Mind & Body

Body Of Emotion

Sometimes physical health is just a state of mind. Your feelings help determine how well your immune system works, how fast you age, and much more.

Body Of Emotion
Pin it Eva Mueller Illustration By Fumi Watanabe

Call it a clinical study for two: You and your sister attended a family reunion filled with sniffling cousins. Now you have a cold, but your sister's in perfect health. Why? You both eat well, exercise regularly, don't smoke, and it's not like your sister has superior genes.

Sorry to use the s word, but it could be stress. All those budgets and deadlines and seven-year itches you've been dealing with can depress your immune system. In fact, researchers have shown stress can take years off you--and not in the good way.

These scientists are now proving in the laboratory what traditional healers have instinctively known: That the mind and body are intricately linked, and when either is weak, the other suffers. In fact, your emotions are so strongly connected to your physical being that they can elicit tangible physical responses. One field in particular has made great strides in understanding the connections between our emotions, well-being, and immune-system function. It's called--take a breath--psychoneuroimmunology (also referred to as PNI).

PNI originated in the 1970s, a time when the Western medical establishment still believed the immune system worked autonomously, without much help from the heart or mind.

Then Robert Ader, Ph.D., and his colleagues in the department of psychiatry at the University of Rochester, New York, discovered the immune system could be psychologically conditioned to perform a certain way.

In a laboratory study, Ader fed rats saccharine while simultaneously giving them an immunosuppressive drug that caused an upset stomach. After just one pairing of the sweetener with the medication, the rodents learned to avoid the saccharine, because they associated it with stomach discomfort. And the more of the stomach-upsetting drug they received, the greater their avoidance of the saccharine.

The study was then repeated using only the saccharine, and, much to Ader's surprise, many of the rats died. Then he figured it out: Even when the rats did not receive the drug, their bodies associated the saccharine with the suppression of immune function; in response, their immune systems actually became weaker. In other words, Ader had conditioned an immunosuppressive response--and the more saccharine the rats received, the more likely they were to die. The experiment led to a then-radical conclusion: The mind and the immune system are linked.

"There were lots of responses to our study--and some of them you can't print," Ader says today. "But our results showed you've got to deal with the whole adaptive system of the organism and not just a single element of the system."

Molecules Of Emotion
Mind-body medicine took another big step forward in the lab of Candace Pert, Ph.D., a scientist at Johns Hopkins University. Pert made history when she discovered the receptors that allow the body to use natural and synthetic opiates. That led to the discovery of peptides--the short chains of amino acids that act as chemical messengers--and peptide receptors. Pert found that emotions trigger the release of peptides, which then travel to receptors throughout the body.