You may be aware of the connection between your physical and mental health. Physical conditions such as chronic pain can result in mental symptoms like irritability and anxiety. People who suffer from mental illnesses also often feel physical symptoms like lethargy, digestive issues or unexplained physical pain. The specific connection between mental health and the immune system is a more recent development, though, and has long-term health implications.
How Your Mental Health Affects Your Immune System
The relationship between mental health and immune functioning is becoming more clear as science discovers the physical symptoms caused by mental illness. Heart disease and diabetes are considerably more likely among people who suffer from depression or schizophrenia, for example. Recent research shows the chemical imbalance caused by one may lead to the other.
Here is a look at the connection between the immune system and two common mental issues:
1. Stress and Your Immune System
Stress causes known physiological changes in your body. The best way to illustrate this is to consider the fight or flight response. When your brain believes you are under stress, your body reacts by preparing to defend yourself or flee the danger. This involves an elevation in heart rate and a divergence of blood flow away from non-essential functions, like digestion. The blood flow is instead redirected to muscles needed to run or fight.
A diagnosed stress disorder means you experience these physiological changes often and even when there is no actual impending danger. Left untreated, a stress disorder can lead to other issues like panic attacks and other intensified symptoms. It can interfere with your sleep patterns and diminish your overall physical health.
Each physical symptom of stress can impact your immune system negatively. When your heart rate remains elevated for a prolonged period, you are more likely to develop chronic diseases such as diabetes or coronary disease. Your immune system’s ability to protect you from disease erodes as well.
When the stress is lifted, your immune system can begin to heal itself. Your body can stop its crisis-mode functioning and relax. Better sleep allows your body to perform the maintenance functions needed to achieve good health and fight off infections. A more constant heart rate and blood sugar level make it easier for your immune system to protect you from disease as intended.
2. Depression and Your Immune System
Depression can cause many of the same physical symptoms as stress — and chronic stress can lead to depression.
As research into the connection between mental health and physical health continues, more concrete links are discovered. Inflammation is now understood to be a commonality between depression and the breakdown of the immune system.
One specific cell protein that links depression with reduced immune functioning is cytokines. These chemicals signal inflammation throughout the central nervous system and are prevalent in people with depression. They are likely to be the cause of the aches and pains commonly associated with depression — before, they were traditionally considered psychosomatic.
The immune system uses cytokines to call for inflammation that protects damaged parts of your body. When you hit your head on a low shelf, the bump that develops is a result of your immune system flooding the area with fluids to repair the damage. Like all immune responses, inflammation becomes a negative health factor when it occurs frequently and without benefiting your body.
Treating Mental Health Issues May Improve Your Immune System
The specific connections between mental health and your immune system offer an additional path to improved physical health. In addition to treating the immune system directly, by resolving your mental health issues, you may be able to improve your immune functioning and thereby your overall physical health.
When there are physical symptoms involved, do not rule out the possibility of a mental health issue. Treating the mental health disorder gets to the core of the problem, while simply treating the pain or other physical symptom is only a temporary fix.
If you are experiencing chronic physical symptoms that have little or no explanation, they may be linked to a co-occurring mental health issue. At Brookhaven Retreat, we can help you. We help women overcome depression, anxiety and trauma, so they can get back on track to optimal health. Contact Brookhaven today if you or a loved one is struggling with a mental health issue.