Physical Health Mental Health

Can You Boost Your Immune System with Gratitude?

The idea that your mental state is interconnected with your physical state has been brought to the forefront in recent years. For example, negative attitudes and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can create chronic stress. This can upset the body's hormone balance, deplete brain chemicals required for happiness, and damage the immune system.

A weakened immune system increases the body’s vulnerability to pathogens and decreases the body's defences against illness. Furthermore, a study that collected data from men and women ages 25 to 74 found that heavy stress actually shortens life expectancy by 2.8 years.

Some of the more common physical difficulties associated with imbalanced mental health include:

  • Headaches or back/neck pain

  • Upset stomach, constipation, or diarrhoea

  • Change in appetite, weight gain, or weight loss

  • Palpitations or high blood pressure

  • Fatigue or insomnia

  • Sweating, lightheadedness, dry mouth, or shortness of breath

But, can you really reverse physical ailments and get healthier by practising gratitude?

Afterall, it’s not easy to tell if your physical discomfort or poor health actually stems from a condition of your mind. Even if you let your doctor know that you think your emotions are causing you to experience physical health difficulties, they might not be trained to correctly identify mental conditions. While your general practitioner can help rule out other causes and treat your symptoms so you can feel better physically, they would have to refer you to a mental health specialist like a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist to correctly rule out or identify how your state of mind is affecting you physically.

So, what can gratitude actually do for your health?

Far from being a magic pill that you take to boost your energy levels and health, gratitude does not actively boost your immune system to make you healthier.

Rather, counting your blessings each day has been shown to significantly increase your happiness. By improving your mood, you will inevitably move more, eat better, and sleep better; all of which are the building blocks of better health.

In one study, 61 healthy women between the ages of 35 and 50 were randomly assigned to either a six-week online gratitude activity or a writing activity. Once a week, the gratitude group were given a writing prompt that asked them to write about someone they were grateful for (for example, “Think of someone in your life who you feel like you have never fully or properly thanked for something meaningful or important that they did for you”). The control group wrote about neutral topics (“Think about the longest distance that you walked today”).

Before and after the six weeks, the participants reported on how much they tended to offer support or receive support from other people and provided a blood sample to test for inflammatory cytokines caused by stress that are linked to chronic diseases of ageing, like diabetes, atherosclerosis, and even cancer.

After analysing the data, the researchers found that women assigned to the gratitude group were less likely to be stressed. However, they didn’t find any significant improvement in immune function.

Yet another study found that stress hormones like cortisol are 23 per cent lower in grateful people and could actually reduce the effects of ageing on the brain. Additionally, people who were more grateful had a reduced dietary fat intake — as much as 25 per cent lower, which prompted researchers to question if gratitude was able to rewire the mind to appreciate healthy, nutrient-dense food.

Can expressing gratitude affect people’s brains in a way that promotes better health? 

Research shows that when you express appreciation and gratitude, the parasympathetic or calming part of the nervous system is triggered and that can have protective benefits on the body, including decreasing cortisol levels and perhaps increasing oxytocin, the bonding hormone involved in relationships that make us feel good, both physically and mentally. While gratitude may not have a direct effect on the immune system, it can boost your health because, as a way of perceiving and interpreting life, it recruits other positive emotions that have direct physical benefits.

To be your healthiest and best self, you must find a balance between your physical and mental needs. Reach out to hello@naluri.life to find out how Naluri's Health Care Programme addresses can help you and your team tackle healthcare holistically.

Written by:
Chloe Pharamond