The study of the relationships between the different biological systems of the body, such as the immune system or the endocrine system, and the brain (and the human mind) is the main objective of a discipline called psychoneuroendocrinoimmunology.
This science helps us understand aspects as important as how psychological factors can influence the course or course of a disease, or how stress affects our quality of life.
In this article we tell you what psychoneuroendocrinoimmunology is and what it studies, And we give you the keys to understanding how stress affects our immune system and what impact the mind has on our health.
What is psychoneuroendocrinoimmunology and what does it study?
Psychoneuroendocrinoimmunology, also known as psychoneuroimmunology, is the discipline that studies the interactions between behavioral, neuronal, endocrine and immunological processes. Researchers know that the nervous system and the immune system can communicate with each other, but it’s only relatively recently that we’ve started to understand how they do it and what it means for our health.
One of the fundamental aspects of this discipline is that the mind and the body are two inseparable entities. It follows that stress affects the body’s ability to resist disease. Additionally, we know that the brain influences all kinds of physiological processes that were once thought to be unregulated.
There are effects of psychological factors on many diseases, Such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease or inflammatory bowel disease, among others. The aim of psychoneuroendocrinoimmunology is to precisely study the role of the physiological functioning of the neuro-immune system in health and disease, as well as the physical, chemical and physiological characteristics of the components of the immune system.
Connections between the brain and the immune system
As the field of psychoneuroendocrinoimmunology grows and expands, many discrete pathways of communication between psychological factors and the immune system are discovered.
Over the past decades, the depth of integration between the nervous system and the immune system has slowly narrowed, and one of the key aspects has been to better understand how the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis works ( HPA) and its impact psychological stress has on this particular system.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA)
The HPA axis involves three small endocrine glands that secrete hormones directly into the blood. The glands in question are the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, neurological neighbors, and the [glándulas suprarrenales](Adrenal glands), located at the top of the kidneys. This tissue triad controls stress responses and regulates processes such as digestion, the immune system, sexuality, mood, and energy consumption.
A notable chemical in the work of the HPA axis is corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH). The hypothalamus releases CRH in response to stress, illness, exercise, blood cortisol, and cycles of sleep and wakefulness. It peaks soon after waking up and slowly subsides for the rest of the day.
However, in a stressed individual, cortisol levels rise for long periods of time. During stress, the body thinks it is in imminent danger, so cortisol triggers a number of metabolic changes to ensure that enough energy is available in case there is a need to fight or sore. ‘escape. One of these energy saving tactics is to suppress the metabolically expensive immune system, saving glucose vital for the life-threatening event.
Of course, in modern humans, stress levels can increase for a variety of reasons, and very few of these situations pose a real threat to survival and life. In this way, this continuous stress can reduce the capacities of the immune system, with negative consequences for our health.
In contrast, oxytocin, produced during positive social interactions, has been shown to help dampen the activity of the HPA axis. And furthermore, it has been shown to promote health benefits, such as increased speed of wound healing.
Different stresses, different immune systems
In a discipline like psychoneuroendocrinoimmunology, clinical research is very important. In a meta-analysis of 300 empirical studies, it was found that certain types of stress modify different aspects of the immune system. Brief stressors, such as exams, have been compared to chronic stressors, life-changing events, such as caring for a loved one with dementia.
Brief stressors tend to suppress cellular immunity (the type that treats cellular invaders, such as viruses) while preserving humoral immunity (typically deals with pathogens outside of cells), such as parasites and bacteria). In turn, chronic stressors tend to suppress both types of immunity.
Stress has a measurable effect on the strength of the immune system and therefore on its ability to protect us. In a very real way, controlling stress levels can help maximize the potency of the immune system. Research has repeatedly shown that people under stress experience measurable changes in their physical responses to injury. If it slows wound healing, a higher incidence of infections or a worse prognosis for cancer survival.
For many years, the immune system was considered to be an autonomous and independent mechanism, but as we now know, this is not the case. The brain communicates regularly with cells of the immune system and vice versaThis tells us that stress is both psychological and physical. Therefore, learning how to control stress is an important skill if we are to prevent and reduce problems associated with many diseases and to have our immune system in peak condition.
The impact of the mind on our health
The effect of psychological factors on our health can be really significant. In a discipline like psychoneuroendocrinoimmunology, we have tried to study how “mind” and cognition influence our immune system and our health in general, and the results can be astounding.
Here are some examples of what is known so far in this regard:
1. The psychological duel
Stories of recently deceased people who die soon after their partner are quite common and are generally not apocryphal. In a recent study that followed more than 90,000 widowed people, it was found that during the first week after bereavement, mortality was twice the expected rate.
2. The intestine
It is currently fairly well established that there is a strong association between sustained stressful life events and the onset of symptoms in functional gastrointestinal disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, and so-called syndrome. irritable bowel.
There is still no scientific evidence directly linking positive thinking to cancer reduction, healthcare professionals working with patients with this disease are well aware that the patient’s outlook, attitude and motivation as well. that the amount and quality of psychological support can greatly affect the outcome of your illness.
4.HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)
Research has found significant evidence that high levels of stress and decreased social support accelerate the progression of certain diseases, including HIV.
5. Skin problems
We know that conditions such as psoriasis, eczema and asthma are conditioned by psychological aspects. The effect of daily stress can cause people to have disease outbreaks or make their symptoms worse.
6. Wound healing
The speed at which a surgical patient is cured has also been linked to psychological factors. For example, increased levels of fear or anxiety before surgery have been associated with worse outcomes, including longer hospital stays, more postoperative complications, and higher rates of readmissions.
Additionally, in a study of patients with chronic lower leg wounds, those who reported higher levels of depression and anxiety showed significant delayed healing.
Kanba, S. (2001). Psychoneuro-immunology: a dialogue between the brain and the immune system. Journal of the International Society for Life Information Sciences, 19 (1), 141-145.
Pérez de Alejo Rodríguez, LM, Moré Chang, CX, González Álvarez, I., and Alemany Zamora, A. (2019). Psychoneuroendocrinoimmunology: a claim for a holistic view in medical studies. Edumecentro, 11 (3), 254-261.
Sivik, T., Byrne, D., Lipsitt, DR, Christodoulou, GN and Dienstfrey, H. (2003). Psycho-Neuro-Endocrine-Immunology (PNEI): a common language for the whole human body. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 72 (5), 292.