Are “ill”-Thoughts Inhibiting Your Immunity?

In the midst of one of the greatest pandemics of the century, with hundreds of common or unconventional varieties of immune support, one can’t help but wonder which alternatives have the greatest efficiency. From dietary suggestions, to lifestyle directives, to adjusted sleep regiments, the options seem endless for concerned civilians who wish to strengthen their immune response to resist the ruthless virus, known as Covid-19. While the level of effectiveness of such remedies seems to vary by individual, there may be a simple common strategy which has been overlooked by many. While the commonly colloquial phrase, “what you think is what you become” has been overly repeated throughout books, movies and other media, one can’t help but consider if this concept might apply to the physical well-being of an individual? While immune response to certain foods, medications and even exercise regimes is subject to individual acceptance and tolerance, the human mind is an entity which we all posses and, undoubtedly, we all share a common importance for the level of physical management and biological authority which our brains posses. From high level intellectual cognitive functions, to the simple rhythmic beating of the heart, be it conscious or unconscious, the brain controls nearly all physiological functions of the body. So with such a small organ possessing such great capabilities, could the human brain retain the ability to manage immune response? 

From a biochemical standpoint, the answer appears to be affirmative. While cells of the immune system use chemical messengers, known as cytokines, for communication, similarly the cells of the nervous system use neurotransmitters to communicate. Both cytokines and neurotransmitters are very similar in structure and configuration, and un-coincidentally, the signal molecules of both the immune system and the nervous system transmit interchangeably (1). This definitely establishes a connection, and while theoretically, the concept seems rational, recent research certainly makes for a more compelling case. 

A study conducted by the universities of Exeter and Oxford uncovered a stark correlation amongst positive thinking and immune function. Researchers took 135 healthy participants, who were directed to listen to a specific set of audio instructions. Heart rate and sweat response were monitored for each individual. Participants who were instructed and encouraged to implement self-compassionate thinking, self-kindness and practice positive self-talk had significantly lower recorded heart rates, as well as increases in variation between beats – this is known as heart rate variability and is a key indicator of a healthy heart which can fluidly adapt to changing circumstances. These participants also retained a lower sweat response. Conversely, participants who were instructed to practice self-criticism, negative self-talk and were encouraged self devaluation presented much higher heart rates and intensive sweating, which are known physiological indicators of stress and endangerment. Researcher Dr. Hans Kirschner summarized that these findings indicate that positive thinking diminishes our physiological threat response and puts the body into state of safety and relaxation, which is crucial for healing and regeneration (2). 

The key takeaway? Our minds are far more mighty than we may realize. Practicing a positive mindset can be as simple as believing in a positive affirmation; today will be a good day, I’m proud of myself because, etc. Other strategies include actively practicing gratitude, finding humor in poor situations, and consciously choosing to surround yourself with positive friends, mentors and co-workers. Think Covid-19 is highly contagious? Guess what, so is positivity. So the next time you feel yourself coming down with the flu, and find yourself debating between the chicken noodle soup, eccentric supplements or unusual dietary substitutions, consider that a steaming cup of “positivi-tea” might be just what the doctor ordered. 

  • Kirschner, H., Kuyken, W., Wright, K., Roberts, H., Brejcha, & Karl, A. (2019). Soothing your heart and feeling connected: A new experimental paradigm to study the benefits of self-compassion. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/2167702618812438