Could sickness stem from how your brain interprets the stimuli that surround you? Can simply being stressed make you feel under the weather? And on the flipside, can believing we are healthy and trying to relax and unwind make us well again?
According to Dr. Esther Sternberg, absolutely.
Dr. Sternberg, who is the director of the Integrative Immune Program at the National Institute of Mental Health/National Institutes of Health, is recognized for her research into the link between the interactions of the central nervous system and the immune system and how those conversations contribute to stress and disease.
One Christmas Eve decades ago, Dr. Sternberg was called to a patient’s house. The patient had been prescribed a drug to treat a crippling and often-fatal form of epilepsy. When Sternberg saw the patient, he was lying in bed but couldn’t deal with having the bed sheets touch his skin. Dr. Sternberg wondered whether the drug he was taking—which changed something in his brain—was triggering an autoimmune inflammatory disease. That’s when she decided to research whether there was a connection between the brain and the immune system.
As we go about our days, we’re bombarded by a seemingly infinite amount of psychological, physical and physiological stimuli—all of which are interpreted differently by different parts of our body. Dr. Sternberg looked into the idea that the brain and the immune system talk to each other through a variety of different pathways. Keeping those open lines of communication is critical to our health.
“You’ve got to have an intact brain-immune connection at all levels in order to have health,” Dr. Sternberg said in a recent interview. “When that connection breaks down, you have disease.”
Case study: Rheumatoid arthritis
Doctors have long known that patients with arthritis are much more likely to also suffer from depression. Years ago, this connection was explained away in a simple way: Of course someone who had arthritis would be depressed because they’re in pain and know that many of their peers are enjoying pain-free lives. This sense of isolation would lead an arthritis patient to depression, so the thinking went.
As a result of Dr. Sternberg’s research, however, that explanation is becoming outdated. It turns out that those who suffer from arthritis and those who suffer from depression have problems with their hypothalamuses—the part of the brain that regulates our response to stress.
Doctors still aren’t sure how stress and depression interact— apart from admitting that it’s a really complicated mechanism. But in either case, the part of the brain that controls the hormones related to depression is faulty. In a recent interview, Dr. Sternberg elaborated further:
The fact is that it’s there, and in arthritis, the same thing happens in the same part of the brain. It suggests that the association between depression and arthritis is not just secondary to having pain. There could be a common underlying hormonal abnormality that predisposes the same individual either to get arthritis, if they happen to come into contact with whatever triggers arthritis … like bits and pieces of bacteria or viruses, or the same individual with the same dysregulation of the hypothalamic stress response center in the brain could develop depression if they encounter a major life stressor or a major life trauma. They could develop one or the other or both because they have an underlying hormonal problem in the same part of the brain that regulates both of these illnesses.
What does that all mean in laymen’s terms? Imagine a doctor’s treating an arthritis patient who also suffers from depression. The doctor decides to prescribe the patient some antidepressants. Lo and behold, in addition to treating the depression, the medication could also improve the patient’s arthritis because it would balance the hormones in the brain which relate to both arthritis and depression.
Dr. Sternberg said that in a recent trial involving rats, antidepressants reduced arthritis by 50% by simply lowering their stress levels.
Our emotions impact our physical health
We respond to everything we encounter on an emotional level. A fond memory might overwhelm you with feelings of happiness. Getting scolded by your boss might make you sad, annoyed or angry. You might be walking down the sidewalk and see a bag float in the wind and not be moved by it at all.
When we let our negative emotions get the best of us, we become increasingly stressed. Failure to manage our stress adequately can contribute to burnout, shattered productivity and, ultimately, sickness.
To improve your overall health, you need to figure out how to reduce your stress. Since you probably can’t eliminate all the stressors from your life—like your nagging boss—you’ll need to take a proactive approach to the situation. Here’s how:
- Diet. The food you put into your body powers it. The healthier you eat, the more energy you’ll have to deal with the stressors in your life.
- Exercise. You can’t expect a healthy life if you’re a sloth. Exercise on a regular basis. You don’t even need to join a gym to do it.
- Relax. You won’t be productive or healthy if you try to work 20-hour days. Make sure you spend a good chunk of each day relaxing. Read a book, cook dinner, take a nap, watch TV or paint a picture.
- Meditate. Clear your mind with meditation. You’ll be more focused and more alert.
- Sleep. You’re much more likely to succumb to stress and sickness if you’re not getting enough sleep. Having trouble catching shuteye? Check out these tips.
You can’t control whether or not your get sick. But by understanding the link between your mind, your body, stress and health, you can put yourself in a position to reduce the likelihood you’ll succumb to illness unnecessarily. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of perspective.