“What is it?!“
Exactly what I said. GOOD NEWS
I don’t know about you, but for the past few weeks I’ve been taking every opportunity I can to laugh and joke.
“How can you do that?! The world is going topsy turvy. The stores are picked over and are still out of hand sanitizer and toilet paper, AND I’m going to have to learn how to cook now because we can’t go out to eat because of this COVID-19 dilemma!”
My point exactly. Put simply, they say “people who remain positive and laugh often have stronger and healthier immune systems than those who worry, stress, and freak out!”
“Oh wow! The almighty ‘THEY’ say that? Well I should probably believe them. Right?”
Hold up there, partner. NEVER buy into the almighty “THEY SAY” without credible resources (and no, social media does not count). Fortunately for you, however, I DO have those credible resources for this article, so read on and be enlightened! (Besides, what else do you have to do right now? Consider this an educational break from your Netflix binge-watching.)
I don’t know about you, but I don’t just swallow anything I’m told. I want to know HOW it works! For me, if I understand the HOW, then I can execute the solution more effectively!
This all has to do with how the nervous system interacts with your immune system. Oh, don’t give me that look. I know you rolled your eyes. Yes, I just roped you into an anatomy lesson. Well, this anatomy lesson is going to help you get through this COVID-19 thing, so read on.
Nervous System 101
First of all, let’s look at the nervous system. It governs the body, so this is going to play a vital part in what’s happening to the immune system here; so bear with me for some basic ground work.
The nervous system is broken into three parts:
- Somatic – helps you respond voluntarily to external stimuli.
- Enteric – not always referred to, but basically it governs your gastrointestinal system.
- Autonomic – governs the body’s ability to regulate all the internal bodily functions that keep you alive without having to think about them.
The Autonomic Nervous System is what we’re concerned with here and is broken into two divisions:
The Sympathetic Nervous System
(a.k.a. fight or flight)
and the Parasympathetic Nervous System
(a.k.a. rest and digest)
Both of these influence the same systems in the body; however, they have the opposite effects on them.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) controls the body’s response during a perceived threat. For example, you encounter a lion looking for lunch (lunch = you). The SNS would increase your heart rate, dilate your bronchioles to facilitate increased oxygen demand, release adrenaline, convert glycogen to glucose for energy needed for the muscles to react, and shut down systems not needed for survival at this very moment, such as digestion and elimination.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), on the other hand, restores the body to a state of calm. Once you successfully escape the lion, your PNS would kick in and decrease your heart rate, constrict bronchioles to normal, and relax muscles. It wouldn’t be unusual at this point to feel like you need to eat, but only after you find the bathroom, now that digestion and elimination are back on line.
Ok. Got that? Here’s where it gets really cool. Now I’m going to show you how stress actually gets inside of your immune system!
Immune System and Lymphocyte Basics
First, a quick lesson on the immune system (yes, I know, more anatomy, but I’ll try to keep it entertaining). When people think immune system, they automatically think lymph vessels and lymph nodes. Good! But that’s only a small component of this amazing system, and it’s not even the best part! The immune system is actually made up of several lymphoid organs. These include:
- Primary lymphoid organs bone marrow and thymus, where lymphocytes (the critters that destroy things that are not “self”) are manufactured
- Secondary lymphoid organs such as lymph nodes, spleen, tonsils, appendix, and M.A.L.T.**, where the lymphocytes go to hang out and wait for some action.
**M.A.L.T. is not a tasty, ice cream-based beverage here. It stands for mucosal associated lymphoid tissue (yeah, not as appetizing when you put it that way). This tissue is found in various areas around the body.
Now let’s talk about those lymphocytes. These guys are freaking awesome! This is where it could get complicated, so I’m going to really simplify this. Lymphocytes, (B cells, T cells, and Natural Killer cells), are simply one variety of the white blood cells found in your body. They get the name “lymphocyte” because they are the main type of cell found in the lymphatic system. Each has a specific job to do, but they all have the same goal, which is to work together to destroy anything that isn’t part of you. When they encounter an invader such as a pathogen (bacteria, virus, or other organism that can cause disease), receptors on the lymphocyte bind to the invader and destroy it.
Hopefully, I haven’t lost you because this is where it really gets good, and we’re closer to the good news I promised you.
As I just mentioned, each lymphocyte has receptors on it. Their purpose is to bind to an invader and kill it. The more of these you have free and available, the more efficient your immune system can be at capturing and attacking foreign invaders. Think of it as being allowed to have extra players on your football team, and the competition is only allowed a fraction of what you get to have. Obviously, your team would have better odds at winning the game with the other team outnumbered. Here’s the problem though. Those receptors can bind to other things too besides pathogens.
I hope you paid attention earlier because now I’m bringing this all together between the nervous system and your immune system, so brace yourself.
Nervous and Immune System Interaction
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) has fibers from the brain that descend into your bone marrow and thymus (remember this is where your lymphocytes are manufactured). These SNS fibers also interact with the spleen and lymph nodes (where your lymphocytes hang out, waiting for action). When the SNS is activated (stress), these fibers are capable of releasing several different kinds of substances that direct the actions of the lymphocytes by (wait for it) BINDING TO THE RECEPTORS. Once these receptors bind to the substances released by the SNS, they are occupied and are not available to bind to invaders!
But that’s not all.
Your brain and adrenals also release a variety of chemicals, hormones, and peptides, which ALSO can bind to these receptors on your lymphocytes. Now you have even fewer players on the field
And one more hit.
During these stressful times, people often engage in behaviors less than beneficial to their systems (such as drinking, smoking, drug use) in order to attempt to manage their stress. Add to that that the stress is probably resulting in not getting restful sleep. All of this can potentially change the way the immune system operates!
Now, these chemicals won’t take every last receptor out of play but they will take more than normal because the body is continuing to release this stress-induced chemistry.
So, to sum it up, sustained stress on your system causes your SNS to flood your immune system with a variety of things that are not pathological in nature.
The result? They hijack receptors on your lymphocytes thus reducing the number that would normally be available to combat pathogens
“But wait a second! What about stress that doctors tell us is good for our immune systems, like working out?! Have they been lying to us all this time?”
Ahhh! Excellent question, Grasshopper! You have been paying attention. Actually, no. The doctors are indeed telling you the truth! You see, the body reacts a bit differently to short-term stress than it does to long-term stress. Studies have indeed validated that short-term stress has a positive impact on the immune system
“You gotta be kidding me. How does that work?”
Short-term vs. Long-term Stress
Well, short-term, acute stress actually increases the part of your immune system that reacts the fastest to pathogens! Scientists believe that this goes back to our hunter-gatherer days and is part of our body’s natural reaction to a threat that requires a physical response
Incidents that involve fighting or running away could potentially result in injury to the body and in turn release infectious agents into the bloodstream or skin (such as an open wound). Perceiving the physical threat, the immune system springs into action, manufacturing the lymphocytes that could help since injury could release pathogens into the system that could cause infection. The immune system reacts rapidly, not only to prepare the body to heal faster from possible injury, but also to prevent any potential infections from getting a foothold!
Long-term stress that does not require a physical response (like running away or active combat) does not seem to have the same effect on the immune system as short-term, acute stress. In the past 30 years, over 300 studies have confirmed this. (See the end notes for resources for more facts.)
“You lied to me! You said this was going to be good news! All you’ve told me is that my long-term stress is causing my Sympathetic Nervous System to hijack my immune system. How is that good news?….”
(Insert dramatic pause, indicating epiphany strike)
“…Wait a second. Didn’t you say there was that… that PNS thingy? The Para… Parasympathetic Nervous System!
You said it does the opposite of the Sympathetic Nervous System.”
Bravo (or brava if you’re female)! You really were paying attention! Yes, indeed, you can activate your PNS to combat this very problem!
“HOW DO I DO IT?!”
Laugh. Seriously, I mean it. Laugh.
Oh come on. You can do better than that. Laugh!
Oh, for Pete’s sake! LAUGH! I mean a good, old belly-laugh.
“I don’t get it. How does that help?”
Laughter really IS the best medicine
Ok. Let’s review really quick. Remember how the SNS affects the body to prepare you to flee? The goal here is to do the opposite. That’s the PNS! When you laugh, muscles relax, endorphins (the body’s natural feel good chemicals) are released, and they decrease stress hormones, allowing the immune cells to do their jobs! (Oh, and it also burns calories, and since we can’t get to the gym right now, we need all the extra workout options we can get.)
Think about it. When you laugh, you feel lighter and in a better mood. Optimism is easier to achieve. I’ve shown you how negativity is running you down and putting your immune system at a disadvantage. When you’re positive, this has the opposite effect by allowing your Parasympathetic Nervous System to do its job! As the PNS returns your system to a relaxed state, no longer is the SNS releasing excess chemistry into the body that is hijacking those precious available receptors on your lymphocytes!
As a matter of fact, remember when I said there are several different kinds of lymphocytes? There’s one in particular that is particularly vicious called a Natural Killer Cell (Ooooo, with a name like that he’s gotta be a bad ass). The Natural Killer Cell in particular is important in the prevention of viral illnesses (and guess what kind of illness COVID-19 is. Coincidence? I think not.). Now wouldn’t you just love to be bolstering these little guys?! Well here’s the good news:
Laughter has been shown to increase Natural Killer Cell activity in the body! The more active and available these cells are, the faster they can identify and kill invaders!
Now, there is one minor catch here. Believe it or not, the heartier your laughter is, the more active your Natural Killer Cells will be! It’s the laughing out loud that really triggered this increased activity. Simply smiling wasn’t enough to affect these changes. So, you know what that means? Get your funny on! I mean it. Really laugh. Get yourself up a good ole guffaw and belly laugh!
So there you have it.
THAT’S THE GOOD NEWS!
When you take time to laugh out loud,
you are actually strengthening your immune system.
Don’t feel guilty about enjoying yourself. I know there’s a lot of weird stuff going on right now, but turn that on its ear and find the funny in it. You’re not being insensitive. You’re improving your ability to fight off pathogens! For example, just this morning, I went to the grocery store (gasp!). Sure, I was in amongst a ton of people who were stressed out that they wouldn’t find the items they needed. Me? I found myself standing in the meat section, laughing out loud that there were plenty of chitlins and calf liver to be had! Now, I love to cook, but I’m not ready to reenact Iron Chef the Irish Edition. This idea kept me giggling out loud all the way to the produce section; but then again, I’m easily entertained.
You need to find your funny and roll with it. There are plenty of resources for this between your private DVD collection and your internet choices, so line up the funny fest! Tired of watching TV? Take a walk and find something absurd to observe, OR how about becoming the absurd. Driving to the store this morning, I was listening to the 70’s station and Y.M.C.A. came on. Sorry, but it’s an unwritten law that you MUST do the arm movements when Y.M.C.A. is playing. I promise you, everyone at that red light knew what I was listening to. I had a great time, and I helped boost a few other immune systems while I was at it! Whatever you choose, stop wasting time in Worrywart-ville. Let’s get silly!
Now, will laughing 100% prevent you from catching COVID-19? Well, everything we’re doing now, such as hand-washing and social-distancing, is highly-effective preventative, but nothing is foolproof. I don’t know about you, but I’m adding, bolstering my Natural Killer Cells to my regime! If it gets past the exterior defenses, gosh darn it, that virus is going to have a very nasty surprise waiting for it (insert evil, extra-hearty laughter here)!
Anything and everything we can do to keep this at bay for ourselves and our families is a huge help. Besides, I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather be laughing right now than worrying. So, if you will please excuse me, I have a date with Comedy Central.
- https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/laughter-is-the-best medicine.htm