The Science Is In: To Boost Your Immune System, Give, Connect & Hug


This blog was born a few weeks ago. I was sitting at my dining table responding to emails from my readers, wonderful women like you, which often include a comment like, “Dr. Romm, thank you for all you do,” followed by, “I have a question, if you don’t mind…” And then anything from a simple or complex health question follows.

While I can’t answer most health questions by email without a consultation, both due to realistic time constraints and because it’s not an effective way to practice medicine, I do write back to almost everyone that writes to me. I do this because I know that human connection in itself is healing. I feel grateful for the lovely note and I want to reciprocate by at least saying thank you. By giving back. And I want my readers to feel that there really is a caring human being at the other end of the wires. Because there is.

So there I was, chipping away at my email when my husband said, “I wish I could show people that smile you always get when you’re writing to your readers – it’s so filled with love.” I quickly replied, “Ah, I do love what I do, and I do love these people.”

It’s much the same for me seeing patients. While many of my patients have complex stories, and some of them have health challenges that wrack my brain for solutions to help them get their health back, I love the opportunity to connect and to give of myself. Even when I’m working a gazillion hours a week, I’m doing work that involves loving and giving. That’s how I created it – because that’s how I like it.

And here’s the interesting thing: I rarely get colds. I mean I often go two or three years at a time without getting a full-on cold or anything more that a transient sniffle. As a doctor, I’m generally surrounded by sick people, especially this time of year. So what’s the deal?

Can a Generous Heart Boost Your Immunity?

The answer is Yes!

I eat really well and do the other things to keep a person’s immune system healthy. But the truth is, I’m not a huge exerciser and I rarely take supplements. So yes, while diet is key to excellent health and immunity, perhaps something more is going on in my body that keeps me feeling energetic and in top immune health most of the time.

I started thinking about this. And reading more and more about it. And now I’m writing a book which will talk about the many important ways we can keep our immunity at peak performance. One of the coolest things I’ve discovered – that also has hard science behind it – is that our beliefs and behaviors – including generosity, volunteerism, and being in community, in other words, giving, keep us well!

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you start volunteering or saying yes to everything people ask you to do as a way of giving. I know how busy life is for most women, and getting busier is not necessarily good for your immunity! But generosity doesn’t require volunteering or donating money, or adding anything to your plate. Giving can come simply in the form of an inner state of openness, compassion, and empathy. It’s a generosity of spirit. It’s living in the world as an expression of love and caring. Like meditation, yoga, or cross-fit, living like this is a practice and it does require – well – practice, and some amount of inner discipline. It’s got a great payoff, though. You will feel happier. Many of your relationships will feel brighter. It’s like taking an immune boosting vitamin – except it’s free!

A study of 404 people, by Sheldon Cohen, Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University and an expert on stress and immunity, found that hugs act as a form of social support and protect stressed people from getting sick. He and his team found that greater social support and more frequent hugs protected people from the increased susceptibility to infection associated with being stressed and resulted in less severe illness symptoms when people do get sick.

Further, it’s not just your immune system that gets a boost. Your whole body benefits in the form of lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and better psychological well-being.

And not only do you benefit from a positive loving attitude, but so do others, because getting, not just giving, support is also associated with getting sick less often. Maybe that’s part of the secret sauce in my own life! I get a lot of love back from the giving I do – it’s a give and get thing that keeps us healthy! Even now as I write to you, I feel connected, dialed in, and filled with love.

Holidays, Family Dynamics, and Staying Well

One of my own personal Achilles heels is that I grew up in a high stress, often emotionally abusive and sometimes physically threatening home, so I hate the feelings I get when stress crops up in my own family (my husband and kids, that is). It triggers my old stuff to the max. I go into fight or flee mode. (Generally, I’m a fighter.) I fall back into old hurts, fears, pain, and patterns. And I don’t always feel generous or loving. In fact, I end up in “judger” mind, judging myself, or judging others.

I know that many of you also grew up in dysfunctional homes and that the holidays (and other family occasions) can be tough. We find ourselves in complicated, stressful emotional dynamics that lead many of us to get sick in the aftermath of the “toxic exposure.”

The science is confirms that we are more likely to get sick during or after toxic emotional encounters: When we are experiencing ongoing conflicts with others we are less able to fight off cold viruses. Maryann Gierloff studied this effect in her 2012 dissertation at Loyola University- Chicago, where she found a direct relationship between negative emotions, stress, and flu-like symptoms.

How we respond, however, can apparently make a difference. Cohen and others tested “emotional style”  and susceptibility to colds. Using a psychological measurement scale, the emotional dispositions of 334 volunteers were assessed. They were exposed to rhinovirus (the common cold virus) and monitored for potential symptom onset. After observing the results, the researchers summarized, “increased positive emotional style was associated (in a dose-response manner) with lower risk of developing a cold.” That means the more positive you are, the less likely you are to get sick.

I believe that our thoughts and feelings are as important as our actions – and often more important – than doctor’s appointments when it comes to staying in good health. The science of psychoneuroimmunology (that’s a mighty big word, I know!)  is just beginning to uncover the connection between mind/mood and immunity,  and the evidence is astonishingly clear – our emotional experience has a direct and significant impact on our immune health.

So What Can We Do?

The obvious answer is to stay positive. But easier said than done, eh? (Or you might be thinking, “Yeah, but you haven’t met my mom and dad!”).

Another option is to circumvent the direct stress exposure by avoiding family gatherings. Indeed, this is occasionally necessary, particularly if you come from an abusive family of origin. Sometimes, just the holiday season itself brings up mixed feelings and a sense of social isolation -which can also lead to  a dip in immunity and resilience.

Here’s a third path: Change your inner tactics.

Rather than approaching tough family relationships in a defensive posture, ready for the emotional shit to hit the fan, try a new strategy. Approach family time with an open, giving heart. Get psyched ahead of time, practice, then stay in the love. Hold onto the love. This doesn’t mean sucking things up, stuffing your feelings, or not being yourself. It’s more like taking a meta-perspective, stepping out of the fray, and remembering to take care of you by staying in the positive as your commitment to your own wellness. By doing so, you can not only avoid getting sick, but you can boost your immunity and overall health in the short – and long run. And hey, you may even surprisingly change a historically awful dynamic!

When we can see the best in others, even just by silently recognizing their weaknesses and acknowledging that they’ve tried to do their best, we can sometimes find a compassionate love that offers us, and others, the same benefits as do generosity and giving. Being loving (even when it feels really hard to) is a powerful form of giving.

If you want to learn more about the art and science of “thinking yourself well,” you’re in for a treat with my forthcoming book coming out in 2016/2017. It’s all about resilience – physical and emotional – and creating optimal immune health, which is at the core of preventing almost all chronic medical conditions.

To your optimal health and resilience,

AJR-Sig

 

 

 

 

http://www.cmu.edu/news/stories/archives/2014/december/december17_hugsprotect.html

Burr JA, Tavares J, and Mutchler JE. Volunteering and hypertension risk in later life. J Aging Health. United States; 2011;23(1):24-51.

Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Skoner DP, Rabin BS, and Gwaltney JM. Social ties and susceptibility to the common cold. JAMA. UNITED STATES; 1997;277(24):1940-4.

Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Turner RB, Alper CM, and Skoner DP. Emotional style and susceptibility to the common cold. Psychosom Med. United States; 2003;65(4):652-7.

Gierloff, Maryann J., “Positive Emotions and Immune Respose to Influenza in Medically Stable Older Adults” (2012). Dissertations. Paper 302.

Sneed RS, and Cohen S. A prospective study of volunteerism and hypertension risk in older adults. Psychol Aging. United States; 2013;28(2):578-86.

[With gratitude to my student, Renee Davis, for gathering research for this article.]

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Lemaine Peo

Aviva, Thank you for this wonderful article and for all you do. Your love really does shine through.

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b.j.

This is interesting! I love this kind of stuff. So excited your ebook is available, but I tried to click on it and nothing happened. Is the link not up?

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    aviva

    please try via my website homepage or my FB page (top below banner or left column tab) while we are working on fixing this link! thank you.

    Reply

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Theresa

I would love a copy of your ebook, but I am unable to click on the link. Thank you. Merry Christmas!

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    aviva

    please try via my website homepage or my FB page (top below banner or left column tab) while we are working on fixing this link! thank you.

    Reply

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Cathy Stadler

I think you are amazing! A true role model! Your positivity shines through in your writing and your hopefulness. I thought about my dad while reading this. He's 79 and has been a practicing cardiologist for over 50 years now. He is never sick and always running from the hospital to the office and back again... never complaining. He feels so connected to his patients and has true emotions when he talks about them. I believe that his life has been so rewarding for him and has given him so much happiness and perspective. I rarely remember a time when he's had a cold or fever or anything! He is still working, still running to the hospital to see his patients, and spending hours with them in his office talking and talking... Thanks for your blog! I love it and can't wait to read your books!

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Linda

Thank You!! I recently had a confrontation with my son and daughter-in-law that basically ripped my heart out. Since then I have not been feeling well. I sincerely have been trying to better my mood but when it comes out of the blue from one of your own, it is hard. My other children have been doing what they can to cheer me up, but it is really up to me. At least I know that there are others who know that emotional states affect your heath.

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