Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say the phrase “strengthen immunity”? I’ll bet it’s not “meditation” or “positive thinking”. But scientists have known for decades that your state of mind is critical to the performance of your immune system.
You see, your immune system is like that emo kid from middle school – it’s exquisitely sensitive to signals, from both the body and the mind. In fact, there’s a whole branch of science, first ‘invented’ in the late 1970’s – called psychoneuroimmunology – which studies the ways in which what we think about (psych/ neuro) affects our immune system (immunology).
And get this: All the benefits that vitamin C may provide can be wiped out by just one day of CNN!
Seriously. The body’s stores of both Vitamin C and pantothenic acid (B5) are literally vacuumed up by stress and tension.
Which brings me to one of the most important tips I’m going to give you during this challenge: Stop using Facebook so much!
The Cost of 24-Hour Stress
I’ll use Facebook as an obvious example, but all that 24-hour newsfeed isn’t doing you a bit of good and is probably doing you quite a bit of harm. (That’s because stress significantly raises the amount of stress hormones in the blood like cortisol, also known as the “Fight or Flight” hormone. I’ll explain why that’s a really bad thing in just a minute.)
The constant diet of bad news isn’t helping you at all – most of it isn’t useful, actionable information anyway. That newsfeed is actually creating a virtual stress factory taking up psychic space in your brain. Whether you test positive or negative for COVID, whether you know your status or you don’t know your status, the recommended actions – at least for now – are going to be exactly the same!
Run errands only when absolutely necessary, don’t be around anyone who’s sick, keep a reasonable social distance, wear gloves and masks, wash your hands and don’t touch your face. Period. That’s all you need to know right now! If it changes, you can find out by tuning into the local news for about five minutes a day.
So, do your immune system a favor: turn off the TV news, stop with so much social media, unplug and relax.
What’s So Bad About Cortisol?
To explain why all this is so critical to the subject of immunity, we have to go back to the stress hormone cortisol. Now don’t get me wrong – cortisol is a wonderful hormone. You want to have cortisol around for sticky situations, just like you want first gear on your car. You don’t want to drive in first gear, but you like knowing it’s there if you have to get up a hill.
Cortisol is just like first gear. It’s there to get you out of a jam, which is why it’s known as the “fight or flight” hormone.
But like first gear on your car, cortisol was designed to be a once-in-a-while thing. Our bodies and metabolism (and our immune system) were not designed to operate well on chronic cortisol overload, just as our cars weren’t meant to race down the freeway in first gear.
Chronically high levels of cortisol create insulin resistance, which itself contributes to all the conditions that are risk factors for bad outcomes with COVID-19 exposure.
High levels of cortisol signal the body to store more fat around the middle – which, in addition to adding unwanted belly fat, leads to a whole rat’s nest of metabolic problems, all of which further depress immunity.
Finally, high levels of cortisol shrink a portion of the brain involved in memory and thinking called the hippocampus
Studies from the psychoneuroimmunology literature clearly show that people who are “run down” from stress get sick more often and more seriously. And our thoughts are a huge driver of our stress hormones. So if we constantly give psychic energy to negative, disempowering thoughts about the virus, it’s pretty much like taking a sledgehammer to our already stressed immune system.
And the stress we’re under doesn’t just come from the news. The isolation, disruption of routine, lack of stability and even social distancing are all taking a huge psychic toll, and we ignore them at our peril. This is the “other side” of immunity. And it’s up to us to do damage control while it’s happening.
What to do what to do?
Here are three things you can right now, today that will make things better. Try these three simple steps and do each of them daily throughout the challenge.
- Write down at least one big thing you’re grateful for right now. (Just let your mind randomly float to one thing in your life that you’re really grateful for right now and then write it down!
- Spend four minutes on a deep breathing exercise every day. You can do it anywhere. Just set a timer for 4 min, sit (or lie) quietly and relaxed, and breathe deeply – in for four, out for seven – in as relaxed a way as possible for four minutes. Relax all the muscles in your face, head and neck while you do it. (You’ll find it interesting to notice how much tension you actually carry around in those places without even thinking about it. You only notice when you start to relax them!)
It’s perfectly fine to do this 4-minute exercise more than once on any given day, but for now, the assignment is once a day!
- Download the free app “48 seconds”. It’s an easy, clever way to remind you to take moments throughout the day to just calm yourself, lower your heartrate, have a positive thought, and then re-enter the world a little more at peace.
The Mental Game of Immunity
This whole challenge is about supporting/ encouraging the immune system, right? And how do you support anything in life – a child, a partner, an athlete, a sports team? Those of you who are sports fans – or parents – already know the answer.
Any great coach will do a ton of physical training, drills, strengthening and conditioning exercises, practice plays – all that good stuff. But no good coach has ever lived that was able to take his team to victory without being able to motivate them, encourage them, bring up their spirits and raise their “heart”.
Without that mental game, there is no championship mentality. Without a championship mentality, there is no champion.
Immunity is exactly like that. It has a “mental game” or at least a “mental component” all its own, and it originates from your thoughts, the things you rent out psychic space to. You want your immune system to be at champion level – giving you the greatest odds of winning whatever battle it has to fight on your behalf. And you do that, not just by supporting it physically with nutrition and sleep, but by supporting it with a peaceful mind.
Worry, tension and stress are the direct enemies of a top-functioning immune system.
The greatest gift you can give your immune system is to spend as much time as possible in states of mind that include gratitude, joy, serenity, peace and connection to others.
And yes. That’s a scientific fact!
See you next time!