In order of relevance
Its Relevance to ALS/MND
When stressed the body releases adrenaline to trigger the "fight or flight" response that has enabled us to survive as a species. The downside to this normal biological function is that excessive and repeated stress also leads to excessive levels of the hormone cortisol which can suppress the immune system, thereby leaving you open to infections or allowing "dormant' viruses to flare up (such as herpes labialis and herpes zoster which cause cold sores and shingles respectively).
Students providing blood samples during stressful examinations were found to have fewer "killer" cells in their blood and therefore had less resistance to infections. If ALS/MND is either triggered or exacerbated by a virus or viruses, as some studies suggest is possible, it would be essential to avoid or manage stress in order to maintain a healthy immune system.
Meditation, Relaxation and Visualisation are powerful stress management techniques.
A Brief History of Stress Research
More than 20 years ago Drs. Ader and Cohen Published the paper "Behaviourally Conditioned Immunosuppression" which proposed that the immune system can be influenced by stress. It took a further 8 years for immunologist Dr. Ronald Glaser and his wife, psychologist Dr Janice Kiecolt-Glaser to observe that both short term stress (e.g. students preparing for exams) and long term (chronic) stress (e.g. spouse/carers of Alzheimer's patients) significantly lowered the immune response.
The idea that brain chemistry could affect immune system chemistry was not well accepted but the evidence could not be denied and therefore prompted a number of researchers to study this subject further.
When Dr. Suzanne Feten of the University of Rochester, NY discovered that nerve cells actually bonded and communicated with lymphocytes it supported Dr. Ed Blalock's discovery that the brain and the immune system could speak the same chemical language.
The process he observed was that, when stressed, our hypothalamus provokes the release of hormones increasing ACTH levels which in turn raise cortisol to potentially damaging levels. Cortisol has a profound effect on suppressing the immune response.
Dr. Busk-Kirschbaum of Trier University later observed that adrenaline almost doubled the level of natural killer cells (NK cells) in volunteers when injected or when levels naturally increased in sky divers or other extreme sportspeople. More significant were experiments confirming that this immune system response could be induced without injecting adrenaline.
Following a "Pavlov style" protocol, volunteers were injected with adrenaline for 4 days and given a fizzy sherbet candy each time. After the fifth day a neutral solution was injected but the improved immune response was still provoked if the fizzy candy was supplied at the same time as the placebo injection. This demonstrated that stimulation of brain chemistry alone could boost the immune system.
Taking this approach a stage further, Dr. Leslie Walker of Aberdeen University, Scotland taught relaxation techniques to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Not only were the chemotherapy side effects reduced but the long term survival rate of participants was generally higher. Professor Oleg Eremin, also of Aberdeen University, wrote "Psycho Immunology", which explores the effects of mental attitude on the immune response.
An unfortunate spin-off of this research has been the publication of numerous books declaring that mental attitude alone could "cure" cancer and other potentially terminal illnesses. This sweeping claim is generally rejected by conventional medical practitioners as unsubstantiated but research over the last two decades has clearly demonstrated that the mental attitude of a patient can have a significant effect on their ability to fight disease, benefit from treatment, suffer fewer unpleasant side effects, regain good health and remain healthy for longer periods.
In short, reducing and controlling stress (particularly chronic stress) and learning relaxation, meditation, yoga, Tai Chi or the mind and body control techniques best suited to you will almost certainly assist your body's natural ability to fight illness. The greater your willingness and ability to apply these techniques the greater the chance that your brain chemistry will positively influence your general body chemistry and overall health.
Recommended: Prof. Robert Sapolsky's "Why Zebra's Don't Get Ulcers", available in book form or downloadable audio lectures. A free PDF excerpt can be downloaded .
STRESS & ILLNESSES
"Pleasure" has been shown to improve immune responses. Just remembering pleasant events can measurably stimulate the immune system. Pleasant relaxation and/meditation sessions can improve levels of beneficial NK (Natural Killer) cells whilst lowering levels of stressors generated by trauma, chronic illness, stress, shock, depression and so on. A conscious effort should be made to incorporate pleasurable experiences into your daily routine as a means of combating ill health.
The mucus membranes of the body (in the nose, mouth, lungs, etc.) are the first line of defence against foreign, possibly damaging, microorganisms. Simple experiments, stimulating the sense of smell (which is connected to primitive areas of the brain and can trigger an immune response), revealed that unpleasant smells can lower or limit NK cells in saliva samples.
Conversely, pleasant smells (chocolate, fresh bread, fragrant flowers) lower damaging cortisol levels and increase levels of IgA cells, which are part of the body's defence response. Levels of NK cells remain elevated for extended periods after exposure to "pleasurable" smells or experiences.
Listening to one's favourite music for around 40 minutes a day can also elevate NK cell levels and lower cortisol levels for most of the day, thereby boosting the body's immune response.
A protective defence mechanism is activated the moment fright, shocking information, pain or fear are registered. The electrical activity of our thoughts increase significantly in times of emotion and stimulates the amygdala, a tiny mass of tissue deep in the centre of the brain.
This provokes a chain reaction that releases powerful chemicals into the bloodstream. These include vasopressin to increase bloodflow to the muscles, endorphins to block off pain, and adrenaline and noradrenaline to mobilise the body's glucose reserves.
Adrenaline also works directly on the brain. It is one of the neurotransmitters that carry electrical activity between brain cells. When levels increase, thoughts become speedier and are more likely to be laid down as permanent (usually unpleasant) memories. Adrenaline also amplifies our senses, and some people even experience visual or aural hallucinations.
The physical sensations following this moment of arousal include: tachycardia - the speeding and thumping of the heart; a fluttery feeling in the abdomen as the blood rushes to the muscles and away from the gut; diarrhoea as the body lightens itself for flight. All these are transient effects and quite harmless, providing we can fight off or flee from the threat and allow our bodies return to normal.
The problem with a complex situation such as chronic stress is that we cannot easily fight or run from it. As a result a second mechanism, "countershock", brings a new set of hormones into play.
In evolutionary terms, countershock is designed to help us withstand attack once we have failed to escape from it or fight it off. The hormones release include cortisol, which damps down our inflammatory response to injury; thyroxine and glucocorticoid hormones to conserve fuel reserves; growth hormone to repair damage to bones and anticoagulant to stop us bleeding to death.
These hormones may once have helped is to survive attack from predators, but surviving long term stress means countershock soon leads to exhaustion. At this point our bodies simply run out of defences and start to deteriorate.
If the level of cortisol - the prime stress hormone - is raised for a long period it undermines the immune system. People who live under constant stress have been found to have reduced levels of NK (natural killer) cells - the blood corpuscles that seek out and destroy bacteria and viruses. Lymphocytes - the NK cells' "helpers", are depleted along with immunoglobulin, a protein that acts as an antibody against invaders.
These changes make us less able to fight of infections, and more vulnerable to a host of illnesses. All seasonal infections are picked up more easily and there is a greater chance that a virus may "dig in" to the system to produce chronic fatigue syndrome. There is some evidence that certain types of cancer are more likely to develop in people who are under constant stress, though the link with cancer is extremely complicated and still open to question.
Stress also exacerbates certain autoimmune diseases. Rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, eczema and diabetes commonly flare up or appear for the first time after traumatic events. It is thought by some researchers that ALS/MND may be a type of autoimmune illness.
A famous study in Psychoneuroimmunology on the role of hope and an attitude of active coping in the treatment of life threatening disease was conducted at the John Wayne Cancer Clinic at UCLA and dealt with cancer in a 5-year follow-up.
Cancer is a very real, tangible disease yet patients who developed hope and an active-positive coping attitude had a surprisingly higher survival rate. "In the control group [the group not trained in hope and coping] 12 out of the original 37 patients died... In the experimental group 3 out of the original 37 patients died."
Even more surprising: "The intervention was most beneficial for those in the highest risk category... in that 9 of 10 of such experimental patients are alive versus only 1 of 9 control patients." There were measurable changes in the immune system: "The majority of our intervention subjects showed some degree of increase in the percentage of LGL's and NK cells and the cytotoxic ability of these cells.
The magnitude of these changes was often more than 25%." Imagine: a 25% rise in cancer fighting ability, not by chemical intervention, but by acquiring an active-coping attitude. "However, if this is true, the routes of interaction that might account for the immune system changes are unknown... and remain a challenge for future research."
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