The mystery of immunity

In search of a miracle, each year hundred of thousands of pilgrims come to worship at the shrine near Lourdes, France. There, in 1858, a 14-year-old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous had a vision. The Virgin Mary appeared to her and showed her the location of a healing spring. A century later, the Catholic Church instituted a system of investigation to verify claims of medical miracles and about 100 cures have been authenticated. But, can it be proven? Can our immunity be strengthened through the power of faith, belief and the mind?

In today's modern world of medicine and research, regardless of the disease process, everyone's talking about immunity. But if you asked the average individual what is, or where is our immune system located in the body, you'd get a variety of answers. Don't feel bad, the best of the best are only beginning to fully understand just how complex our immune system really is.

Once assumed that the immune system was independent of the brain, it was thought that if certain immune cells were placed in a petri dish infected with microbes, they would launch an attack. This seemed to imply that these cells needed no direction from the brain in order to carry out their assigned tasks. The now growing field of psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI has shown this to be an incorrect assumption.

Unlike the circulatory system powered by the heart, or the nervous system powered by the brain, the immune system is an amazingly intricate and elusive defense network that has no particular organ as its focal point. The lymph nodes, bone marrow, thymus, spleen, tonsils, and the appendix all produce or store a variety of specialized immune cells, which are deployed when needed. Of course, our white blood cells are the frontline defenders in the molecular warfare waged by the immune system and is the most studied and understood, Other first line defenders include the naturally occurring ''friendly bacteria'' found in the colon, on our skin, mouth and other areas lined by mucous membranes such as the nose. In actuality, our immune system is not housed in any particular area but rather by every organ system and every cell in the body.

Until fairly recently, medical science accepted without much question the notion that the body and mind were separate entities, operating independently of one another. The focus was strictly on the physical aspects of illness, and reinforced this dualistic thinking with sophisticated testing and medical treatments that looked only at the physical. Recent research in the field of PNI shows that the brain, endocrine and immune systems are inextricably linked by a series of neural pathways. These pathways form a communications network that enables mind and body to influence each other in very powerful ways.

Only now are we beginning to understand what older systems of healing have always known and accepted-- where the mind goes, the body will follow. Our sterile term for this is psychosomatic. Psycho meaning mind, somatic meaning symptoms. So, the next time your doctor tells you it's all in your head, he's correct, but don't take it personally!

We know that the brain makes hormones and other molecular messengers that carry signals from cell to cell and back to the brain that trigger our immunity. These hormones work to ''key'' certain responses within the cell to protect us. Some PNI researchers actually believe that via these hormones, the immune system is acting as ''bits of brain,'' floating around like a sixth sense effecting not only our ability to protect our bodies from foreign invaders, but from the minds eye these powerful biochemicals or hormones alter our mood and behavior, suggesting that we actually do have the ability to control our destiny over illness.

So, back to the original question, is it possible for us to gain some conscious control over our own biochemistry and positively effect our immunity and health? At this point it is well understood that we cannot effect what we were given, our genes. But most, if not all, researchers conclude that to some degree, yes our mood, healthy emotions and healthy ways of dealing with stress can positively effect our immunity. There is no doubt, for example, that people can learn constructive ways of dealing with stress and unhealthy responses to stress.

Learning new and positive ways of dealing with negative emotions may be difficult. We may need to face old problems that are painful and learn new ways of dealing with them. The rewards, well you choose.

Till next time, Rebecca.

Uploaded to The Zephyr website October 12, 1999

Back to The Zephyr home page at: