It’s not so long ago that the mere notion of the mind being intimately connected to the body might have been met with ridicule from certain quarters. Indeed, it was only as recently as the 1980s that the first rigorous research was undertaken into the link between stress and immunity in humans.
But with our own recent survey of more than 2,000 people across the UK here at Tonic Health finding that three quarters (75%) reported a weakened immune system since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it’s worth asking again what we can learn about the connection between our minds and our immune systems.
In fact, can we go as far as saying that by practising mindfulness, it’s possible for us to train and maintain our immune systems for the better?
Mind training isn’t just for ‘The Iceman’
In many ways, the idea of the mind and body being closely interlinked should have never been so shocking. After all, just think of some of the terms and phrases we use in our day-to-day lives, such as “I have a gut feeling” or “burning the candle at both ends” – the latter used in reference to working so long and hard that you potentially put both your physical and mental health at risk.
Much of our language and culture, then, already recognises that the body and mind are not entirely separate entities. Someone else who seemingly knows this well is the Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof. His celebrated “Wim Hof Method” has helped to buck the previously widespread belief that the autonomic nervous system and the innate immune system cannot be voluntarily influenced.
This “Method” named after the self-proclaimed “Iceman” is an intensive meditative practice drawing upon a combination of focused concentration, breathing techniques and cold water therapy.
After being dosed with an endotoxin (bacteria) that for most people leads to flu-like symptoms and high levels of body inflammation, Hof achieved the feat of seemingly suppressing his immune response. Researchers scrutinising Hof’s inflammatory markers after he received the endotoxin found that the markers were low, with him showing much less noticeable signs of infection than other healthy volunteers.
Of course, we can’t all pretend to be “The Iceman”. However, a study that looked at students practising his method found that they also achieved remarkable results, not exhibiting any symptoms despite being injected with Escherichia coli, which usually causes violent illness.
The parasympathetic nervous system vs. the sympathetic nervous system
Even without the above findings in ‘mind’, there are good reasons to believe in the importance of good mental health to good immune health – and the difference mindfulness can make to both.
The human body, after all, effectively consists of two nervous systems that are intertwined with, but also complement each other: the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. The former is often described as the ‘rest and digest’ system, given that when it is activated, this is what the body is doing, thereby enabling it to repair itself.
This is in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for propelling the body out of trouble. This nervous system triggers your ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reaction when you detect or imagine an environmental threat, focusing your mind and body squarely on what you need to do to get to safety. But in the process, it will also suppress your immune system. This makes a certain amount of sense given that at a moment of acute threat, your body’s first priority won’t exactly be to prevent you catching a cold.
This may be all well and good if your sympathetic nervous system only kicks in during brief times of genuine emergency. But if you find yourself continually stressed, such as in response to news headlines, social media or work worries, your body may not get as much chance to repair itself as it should, and your immune system effectiveness may become depleted.
So, how can you become more mindful?
Arguably one of the best things about mindfulness is that you don’t exactly need to be a master – let alone “The Iceman” himself – to derive real value from it. You don’t even need that much free time to begin with. Simply finding somewhere you can be quiet and taking five minutes of your day to breathe, and feel your breathing and body, can be a great starting point.
There is, of course, more to mindfulness than simply this, and many sources online can point you towards potentially helpful mindfulness exercises, such as sitting meditation and walking meditation.
The key is to find the technique that works for you and that you can actually persist with. That way, you will soon be able to reap the benefits of being intensely aware of what you are feeling and sensing at any moment. The results can include minimised stress, much-improved mental health and the opportunity to significantly strengthen immune system response.