In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, we’ve become more attuned than ever to looking after our physical and mental wellbeing. Central to this is a focus on our immune systems. This complex network of cells, tissues and organs is our body’s natural defence mechanism, helping to protect us from illness and promote cellular repair.
The immune system is key to our overall wellness. When it is functioning optimally, we feel strong and vital, and are able to fight off infections and maintain good health. But if our immunity is weakened, we become vulnerable to disease and all of our body’s other systems are compromised.
In order to boost our immunity, we need to take good care of ourselves from within. Sleep, nutrition, exercise and lifestyle all play an important role in keeping this system working at its best. And alongside these factors, there is increasing evidence that meditation can have a positive impact on our immunity.
Boosting the immune response
When the immune system encounters a threat, it sends out cells that circulate in the bloodstream and help us to fend off infection and disease. Research shows that meditation appears to affect these cells in beneficial ways.
In one study, people who took part in a three-month mindfulness meditation programme showed an increase in telomerase activity, an enzyme connected to immune cell longevity.
Another review showed that mindfulness meditation reduced markers of inflammation, which is associated with decreased immune function and disease. It also found that it increased the number of CD-4 cells, which are involved in sending signals to other cells to destroy infections.
Mindfulness practice has also been linked to quicker recovery time. Research into a stress reduction programme showed that those who improved most in mindfulness skills also demonstrated faster wound healing, a process that is regulated by the immune system.
And another study showed that after an eight-week mindfulness meditation programme, people who were then administered with a flu vaccine had increased levels of antibodies, indicating a stronger immune response.
A healthy mind-body connection
Research in this area is still in its early stages, and scientists are working to better understand the complex relationship between meditation and immune health.
While questions remain about the mechanisms involved, many researchers believe that meditation’s effect on the immune system could be linked to its ability to help relieve stress and support mental wellbeing.
Stress is known to have a powerful impact on our immunity. The brain and the immune system communicate constantly, and this delicate relationship can be disrupted by any kind of stress. While short bursts of acute stress have been shown to enhance our immune response, ongoing stress has the opposite effect, severely depressing the immune system. Over time, this inhibits its ability to protect us, leaving us depleted and vulnerable to infection.
By contrast, studies show that psychological wellbeing can help to improve our immune response and enhance resistance to disease.
Mindfulness meditation offers a wonderful resource for supporting our mental and emotional balance. Through focusing our attention and making us more aware of our thoughts, the practice reduces our reactivity towards stressful situations and improves our internal resilience.
This creates powerful changes in our physiology, reducing activity in the parts of our brain connected to the stress response, and enhancing activity in the prefrontal cortex, the right anterior insula and right hippocampus. These regions are connected with positive emotion and awareness. They also act as the command centre for our immune system. By stimulating them, it is thought that mindfulness meditation can help the immune system to function more effectively.
In this calm, regulated state, our body is able to move out of its emergency fight-or-flight mode and find its natural equilibrium. Instead of diverting energy towards threat and survival, it can focus on rest, repair and healing. There is still much to be discovered in this field. Yet it is clear that cultivating a meditation practice can be a great way to support our optimal wellbeing, strengthening our body’s systems and boosting health and vitality from within.