Editor’s Note: Andrew Weil, M.D. is a world-renowned leader, best-selling author, and...
Every day we confront challenges to our health. Viruses, bacteria, and toxins are all around us, but our bodies manage to ward off the great majority of them. Why is it, then, that sometimes our defenses can’t keep up? The answer lies in the health and balance of our immune system, the body’s primary defense against infectious disease. The human body has a remarkable capacity to heal itself and defend against disease. However, when our defenses are low and illness has set in, something has interfered with our body’s natural healing powers. We are in an unbalanced state and our immunity suffers.
A healthy immune system is dynamic
Our immune system is continuously responding to a dynamically changing inner and outer environment. Healthy immunity requires strength, balance, and flexibility. The Sanskrit word for immunity is bala, which means strength. This strength, which keeps us vital and resistant to illness, is the fruit of balanced living. When energy is flowing freely between our environment, senses, body, mind, emotions, and soul, our immune system is awake and responsive. When we have congestion in some aspect of our life − a stressful job, a turbulent relationship, poor diet, disrupted sleep − vital energy is blocked and we become susceptible to imbalance, distress, and disease.
Beliefs become biology
Many years ago a study by Dr. Robert Ader aroused the scientific community by showing that perceptions and interpretations are metabolized into physiology. In his experiment, Dr. Ader gave rats a shot of a potent immune-suppressing drug the moment they tasted sweetened water. Like many similarly powerful drugs, this one had severe nausea as a side effect. The animals associated the sweet water with the nausea from the drug and thereafter avoided it. Dr. Ader then repeated the experiment, but this time he injected the rats with a placebo the moment they tasted the sweetened water. After the first taste, they refused to drink the sweetened water, as expected. What was unexpected was that, despite the fact that the animals received only a harmless placebo, their immune cells became suppressed as if they had received the potent drug. Their cells had interpreted the sweet water as toxic and responded to their interpretation. Their beliefs became their biology.
The connection between immunity and stress
Hundreds of subsequent studies have demonstrated that people respond similarly to how the rats responded in Dr. Ader’s experiment. If we are having a stressful month, we are more likely to come down with a cold. If we are anxious about passing an exam, an allergic skin problem is more likely to flare up. Rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and ulcerative colitis are just a few of many immunological conditions that are influenced by stress.
In short, the level of stress or comfort we feel in our lives influences our immune cells. When we are experiencing a lot of emotional turbulence, our immune cells receive confusing messages from our brain. It’s as if our immune cells are constantly eavesdropping on our internal dialogue. When our mind is calm and peaceful, our immune cells behave more effectively than when we are in a distressed state of mind.
Learning to stay balanced while managing the inevitable stresses of life will keep you healthier and happier.
1. Manage your stress. Learn and practice a meditation or relaxation technique on a daily basis.
2. Eat well. According to Ayurveda, if we sample foods that correspond to each of the six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent) throughout the day, our meals will provide a wide variety of health-promoting nutrients. Favor fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
3. Get adequate restful sleep. A lack of sleep weakens the immune system, contributes to weight gain and inflammation, and creates other imbalances in the body. Most people need eight hours of sleep to feel rested. Learn a healthy sleep routine here.
4. Exercise. Regular physical activity slows the release of stress-related hormones, improves sleep, and strengthens the immune system. Integrate flexibility, strength building, and cardiovascular activities into your daily routine.
5. Laugh. Like exercise, joyful laughter has been shown to increase the circulation of blood, decrease inflammation, and contribute to the release of disease-fighting T cells and natural killer cells.
6. Enjoy a massage. Healing touch not only awakens immune function, it simply feels good. Getting regular hugs or petting a beloved cat or dog also benefits your physical and emotional wellbeing.
7. Look at things that inspire you. Limit your exposure to violent television programs and movies. A Harvard study showed that watching violent scenes weakens immunity, whereas watching loving or uplifting images stimulates the immune system.