Everyone is searching for the next big super food for immune boosting power, and dumping immune boost packets into water – little do they know, a large part of the immune system is all in their head. Clinical studies consistently prove that happiness is linked to a healthier immune system, while sadness and stress are linked to immune dysfunction and inflammation. Even loneliness can direct immune responses that can be damaging to the body. Most researchers believe that our psychological state affects genetic expression. For example, if a family member has history of a mood disorder like depression or bipolar disorder, it’s likely that you carry the gene for these conditions. While the gene may remain in the “off” position for most of your life, severe stress over long periods of time is capable of switching this gene on.
This means that your perception of the world can affect the expression of genes and severely impact health. Studies on cardiovascular disease also consistently show a correlation with type A personalities and increased risk for cardiovascular disease. The type A personality theory is based on the premise that behavior and thought patterns can negatively influence health. Type A personalities, while having some good characteristics, may cause more stress than other, more relaxed personalities. Some of the common character traits seen in Type A personalities include: ambitiousness, rigid organization, status-conscious, sensitive, impatient, anxiousness, and large concern with time management. These personalities are more likely to become angered and stressed, which increases the risk for adverse health.
Researchers are working everyday to better understand the interaction between the nervous system and the immune system. Many believe that if negative moods negatively impact the immune system, then positive moods will do just the opposite. Studies actually suggest that loneliness is the strongest psychological risk factor for adverse health. While social isolation is linked with immune dysfunction, it’s also likely that those who are lonely have poor health habits like smoking or poor nutrition. These factors may contribute to poor health outcomes in the socially isolated, but loneliness seems to directly affect the immune system by triggering inflammatory mediators and a stress hormone called cortisol. As a result, these individuals are prone to being overweight and having poor cardiovascular health.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, clinical studies do show that happiness is a huge factor in gene expression, even when the gene has already been expressed. Studies show that individuals with meaning-based or purpose-based outlooks have favorable gene expression profiles. Some researchers believe that this type of happiness has secondary effects on the immune system. For example, people who care about things beyond themselves (community, politics, religion, etc), do not become as stressed about everyday occurrences as those who are more invested in themselves. Furthermore, these types of individuals will not be bogged down with stress when faced with adversity. While the clinical evidence continues to stack up, researchers are attempting to identify how positive emotions can override biological responses to stress.