autoimmune diseases are caused by the inability of our immune system to do this.

Chronic stress can cause autoimmune problems: Many studies have shown that the experience of chronic stress can do this to the system. L. Stajanovich (Belgrade University), for example, explains that even though nearly 50% of autoimmune diseases may be caused by genetic, environmental, hormonal, and immunological influences, the other 50% of autoimmune disorders are attributed to physical and psychological stress.