Move over, Descartes: The debate over whether the mind and body are separate is officially finished. During the past 50 years, scientists have discovered not only that the mind and body are connected, but that they are intimately and inextricably intertwined.
What finally clinched the argument was psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), a field of science that studies the interaction between your mind, brain and immune system .
One of the first PNI studies was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1991 . In this study, researchers asked a large group of people to fill out surveys and then gave them a nasal spray with either the common cold virus or saline (subjects didn't know which one they were getting). The researchers found that the people who reported more stress developed a full-on cold, while the ones who were less stressed were better able to fight it off, regardless of the person's age, weight, diet or other factors.
How Stress Makes Us Sick
Fast-forward 15 years: Researchers have discovered why stress makes us sick. PNI studies have shown that emotional states like stress, fear or anger send signals to the master glands in our bodies to release certain hormones, such as cortisol, adrenaline and epinephrine [1,3]. These hormones tell our cells that it is time to fight or flee -- not rest and repair. As a result, your body turns its attention away from things like digesting nutrients and fighting off illness and instead raises your blood pressure so you can run from that tiger.
The problem is that we don't have real tigers chasing us these days. Instead, we have endless to-do lists, the fear of failure, resentment -- you name it. When that vacation finally arrives and our bodies switch out of fight-or-flight mode, what happens? We get sick. That's because while you were running from that tiger (read: that to-do list) for the past few months, your body was purposefully ignoring any viruses or bacterial infections it picked up until you had a chance to slow down and deal with them . Unfortunately, that time is your vacation.
How Happiness Makes Us Healthy
What can you do? Well, just as your master glands release immune-suppressing hormones whenever you feel stressed or worried, they also have the ability to release immune-boosting hormones when you feel happy or relaxed. These self-produced "drugs" include serotonin, dopamine, relaxin and oxytocin . When these powerhouse hormones hit your bloodstream, they send signals to your body to make more immune cells . Even five minutes of laughter or happiness can significantly boost your number of white blood cells, our natural killer cells [6-8].
Cancer Survivors Use Emotions to Heal
Because of what PNI has discovered about the immediate connection between our emotions and the immune system, it's no wonder that the people I study pay special attention to their emotions in their quest to get well. For the past decade, I have studied thousands of radical-remission cases -- people who survive cancer against all odds. I've found that radical-remission survivors have nine key healing factors in common, three of which directly involve their emotions:
1. Releasing suppressed emotions
2. Increasing positive emotions
3. Embracing social support
Whether it's releasing stress with exercise, laughing at a YouTube video or cuddling the family cat, radical-remission survivors make getting a daily dose of oxytocin a top priority, right up there with taking fish-oil supplements or their prescribed drugs.
When it comes to fighting cancer, boosting your immune system is one of the best things you can do, which is why the radical-remission survivors I study do it any way they can. As we now know from psychoneuroimmunology, managing your emotions is a powerful way to boost the immune system. And since boosting the immune system is a smart idea for all people who want to be healthy (not just cancer patients), go ahead and goof off today -- even if it's just for five minutes.
By KELLY TURNER