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Three Things to Boost Your Immune Health

Are you trying to get through flu season without catching a cold or getting sick? Make sure to follow these three habits as part of your immune boosting care kit:

1. Eat well

Having a well-balanced antioxidant rich diet is the most effective immune-boosting nutrition strategy. Carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fats are great to fill up on immune boosting nutrients like vitamin C, D, iron, zinc and magnesium.

Consider adding at least two to three antioxidant rich foods at each meal. These can be citrus fruits, whole grains, nuts/seeds, and dark coloured vegetables such as spinach or peppers.

The body’s immune cells feed on carbohydrates, and with the natural drop in blood sugar that occurs during exercise, having good pre- and post-training nutrition is key to keeping your immune system fuelled. Aim to have a snack before and after your training. If you’re running for longer than an hour, consider having a gel or sport drink.

2. Love friendly bacteria

Friendly bacteria in your gut or “probiotics” have been shown to have a positive effect on immune health. Before heading to buy a probiotic supplement, try to first increase probiotic intake through the diet.

Many foods are naturally high in probiotics such as yogurt, aged cheeses, Kefir, Kombucha, miso, tempeh and kimchi. Aim to have two to three probiotic rich foods per day to populate your gut friendly bacteria.

3. Spice up your diet

Many herbs and spices like ginger, turmeric, mint and cinnamon have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties contributing to a healthy immune system. Aim to include herbs and spices daily, for example add cinnamon to peanut butter toast, smoothie or an oatmeal bowl.

Choose fresh ginger, as it is best consumed uncooked, and grate into soups. Add turmeric to curry stews or make homemade spiced roasted nuts. Try adding fresh mint leaves to your salad or infusing the leaves to make tea.

The list is endless, get creative and spice up your diet.

by Melissa Kazan MSc, RD,  SportMedBC’s registered dietitian and sport nutritionist 
February 4, 2018
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Boost Your Immune System And Ward Off Viruses With These Foods

Chicken soup helps, sure, but a diet rich in vegetables, fish and even garlic can help lessen the severity of a cold or prevent you from getting sick.

The combination of chicken, homemade broth, veggies (such as carrots, celery and onions) and noodles or rice in chicken soup is immune-boosting and soothing, and the warm broth clears your nasal passages and keeps you hydrated.

Winter doesn’t just bring the blues, it also gifts us with coughs, runny noses and sore throats. It’s not because of the old adage of bundling up or “you’ll catch a cold!” We tend to get more cold and flu viruses during the winter as germs survive longer indoors due to poor ventilation and lack of humidity, and we are stuck indoors for much longer during the frigid months.

There’s a key to rev up our immune system that can make a huge difference: you are what you eat. A healthy diet often prevents colds and flus or reduces their longevity. The antioxidants including vitamins C, A and E found in fruits and vegetables protect our cells and boost our immune system. Supplements can never replace the real thing.

A healthy diet year-round is crucial to keeping well. This means cutting down on inflammatory foods including white flour, white rice, sugar and saturated fats, as inflammation reduces your immune system. Stick to a balanced diet with lots of vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices, whole grains, healthy fats and lean protein.

Garlic

Allicin, a natural chemical in garlic, fights common viruses. Add it to your cooked foods and salads. Don’t forget to have breath mints on hand!

Broccoli

Raw or lightly steamed broccoli contains vitamins A and C, as well as the compound sulforaphane, which helps ward off viruses. Add it to salads or use for dipping.

Vitamin C

For decades this has been the most popular vitamin for fending off viruses, but a handful of supplements won’t do much once you’re already infected. The best defence is to include a variety of fruits and vegetables daily with vitamin C to keep your immune system strong.

Oranges aren’t your only option — you can get more vitamin C from strawberries, kiwis, pineapple, mango, papaya, bell peppers, broccoli, cabbage, snow peas, brussels sprouts, cauliflower and kale.

Probiotics

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that are good for the gut. We generally think of this as meaning digestion, but our gut health is actually a key component to many elements of our health, including 70 per cent of our immune system. Studies show that specific foods containing probiotics reduce the occurrence, length and severity of colds. These foods include sauerkraut, kefir, yogourts with live and active cultures, kimchi, kombucha and miso.

Chicken soup

There’s nothing like a warm bowl of chicken noodle soup when you’re under the weather, but does it actually help to fight off a cold? The combination of chicken, homemade broth, veggies (such as carrots, celery and onions) and noodles or rice is immune-boosting and soothing. The warm broth clears your nasal passages and keeps you hydrated. Mother was right!

Tea

We drink mug after mug of tea when we’re ill as it feels great on a sore throat, but it’s actually doing more to help, depending on the type. Black and green teas contain an amino acid called L-Theanine, which boosts our immune system. Black tea has more of this amino acid than green, but green tea protects the immune system against disease-causing free radicals. Drink up!

Spinach

Spinach is rich in vitamin C and contains several antioxidants, which increases the ability for our immune system to fight infections. Eat it raw or cook it as little as possible to get the most nutrients.

Shellfish and fish

Indulging in fish or shellfish twice weekly may prevent colds and flus. Selenium, a mineral found in oysters, lobsters, crabs and clams, helps white blood cells produce proteins that fight flu viruses. Salmon, tuna, mackerel, and herring are loaded with omega-3 fats, which reduce inflammation.

Before you end up sidelined on the couch this winter, include a combination of these immune-boosting foods so you can have a healthy 2018.

By ROSE REISMAN    Special to the Star    Thu., Jan. 11, 2018
Rose Reisman is a nutritionist, caterer, speaker, media personality and author of 19 cookbooks. info@rosereisman.com
 


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Your Immune System May Decide How Your Social Life Goes

A new study finds brain and lymphatic connections change how we might view our capacity for being social.

Self-help authors have collectively made billions off books that are essentially how-to guides on winning friends and influencing people. There may be some useful insights in those tracts—hey, use everything ya got—but a new study suggests sociability isn’t just a matter of temperament, agreeableness, quick wit or sustaining eye contact during conversations. In some ways, it comes down to biology. According to a new study, the health of your immune system is directly correlated to the healthiness of your social life.

Detection of the link was made possible by a groundbreaking scientific discovery last year. The brain and immune system aren’t fully discrete, but instead are actively engaged with each other. This finding presented a game-changing new fact; a Discovery article on the revelation was titled “They’ll Have to Rewrite the Textbooks.” Writer Josh Barney described the conclusion, that “the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist,” as one that stunned the scientific community. “I really did not believe there were structures in the body that we were not aware of. I thought the body was mapped,” Jonathan Kipnis, a neuroscience professor the University of Virginia study co-author, marveled.

The new study, which builds on those findings, sheds light on how that interconnectedness influences our social behaviors. Researchers involved in the 2015 study noted that an immune molecule called “interferon gamma” seemed to play a key role in social behavior, and as Science Daily writes, “flies, zebrafish, mice and rats, activate interferon gamma responses when they are social.” Production of that same molecule happens when bodies encounter pathogens—“bacteria, viruses, parasites” and the like—and ensure the immune system functions as it should. When scientists blocked the molecule in mice, the mice turned largely antisocial and their immune systems suffered. When they turned its production back on, in addition to the expected immunoresponse, researchers noticed the mice also became far more interested in hanging out with other mice. Their obvious conclusion? Interferon gamma, and the health of an immune system, play a “profound role in maintaining proper social function.”

“Not only are we showing that [the brain and the adaptive immune system] are closely interacting, but some of our behavior traits might have evolved because of our immune response to pathogens,” Kipnis told Science Daily. “It’s crazy, but maybe we are just multicellular battlefields for two ancient forces: pathogens and the immune system. Part of our personality may actually be dictated by the immune system.”

While all this likely brings up a lot of questions, an obvious one is, why is this true? Why does having a compromised immune system affect our social skills? Researchers see some practical reasons for this evolutionary development.

immune

“The hypothesis is that when organisms come together, you have a higher propensity to spread infection,” Anthony J. Filiano, lead author of the study, told Science Daily. “So you need to be social, but [in doing so] you have a higher chance of spreading pathogens. The idea is that interferon gamma, in evolution, has been used as a more efficient way to both boost social behavior while boosting an anti-pathogen response.”

Speaking to the Atlantic’s Julie Beck, UMass Medical School professor and study co-author Vladimir Litvak explained further. “Naturally if individuals tend to spread diseases, that could easily result in extinction of the whole colony. So you have to have a very strong immune response.”

In other words, when your immune system isn’t in the best state, maybe you feel less like getting together with all your very nice—but germ-carrying—friends because your body’s not in the best state to fend off potential illnesses.

Taken together, these studies may hold massive implications for the future treatment of psychological conditions that have long baffled us. As Beck notes, “immune system dysfunction is linked to several diseases that involve social dysfunction—dementia, schizophrenia, and autism spectrum disorder among them.” In the future, a first step to address these disorders might begin with paying medical attention to their immune systems. The idea—which is not yet a done deal, since there’s lots more studies to be conducted—could upend our traditional thinking about approaches to treatment for psychiatric conditions.

“A lot of the preclinical studies have targeted synapses in the brain, and all of these therapies have failed,” study author Filiano said to Epoch Times. “The immune system, just because of our access to it, is a lot easier to target.”

 

By Kali Holloway / AlterNet August 25, 2016
Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.


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The Immune System Affects Social Behaviour and Personality

The immune system was thought to have little effect on the brain — until now.

The immune system is directly responsible for social behaviour and even our personalities, new research finds.

The conclusion comes as a shock to scientists and raises questions about the cause of mental health problems like schizophrenia and autism.

A malfunctioning immune system could be at the heart of these disorders.

Professor Jonathan Kipnis explained why the finding is so shocking to scientists:

“The brain and the adaptive immune system were thought to be isolated from each other, and any immune activity in the brain was perceived as sign of a pathology.
And now, not only are we showing that they are closely interacting, but some of our behavior traits might have evolved because of our immune response to pathogens.
It’s crazy, but maybe we are just multicellular battlefields for two ancient forces: pathogens and the immune system.
Part of our personality may actually be dictated by the immune system.”

For the research in mice and other animals, the scientists blocked a critical immune molecule called interferon-gamma.

The mice (and other animals) then became much less social than they had been before.

The study follows on from findings published last year that there is connection between the brain and the immune system previously thought not to exist.

immune

The link between the immune system and social behaviour makes sense, though, as being social is important but also raises the risk of disease.

Dr Anthony J. Filiano, the study’s lead author, explained:

“It’s extremely critical for an organism to be social for the survival of the species.
It’s important for foraging, sexual reproduction, gathering, hunting.
So the hypothesis is that when organisms come together, you have a higher propensity to spread infection.
So you need to be social, but [in doing so] you have a higher chance of spreading pathogens.
The idea is that interferon gamma, in evolution, has been used as a more efficient way to both boost social behavior while boosting an anti-pathogen response.”

Professor Kipnis said:

“Immune molecules are actually defining how the brain is functioning.
So, what is the overall impact of the immune system on our brain development and function?
I think the philosophical aspects of this work are very interesting, but it also has potentially very important clinical implications.”

The study was published in the journal Nature (Filiano et al., 2016).

source: PsyBlog       21 JULY 2016


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Creative Immune Boosting

Give seasonal colds and flu the (winter) boot

Don’t be at the mercy of winter’s cold and flu season. A little creative immune boosting, such as massage or a daily dose of laughter, might just keep nasty germs at bay.

Winter—the season of snow, skiing, holidays, and maybe even a little hot cider or wine in front of the fireplace with your loved one. Unfortunately, along with fun and passion, it’s also cold and flu time. Because we’re indoors more in winter, we’re likelier to play pass-the-bug with family, friends, and co-workers.

Nevertheless, we don’t have to avoid others or live outside permanently during winter to stay healthy (though a nice brisk walk or engaging in winter sports does wonders for the mind and body). There are many ways to boost your immune system, making it harder for colds and flu to take up residence.

Magic fingers

Remember the old telephone ad, “Let your fingers do the walking,” which encouraged us to use the Yellow Pages? If you don’t already have a massage therapist, now is a good time to look one up and let their magic fingers do the walking—over your body.

Numerous studies have shown that massage boosts your immune system by

  • increasing the number, kind, and distribution of good white blood cells throughout your body, making it less susceptible to disease
  • reducing inflammation and edema, which can lower the body’s immune system
  • stimulating your brain to release endorphins, producing calm, happy feelings
  • decreasing cortisol, a stress hormone that suppresses your immune system

There are many different types of massage, ranging from gentle stroking to deeper tissue kneading. Speak to your health care practitioner before beginning a massage treatment if you have blood, vein, or bone problems.

  • Aromatherapy massage uses plant-based essential oils on the skin to enhance the healing and relaxing effects of the massage.
  • Lymphatic massage concentrates on improving the flow of lymph, a fluid that helps fight off infection and disease.
  • Shiatsu uses gentle finger and hand pressure on specific body points to relieve pain and enhance the flow of energy (qi) through the body.
  • Swedish massage blends a variety of strokes and pressure techniques for all-over body health.

Laughter is the best medicine

Laughing is good exercise for the body, releasing mood-boosting endorphins, decreasing stress hormones, and increasing the type of white blood cells that fight infection. Scientists may not be the funny people of the world, but their research indicates a good laugh could be another tool in your disease-fighting arsenal.

Studies have investigated self-reported sense of humour, exposure to humorous stimuli, and smiling versus laughing. Computer geeks may be right: laughing out loud (LOL) had the most consistently positive immune-enhancing effect.

Find out what tickles your funny bone. Books. Movies. Silly songs. Sign up for a joke-a-day website and get your morning chuckle delivered right to your mailbox. Surround yourself with people who like to laugh and you’ll find yourself laughing with them.

When it comes to preventing colds and flu, let funny be your friend. Laugh, chuckle, or guffaw yourself healthy.

Sleep: Nature’s remedy

While you don’t have to hibernate to escape cold and flu season, getting enough sleep reduces stress, elevates your mood, and gives your immune system the resources to fight off disease.

If you’re sleep-deprived, your body’s cycle is thrown off and your immune system is disrupted. Even mild sleep deprivation—a couple of late nights—can have an adverse effect by overstimulating white blood cells. The greater and longer the deprivation, the more pronounced the effect and the more difficult it is for your immune system to recover its natural balance.

Aim for seven to eight hours. Sleeping fewer than seven hours makes you three times more likely to get a cold. And don’t count on the flu shot to make up for too many late nights; sleep deprivation can cut the effectiveness of the flu vaccine by 50 percent.

Sweet dreams.

Socialize to stay healthy

Strengthening your social network strengthens your immune system. Good friends keep you feeling connected to others, warding off feelings of loneliness. Researchers have known for years that people with strong social ties are more likely to survive serious illnesses.

Newer studies point to the effects of isolation on your immune system. Loneliness actually changes the immune system on a cellular level, decreasing your body’s ability to fight disease.

Colds and flu are not generally life-threatening, but they’re not a lot of laughs either. Family and friends may accidently pass on a virus, but their social support helps your immune system fight it off. They’re also likely to bring you chicken soup if you do get sick.

If you already have a strong social network, don’t take those people for granted. No matter how busy you are, make time to connect, even if it’s only a short phone call or an email. If you want to build up your circle of friends, take action. Volunteer, enrol in a course, take up a winter sport, or join an interest group to give you something to talk about.

cold

Think positive for better health

The mind-body connection is a two-way street. Being unhealthy can make you feel stressed and overwhelmed, while a negative mental state can lessen your immunity, causing illness. So it’s no surprise that research showed positive people fought off both cold and flu viruses better than those who were anxious, hostile, or depressed.

Rose-coloured glasses? Not necessary. Instead, strive for realistic optimism, which accepts that bad things happen but emphasizes keeping negative thoughts and fears at a manageable level. Staying positive allows your body to be its own doctor—releasing endorphins to cope with pain, gamma globulin to fortify your immune system, and interferon to fight viruses. Negative thoughts short-circuit this process.

The good news is that other immune boosters—sleeping, eating properly, social networking—also help keep you more upbeat, creating a positive feedback loop on the highway to health.

Eat a rainbow

Is it feed a cold and starve a fever or the other way around? Eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables daily, and you’ll be less likely to have either. The pot of gold at this rainbow’s end is a stronger-functioning immune system.

Each colour group tends to be high in particular vitamins, antioxidants, and other disease and inflammation-fighting compounds. In general, the darker the colour, the more nutrients. By regularly eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, you’ll get the widest range of nutrients, vitamins, and antioxidants—tools your immune system needs to keep running at its best.

Orange and yellow

The orange and yellow family owe their colour to beta carotene, which converts to vitamin A in the body. Many are also high in vitamin C and folate. Foods in this family include apricots, cantaloupe, mangoes, nectarines, butternut squash, carrots, yellow peppers, sweet potatoes, and citrus fruits.

Red

The red family aren’t blushing; they’re just filled with lycopene or anthocyanins, heavy hitters on the keep-healthy team. Good choices include strawberries, raspberries, grapes, apples, red peppers, beets, red cabbage, and cooked tomatoes.

Green

The green family get their eco-friendly shade from chlorophyll and may contain other health-enhancing compounds such as lutein, indoles, folate, and vitamin E. Members to munch on include green apples, grapes, limes, spinach, kale and other dark leafy greens, green peppers, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and avocado.

Blue

The blue and purple family are coloured by anthocyanins, powerful protectors of cells in the body. Grab some blackberries, blueberries, raisins, figs, purple grapes, prunes, or eggplant.

White

The white family may not be found on a real rainbow, but they have a place in your daily diet. They get their colour, which ranges from white to brown, from anthoxanthins. Some also contain allicin and potassium. Members in good standing include bananas, onions, parsnips, turnips, jicama, and potatoes. Garlic has long been known for its antiviral and antibacterial properties, while reishi, maitake, and shiitake mushrooms are believed to directly boost immune function.

Supplements that boost immunity

Great! You’re trying your hardest to get massages, laugh, sleep enough, eat properly, surround yourself with friends, and have a positive attitude. But let’s face it: life can get in the way of even the best intentions.

Adding vitamins, minerals, herbs, and supplements to your diet can help you this cold and flu season—and all year round for that matter. Many of them do double duty, helping your immune system while protecting you from a wide range of other diseases.

A daily multivitamin, especially one that contains selenium, zinc, and magnesium, is a good way to enhance your immune system. Don’t overdo it, however, particularly with vitamins A and E and zinc: too much of even a good thing can be bad, so enjoy the most immunity-boosting benefits by taking the recommended daily dose of these supplements.

Certain herbs and supplements also look promising for increasing immunity. Garlic, ginseng, milk thistle, and astragalus possess protective properties that have been shown to fight viruses and infections. Probiotics—healthy bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium—may also support immune function.

November 28, 2013        Harriet Cooper


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The Personality Trait Linked To The Strongest Immune System

Outgoing, sociable people also have the strongest immune systems, a new study finds.

Those who are the most conscientious and careful, though, are most likely to have a weaker immune system response.

The research found no evidence, though, that a tendency towards negative emotions was associated with poor health.

The study, published in the snappily titled journal Psychoneuroendochrinology, gave personality tests to 121 health adults (Vedhara et al., 2014).

Along with assessing the five major personality factors — extraversion, neuroticism, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness — participants had blood samples taken to measure genetic factors known to be important in immune function.

Why you shouldn't go to work sick

Professor Kavita Vedhara, who led the study, explained the results:

“Our results indicated that ‘extraversion’ was significantly associated with an increased expression of pro-inflammatory genes and that ‘conscientiousness’ was linked to a reduced expression of pro-inflammatory genes.

In other words, individuals who we would expect to be exposed to more infections as a result of their socially orientated nature (i.e., extraverts) appear to have immune systems that we would expect can deal effectively with infection.

While individuals who may be less exposed to infections because of their cautious/conscientious dispositions have immune systems that may respond less well.

We can’t, however, say which came first.

Is this our biology determining our psychology or our psychology determining our biology?”

source: PsyBlog


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How Happiness Boosts the Immune System

Researchers have struggled to identify how certain states of mind influence physical health. One biologist thinks he has an answer

When Steve Cole was a postdoc, he had an unusual hobby: matching art buyers with artists that they might like. The task made looking at art, something he had always loved, even more enjoyable. “There was an extra layer of purpose. I loved the ability to help artists I thought were great to find an appreciative audience,” he says.
At the time, it was nothing more than a quirky sideline. But his latest findings have caused Cole — now a professor at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at the University of California, Los Angeles — to wonder whether the exhilaration and sense of purpose that he felt during that period might have done more than help him to find homes for unloved pieces of art. It might have benefited his immune system too.
At one time, most self-respecting molecular biologists would have scoffed at the idea. Today, evidence from many studies suggests that mental states such as stress can influence health. Still, it has proved difficult to explain how this happens at the molecular level — how subjective moods connect with the vastly complex physiology of the nervous and immune systems. The field that searches for these explanations, known as psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), is often criticized as lacking rigour. Cole’s stated aim is to fix that, and his tool of choice is genome-wide transcriptional analysis: looking at broad patterns of gene expression in cells. “My job is to be a hard-core tracker,” he says. “How do these mental states get out into the rest of the body?”
With his colleagues, Cole has published a string of studies suggesting that negative mental states such as stress and loneliness guide immune responses by driving broad programs of gene expression, shaping our ability to fight disease. If he is right, the way people see the world could affect everything from their risk of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease to the progression of conditions such as HIV and cancer. Now Cole has switched tack, moving from negative moods into the even more murky territory of happiness. It is a risky strategy; his work has already been criticized as wishful thinking and moralizing. But the pay-off is nothing less than finding a healthier way to live.
“If you talk to any high-quality neurobiologist or immunologist about PNI, it will invariably generate a little snicker,” says Stephen Smale, an immunologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is not affiliated with the Cousins Center. “But this doesn’t mean the topic should be ignored forever. Someday we need to confront it and try to understand how the immune system and nervous system interact.”
The best medicine?
In 1964, magazine editor Norman Cousins was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a life-threatening autoimmune disease, and given a 1 in 500 chance of recovery. Cousins rejected his doctors’ prognosis and embarked on his own program of happiness therapy, including regular doses of Marx Brothers films, and credited it with triggering a dramatic recovery. He later established the Cousins Center, which is dedicated to investigating whether psychological factors really can keep people healthy.
At the time, mainstream science rejected the idea that any psychological state, positive or negative, could affect physical well-being. But studies during the 1980s and early 1990s revealed that the brain is directly wired to the immune system — portions of the nervous system connect with immune-related organs such as the thymus and bone marrow, and immune cells have receptors for neurotransmitters, suggesting that there is crosstalk.
These connections seem to have clinical relevance, at least in the case of stress. One of the first researchers to show this was virologist Ronald Glaser, now director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at the Ohio State University in Columbus. “When I started working on this in the 1980s, nobody believed what stress could do, including me,” he recalls. He and his colleagues sampled blood from medical students, and found that during a stressful exam period, they had lower activity from virus-fighting immune cells, and higher levels of antibodies for the common virus Epstein–Barr, suggesting that stress had compromised their immune systems and allowed the normally latent virus to become reactivated.
The field of PNI has grown hugely since then, with medical schools worldwide boasting their own departments of mind–body medicine, of which PNI is just one component. It is now accepted that the body’s response to stress can suppress parts of the immune system and, over the long term, lead to damaging levels of inflammation. Large epidemiological studies — including the Whitehall studies, which have been following thousands of British civil servants since 1967 — suggest that chronic work stress increases the risk of coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes, for example. Low socio-economic status increases susceptibility to a wide range of infectious diseases, and there is considerable evidence that stress increases the rate of progression of HIV/AIDS. But researchers have a long way to go before they will understand exactly how signals from the brain feed into physical health.
Worried sick
PNI studies have mostly tended to look at levels of individual immune-cell types or molecular messengers — such as the stress hormone cortisol and the immune messenger proteins called cytokines — or the expression of individual genes. But Cole wanted to get a sense of how the whole system was working.
His first foray, published in 2007, looked at loneliness. Social isolation is one of the most powerful known psychological risk factors for poor health, but it is never certain whether it causes the health problems, or whether a third factor is involved: lonely people might be less likely than others to eat well, for example, or to visit their doctor regularly.
Cole and his colleagues looked at gene expression in the white blood cells of six chronically lonely people — people who had said consistently over several years that they felt lonely or isolated, and were fearful of other people — and eight people who said that they had great friends and social support. Out of the roughly 22,000 genes in the human genome, the researchers identified 209 that distinguished the lonely people from the sociable ones: they were either regulated up to produce more of an individual protein or regulated down to produce less. Any individual gene could easily look different by chance, but Cole was struck by the overall pattern. A particularly large proportion of the upregulated genes in the lonely group turned out to be involved in the inflammatory response, whereas many of the downregulated genes had antiviral roles. In sociable people, the reverse was true. It was a small study, but one of the first to link a psychological risk factor with a broad underlying change in gene expression.
The researchers have since replicated that result in a group of 93 people. Cole says that he has also seen a similar shift in gene expression in individuals exposed to various types of social adversity, from imminent bereavement to low socio-economic status.
The results make evolutionary sense, he says. Early humans in close-knit social groups would have faced increased risk of viral infections, so they would have benefited from revved-up antiviral genes. By contrast, people who were isolated and under stress faced greater risk of injuries that could cause bacterial infection — and thus would need to respond by ramping up genes associated with inflammation, to help heal wounds and fight off those infections. But modern stresses lead to chronic and unhelpful inflammation, which over time damages the body’s tissues, increasing the risk of chronic diseases such as atherosclerosis, cancer and diabetes.
To a classical immunologist such as Smale, Cole’s results are “intriguing, wonderful observations”, but not yet completely convincing. In future work, he wants to see the rest of the physiological pathway nailed down. “Until you put together a full understanding of that mechanism, you have this level of uncertainty and scepticism,” he says. That sentiment is echoed by Alexander Tarakhovsky, an immunologist at the Rockefeller University in New York City. Pinning down precise mechanisms — for example, which neurotransmitters cause which specific effects — is extremely difficult, he says, because the brain and the immune system are both so complex. Cole’s research “makes you think about what the consequences of social hardship could be, but it doesn’t really tell you how it works”.
Greg Gibson, director of the Center for Integrative Genomics at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, wants to see larger studies but argues that the big-picture “genetic architecture” that Cole is uncovering is worth studying, even if not every detail of the mechanism is yet understood. “A lot of people are taking a whole-genome approach, but they focus only on a handful of ‘top hits’. They are missing the wood for the trees.”
Don’t worry, be happy
In 2010, Cole received an e-mail from Barbara Fredrickson, a friend from graduate school who was now studying emotional well-being at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “Remember me?” she said. She was interested in the biological correlates of happiness and other positive emotional states, and suggested that the pair collaborate. After years of looking at stress and adversity, Cole loved the idea. “I was bored as hell with misery,” he says.
If PNI as a whole has credibility issues, studying well-being is even trickier. It is more slippery to measure than stress — there is no biological marker such as cortisol to fall back on and no simple way to induce it in the lab, and mainstream biologists tend to look down on fuzzy methods of data collection such as questionnaires.
One approach is to test whether it is possible to reverse the adverse effects on gene expression caused by stress. Cole has collaborated in three small, randomized, controlled trials that attempt to do this. Studies involving 45 stressed caregivers and 40 lonely adults respectively found that courses in meditation shifted gene-expression profiles in the participants’ white blood cells away from inflammatory genes and towards antiviral genes. A third trial, led by psycho-oncologist Michael Antoni at the University of Miami, Florida, involved 200 women with early-stage breast cancer. In those who completed a ten-week stress-management program, genes associated with inflammation and metastasis were downregulated compared with those of women in the control group, who attended a one-day educational seminar. Meanwhile, genes involved in the type I interferon response (which fights tumors as well as viruses) were upregulated in the women who took the stress-management course. “Our conclusion was that mood matters,” says Antoni. “If we change the psychology, physiological changes do parallel that.”
Cole and Fredrickson aspired to go further. Instead of looking at the benefits of blocking stress, they wanted to investigate what happens in the body when people are happy. To that end, they asked 80 participants 14 questions, such as how often in the past week they had felt happy or satisfied, and how often they felt that their life had a sense of meaning. The questions were designed to distinguish between the two forms of happiness recognized by psychologists: hedonic well-being (characterized by material or bodily pleasures such as eating well or having sex) and eudaimonic well-being (deeper satisfaction from activities with a greater meaning or purpose, such as intellectual pursuits, social relationships or charity work).
The researchers were surprised to find that the two types of happiness influenced gene expression in different ways. People with a meaning-based or purpose-based outlook had favorable gene-expression profiles, whereas hedonic well-being, when it occurred on its own, was associated with profiles similar to those seen in individuals facing adversity.
One interpretation is that eudaimonic well-being benefits immune function directly. But Cole prefers to explain it in terms of response to stress. If someone is driven purely by hollow consumption, he argues, all of their happiness depends on their personal circumstances. If they run into adversity, they may become very stressed. But if they care about things beyond themselves — community, politics, art — then everyday stresses will perhaps be of less concern. Eudaimonia, in other words, may help to buffer our sense of threat or uncertainty, potentially improving our health. “It’s fine to invest in yourself,” says Cole, “as long as you invest in lots of other things as well.”
Perils of positive thinking
This is just the kind of advice that attracts some of the most vociferous criticisms of Cole’s work. James Coyne, a health psychologist and emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, says that Cole and Frederickson’s well-being study is simply too small to show anything useful. He also argues that the measures of eudaimonic and hedonic happiness are so highly correlated in the study as to be essentially the same thing. Coyne says that early results are being vastly over-sold. “They claim that if you make the right choices, you’ll be healthy. And if you don’t, you’ll die.”
Coyne wants researchers across the field of PNI to stop publicizing claims about health benefits until the science is more solid. “They’re turning it into books and workshops, telling people how to live their lives.”
Fredrickson, for example, is the author of two popular books, including Positivity (Crown Archetype, 2009), which posits that a specific ratio of positive to negative emotions (2.9013, to be precise) is linked to good health. The book has been praised by eminent psychologists such as Daniel Goleman and Martin Seligman, but the set of equations behind the ratio was criticized this year by Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University (who famously published a deliberately nonsensical paper in the journal Social Text in 1996, intended to expose the lack of rigour in the field of cultural studies). He pointed out that the equations are based on parameters from a 1962 paper on air flow, with no connection to psychological data at all. Fredrickson acknowledges problems with the maths, which she based on a peer-reviewed paper on the complex dynamics of teams, but says that she stands by the fundamental principles described in the book. “There seems good enough evidence to suggest that emotions contribute to health.”
Cole and Fredrickson agree that their study is small and needs to be repeated. But they say that extensive previous research has validated the questionnaire they used and confirmed that it measures two distinct, albeit highly correlated, emotional states. They also note that correlation does not necessarily mean that two states are the same: height and weight are also highly correlated, for example, yet describe different things. Each type of happiness tends to encourage the other, says Fredrickson, “but we can try to understand which is leading the way towards health”.
The researchers are not the first from the PNI community to face accusations of wishful thinking. Indeed, the story of the field’s founder — hailed in the press as proof of the power of positive emotions — has been questioned. Immunologists have suggested that Cousins was not suffering from ankylosing spondylitis at all, but from polymyalgia rheumatica, which often clears up on its own. His “health probably coincidentally remitted”, says Cole.
Despite the criticisms, and the fact that his work is in its early days, Cole says that he is struck by the evidence that positive emotions can override the biological effects of adversity — enough to make changes in his own life. Although he no longer has time to engage in the art trade, he has embraced the ways that his hobby helped him. “I have spent most of my career and personal life trying to avoid or overcome bad things,” he says. “I spend a lot more time now thinking about what I really want to do with my life, and where I’d like to go with whatever years remain.”
This article is reproduced from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on November 27, 2013.