In my previous column, I wrote about the importance of diet, exercise, and sleep to keep your immune system in good working order, but did you know that your mental state can also affect your body's ability to fight off disease? Researchers have found links between a person's mental state and many health conditions and it turns out that your brain is wired to your immune system fairly directly.
The science that looks for connections between mental state and health is called psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). Some PNI studies have demonstrated how stress and loneliness adversely affect chronic disease risk. In one study blood samples were drawn from students during a stressful exam period and showed that they had less immune cell activity at that time. Other studies have found that people who are chronically lonely exhibit similar patterns in their genetic expression with the genes that increase inflammation being turned "on" while genes that fight viruses being turned "off."
While it is accepted that stress and unhappiness can suppress the immune system, scientists still don't know the exact mechanism that establishes the connection between the brain and our physical health. Still, there is enough evidence to suggest that we can be healthier by remaining positive in our outlook.
Which then begs the question: Is it really possible to increase our level of happiness? Here are a few suggestions for doing so that are supported by scientific research:
Physical activity – In addition to contributing to the proper functioning of your lymphatic system, physical activity produces endorphins, the brain chemicals that trigger positive feelings. And if you can be outside while being physically active that would provide an additional boost. We may need to keep a healthy distance from others to avoid the spread of disease, but no one has suggested that we must remain indoors at all times. Connecting with the sights, sounds, and smells of nature can comfort us and help us to relax.
Stay connected – I prefer the term "physical distancing" to "social distancing" because the last thing we want to do right now is lose contact with our friends and family. Reach out to loved ones in any way possible. Technology apps such as FaceTime and Zoom allow real time interactions but you can also go old school and just call someone on the phone. Reach out especially to anyone you know who is alone at home and you can help to improve their mood as well.
Practice gratitude – Positive emotions are created when we learn to be grateful for all of the things that happen to us in life. You can begin by making a short list of just 3 to 5 things that you are grateful for right now. Try to notice at least one new thing that you're grateful for every day and enhance the experience by sharing your gratitude with others.
As I look outside my window this morning the sun is shining. I plan to get outside and take several laps around the yard. I'll touch base with my boss and my brother and sisters. I'm feeling healthy and that's what I'm most thankful for at the moment.
Take care, folks. Stay happy and stay healthy!