What if you could boost your immunity through the use of mind-body techniques? Is it really possible? What does the current research say? Which techniques have the best effects (if any)? What are those effects?
Is is possible to reduce inflammation, reduce frequency and severity of various illnesses, or even boost the body’s ability to fight cancer using simply the mind?–or are mind-body effects exaggerated? What are the limits of mind-body techniques? What evidence is there for the effects of mind-body techniques?
The mind-body-immune system connection
The relationship between the mind, body, and immune system function has been demonstrated in the research literature (Morgan, Irwin, Chung, & Wang, 2014). For example, distressing life events, high levels of psychological distress, and depression have all been shown to weaken the immune system’s ability to prevent viral infections. Additionally, these conditions have been shown to increase the risk of chronic inflammation and inflammatory related diseases (Morgan et al., 2014).
Stimulation of the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system inhibits anti-viral genes and activates pro-inflammatory genes (Morgan et al., 2014). As such, it makes sense that activities designed to reduce sympathetic nervous system activity during times of psychological distress would reduce inflammation and improve immune system function. The following studies analyzed the research findings concerning a variety of mind-body interventions and their ability to improve immune system function and reduce inflammation.
Mind-body techniques findings: A systematic review study
Researchers conducted a systematic review of the available research regarding mind-body techniques and impacts on various immune system outcome measures (Wahbeh, Haywood, Kaufman, & Zwickey, 2009). Studies selected based on relevance were then rated for quality. Grade A is considered the highest level of research-based evidence (meaning there is strong research-backed evidence that a particular technique produces a particular outcome).
A total of 111 studies with nearly 5000 total participants were analyzed (Wahbeh et al., 2009). Mind-body techniques included in the research involved the following techniques: visualization, mindfulness meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnosis, humor/ laughter, music, disclosing thoughts/ feelings, support groups, biofeedback, and others. The findings were as follows…
Relaxation therapy boosts salivary immune globulin IGA
Out of all the techniques for mind-body therapies reviewed in the systematic review, only relaxation therapy showed grade-A level evidence for having a clear impact on the immune system. The research did not disprove other techniques, but rather, studies were too small in many cases, or contradictory for other mind-body techniques. Relaxation therapy was defined by the researchers as mind-body methods focused on:
- deep breathing
- progressive muscle relaxation
- decreasing sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system activity
- boosting parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system activity
- slowing heart rate and respiratory rate
- lowering blood pressure
- reducing muscle tension (Wahbeh et al., 2009)
Relaxation therapy was demonstrated with strong evidence to boost salivary immune globulin (protein) A.
Secretory IgA is the primary defense against the outside world for your nose, mouth, and other mucous membranes
The fact that relaxation techniques have strong evidence for boosting secretory IgA (saliva secretion was measured, Wahbeh et al., 2009) is exciting. Secretory IgA serves as the primary immune defensive protein for our mucous membranes–found on the inside of our mouths, nose, airway, lungs, eyelids, gastrointestinal tract, etc. IgA serves in protecting our sterile internal climate from the toxins, bacteria, parasites, allergens, and viruses of the outside world (Corthesy, 2013). IgA blocks toxins, bacteria, viruses, and other threats, preventing such from gaining access to our cells and taking hold or creating damage in our bodies.
In humans demonstrating low secretory IgA, increased rates of respiratory and gastrointestinal infection rates have been noted (Corthesy, 2013). Oral secretory IgA plays a role in defending against periodontal disease and cavities (Marcotte, & Lavoie, 1998). In addition to neutralizing threats, secretory IgA makes it easier for the body to remove these threats through means of mucous excretion. The role of secretory IgA in protecting against allergies is less clear (Corthesy, 2013).
Mind-body interventions: A meta-analysis study
reductions in inflammation: Lower c-reactive protein
A meta-analysis was conducted more recently concerning mind-body interventions–analyzing the findings of 34 studies involving a combined 2,219 participants (Morgan et al., 2014). The combined results of these studies found mind-body interventions consisting of Tai Chi, Qi Gong, meditation, yoga, or other mind-body therapies caused significant, moderate reductions of the inflammatory marker called c-reactive protein. Elevated c-reactive protein levels indicate increased levels of inflammation in the body and are associated with increased risk of heart attack (Mayoclinic.org, 2020).
Those that had existing disease conditions benefited the most!! As such, persons with existing disease conditions should incorporate mind-body interventions such as yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, or meditation as a part of their self care regimen (Morgan et al., 2014). In fact, the reductions in c-reactive protein from mind-body interventions appeared to be superior to the effects of weight-loss on reducing c-reactive protein!!!!
boosted immune response to vaccinations
Practitioners of meditation or Tai Chi saw improved immune responses to vaccinations, such as the influenza and shingles vaccine versus control groups who simply received health education tips (Morgan et al., 2014). These findings applied to healthy adults as well as older adults. Mind-body interventions appear to improve the production of protective antibodies following vaccination (Morgan et al., 2014).
Limits of mind-body interventions: CD4, IL-6, Natural killer cells minimally impacted by mind-body interventions
Mind-body therapies appeared to have little to no effect on natural killer cell activity and CD-4 cell activity (Morgan et al., 2014). Natural killer cells have gained attention due to their ability to attack virus-infected cells and kill cancer cells early in their development (Eismann, n.d.). Unfortunately, mind-body therapies did not seem to improve the function of natural killer cells. The good news, however, is that a diet that is heavily plant-based is rich in natural killer cell stimulating nutrients (among MANY other research-backed benefits) (Leischner, Burkard, Pfeiffer, Lauer, Busch, & Venturelli, 2015)
CD-4 cells help the body fend off viruses and bacteria invaders (Bell, n.d.). These cells are minimally impacted by mind-body techniques according to research (Morgan et al., 2014). Interleukin-6 (IL-6) is an immune-related protein–when chronically elevated, IL-6 can contribute to autoimmune and inflammatory disorders (Tanaka, Narazaki, & Kishimoto, 2014). Minimal decreases in IL-6 were noted as a result of mind-body interventions, and these decreases were not statistically significant (Morgan et al., 2014).
Mind-body interventions such as Tai Chi, Qi Gong, meditation, and yoga appear to significantly reduce the inflammatory marker c-reactive protein, as well as boost immune system responses to vaccines. The reductions in inflammation are most significant in those already afflicted with a chronic health condition. Further, relaxation therapy appears to significantly boost secretory IgA, offering boosted first-line defenses against toxins, bacterial, and viral invaders along our mucous membranes.
Mind-body interventions have their limits as well, showing minimal effectiveness at boosting natural killer cell numbers and function or anti-viral/ anti-bacterial CD-4 immune cell function. These limits make sense. Mind-body interventions are only part of a healthy lifestyle. They should not be expected to take the place of other lifestyle interventions such as plant-dominant diets or exercise, but complement such instead.
Would we expect that we could live a sedentary life, eat a diet of soda, fast-food, heavy meat consumption, and potato chips, and use mind-body techniques to overcome the effects of such? Indeed, good mental and physical health requires numerous lifestyle interventions working in synergy to serve the human organism for optimal health outcomes potential!!!! Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed! Feel free to leave a comment, share with a friend, or sign up to receive emails when new posts are released!!!!
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Bell, L. (n.d.). CD4+ T cells. Retrieved from https://www.immunology.org/public-information/bitesized-immunology/cells/cd4-t-cells
Corthesy, B. (2013). Multi-faceted functions of secretory IgA at mucosal surfaces. Frontiers in immunology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2013.00185
Eissman, P. (n.d.). Natural killer cells. Retrieved from https://www.immunology.org/public-information/bitesized-immunology/cells/natural-killer-cells
Leischner, C., Burkard, M., Pfeiffer, M.M., Lauer, U. M., Busch, C., & Venturelli, (2015). Nutritional immunology: function of natural killer cells and their modulation by resveratrol for cancer prevention and treatment. Nutrition Journal, 15(47). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-016-0167-8
Marcotte, H., & Lavoie, M. C. (1998). Oral microbial ecology and the role of salivary immunoglobulin A. Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, 62(1), 71-109. Retrieved from https://mmbr.asm.org/content/62/1/71
Mayoclinic.org. (2020). C-reactive protein test. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/c-reactive-protein-test/about/pac-20385228
Morgan, N., Irwin, M. R., Chung, M., & Wang, C. (2014). The effects of mind-body therapies on the immune system: meta-analysis. PloS one, 9(7), e100903. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0100903
Tanaka, T., Narazaki, M., & Kishimoto, T. (2014). IL-6 in inflammation, immunity, and disease. Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in biology, 6(10), a016295. https://doi.org/10.1101/cshperspect.a016295
Wahbeh, H., Haywood, A., Kaufman, K., & Zwickey, H. (2009). Mind-body medicine and immune system outcomes: A systematic review. The open complementary medicine journal, 1, 25–34. https://doi.org/10.2174/1876391X00901010025