You’ve heard of the Department of Homeland Security, right? Think of your immune system as your body’s very own Homeland Security. It’s your mobile surveillance system that both finds and attacks harmful foreign invaders, like bacteria and viruses. When you have an infection, you feel the effects of your immune system working to fight it. Your body aches, your nose runs, and your temperature spikes. These are all signs of acute inflammation – your body protecting you against invaders.
But just like Homeland Security has the potential for overreach, so does your immune system. When your immune system sees everything as dangerous – pollen, peanuts, cheese, or even your own tissues – you’ll feel lousy. We used to think that an infection caused tissue damage, but now we know that your own immune system releases cytokines that, though crucial in fighting infection, can cause their own set of problems. Too many cytokines in the joints can cause arthritis and too many in the gut can cause Crohn’s disease.
Inflammation has become a hot topic. People are willing to try anti-inflammatory diets, bathe in Epsom salts, and consume supplements and anti-inflammatory medications by the fistful. Though inflammation is clearly a problem, we still don’t know exactly why one’s immune system becomes hyper-vigilant. But we do have some good news!
In her book, Cure: The Science of Mind over Body, Jo Marchant describes many ways our mind directly impacts physiology. Science is just now starting to appreciate the role of the brain’s electrical system in inflammation. A series of studies by Kevin Tracey, M.D, helped us understand that our brain plays a huge role in inflammation. His research focused on rats with endotoxemia, an infection that causes septic shock (blood poisoning). Tracey stimulated the vagus nerve in the rats’ brains and was able to stop inflammation in its tracks!
The autonomic nervous system handles functions not under conscious control. Two main branches are: the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest). Only one of the two systems operates at a time (at least at a high level). The vagus nerve is a key nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system and it has enormous reach. It travels from the brain to stimulate many different organs on its way to the colon. And it “reads” the body and sends all those signals back to the brain. So when your gut is tied in knots, you feel emotional stress. When the parasympathetic system is operating, your body can repair itself, and carry on all the things it cannot do when you are running from the imaginary tiger.
If the Vagus nerve is so good at decreasing inflammation, how do you stimulate the Vagus nerve without putting electrodes in your brain?
There are many simple ways:
- Take long, slow breaths, which allow the diaphragm to fully drop. This deep breathing causes the heart rate to drop, especially during the slow exhale. Breathe, but remember: not just any breath will do. Deep, slow breathing stimulates the Vagus nerve most effectively.
- Aerobic exercise- even a nice easy stroll will do.
- Chant or sing
- Sleep or lie on your right side
- Get out and be social. Positive relationships do wonders for physical health.
As we learn ways in which our physiology is intimately connected to our minds, we can find simple ways to integrate mind and body for optimal health.
Little by little…