Psychoneuroimmunology is all about the connections between mind and body and a holistic approach to health. I'll be taking a look at some of the fascinating research findings in this field and exploring what relevance they might have to anyone interested in maximising their health and fitness.

Reading about psychoneuroimmunology for an undergraduate essay is what first inspired me to become a psychologist, and I hope I'll be able to share some of that fascination with you.

Psychoneuroimmunology. It's a mouthful, but break it into its component parts and you see that it's not so complicated. In this context, we can think of it as follows:

  • “Psycho” - processes of the mind, encompassing feelings, thoughts and social relationships.
  • “Neuro” - the brain and nervous system mechanisms that mediate between mind and body.
  • “Immunology” - the body's health and defence systems against illness.

So psychoneuroimmunology – or PNI as I will hereafter refer to it – is basically about the interaction between the mind, the nervous system. To bring that concept to life a bit, consider a few everyday examples: A child falls over and the pain of a grazed knee miraculously subsides as his mother kisses it better. An elderly relative who is terminally ill in hospital seems to hang on to her life for one last family visit and then peacefully dies when her family has left. A cancer patient beats all doctors' predictions of how long she's got to live, apparently by sheer determination. These all seem to be instances in which thoughts, feelings and relationships can influence our body's physical health, even to the point of hastening or delaying death.

We more or less take it for granted now that your mind can influence how you respond to illness.  But when PNI first emerged as a field of study in the 1970's, as far as the medical establishment was concerned, this idea carried with it a suspect whiff of Eastern mysticism and hippies – never mind that Western medicine as we know it today takes its origins from the ancient Greeks, who were well aware of mind/body relationships. So what changed? Simple: Lots and lots and lots of research showed a strong relationship between psychological factors and physical health. Even more interestingly, advances continue to be made in our understanding of exactly how that relationship is mediated via complex neurochemical pathways between the brain and the immune system.

What seems to happen is that stress plays an enormous role in how well our immune system functions. Stress levels – particularly the level of social and emotional support that people receive – can predict how well people recover from all sorts of types of illness, from the common cold to cancer and autoimmune diseases. To give just a couple of examples: Various studies have found that the loss of a spouse increases the risk of death (via a number of different kinds of illnesses) in the surviving spouse for about a year following bereavement. Other studies have involved measuring stress levels in generally healthy undergraduates and then infecting them with a cold virus – those who reported higher stress and low levels of social support were signitifcantly more likely to fall ill and took longer to recover. It's important to note that not all stress is automatically bad stress; it's unmanageable, chronic stress with no social or emotional support available to help the individual to cope that is the culprit here.

The good news is fairly thin on the ground, as most of the research to date has focused on associations between stress and illness. But there have been some studies on the positive effects of the brain/body relationship, too. For example, visualisation and meditation, both ways of managing stress, can have such a profound effect on recovery processes for all sorts of illnesses (cancer and skin conditions are particularly well studied) that they are now sometimes used as a part of treatment in mainstream medicine. In the same vein, having a supportive network of friends and family has been found to have a positive impact on how people respond to various acute and chronic illnesses.

Applying findings from PNI to your health and fitness

So, in a nutshell, we know that your physical health and your emotional and social well-being are intricately related. How can the gym-going public apply this idea to optimising health and fitness? I would suggest that it is important to take a holistic approach of health in order to make the most of any fitness regime. Yes, it is important to do those cardiovascular workouts and strengthen those muscles, but none of that happens in isolation. In order to optimise your overall health, you need to take care of your emotional and social functioning as well.

How do we do that? Well, it might be a start to find a form of exercise that you really, really enjoy.

That will help with the emotional side of things, as it's a much more uplifting experience to get your workout doing something that is fun for you than feeling like it's a chore and a drag. Secondly, if you choose a sociable form of exercise, you could tick the social relationships box as well. It may just be a matter of finding a gym with the right atmosphere to suit you as a person, or signing up to some group exercise classes, or having a workout buddy – all of those things make exercising more sociable.

It's nice to think that making your workout more pleasurable can also contribute to your overall health!


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