Since I have an autoimmune disease (celiac disease), I find new research and information about how our immune system operates to be fascinating. The health and function of our immune system is imperative with respect to our overall health, including not only our physical health, but also our mental health. This field of science is called “psychoneuroimmunology.” This week is mental health awareness week so it’s a good time to consider this connection.
According to new research from institutions, such as Icahn Medical Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital, Georgia Regents University in Augusta, University of Southern California, University of California-Davis, and the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center (to name a few), there is a growing body of evidence supporting a mind-immune system connection that may explain why mental health treatments are unsuccessful for so many people.
The results of research of schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorder and other mental illnesses have led to fascinating observations supporting this mind-immune connection. Many researchers now believe many people with mental illness would get better with approaches that target their immune systems rather than brain chemicals.
It has become widely believed by health professionals that over 90% of our immune system exists within our gastrointestinal tract (GI tract). If that is the case, then it is important for us to support the health of our GI tract. Here are some simple ways you can do so.
Consider Probiotics – Probiotics are organisms such as bacteria or yeast that are believed to improve health and support the immune system. Probiotics contain “good” bacteria like lactobacillus or bifidobacteria that keep a healthy balance in the GI tract. The digestive system contains more than 500 different types of bacteria. They help keep our intestines healthy and help us digest food. Probiotics are available in supplements, and in foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, kefir, and gouda cheese.
Support Digestion – Ensure you are digesting your food properly by chewing your food well, taking your time when you eat, and eating in a relaxed environment. Try eating fruit between meals instead of with meals to prevent gas and bloating. Drink hot water and teas that stimulate digestion, such as ginger, chamomile, cinnamon, and peppermint.
Reduce Inflammation – Inflammation has long been regarded as a leading cause of disease. Try to keep stress to manageable levels. (Inflammation likely causes stress and vice versa.) Find out if you have any food sensitivities that may lead to (correctable) inflammation in your gut.
Exercise – The list of health benefits that regular exercise offers is endless. There is evidence that exercise supports our immune system, and it can even help us better absorb certain nutrients. It helps to keep our digestive system in good working order, and even produces natural feel-good endorphins. Yoga and Pilates are great for stretching, strengthening, and elongating core muscles. Certain yoga poses are also excellent for aiding digestion.
Maintain Healthy Weight – Excess body fat leads to inflammation. Consume clean, whole foods that are vitamin and mineral-dense, especially colourful vegetables and foods rich in heart healthy fats. Ensure you are getting enough fiber, protein, iron, B-vitamins, vitamin D, and calcium, especially through food. Avoid refined sugar, trans-fats, and simple carbohydrate-containing foods. Eat organic when possible.
Sleep – In Western society we underestimate the importance of sleep for overall health. When we sleep well, our body undergoes complex, vital processes that promote building, renewal, and replenishing of cells. Try to aim for 8 hours or more each night.
Originally published in Amy Sky’s AliveAndAwake.ca