Updated: Oct 6
Prevention is better than cure and at the front line of the body’s defences is the immune system. When we get a cold or find ourselves victim to something more serious (Covid-19 for instance), our immune cell function is one of our greatest allies. Developing an attitude of gratitude for our immune system is something we should all do and work to keep our immune system in good shape as much as we can.
The daily stresses of life that we are subject to have a powerful impact on the immune system and can lead to an increase in inflammation throughout the body. When we get stressed our brains send messages to our adrenal cortex (located in the abdomen) to release stress hormones such as cortisol. One of the functions of cortisol is to control swelling and inflammation and to relieve stress but this process takes a lot of effort from your body and brain which in turn leaves the immune system vulnerable. When the immune system is vulnerable, you are more likely to get sick.
The Floating Brain
The immune system has been called the floating brain due to the ability of immune cells to take part in the chemical messages sent by the brain throughout the rest of the body. Your thoughts, moods, bodily sensations, expectations, feelings are all transmitted to your immune cells. Stress, therefore, has a powerful effect on the immune system.
Research into the links between stress, its impact on the immune system, and disease has increased interest in the way contemplative practices such as mindfulness meditation influence the immune system. There is now a huge body of evidence to show that meditation and particularly mindfulness meditation has a powerful impact on immune system functioning because of its ability to reduce stress.
One of the main aspects of mindfulness practice is in helping to develop focused attention to an extremely high degree. When the mind is focused in such a way it reduces the tendency for the mind to wander into ruminative thinking than can activate the stress pathways. It increases electrical activity in the prefrontal cortex, the right anterior insula and right hippocampus (the parts of the brain responsible for anxiety levels as well as the immune system’s command centre). When these areas are stimulated, they make the immune system function more efficiently. Mindfulness meditation also reduces the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) activity in response to stressful situations, which in turn reduce the levels of cortisol in the system.
Dr Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin studied the connections between brain function under the influence of meditation and immune system functioning. The eight-week study observed a group of meditators who all showed an increase in their level of antibodies which are responsible for reacting to and preventing illness. Brain and immune system functionality both improved over the short study period.
The Second Brain
The gut, sometimes called the Second Brain, is the location for trillions of micro-organisms called gut microbiota. These microbiotas, which help to distinguish between foreign microbes and those that are endogenous, are main players in the maintenance of the immune system. Stress can strip the gut of one of our prime defences against invasive microbes or diseases by tipping the microbial balance away from normality towards dysbiosis (a reduction in microbial diversity). The body’s reactions to this can impact the central nervous system quite profoundly, thus suppressing the immune system. Mindfulness helps to maintain a health gut microbiota environment that is not so easily upset by stress.
Practice Mindfulness to Help Your Immune System
The evidential link between meditation, stress levels and immune system functionality is mounting. If stress is one of the main causal factors in the dysfunction of the immune system and mindfulness is one of the key methods for dealing with stress, it makes sense to get into a mindfulness practice as soon as you can. Maintenance of health should be our primary concern and the immune system is our main defence mechanism, so we should keep it in good working order as much as we can.
The rate of inclusion of Mindfulness Based Interventions (MBIs) into major healthcare settings is at an all-time high. Almost 80% of accredited medical schools in the US currently incorporate MBIs into their treatment, education, and research programmes. The appeal of MBIs is not only the growing body of empirical data for their effectiveness but also the modern paradigm within healthcare that emphasises the active role played by patients in their own state of wellbeing.
Mindfulness techniques come in many forms and can be done short-term or over a lifetime. All methods are beneficial but require diligence and commitment to see long-term sustainable results. Such practices as yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong are all expressions of mindfulness meditation as can be taking a walk in the park, listening to the birds singing in the trees and watching a kettle boil. Mindfulness comes in many guises, but at their core they all require deliberate and focused attention to the present moment without judgement.
Mindfulness meditation isn’t a quick fix, but there are reports that even one day of mindfulness training can have a measurable effect on the way our genes are turned on and off. When we meditate, we are giving our nervous system a break, whether we are standing still, taking a gentle but mindfully focused walk, practicing Qi Gong, or sitting in a lotus posture on a cushion and watching our breath. When we do this, our breath naturally slows, and our immune system, freed from being suppressed by the nervous system, can kick back into high gear, and go about its business.
If you practice meditation on a regular basis, you are disrupting the cycle of stress that leads to exhaustion and potential problems with your immune system. Just 10 minutes a day will refresh you and de-stress you just as much as taking a nap. When you’re finished, you will find that you are also much more able to deal with whatever it was that was causing the stress in a much more calm and relaxed manner.