The Inextricable Link Between Your Thoughts and Your Body
The notion of thinking good thoughts and focusing only on the positive may seem a little woo-woo, but research shows that there's a direct link between what we think and our immune system.
According to Steven Maier, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado, "We have a complete, bidirectional immune-to-brain circuit."
In other words, a loop of sorts exists in our bodies in which – in short – a good mood can produce good health and good health can produce a good mood. Here's how it works:
Brain Triggers: Interleukin-1 and Interleukin-6
In case you're not a doctor or psychologist, interleukin-1 is a group of cell signals that are essential for regulating immune and inflammatory responses to infections and diseases. Interleukin-6 works similarly, only it specifically targets inflammation. Its job can involve or affect the endocrine system, which is responsible for hormonal health.
When we get physically sick, immune cells called macrophages kick in. The key ingredients of macrophages: interleukin-1 and interleukin-6. Macrophages play a big role in letting us know we're sick by causing our bodies to produce symptoms of sickness.
But, here's the kicker: this same process occurs when we're stressed or depressed.
Stress, Depression, and the Immune System
"Stress is another form of infection and the consequences of stress are mediated by the activation of circuits that actually evolved to defend against infection," Maier explained.
While some take this to mean stress is a good thing, it's important to realize that it's not about the stress itself but how we manage it. Maier's studies show that failing to properly respond to stress can affect the body (ie: make you sick) for about 10 days.
In recognizing the link between stress and the immune system, the same effect occurs with depression. Reaching severe lows causes our body to trigger an immune defense. That's why not wanting to eat or drink and just wanting to rest is common in people battling depression.
Because of this data, researchers are now exploring how day-to-day cognitive patterns impact our immune system concerning our thoughts, beliefs, and memories.
"We're finding that products of the immune system alter neural activity and everything else that flows from neural activity," Maier said. "It's not very unusual anymore to think of hormones as regulating neural function, and I believe that in another few years it will be no less unusual to think of immune products regulating neural function."