The Immune System

New research on the immune system has led to an unprecedented understanding of the relationship between the nervous system and the immune system. One kind of immune cells, lymphocytes, remain undivided and unchanged throughout your lifetime ö just like brain cells. One set of lymphocytes even develops at the same stages and in the same place as your brain cells.

The immune system and the nervous system also share a number of features, including memory and recognition. It now appears that bidirectional pathways, two-way avenues of communication, exist between the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. The phrase psychoneuroimmunology describes the combined study of the psyche, nervous system and immune system. Coined by Robert Adler as early as 1975, the fruits of this complex area of study have only recently begun to become available.

It now appears that immune function and psychological health may be directly related. One recent study, for example, found that women with histories of long-term sexual abuse had lower ratios of certain immune cells, resulting in "significant immunological abnormalities." Another study suggests that the ability to express one's distress can improve immune function.

This relationship between psychological health and immunity can have a profound effect on how the body reacts to illness. In the 1970s Carl and Stephanie Simonton began teaching cancer patients the use of visualization at the Cancer Counseling and Research Center in Dallas. Patients visualized forces coming to fight their cancer. The survival rates of their patients doubled. Some even experienced spontaneous remissions. Researchers do not fully understand this connection between psychological well-being and immune function, but there is considerable evidence that this link exists. Robert Ader and Nicholas Cohen conducted a series of experiments at Rochester University Medical School. Beginning in the 1970s they administered a drug that lowers immune response in water flavored with saccharin to mice. They then measured the immune response of the mice. After testing, they administered saccharin alone. The mice showed the same immune suppression without being given the immuno-suppressant drug. The response came with exposure to saccharin alone – a conditioned response. This suggested a strong link between immune function and psychological learning.

Yale researcher Bernie Siegel is widely known for his work on visualization. He focuses on helping patient to achieve peace of mind, and notes that when they do, diseases and illnesses often disappear. "My message is peace of mind, not curing cancer or paralysis," Siegel says. "In achieving peace of mind, cancer may be healed and paralysis may disappear. These things may occur through peace of mind, which creates a healing environment in the body."

Similarly, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who heads the Stress Reduction Clinic at University of Massachusetts Medical Center, emphasizes that use of meditation must center on healing not on cure. "In order to be effective for healing, we believe that the use of visualization and imagery needs to be embedded in a larger context, one that understands and honors non-doing and non-striving," he writes. "Otherwise, visualization exercises can too easily degenerate from meditation into wishful thinking, and the intrinsic healing power and wisdom of the simple mindfulness practice itself can remain untapped or be trivialized in the quest for something more elaborate and goal oriented." Ironically, it seems the best way to use meditation to increase healing involves letting go of the immediate goal and practicing mindfulness or meditation for its own sake. "To bring calmness to the mind and body requires that at a certain point we be willing to let go of wanting anything at all to happen and just accept things as they are and ourselves as we are with an open, receptive heart," Kabat-Zinn explains. "This inner peace and acceptance lie at the heart of both health and wisdom."

Links between the immune system and psychological well being are not yet fully understood, but they clearly exist. An integrated approach toward heath will involve not only the development of knowledge of the immune system, and learning detoxification and methods of supporting the immune system, but will incorporate some sort of spiritual orientation and practice. Unresolved psychological wounds appear to have a real impact on our health, and the work of psychological growth and healing cannot be ignored in moving toward full health. Perhaps most importantly, full health involves creating and sustaining an image of yourself as a healthy and fulfilled person. That work of visualization and imagery can be started today, at no cost, by first seeing yourself as the person you hope to be.