How Does Mental Health Affect Immunity?
There’s so much information out there surrounding immunity: how to boost it, what to eat to make sure your immune system is running at its best, tips to make sure you stay illness-free all year around. But all this info, however useful, is typically related to the physical body and its overall state of health. While physical health is vital to a proper functioning immune system, one area that is often overlooked when it comes to immunity – but is just as important – is mental health.
Mental health is slowly becoming more prevalent in conversations surrounding overall health, and for good reason. Having a declining mental state or a mental health disorder can do much more damage to your body and overall health than you might think.
The good news is that the stigma surrounding mental health disorders and treatment is beginning to shrink because people are finally realizing exactly how vital mental health is. But how does mental health affect immunity, exactly?
Is immunity related to mental health?
The immune system and mental health actually have a lot in common. For example, the immune system helps the body get rid of pathogens that it doesn’t like because they are there to cause damage. A person’s emotional state develops based on external stimuli and how it is processed by that person. So, essentially, the two are both working for the body and mind to determine what they do and don’t like.
Because of this, both emotion and immunity have to adjust to the environment and counteract challenges they face. To put it more simply, both systems are influenced heavily by the external environment and can protect the body when they are working as they should – or hurt the body if they are not.
While many studies have found the connection between mental health and the immune system, the factors behind their influence on one another aren’t entirely clear. That being said, new research continues to shed light on how mental health and immunity work together on a cellular level.
How does mental health affect your immune system?
Immunity and mental health are closely related for several reasons and affect one another greatly. Being in a poor state of mental health has the ability to change how your immune system functions. The opposite is also true in the sense that a poor working immune system can actually drive mental health issues or disorders. The two are considered to be symbiotic, in that one must be in good shape for the other to flourish.
Research has linked both mental health and immunity to T-lymphocytes, which are immune cells that reside in the blood. These T-cells play an active role in maintaining and regulating a person’s emotional state. One particular subtype of these T-cells has also been shown to actually change how the brain works. Because of this, mental health greatly affects the immune system.
In terms of mental health negatively affecting immunity, other research has found that negative emotions and mental illnesses can actually weaken the immune response.
Can stress and anxiety affect your immune system?
Stress and anxiety both trigger the release of certain chemicals and hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. When this happens, the body goes through a serious of changes (such as increased heart and breathing rates) designed to provide the brain with more oxygen, giving you the ability to respond to a stressful or dangerous situation quickly if need be.
In the short-term, the body returns to normal once the stress passes. However, if chronic stress and anxiety occur, the signaling of the release of these chemicals and hormones doesn’t slow down or return to normal. This leads to a weakened immune system because the stress hormone cortisol can actually lower the number of immune-fighting cells, essentially suppressing the immune function in the body.
Pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are small proteins designed to regulate the growth of immune and blood cells, also spike during periods of both short- and long-term stress. When these proteins are found in high amounts, they can spike inflammation because the immune system thinks there is an infectious disease to fight off. Chronic inflammation, which can be found in people with high levels of anxiety or stress, can also damage immune function in a way that makes people more susceptible to disease.
Can depression weaken your immune system?
Depression works in the same way as stress and anxiety in the sense that it can cause the immune system to malfunction, leading to a higher risk of contracting illnesses or developing chronic diseases. This is because the hormones and chemicals that are released during chronic stress are also drivers for depressive symptoms.
The connection between the immune system and stress and mental health disorders is often overlooked, but in reality, they are largely connected – one faltering could lead to the other doing the same. Research shows that more mental health and medical professionals need to investigate this connection further so that people with mental health disorders don’t suffer from further chronic disease, and so that those with weakened immune systems don’t develop mental health disorders.
Taking all of the above into consideration when treating mental health disorders is the logical next step in ensuring that both mental health and immune function are at their best.