You may have come across the term psychoneuroimmunology more often recently and you may have been wondering what that complicated word means. As a little help to make it easier to pronounce you can break it into its components: Psycho (the mind component) – Neuro (the study of neurology, neurotransmitters and neuroendocrine secretions) and Immunology (how the immune system works).
Psychoneuroimmunology is an interdisciplinary science that studies the interrelationships between psychological, behavioral, neuroendocrine processes and immunology. In other words: How our mood, our thinking and life circumstances influence our health.
In the last two decades the technology in immunology and neuroscience has developed proof that the connections between emotions and disease, between the brain and the immune system, the mind and the body, are real and measurable and not only “in the head”. Psychoneuroimmunology is demonstrating the interconnections of the mind, the emotions, the body and the spirit as well as the relationship between behavior and health.
PNI sees the body as a complex integrated system. When healthy, the brain, the blood, the glands, and the nerves work together to keep all the regulatory mechanisms in a harmonious state to protect against disease.
But stress of any kind over a longer period of time, negative thinking, depression etc. reduces the function of the immune system and makes the body more vulnerable to illness. High blood pressure, diabetes, chronic infections, chronic pain or depression can be the result. Most people do not link their illnesses to emotional or physical stress stimuli. They are looking for reasons outside of the real cause or they feel that they are not taken seriously when somebody refers their problem to an underlying emotional cause.
It is my experience that a lot of people accept stress as one of the causes of their health problem, but they think it is a less important factor. In cases of infections, colds and flu they still think it is mainly the germ or virus that causes the disease. They don’t see the important role emotional and mental states have in it.
Researchers in psychoneuroimmunology who work with scientists of neurology, microbiology, psychology and social science can prove now the connection between emotions and disease, the brain and the immune system, the mind and the body. Key roles in this connection are cytokines and neuropeptides. These are proteins produced by immune cells and the brain, acting as chemical signals.
Candice Pert, Ph.D., one of the early researchers in the field of PNI, says: “The three traditionally separated fields of neuroscience, endocrinology and immunology, with their various organs – the brain, the glands, bone marrow and lymph nodes – are actually joined to each other in a multidirectional network of communication, linked by information carriers known as neuropeptides”. These are chemical signals that interact between our emotions and the immune system.
How emotions influence our body function C.Pert explains: “ Emotions – neuropeptides and receptors, the biochemicals of emotions, are the messengers that carry information to link the major systems of the body into one unit that we can call the body-mind. Emotions are cellular signals that are involved in the process of translating information into physical reality, literally transforming mind into matter.
Emotions are at the nexus between mind and matter, going back and forth between the two and influencing both.” (Pert C.B. in Molecules of Emotions, the science behind Mind-Body-Medicine, 1997 p.9)
Negativity, chronic hostility, bereavement, depression and repression along with their accompanying negativity influence physical health and slow down recovery from illness.
Chronic stressors reduce the percentages of T lymphocytes and T helper cells, the body’s main immune fighting components (Irwin. Psychoneuroimmunology of depression www.acnp.org )
Research into caregivers of Alzheimer patients or handicapped people (especially without a sufficient support system for themselves) also show significant reduction of immune cells. Best known for many years is the strong negative influence (dis)stress has on our system.
Physiological disturbances such as high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, unhealthy behavior, drugs, alcohol or increased risk-taking can also impact health. However maintaining a positive attitude, love, gratitude, staying centered helps to strengthen the immune system. It is important that we know that mind-body disturbances interact with environmental factors such as unhealthy diet, sedentary life style, lowliness, smoking or drinking to our detriment.
Some scientist believe that it is not the stress itself but rather chronic negative emotions combined with poor life-style choices that lead to a disruption of life’s harmony which finally causes disease.
Psychoneuroimmunology demonstrates the interconnections of the mind body and spirit. The mind is no longer an abstract phenomenon that is separate from the process of the body and the emotions.
PNI makes it difficult also for medical professions to continue ignoring the impact of the mind, the emotions or the spirit on the health or well-being of the body or on the disease and healing processes. (Tamm, Models of health and disease, British Journal of Medical Psychology).
With amazing technical advances in the interdisciplinary fields of psychoneuroimmunology, there are rapid increases in understanding who we are and how we function.
Barbara Rotthaler, German licensed Naturopath and Health Practitioner
01 (376) 766 1987