Beneath the surface of our daily lives, a fascinating dialogue occurs between our mind and body, a symphony often left unheard. Central to this conversation is the intriguing relationship between mental health and our immune system. An exploration into this often overlooked connection reveals how our thoughts, emotions, and mental well-being significantly influence our body's defense mechanisms.
When we come under sustained illness, trauma or disease our immune system starts trying to defend us. It goes into a type of hyper aware battle mode where it is ready to fight to the death to keep us alive. In that way, it's not only logical but completely loyal. The immune cells in our body start to behave like a tiny army of millions of soldiers determined to fight for survival. In this article I talk about the connection between immunity and mental health as an an inseparable whole.
The human drive to exist is perhaps the strongest we have. It's almost automatic and it's intertwined in everything we do. So when the body is tipped into survival mode because the immune system has been activated or compromised we are in our most primal position. Do or die.
Our hypothalamus at the base of our brain recognises that our existence is under threat and inflammation pathways, especially those related to metabolism are triggered. Why? Well our body is trying to to generate enough energy to supply the army that is desperately trying to defend our body. Fighting a war takes resources.
The role of our gut in metabolic function is clear. Our brain and gut are in constant communication, so much so that the gut is known as the “second brain”. So here we are with our two body brains activated and doing everything hey can to keep us alive. Fully committed to defending our existence.
Inline with orders and facing what feels like imminent threat of extinction, the microbes in our gut begin to produce neurochemicals. Excitatory neurotransmitters, do just that they're asked to, they get excited and ready to fire and they rush to the front line to flood the body with cortisol, commonly known as the 'stress hormone.' All these responses are there to
encourage our cells to be bolder and braver. To defend us. To keep us alive.
In the process of doing this, the body makes a judgement call which is to respond as a whole, together, to the incoming threat. The whole system works together like a well trained army and navy unit. In this way, certain units give up their resources to other teams to support them, after all - this our survival on the line! The amygdala, responsible for our survival instinct as well as our ability to feel our own and other people's' emotions gets put on red alert, and stays there. Neuroimaging has shown that many conditions such as bipolar disorder are accompanied by excessive amygdala activation which over time, shrinks their size.
At the same time, the body is choosing where to place resources in order to keep it alive. A key neurotransmitter called serotonin that help us regulate our mood, feel uplifted and happy, helps us sleep and plays a crucial role in our basic cognitive functions- memory, ability to focus, learn, judge, evaluate, solve problems, understand, synthesis language etc becomes inhibited. Afterall, when your life is on the line there is no need to be able to recall the past, to evaluate and problem solve. There is an imminent threat of extinction and the body is merely fighting for survival. We don’t need to sleep, we don’t need to love the enemy and we don't need to be in a good mood. We need to live.
So here we have a very intelligent and well coordinated holistic response to invasion / threat. If this threat is sustained over prolonged periods then our body spends more time trying to equip us for war.
Our immune system response is inherently related to our nervous system and endocrine response and to our behaviour, emotions and thoughts. Our behaviour emotions and thoughts make up our personality - so therefore our immune system has a very clear link to our identity.
If our biochemistry starts to be dominated by excitatory responses, the finger's are on the trigger and ready to fire pretty much all the time, then our neurochemical balance therefore tips in favour of “fight to survive” instead of “relax to survive” and crucially, so does our personality.
With the body constantly on edge or in battle the emotional response is of course, to be constantly defensive and on guard. This starts to affect our mental balance and wellbeing. Being constantly ready for war is not an uplifting or easy position to take. Nor is it optimum or what the body wants. It’s only doing it to survive. Over time the body is moving further and further away from its actual resting place which is of peace and balance (homeostatic and emotional) simply to survive.
So now we can start to understand that the reality of our very existence is a closely woven fabric of physical, chemical, neurological and emotional impulses and intelligences. We cannot treat one symptom without recognising the cause and the widespread effects.
Holistic healing means treating a person in their entirety and recognising that there is always a holistic response to any stimulus. The body works together, so it must be healed together. The person is their body mind emotions and spirit together, at the same time.
You cannot resolve mental health imbalances without working with the body and vice versa.
When it comes to treatment, sometimes even when an illness has passed or a trauma has ended, decades later the troops haven’t actually been told that the war is over. That they have survived. Or maybe they have but they don't fully believe it. They're still holding guns up just incase. They still somewhere in the back of their minds, are waiting for another invasion. In this way the actual cells of the body continue to vibrate with a quality of fear and defensiveness. And yet the person cannot understand why they are feeling ill or down. Or why they can't focus.
The healing approach is to treat a person holistically. From their words, to their flesh down to the signals that are transmitted through their nervous system. We are present with it all. We dialogue with the forgotten troops in the filthy trenches of the lymphatic channels that won't drain, with the hypothalamus that remains in uniform twenty years after the battle. Like our soldiers that return from war, in shock and shutdown, our bodies are no different. They don't suddenly bounce back from decades of stress and trauma. There are consequences. These parts of the body are stuck in the past or not fully embracing the present. And so we find them, hold them, understand and recognise that they are still in service of our survival. And crucially, we thank them.
We give thanks.
We allow them to feel the appreciation for their service. For their relentless fight they endured to keep us alive.
We tell them, with utmost self belief and confidence that the war is over. Put the guns down. There is nothing to fight now. There is peace now.
When we open a field of safety, recognition and love we allow that to penetrate deep into the body’s core, to the forgotten lands, the war torn universes, the crushed corners. We finally allow the cells to surrender their arms, we encourage the trenches to be healed and we take the troops home. Together with our client, through the alchemy of attuned touch, we bring peace to the whole.
That is the gift and the true power of this work. If you're ready to heal the root causes, reach out to me for 1-1 work.