Psychoneuroimmunology: Where do the body and mind connect in health?

By training, I’m a neuroscience geek :) I love the brain, and the secrets it holds.

Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) or the study of psychology, the nervous system, and our immune system is a fascinating field of science that gained a title in the 1970s to define and explore how our body and mind connect with one another. In fact, PNI was once seen as pseudoscience or not “real” science. Ironic how things change.

Stress and the Brain

I became really fascinated with PNI concepts in my undergraduate class hormones and behaviour — basically how our body is run with chemical signals, and we in turn, start to change what we do in response to those signals.

A great example of this is the hormone oxytocin, or the “love” hormone. Oxytocin is the hormone responsible for bonding and what is released when mothers nurse their babies. It is even released during more intimate moments, like sexual intercourse, to form love connections. In other words, without the support of this hormone, our ability to form relationships and loving connections would not be possible in the same way.

So why am I telling you all of this?

I’ve always been a big proponent that we can influence our bodies and through our minds, not just in the concepts of what we think becomes our reality, but that we can actually change chemical and electrical signals as a result of those thoughts.

The interesting part about this is that scientific research has been doing this for years, and we have some idea of where thought influences biology and vice versa, but no real idea HOW exactly this occurs. We can see changes in the numbers of immune cells after stress, and we can see changes in hormone levels after severe emotional trauma but we don’t know WHERE this occurs in the brain each time (we have some good ideas however but there is some inconsistency). We know that there is communication between many vital structures within the brain to facilitate these actions, but WHO is running the show?

The cycle of thought — action — body change = psychoneuroimmunology.

So with all of that, isn’t that a motivation alone to think about how you can change your patterns to change your life?

A recent article published in the Journal of Psychological Science discussed how loneliness induces inflammation during stress, as shown by increases by molecules normally involved in immune system support being more activated in this situation. The only way our immune system ‘knows’ we are lonely and that it is stressful to be alone is our perception, which is dictated to our hypothalamus in the brain stem. The hypothalamus, responsible for knowing when we are hungry or thirsty, if we are hot or cold, or whether we should procreate for our continued existence at its basic functions, responds to basic needs to keep us alive. In turn, our body responds and induces an immune system response to “defend” us from this “attack”.

If we can imagine then that we are a system that loops upon itself, feeding back into itself, isn’t it vital not only to give the body what it needs, but to find a life for ourselves emotionally and mentally that supports us?

Food for thought…for the body :)

Stay tuned for my thoughts on how to support both the body and the mind…

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