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Can Happiness Boost The Immune System?

Happiness and health are two things which we all want in life and for years studies have shown that stress can have an impact on your physical health and wellbeing. It is often said that laughter is the best medicine but what if, in some cases, that actually rang true? 

Along with a balanced diet, plenty of exercise and a good night’s sleep, adding happiness-boosting activities to your daily routine can give your immune system a boost, according to science.

Here at OriGym, we delved into data and science to find out how happiness affects the immune system and if it’s possible to reap the physical rewards of having a cheery disposition!

What is the Immune System and what does it do?

The immune system is a complex network of organs, cells and proteins which work together to defend the body against infection such as bacteria, fungi, toxins and viruses.

The immune system keeps a record of every germ (microbe) it has ever defeated, in types of white blood cells (B- and T-lymphocytes) known as memory cells. This means it can recognise and destroy the microbe quickly if it enters the body again, before it has a chance to multiply and make you feel sick.

Positive minded people are less likely to develop a cold

In a study conducted by Sheldon Cohen et al in 2003, investigated the relationship between emotional style and susceptibility to the common cold.

To test this, three hundred and thirty-four healthy volunteers aged between 18 and 54 years were assessed for their tendency to experience positive and negative emotions. Positive emotions included feelings of being happy, pleased and relaxed; negative emotions included feelings of anxiousness, depression and hostility.

Each participant was then given nasal drops containing one of two rhinoviruses and monitored in quarantine for the development of a common cold.

The study found that for both viruses, those who regularly experience emotions like happiness, contentment, and relaxation, were more resistant to the virus than those who more regularly experience emotions of anxiousness and depression. The results concluded that those with a negative emotional state (NES) were three times more susceptible to the common cold than those who experienced more positive emotions.

Showing kindness can increase immune-response functions

In 2017, S Katherine Nelson-Coffey et al conducted a study into kindness and it’s link to happiness and longevity, specifically looking for changes in gene expression which may influence disease development or resistance.

The study involved 159 adults who were randomly assigned for 4 weeks to engage in prosocial behaviour either directed towards others, the world in general, themselves or a neutral control task. 

The findings showed that people who carried out regular acts of kindness towards others,

experienced an increase in immune-response functions.

Although the study did not measure how long these effects would last, the results do show that displaying kindness and making others happy, can causally impact (reduce) leukocyte gene expression profiles.

Practicing mindfulness has multiple benefits for physical health and mental wellbeing

More recently in 2019, Julienne Bower PhD, and her colleagues, found that six weeks of mindfulness training led to positive immune changes in breast cancer survivors. 

Women diagnosed with early stage breast cancer at or before 50 years of age, who had successfully completed cancer treatment, were randomly assigned to a 6‐week mindfulness awareness intervention group or to a wait‐list control group.

Participants were asked to complete questionnaires before and after the intervention to assess their levels of stress and depressive symptoms. They were also assessed on their physical symptoms and cancer‐related distress.

Blood samples were collected to examine genomic and circulating markers of inflammation, and a follow-up questionnaire was conducted 3 months after the mindfulness programme.

The results showed that those who had completed the mindfulness programme saw significant reductions in perceived stress, marginal reductions in depressive symptoms and significant reductions in proinflammatory gene expression. Other improvements included reduced fatigue, sleep disturbance, and vasomotor symptoms.

In conclusion...

These are just some of the studies into the link between happiness and our immune systems, these cases are some of the most referenced and most popular when looking at the relationship between our emotional state and our overall health. 

We also chatted to Elizabeth Stewart, Nutritionist at Vitl, one of the UK’s largest online nutrition companies, who says:  “It may not be as simple as saying happiness can improve your immune system but reducing how much you’re impacted by stress can positively impact your immune system. 

The physical effects on the body that are triggered by stress, take away from the immune system's ability to fight off antigens, which might leave us more susceptible to infection. The stress hormone corticosteroid can suppress the effectiveness of the immune system therefore lowering the number of lymphocytes.”

Whilst there may well be other variables to consider, one thing is clear: is that it’s nice to be nice! Showing random acts of kindness or sharing a smile will always brighten someone else’s day! And it might even help fight off infection too.

Looking for an extra boost to your immune system? Check out these 21 immunity boosting foods!

Written by Chloe Twist

Fitness Content Manager, OriGym

Join Chloe on Facebook at the OriGym Facebook Group

Chloe graduated with a BA (Hons) English and Creative Writing from Liverpool John Moores University and prior to OriGym worked at J&R Digital Marketing Agency on the Liverpool 'Female Founders' series. Since joining the company, she has become a qualified Personal Trainer and advanced Sports Nutrition Specialist. Chloe’s professional interests intersect content-development and the world of online fitness, especially across social media and YouTube, and Chloe has herself contributed pieces on fitness and weight loss to sites including the Daily Star and The Express. Outside her day-to-day role, Chloe enjoys playing the guitar, gaming and kettlebell training.