Our immune system is an intelligent part of us as it plays a key role in communicating with our brain via chemical messengers that float throughout our body. However, when weakened through excessive use of our stress-response, our immune system becomes resistant, which consequently affects our whole body. It can’t function as usual, and also it weakens the immune system's ability to fight off antigens [any substance that causes our immune system to produce antibodies against it], causing us to be more susceptible to infections and disease.
When we live in prolonged periods of stress, our immune system can struggle. In one study they found that “the benefit we experience from meditation isn't strictly psychological; there is a clear and quantifiable change in how our bodies function. Meditation is one of the ways to engage in restorative activities that may provide relief for our immune systems, easing the day-to-day stress of a body constantly trying to protect itself”. The way mindfulness and stress impacts the immune system can be measured in a variety of ways. It is relatively new research, but presents positive and promising results to boost our immune system and protect us against infections and diseases. The first is measurements of inflammatory markers [cytokines], the response of our immune system and assessment of how the subjects cope and respond to stressors (Glaser, 2005).
One study completed from the Icahn School of Medicine, University of California and Harvard Medical school was conducted to test the benefits of meditation. It consisted of 94 women who went on either a six day vacation, or six day meditation retreat. None of these women had meditated before, however they were joined by 30 experienced meditators, who also were studied and reported on. Blood samples were taken before the study, directly after it, a month after and 10 months after. This enabled researchers to report on the potential changes to 20,000 genes. All of the groups studied presented changes to the genes connected with stress, inflammation and wound healing.
Those who meditated presented changes to genes that fight viral infections, and increased telomerase activity which stabilises and prevents deterioration of chromosomes for healthier ageing and preventive action from cancers. In a similar study, researchers studied 20 randomised control trials to explore mindfulness meditation and the immune system (Black and Slavich, 2016).
They found reduced markers of inflammation [higher levels result in decreased immune function and disease], increased number of CD-4 cells [the cells that support our immune system by signalling to other cells to kill infections], and increased telomerase [explained in the previous study]. Additionally, Davidson (2003) researched the alterations in the brain and immune function through mindfulness meditation practice through exposing a control group to a flu vaccine. After eight weeks, those who were practising mindfulness presented higher levels of antibodies, enabling greater protection from illness and infection.
So with being in the middle of a global pandemic and a myriad of health crises, we can provide ourselves a bit of safety and security by taking matters into our own hands. We can use our mindset, our breath, our physiological state to support our immune system.
Check out our other blog posts to learn more about mindfulness, meditation, and the reasons to practice.