If you’ve noticed your immune system wavering you’ve probably attempted to strengthen it by adding more vitamin C and zinc to your diet, catching more zzzs, and hopefully increasing your activity levels—all important factors in improved immunity. But did you know that positive emotions also play a role in boosting the immune system? Research out of the University of California at Berkeley is the first to show that positive emotions, such as awe, joy, and compassion, are linked to lower levels of inflammatory molecules and thus stronger immune systems.
Inflammation and Your Immune System
Inflammation is the direct response of your immune system at work. When your immune system is alerted to possible infection, disease, or injury it sends pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines to the battlefield to wipe out the threat. Sometimes, however, this process spins out of control, and pro-inflammatory molecules take over, causing chronic inflammation. Scientists now believe chronic inflammation is a contributing element to many life-threatening illnesses, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases, cognitive decline, and mood disorders.
Case in point: a recent study revealed that depressed patients had elevated levels of inflammatory cytokines, while non-depressed patients had normal cytokine levels. Researchers believe that when the brain is told to increase production of cytokines, feel-good hormones that regulate appetite, moods, sleep, and memory—such as dopamine and serotonin—are suppressed.
Take a Beauty Break
UCB researchers tested the effects of positive emotions on the immune systems of over 200 young adults. Subjects reported the degree to which they experienced positive emotions, such as compassion, amusement, awe, contentment, joy, love, and pride, on a given day. On that same day, researchers took samples of gum and cheek tissue (called oral mucosal transudate) that measured cytokine levels, while controlling for relevant personality and health variables. Individuals with more positive emotions had the lowest levels of the cytokine Interleukin 6, a key marker of inflammation. Awe was the strongest indicator of low inflammatory levels.
To amp up a sense of awe, researchers recommend spending time in nature, surrounded by beauty. “That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions—a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art—has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” explains UC Berkeley psychologist and co-author of the study Dacher Keltner.
Spend some time outside in nature and you’ll also benefit from a healthy dose of the sunshine vitamin—vitamin D! Take a yoga or tai chi class in the park, hike a trail you’ve never explored before, or walk along the beach at sunrise to start your day with a majestic feeling of awe and boost your immune system!