Mind and Body; Thoughts Affect Immune System

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Byline: Shelley Widhalm, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Dr. Sharon Montes uses two diagnostic manuals to describe patient conditions that involve both the mind and the body. Trained in Western medicine, which, she says, separates the mind and the body, Dr. Montes also includes the ideas of psychoneuroimmunology in her clinical work.

"Everything is chemistry, and everyone can change their chemistry through their thoughts and feelings. When you change your chemistry, you change your body," says Dr. Montes, a physician and assistant professor at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The center is at the Kernan Hospital Mansion in Baltimore.

Psychoneuroimmunology focuses on the interaction of the immune, nervous and endocrine systems with the brain, says Alfonso Campbell, professor of psychology at Howard University in Northwest. The immune system does not operate independently of the nervous and endocrine or hormone systems, as previously thought, he says.

"Now there appears to be a bidirectional communication network that allows these ... systems to communicate with each other," says Mr. Campbell, who holds a doctorate in psychology.The communication, in other words, is not one way from the brain to the body, but back and forth.

The immune system's function is to identify and rid the body of any foreign materials, such as viruses and bacteria. When encountering a psychosocial stressor, such as a work deadline or an insult from another person, the immune system, in response to signals from the brain, may release chemicals called cytokines to signal the presence of the stressor.

"The body attempts to maintain a state of homeostasis, or stability, across all its physiological systems when presented with a stressor," Mr. Campbell says. "Success in coping with this stressor can influence health outcomes. Stress, of course, causes a fight-or-flight kind of response, depending on the nature of the stressful stimulus."

In situations of danger or stress, the brain signals the immune system to release, in addition to cytokines, anti-inflammatory chemicals, such as endorphins, in anticipation of an injury and to relieve any pain, says James Olds, professor of computational neuroscience and director of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University in Fairfax.

"That was good for caveman days and is not applicable for modern-day stress," says Mr. Olds, who holds a doctorate in neuroscience. "It turns out anti-inflammatory agents weaken the immune system and make it more vulnerable."

The brain signals the release of stress hormones that mobilize the body to react to danger, causing the heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate to increase.

If the "danger" is prolonged or the stress becomes chronic, the brain produces too much of the stress hormone cortisol, Mr. Campbell says.

"The brain may be overwhelmed by the amount of cortisol, causing a negative inhibitory feedback pathway - which usually shuts down further production of cortisol - to fail," he says.

Cortisol, which suppresses the immune system, also fails to keep the pro-inflammatory cytokines in check.

Continual exposure to cortisol may contribute to the emergence cardiovascular disease, hypertension, arthritic conditions, diabetes and abdominal obesity, Mr. …