Calm But Powerful - Mindfully Supporting Your Immune System
In the middle of this frightening coronavirus pandemic, it’s easy to simply feel powerless and afraid.
Governments and medical authorities have rightly made some key messages clear. It’s a new virus and there is no pharmaceutical ‘cure’ that can be applied because none has yet been developed. Because our bodies are meeting this virus for the first time, as with all the new viruses entering the human population over the past century, we don’t have a natural in-built defence system that immediately starts to disable the virus once we are infected.
And because in a small but significant proportion of the overall population the virus can lead to a more serious and complex illness, the single most important message has to be, avoid it, do everything necessary to protect yourself and others from those tiny viral particles entering your body and multiplying.
All that is true, and so, so important.
But somewhere in all of that, sometimes, those important messages overpower another vitally important message. For most of us, the ‘cure’ lies in our own body. We get better because our body’s own defence systems eventually spot the new viral invader and launch an attack that ultimately overcomes the coronavirus and we get better. The majority of us do this all by ourselves with little more than warmth, rest, sleep and plenty of fluids.
Think of it like this. A clever invader sneaks in. We can’t immediately disable it because we’ve never seen it before. But most of us do have a resourceful army that has the capacity to identify that there is a new enemy, design a new defence and rapidly and effectively deploy it. We don’t really need to know the chemical and electrical pathways by which this happens, we just know it does because the majority of people get better.
Just like any defence force, our ability to defend our own body from invaders can vary. We can have a top-notch defence force, fresh, reactive, rapid and effective, or we can have one that is weakened and worn down, or compromised through circumstance, genetics or lifestyle.
Our greatest power lies in making the very best of what we have. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that being as healthy as possible when faced with a threat makes absolute sense. When we are mentally and physically strong we face all challenges with a greater chance of success and survival. And whatever our starting point right now, everyone can take more control by identifying steps towards a healthier way of being.
We often think of our starting point as food and nutrition. These things are important and you will access an avalanche of suggestions on reputable sites on the internet as to ways you can eat to boost your immune system. We recommend you check out whether you are doing the best you can with food/eating right now, and we’ll post about this another time.
And Functional Medicine Practitioner Dr Mark Hyman recommends that you do the following:
Follow whole food nutrition
Get plenty of restorative sleep
Get moderate amounts of exercise
Limit alcohol (this suppresses your immune system)
Drink plenty of water/fluids
Engage in practices that build calm/hope/satisfaction
In this blog we want to focus on the final point - practices that build calm/hope and satisfaction, and in particular how practising mindfulness/meditation activities is a keystone in keeping your immune system healthy - which is SO important right now as we prepare for possible infection.
How and why does mindfulness/meditation help boost the immune system?
The answer is simple. Mindfulness and meditation practices reduce unhelpful stress in the body, and chronic, on-going stress can seriously and dangerously weaken our immune systems.
Research has shown that quite soon after beginning a meditation/mindfulness practise our body’s cells show physical and chemical changes that benefit the immune system. The chemicals that indicate stress in the body are reduced and chemicals that reflect a calmer body state are increased.
Why is this so important?
Because common states of stress shut down the human immune system and it is the immune system that keeps us safe from a huge range of illness and infectious disease.
I say ‘common’ states of stress, because less common, extreme stress is actually a short term boost to the immune system. If we are attacked physically, for example, our body is triggered into a highly stressed state known as fight or flight. When this happens the immune system gets a boost because we have to prepare for possible healing and repair from any injury or infection we sustain during the ‘fight’. So short term stress is something we have evolved to deal with well. We have a burst of stress, get over it, and calm down.
Regrettably, longer-term or ‘chronic’ stress is now a much bigger problem. Our minds have developed a tendency to view an accumulation of modern-day stresses as a similar threat to our survival and we respond in a similar way to fighting off a physical attack. We launch a flight and fight-like response to problems like debt, relationship breakdowns, work challenges, low self-esteem and even threats to our ego.
For example, for someone in a high-stress job who also has, perhaps, a few issues at home this can be a serious challenge to the immune system. They can survive in a state of chronic stress with little relief, perhaps escaping into alcohol which further suppresses the system and skimping on sleep (another immune suppressant) in order to cope.
To the outside world this person might seem to be coping (some workplaces are full of people like this) and to be reasonably fit. Underneath, though, they are wearing down and reducing their immune system by depriving it of the energy it needs for maintenance and optimum performance.
So why does stress rob the immune system of what it needs?
It’s a simple matter of priorities. When your body feels as if it’s constantly being asked to save your life from something that might kill you in a moment’s time (even if that something is just an on-going stress) then it can downregulate systems that are not immediately essential. This allows resources and energy to be concentrated on pumping energy to fight off the ‘danger’.
The problem is when this state of ‘life-saving readiness’ itself becomes normal. Your body continues to act as if it’s under threat and those vital systems like your immune system (and often other systems too) remain permanently robbed of maintenance and consequently disrupted.
And when you’ve been running down your immune system over time so that it ends up in a ropey state, then the last thing you want is to have to fight off a brand new aggressive infection that requires your body to be at its best.