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Mental Health and the Immune System

Most people may not realize that, much like the heart, liver, and stomach, the brain is another organ in the human body. We know that if a problem occurs in one organ, it may usually move on and affect another organ or bodily system. Therefore, if there is a problem in the brain, you can expect the body as a whole to experience negative effects. This is due in part to the role the brain plays in synchronizing many of the bodies systems and functions. For example, how often have you felt anxious, then experienced stomach aches, nausea, or even diarrhea? Have you ever fainted when hearing really bad news, or seeing something that you may have truly disliked?

Stomach problems, if not by infections, are usually caused by high levels of acid when the brain activates acid-producing cells in the stomach. Anti-acids may relieve the symptoms, but they will not deal with the root cause of why the brain is producing much more acid. In the medical world, we may explain high levels of acid are due to “hyperactivity of parietal cells in the gastric glands of the stomach lining.” This is not the same as what is commonly known as “heartburn,” since it may feel as the area around the heart is “hot”).

Studies have shown that depression, anxiety, and all kinds of mental health issues increase levels of morbidity(I.e. Chances of acquiring a health illness) and mortality (I.e. Chances of dying). In order to understand your bodies ability to stay healthy, (in having a strong immune system), let’s go deeper by taking the example of the protein/hormone called Tumor Necrosis Factor Alpha, (properly known as TNF-@). TNF-@ has an important function as a pro-inflammatory substance (I.e. Induces inflammation). This acts as a “cytokine,” (this is a substance released by cells in the immune-system to send messages to other cells in other parts of the body), which works in the defense against infections. Unfortunately, TNF-@ is also related to autoimmune diseases, (much like lupus or type 1 diabetes), where the body attacks itself believing it is attacking something foreign. TNF-@ also regulates a portion of the brain called the hypothalamus, which has been related to involvement in the development of mental disorders such as depression.

So much is known about the interrelationship between mental health and its effects on the immune system that a field known as Psychoneuroimmunology has gained tremendous popularity. This field studies the complex two-way relationship between the central nervous system and the immune system (I.e. The purpose of which is to keep you disease-free). Therefore, feeling physically ill may actually result from a mental health condition affecting your body’s system; by only relieving the symptoms, you may be masking the root cause of an illness instead of acquiring treatment and possibly a cure.

By: Jose E Piovanetti, MD

Mindful Healthcare

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