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In Love? You May Have Stronger Immune System Gene Regulation

Written by Dr. Iunis Galina Ivanovna on Wed, 16 November 2022

Key Highlights

  • Our emotions have a far-reaching effect on the communication between our nervous system and our immune system.
  • A disbalance in our emotions can cause the signals being transmitted between the central nervous system and immune system to go awry, thus triggering a disbalance in cytokines and resulting in immunosuppression or triggering off autoimmune disorders.
  • Disbalance in cytokines and release of cortisol can cause several health problems such as autoimmune diseases like psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis; type 2 diabetes; cancer; obesity; heart ailments; and even dental problems.
  • Look out for physical and behavioral markers of chronic emotional stress, such as fatigue, headache, insomnia, panic attacks, and anxiety, among others, and address them to keep yourself from falling into more severe health problems.
  • Support your immunity in the face of emotional mishaps by giving your negative feelings an outlet instead of letting them settle and harden in your system.
  • Indulging in laughter therapy, crying out, speaking out, exercising, taking up a therapeutic hobby, and visiting a psychological expert if need be felt, are some helpful ways to do the same.
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Until recently, it was a relatively unknown fact that our emotions and the trauma on those emotions can affect the brain, the nervous system and our overall immunity due to the close connection they share. Constant research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology has now unearthed that our central nervous system (CNS) and our immune system keep communicating with each other and the outcome of those communications are the key to our good health.

Did you know that:

  • General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is one of the commonest emotional reasons behind compromised immunity, and is characterised by constant worry about non-specific issues.
  • With awareness on the connection between gut and brain increasing, it has been found that gut-brain interaction disorders aka functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs) affect about 1 out of 4 adults around the world.
  • Women who experience at least 1 emotional mishap or trauma in their life are 11% more likely to become obese, than the women who do not suffer from any such event.

How does the nervous system control emotions?

The CNS has an intricate network of nerves that carry electric signals to all the parts of the body.

While we can exert control over the motor and sensory branch of the CNS, we cannot exert any control on the autonomic branch of the CNS, which is responsible for controlling the functions of the internal organs, controlling the working of the various hormone-secreting glands, and helping you feel emotions.

The autonomic nervous system is bifurcated into two branches:

  • the sympathetic branch which speeds up the heart rate while signalling you to get ready for action
  • the parasympathetic branch which tells the heart to slow down for relaxation and recovery

The autonomic branch is working constantly to send various types of emotions to the brain, heart, and body. If these emotions being circulated are of the positive sorts, it helps the heart, brain, and body stay healthy. But, if they are of the negative sorts, and are being sent for a prolonged time, it causes an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system's working, sending it in a state of hyperdrive.

Relation between emotional mishaps, stress, and immunity

Let us understand the relation between the brain, the nervous system, and immunity in a little more depth to understand how and why can emotional mishaps can be detrimental to our immunity and health.

Our bodies, brain, heart, and immune systems are calibrated to handle small, day-to-day stressors like meeting a deadline or handling a family quarrel. As we grow up beyond childhood, our capacity to hold our stead in face of increasing pressure or stress also increases.

However, there's a limit to how much stress our system can take over a period of time.

The CNS (comprising of nerves in the brain and spinal cord) and the immune system (made up of organs and infection-fighting cells) communicate with each other using proteins and small molecules. The CNS uses hormones and neurotransmitters for this job, whereas the immune system uses cytokines.

Cytokines play an extremely important part if maintaining our immunity. Not only do they maintain our immune health, but also play a significant part in keeping up the communication between the immune system and the rest of the body. Cells of the CNS and the entire body keep releasing cytokines, which in turn control the communication of the neuroendocrine-immune network.

Cytokines, in addition to the regulation of immune processes, play a key role in the communication between the immune system and the rest of the body. Cells, throughout the body and CNS, produce and release cytokines that also coordinate and regulate the communication of the neuroendocrine-immune network.

Now, cytokines are of two types - anti-inflammatory and proinflammatory. A balance between the two types of cytokines is essential for normal neuropsychological functioning, since it is cytokines that help the brain to produce neuroimmune, neurochemical, neuroendocrinal, and behavioural changes.

Ill-effects of exposure to chronic stress

An elevated, prolonged exposure to chronic stress due to emotional mishaps such as the death of a loved one, becoming a victim of crime or chronic ailments, becoming victimised by sudden events like earthquakes, floods, or war, having suffered emotional or sexual trauma (especially in childhood), being deceived on a large scale, or suffering massive losses can all trigger a huge disbalance in the balance between both types of cytokines.

This disbalance leads to dysregulation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis which is so significant to the immune response system, and causes immunosuppression, thus making the person vulnerable to several ailments. It lessens the lymphocytes in our system and makes us more prone to catching infections.
 

The enteric nervous system (ENS) is closely connected with the CNS, as well as, autonomic nervous system, brain, and spinal cord. This association creates a gut-brain axis, which when affected with chronic stress, leads to heightened gut permeability resulting in inflammatory disorders and functional gastrointestinal disorders aka FGIDs.
 

Plus, chronic stress in itself releases the hormone cortisol, which also suppresses natural killer cell cytotoxicity, thus reducing a person's immunity. The hypothalamus part of the brain is in constant communication with the CNS and is responsible for cortisol production. In case of stress, it signals the pituitary gland to produce cortisol, which can trigger the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines that can lead to autoimmune disorders if not checked in time.

How does emotional stress affect immunity?

Stress and the immune system share a close inverse relation as described above. Hence, more the emotional stresses a person experiences, lower will be his/her immunity.

This immunity weakening gets reflected in different ways, with different effects.

  • Sometimes, emotional trauma can lead to partial or temporary memory loss.
  • At times, when the stress is beyond limit, the body tends to release pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are the first trigger for autoimmune diseases like psoriasis, RA, and celiac disease among many others. In fact, this risk runs higher if the person has faced the trauma in childhood.
  • Emotional stress can lead a person to find comfort in food and start binge eating, thus making them overweight/obese. In fact, binge eating disorders (BED) are known to commonly affect people with psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety. This in turn leads to excessive weight gain, increase in bad cholesterol levels, and diabetes.
  • Emotional stress also leads to release of cortisol, which stimulates the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats, making a person crave for sugary, salty, and fattening foods, thus also leasing to obesity. Obesity is known to hamper a person's immunity and health in several ways. For starters, it disrupts the immune and endocrine functions of deep belly fat, thus causing tissue damage and inflammation that lead to inflammation-related problems like type-2 diabetes and inflammatory arthritis. Obesity also leads to other problems such as heart disease, cancer, and musculoskeletal problems.
  • Another negative fallout of emotional mishaps is the 'broken heart syndrome', which is actually a real problem that people can suffer from after experiencing intense pain, grief, or anger. The stress hormones cause a build-up in blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar, thus also leading to cardiovascular problems.
  • The long-term stress stemming out of emotional trauma can also make a person vulnerable to cancer by making the immune system deficient. Also, the hormones released during stress can hamper the process of 'anoikis' which helps to kill the cancerous cells and stop them from spreading further.
  • Interestingly, continued emotional stress can also make it difficult for the body to fight the bacteria in the mouth, thus leading to dental problems like gum diseases and canker sores.

What are symptoms of chronic stress?

Stress, when it occurs in small measures and for a short term, can actually be helpful in keeping our instincts alert and keeping us motivated.

However, emotional mishaps can cause long-drawn trauma, which in turn leads to chronic stress, which is bad for the system.

Hence, if you see yourself or someone else experiencing the tell-tale signs of chronic stress, it is best to start curative measures to come out of the same, lest it causes serious damage to the immune system and health.

There are two types of symptoms to know if a person is undergoing chronic stress - physical and behavioural or psychological.

  • Physical symptoms include sudden or recurrent headaches, unexplained aches & pains, constant fatigue, dizziness due to low energy levels, inability to sleep properly, clammy hands, grinding of teeth, dry mouth, rapid heartbeat, chest pains, nausea, constipation, diarrhoea, disinterest in sex, and constant cough/cold due to low immunity.
  • Behavioural or psychological symptoms include nervousness, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, increased mood swings, social withdrawal, irritability, panic, and sadness.
     

What are effective ways to release emotional trauma?

Just as chronic stress becomes problematic, so also, inability to recover from a traumatic experience also yields jeopardising effects on a person's immunity and health. This inability is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is characterised by nightmares, panic attacks, anxiety etc.

PTSD and chronic stress both lead to either immunosuppression or release of pro-inflammatory cytokines that lead to autoimmune disorders.

In both cases, it is pertinent that the stress caused by the emotional trauma is released as soon and as effectively as possible. Let us see what all can be done to reduce and release stress and bring about emotional stability for good immunity and health.

Find an outlet to release the stress

Keeping up the emotional stress bottled in is only going to increase the pressure on the mind, brain, and immune system. Give your stress an outlet by speaking up, writing down your experiences, or indulging in a therapeutic activity that helps release those feelings in a creative, productive manner.

Cry your heart out!

Crying actually helps release the pent-up feelings in a positive way. Tears that come from emotional release contain more stress hormones than other tears. They help elevate your mood because they contain more amount of mood-enhancing manganese than other tears.

Crying also helps to loosen the muscles that get involuntarily clenched when the mind is stressed. Further, crying helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, thus rebalancing your body and mind.

Shake, unclench, release

If you get panic attacks wherein the body shivers or shakes involuntarily, do not stop the process. It is nature's way of letting out the tension from your system. So also, if you feel your muscles knotting up, or if you feel your fists tightening or toes curling, release that tension by punching a pillow or going for a brisk walk. It helps give a productive outlet to the stress that is building up within and keeps it from affecting your immune system.

Go for a walk or jog

Walking, jogging, or running can all help release the feel-good chemicals serotonin and endorphin, and lower the stress hormone cortisol. If done on a regular basis, it can improve blood circulation, control blood pressure, and reduce excessive weight. The same benefits accrue with swimming as well.

Practice alternate healing or wellbeing therapies

Yoga, Tai-chi, meditation, dance are all found to have calming effect on the mind, reduce depression and anxiety, and increase overall immunity. These are considered especially helpful for older people who cannot indulge in more intense exercises.

Indulge in laughter therapy

It is often said that laughter is the best medicine. Well, multiple researches have proven the efficacy of indulging in wholesome laughter. It releases feel-good chemicals like endorphins and serotonin, balances the activity of neurotransmitters like dopamine, relaxes the muscles of the body, releases antibodies that fight infections threatening to invade the body, and improves blood circulation - all of which serves to enhance the body's immunity.

Get good sleep

We often hear the phrase 'sleep off your worries'. Well, it does have some significance for maintaining our immunity because a good, undisturbed sleep improves the working of the T-cells, the important immune cells that fight intracellular pathogens. It also helps reduce potential inflammation, controls blood pressure, and helps the brain retain immune memory - an activity the brain does while we sleep. Melatonin produced during sleep, helps combat stress and thus promote immunity.

Eat foods that are immune system boosters

Let your diet include foods rich in folate, omega-3, vitamin C, B, K and E, probiotics, and prebiotics which can flood your gut with good bacteria, control cortisol, reduce stress reactivity, and curb inflammation. Lemon, spinach, banana, papaya, yoghurt, garlic, cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli are just some of the options that can be included to strengthen your body's immunity in the long run.

Conclusion

Our emotions and our immunity are more closely connected than we ever realised. Emotional mishaps can prove damaging for our immunity and health. Is stress a negative emotion? Well, not always. In fact, a little amount of stress can actually help boost immunity. But, if allowed to settle and grow in the system without release, then stress can become detrimental for our immune health.

Each one's emotional maturity, emotional characteristics are different. Thus, how we respond to mishaps, also differs; and that is okay. Bottomline is, whatever you do, do not allow the stress to fester in your system.

The stress leads to disbalance in the HPA axis as well as gut-brain axis, thus leading to suppressed immunity, inflammatory issues, and auto-immune disorders.

Practice one or more of the stress-release activities to vent out the feelings burdening your system.

If nothing works, do not hesitate to visit a psychological expert to take professional advice.

Remember, nothing is more important than your good health. Take care of your health by protecting it from being affected by emotional stressors.

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Dr. Iunis Galina Ivanovna

Dr. Iunis Galina Ivanovna is a Neurologist from Ukraine. She graduated from the Luhansk State Medical University in 1998, and has been in the medical profession since then. In the course of her career as a neurologist, Dr. Ivanovna has gathered extensive experience and expertise having handled a wide variety of cases.

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