When one’s body reacts to a frightening or stressful situation, the brain sends alert messages to the body: “fight or flight” are the options. For the caveman’s world it could have been the sight of a ferocious animal that elicited such a response, but for the modern world it could be an urgent deadline, a relationship conflict or financial worries.
When pumped into the blood, adrenal hormones provide a burst of energy, enabling the stressed person to fight or run away (flight) to create a safe environment. This is where the term “adrenaline rush” comes from. This reaction suppresses many normal functions of the body such as digestion, the libido, and immune function because they are not immediately necessary for surviving the crisis. The blood carrying the stress hormones is responsible for many chemical changes in the body, including raising cortisol levels in the bloodstream.
While this adrenaline rush provided a life-saving advantage for the caveman, it can cause modern humans more harm than good. This is because humankind’s modern enemy, stress, rears its head far more often than a saber-toothed cat. As stated, the stress doesn’t have to be life-threatening to create the adrenal response, and these frequent raises in cortisol can become chronic, inhibiting the immune system’s ability to deal with micro enemies like bacteria, virus or fungi.
The immune function of the White Blood Cells (WBCs) is noteworthy even though blood, in general, has several functions in the body. They transport oxygen and carbon dioxide, nutritional elements, ions, waste, hormones and heat. They also defend the body against infections and other foreign materials. The latter function is performed by the WBCs (leukocytes), which fight the pathogens.
A healthy person has an average of about 7,000 WBCs per microliter of blood (normal range is 4,000 to 11,000). When there is an increase in WBCs, it is an indication that the body is fighting some sort of infection.
There are many types of WBCs, of which lymphocytes and neutrophils are the most common. Lymphocytes are made in the lymphoid tissue in the spleen, lymph nodes, and thymus gland, whereas neutrophils are made in the bone marrow and circulate in the blood stream. While the lymphocytes identify foreign substances such as germs in the body and produce antibodies that specifically target them, the neutrophils directly attack the bacteria.
Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is a scientific field dealing with the relationships between the mind (psyche), the brain (neuro) and the immune system (immunology). Specifically, PNI focuses on how these relationships affect health and susceptibility to disease. This approach encourages disease prevention and promotion of optimal performance by maintaining a positive mental and emotional state.
Emotions affect our immune system through neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and nor-epinephrine, which are injected into the blood and act on white blood cells. Many cytokines (the chemicals that white blood cells release to communicate with each other) also affect the nervous system. Scientific studies like those of Candace Pert and Glen Rein show that emotions actually create molecules in the body.
“Neuropeptides and receptors, the bio-chemicals of emotions are, as I have said, the messengers carrying information to link the major systems of the body into one unit that we call body-mind.” (Molecules of Emotion by Candace B. Pert, PhD). Specific feelings produce a predictable chemistry in our bodies. Accordingly, our bodies may produce love chemistry, anger chemistry, hate chemistry and the like. Love chemistry affirms life by optimizing our immune system and the regulatory functions of the body. Conversely, anger chemistry (related to guilt, hatred, and fear) may be expressed in a suppressed immune response.
This is why, in an experimental study, those who watched videos of compassionate work of Mother Theresa had more positive immune response than those who watched videos of war scenes from Vietnam. This is an eye-opener: compassion and love pay off not only in a spiritual sense, but also in terms of our body’s defense system, like the WBCs and antibodies (immunoglobulin). It pays to be positive. A positive attitude fosters positive emotions and positive chemicals!