Righto, to begin, there is no such thing as the immune system… how’s that for a start? The term immune system is an umbrella term. There are different types of “immune systems” that act in different ways but share the same plan of action – prevent infection. So before we can appreciate the way that stress and meditation interact with these immune systems we must get to know them.
When that tiger jumps out from behind that rock with one thing on its mind… lunch… your body goes into its innate defence mode, the fight or flight response. Because your body knows that volatile situations such as this typically ends up with an injury, the body gears up to expect it. Your body knows that injury also means infection. So your immune system goes into overdrive, to ensure if that injury occurs and infection ensues, it can be controlled and not pose a risk to your life, because back in those days, there were no anti-biotics… One division of the immune system called ‘Cellular Immunity’ gets particularly active and it’s your anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-protozoal (a type of parasite) and your anti-cancer immune system, and it’s the type of immunity that deals with the infection when it actually gets into the cells of your body.
When the infection is yet to enter the cell and is floating around in your bloodstream or lymphatic system, in other words the fluids of your body, a different type of immunity comes into play called your “Humoural Immunity”. The “humours” is a very old medical term that used to be used to describe the fluids of the body hence the name humoural immunity. Humoural immunity fights infection using different types of immune cells called B lymphocytes that try to destroy the invading pathogens before they actually get to your cell – so it’s the type of immunity that is probably first going to meet the infection after an injury. The B lymphocytes also produce antibodies and it is these antibodies that are responsible for your immunological memory – the way your body recognises an infection that you have had before and how to defeat it so the body can respond super-fast in the future if you encounter that pathogen again.
So that is a basic understanding of something that is incredible complex, but it’s enough for what we need to understand when it comes to stress and the immune system. As I have mentioned in previous articles, balance is the key to health, and in the immune system, this also applies. The chemistry of stress tends to be the spanner in the works creating imbalance in our body, and when it comes to the immune system it’s no different. When in the acute phase of stress we have an over activation of the immune response, for good reason, but when the stress response persists, as it does for most modern humans to varying levels, it’s almost as if the immune system gets tired and fatigued, leading to immune suppression – a weakened immune system. The humoural immunity defences in the blood and lymph, which are our first line defence, are weakened allowing infections to penetrate deeper into our bodies and cells, but then the cellular immunity defences aren’t strong either, making us vulnerable to infection from bacteria, viruses and fungal infections, and if the conditions are right, cancer.
Often in people that are chronically persistently stressed, the immune system can become imbalanced between our cellular and humoural immunity, with one division becoming particularly strong to the point where it turns on our own tissues. This occurs in the case of autoimmunity. An autoimmune condition is where the immune system loses the ability to recognise self from non-self and begins to attack the body. There are two classes of autoimmune conditions that tie into whether the cellular or the humoural immunity predominates. Firstly there are the ‘Tissue Specific Autoimmune Conditions’. These conditions are caused by an over active cellular immunity, where a specific patch of tissue in the body is being attacked. Examples of this is psoriasis where the epidermis is being attacked in certain places, Alopecia Areata where specific patches of hair follicles on the head are attacked leading to bald patches, Multiple Sclerosis where the immune system attacks the protective coating around nerves, Coeliac Disease where areas of the digestive tract are affect and early stage rheumatoid arthritis where the fingers are affected. Swing over to the other side now, an over active humoural immunity, and we get ‘Systemic Autoimmune Conditions’. Remember that the humoural immune system is active in the blood and lymph which circulates systemically, so an overactivity here tends to affect the whole body, as in conditions like Lupus and Scleroderma.
If you are diagnosed with psoriasis, what type of specialist do you see? You see a dermatologist and they treat your skin don’t they? If diagnosed with MS? A neurologist and they treat your nerves. Coeliac disease? A gastroenterologist, Rheumatoid arthritis, a rheumatologist. All of these specialists are focusing on the symptoms of the conditions here. What is driving the symptomology that is common between all of these conditions? As you have seen it’s the immune system. These people really should be seeing an immunologist… but wait a minute… what’s creating the imbalance in the immune system? Is the imbalanced immune system a symptom of a deeper underlying issue?… can you see where I’m going here? When we get deeper again, the issue is not the manifestation of the disease with its symptomology, it’s what’s creating the imbalance in the body – the question is - what’s instructing the body to do this? Remember, the symptoms are just the feedback system the body use to get your attention to make changes within your life and environment… it’s the environment we surround ourselves with that’s the issue…
You are what you eat… We’ve all heard this before. We are not only what we eat, we are what we eat, breath, stick on our skin, watch on TV, the people we associate with, the environments we work in, the books we read, the perceptions we have…. Everything. Everything in life creates somewhat of a chemistry either directly or indirectly. All of this chemistry, from all areas of life, is what I call “The Chemistry of Life”. So much focus goes on the physical body, the flesh suit. But what is telling the flesh suit what to do, how healthy to be, what diseases, which are just groups of symptoms to create? The environment does. Not the earth and the weather patterns.. the chemistry of our lives.
There is an emerging field of science called “Epigenetics” and this field of study focuses on the environmental factors such as diet, stress and other lifestyle factors that influence the expression of our genes. In a nut shell, the genes we inherit do not have to be our fate. Genes are like the loaded gun with the finger ready and waiting on it, and the chemistry of our life is what either pulls the trigger or not. Genes can either be expressed where they become active and affect the body or not expressed, where they do not affect the body – they lie dormant. Instead of focusing on the flesh suit, focus on the environment, that’s what pulls the trigger – the chemistry of life. Make the changes there. The chemistry of life instructs the chemistry of our bodies. It’s wise to focus our time, effort and money here.
To bring things full circle and try to make sense of this… stress and its chemistry has the ability to supresses and/or imbalance the immune system. The result is a specific type of symptomology whether it be tissue specific or systemic. Whichever it is, it is still the body trying to get your attention to make changes to the chemistry of your life. Stress, in particularly chronic persistent stress, is a major epigenetic factor and influences our health way more than we give it credit for. When we manage our stress better and react and respond appropriately to our body’s feedback mechanisms, our immune systems are stronger and more balanced leading to a better quality of life. To break it down even more simply – decreasing the amount of stress in your life can make your immune system, and you, healthier…
If you would like to learn even more about stress, health, the relaxation response, meditation, mindfulness and how it can help you to decrease the amount of stress in your life and the impact it is having, join me on one of my Meditation and Mindfulness workshops or courses. I recommend my "Introduction to Mindfulness and Meditation workshop where you will learn everything needed to establish a healthy mindfulness and Meditation practice - to find out more about this workshop CLICK HERE.
If you would like to reserve your place or find out more information please call 0411 501 979 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. An online version of the workshop is in production and will soon be ready to release. If you would like to make an appointment with me to explore the role that stress may be having in your health issues please CONTACT ME.