Meditation and Immunity
What is the relationship between meditation and a healthy immune system?
Lately I’ve been fascinated by the way in which meditation support immune function. It may sound a bit abstract at first, or esoteric. Some of you may even raise an understandably skeptical eyebrow, wondering how sitting and doing absolutely nothing can improve immune health. As you know by now, I’m a rather practical person at heart and I too felt like this sounded a bit outlandish. It turns out that this is not a matter of woo-woo beliefs or wishful thinking, or the stuff of some allegorical fairy tale. This is the conclusion of some serious hard-nosed science.
Read on to see what I’ve uncovered in my travels across the interwebs…
What’s the deal with meditation and immune health?
This journey begins, rather unremarkably, in the brain. Meditation is good for the noggin. At least in my own mind, that’s not much of a stretch. I “exercise” my brain with a focused-attention type of practice, or relax with a calming mantra or something similar. This jibes with my own experience, and there is plenty of evidence that the brain is affected in a positive way by meditation.
What is not exactly intuitive, however, is that there is a direct connection between meditation and increased immune function. In fact, a particular study from 2003 showed increased antibody titers (bio-markers for antibody production) and that “…the magnitude of increase in left-sided activation predicted the magnitude of antibody titer rise to the vaccine.”
Whoa! So there is not just a loose connection between meditation and immune response, it is scientifically shown to be directly correlated. That got my attention! Especially in the midst of a pandemic, where immune health is so critical to each of our ability to ride out this health crisis. There are a lot of things I would do if you told me they would help me develop antibodies to resist a virus. Of course, this will become even more important when a vaccine is developed.
The very next question that arose in my mind is: Why? Why do mindfulness and meditation help strengthen immune response?
The answer is actually a bit simpler than I expected. It’s not rocket science. The lead of the story is stress. Stress suppresses the immune system. At least in my mind, this is not intuitive, so let’s spend a moment here. Why would that be? What is the natural organizing principle of stress being immunosuppressive?
Well, stress is a natural response to danger. It is the biochemical experience of the sympathetic response, also know as fight-or-flight. If a bear is about to tear my head off, my body produces cortisol. That, in turn, results in increased heart rate, blood flow to the muscular system, rapid breathing, as well as reduction in other processes. This is useful for dealing with the bear. I can dash up a tree or down the hill and get out of harm’s way, fast. I do not need my energy and resources for immune health, digestion, or pondering Socrates. I need to get to safety as quickly as possible. And then afterwards, in the natural world, I would collapse in a heap and probably take a nap to recover once the threat has subsided.
In our modern world, however we walk around with a constant level of stress. We have a trickle of cortisol running through our system at all times, triggered by traffic, arguments, deadlines, systemic oppression, and many other complexities of modern life. What’s more, there is no built-in way of releasing this buildup of stress and cortisol. Therefore we are in a perpetual state of moderate sympathetic arousal, and so our digestion, cognitive abilities, and immune health are consistently compromised.
Enter meditation. Having a regular mindfulness, or meditation practice, flushes the system and allows the body to go into the parasympathetic state, stemming the flow of cortisol and allowing the systems to relax and regroup. Breathing slows, heart rate settles down and muscles relax, allowing the other systems that were on hiatus to start working again. Antibody generation ramps up, digestion increases, and Socrates can once again be considered.
So the conclusion is that meditation is good for the immune system because meditation reduces stress.
“Stress is immunosuppressive. Research into this pernicious relationship between stress and disease has piqued interest in the ways that contemplative practices might positively influence the immune system. According to a large body of evidence, meditation appears to have profound effects on immune function in health and disease because of its ability to reduce stress.”
Do you know anyone who might benefit from a well-researched method for improving their immune response?