The Effect of Positive Emotions on Your Immune System
Your immune system is the first line of defense against illness and chronic disease. Keeping your immune system fully charged is a forever trending health topic, and the most recent immunity buzz focuses on the role positive emotions have on immune health. Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley recommend supplementing not only with immune-boosting vitamin C and zinc, but also with positive emotions. Their research shows that positive feelings, such as awe, joy, and compassion, are linked to lower levels of inflammatory molecules and stronger immune systems.
How Inflammation Affects Your Immune System
When your immune system senses a threat, such as an infection or injury, it sends inflammatory molecules called cytokines to the part of the body under siege. It’s an altogether efficient process, unless it spirals out of control. Sometimes the immune response doesn’t turn off when it should, and floods your body with inflammatory molecules. Chronic and constant inflammation is a primary cause of many major illnesses, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases, cognitive decline, and mood disorders, such as depression. In fact, recent research indicates that patients suffering from depression had higher levels of inflammatory cytokines than non-depressed patients did. Scientists believe that when the brain receives the message from the immune system to create more cytokines, the feel-good hormones that control appetite, sleep, memory, and moods are subdued.
Seek Inspiration from Nature
UCB researchers analyzed the effects of positive emotions on the immune systems of over 200 young adults, while controlling for relevant personality and health variables. Patients reported the extent to which they experienced positive emotions, such as compassion, amusement, awe, contentment, joy, love, and pride, on a given day. On that same day, researchers took samples of gum and cheek tissue (called oral mucosal transudate) that measured cytokine levels. Individuals who reported more positive feelings exhibited the lowest levels of the cytokine Interleukin 6, a key marker of inflammation. Interestingly, awe stood out as the emotion that calmed inflammation the most.
Everyone’s awe is inspired by different things, but nature seems to have an “awesome” effect on most people. Researchers suggest increasing your exposure to nature, spirituality, and art. UC Berkeley psychologist and co-author of the study Dacher Keltner explains: “That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions—a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art—has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy.”
A beneficial side effect of spending some time outside in nature is sun exposure. According to a 2009 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, 77% of Americans are deficient in vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin. The best way to increase your levels of vitamin D, and subsequently strengthen your immune system, is to spend some time in the sun. Be sure to expose large surface areas of your skin to the sun, but know your burn time. Some people can spend an hour SPF free in the sun without burning, while those with fair complexions may only be able to spend 10 minutes SPF free. Whether you soak in some awe at the top of a mountain, or while dipping your toes in the sand and watching the waves gently roll, let those feelings of appreciation wash over you fully. Your immune system will thank you!