(Carolanne Wright) Usually we don’t think of our immune system as highly intelligent and flexible, but rather, a mechanical process that (we hope) will take care of business in the background with minimal issue. In the world of science, however, this orientation radically changed in the 80s when it was discovered that the immune system is actually a “floating brain” — where immune cells throughout the body respond to chemical messages. Incredibly, researchers found that every thought, mood, sensation and expectation we have is relayed to our immune cells through these messengers, thereby wielding incredible power over how efficient (or not) our body is able to fight disease.
Taking it a step further, scientists began to explore how this process is influenced by meditation. What they found is inspiring.
The Powerful Connection Between Meditation and Health
Remarkably sensitive to both negative and positive thoughts, the immune system reflects where we are at any given time — emotionally, physically and mentally.
With this in mind, researchers examined how meditation can create a positive mental state, which, in turn, helps boost immunity. Publishing the results in the journal of Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, the team discovered that when older adults participated in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program, there was a significant decrease in the expression of pro-inflammatory genes, which resulted in a lowered risk for morbidity and mortality. Interestingly, previous behavioral treatments to reduce loneliness and subsequent health risks had limited success, unlike the meditation program.
Another study also demonstrated meditation has a favorable impact on immunity. When 48 biotech workers participated in weekly meditation training over the course of eight weeks, they had notably higher levels of antibodies compared to the control group who didn’t meditate, as well as increased levels of antibodies than when they started the trial.
Likewise, this groundbreaking study examined 20 randomized control trials to establish the effect mindfulness meditation has on the immune system. The authors found:
- Reduced markers of inflammation, high levels of which are often correlated with decreased immune functioning and disease.
- Increased number of CD-4 cells, which are the immune system’s helper cells that are involved in sending signals to other cells telling them to destroy infections.
- Increased telomerase activity; telomerase help promote the stability of chromosomes and prevent their deterioration (telomerase deterioration leads to cancer and premature aging).
And Richard Davidson, professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found participants who received mindfulness training for eight weeks showed greater levels of antibodies, compared to the control group who were injected with the flu vaccine.
Researchers have consistently established mindfulness meditation increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, the right anterior insula and right hippocampus, all of which control positive emotions and awareness. They’re also the areas of the brain that strongly influence the immune system. When these regions are stimulated, immunity is enhanced overall.
As Jennifer Wilkins writes in “Train Your Brain to Boost Your Immune System,” she believes there are additional factors involved in the positive effect of meditation in relation to heightened immunity.
- Decreased stress, increased emotional regulation: When we meditate, we encourage health-giving chemical messages from the brain, reduce our levels of stress (a proven health-killer), decrease rumination and increase our ability to handle difficult emotions.
- Activation of the second brain (the gut): Mindfulness can stimulate immunity via the gut microbiota, of which the latter plays a major role in a healthy immune response. When we are under chronic stress, our gut microbiota becomes less diverse. When this happens, one of our prime defenses against infectious disease is compromised and our central nervous system (CNS) can become stuck in a damaging hyper-vigilant loop, further compromising our immune system.
So what’s the best way to move forward to assure a hearty and healthy immune response?
The Chopra Center recommends the following:
- Keep up regular meditation morning and evening.
- Reduce and avoid stress, since the immune system is easily compromised when stress hormones surge.
- Seriously address low-level chronic stresses that may be present at home or work. You are not helping your immune status by putting up with constant “minor” stress.
- Get adequate sleep, which is directly connected to brain function and hormone levels.
- Wash your hands several times a day, and always after direct contact with someone else’s skin. Doctors who make sure to wash their hands after seeing every patient reduce hospital-borne infections by more than 50 percent.
“The Ayurvedic approach is about aligning with the infinite organizing power of nature rather than struggling or trying to force things to go your way. This principle is embodied by the Law of Least Effort. When you observe nature, you will notice that grass doesn’t try to grow; it just grows. Birds don’t try to fly; they just fly. Flowers don’t try to blossom; they just blossom. Nature functions with effortless ease, frictionlessly and spontaneously. It is intuitive, holistic, non-linear, and nourishing. You will expend least effort when your actions are motivated by love, because nature is held together by the energy of love. When you chase after status, money, power, or accolades, you waste energy, but when your actions are motivated by love, your energy expands and accumulates. So take it easy and be guided by love.”
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