Research details the different impacts stress and depression have on the mind, body and immune system.

For generations, mothers have been warning their children that going outside in the cold with wet hair will make them sick. Although it has been scientifically proven to be incorrect, many of us have disobeyed Mom by going outside on a cold day with wet hair — and indeed have gotten sick.

In a very crude way, this is an example of psychoneuroimmunology, or the study of how these outside emotional stresses and conditions impact not only our mind, but also our immune system.

The Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA is dedicated to studying how psychological, neural and immunologic processes interact and shape human health and behavior. The doctors with the Cousins Center believe that external physical and social environments can strongly influence immune-system activity by affecting neural and endocrine processes that regulate immune system dynamics.

“The Cousins Center is very interested in the interactions between the brain, the body and the immune system, and the science behind that,” says Dr. Michael R. Irwin, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the Cousins Center.

These external influences that are negatively impacting the immune system include insomnia, prolonged stress and depression. Uncontrolled stress is one of the greatest factors in shortening our lifespan, just behind smoking and poor diet.

Dr. Irwin says that stress produces a complex physiological response that, under fight-or- flight conditions, such as being chased by a lion, would be very helpful. The inflammation in the body caused by that stress primes the immune system in the event that we are injured by the pursuing lion. But, when we are stuck in an office dealing with stress on a daily basis, that same inflammation response puts us at risk for chronic diseases.

“We’ve been very interested in how stress impacts health outcomes,” Irwin says. “One of the most striking areas of research is how stress leads to infectious disease. We’ve been really at the forefront, showing that major depressive disorder and sleep problems lead to changes in the immune system which make us vulnerable to infectious disease.”

To help the body and mind combat these stresses, the researchers at the center
have conducted numerous studies on the practice of mindfulness-paying attention
to thoughts, emotions and physical sensations without judging or reacting to them. One such study tested mindfulness strategies in older adults suffering from insomnia. One group of elders was given a six-week course on sleep and stress reduction. The other group meditated daily for 15 minutes before bed. After six weeks, the meditating group showed significant improvement in sleep quality and had less fatigue and depression.

“The way our research informs the mind-body link is to map out the molecular mechanisms, the specific biological gears and pulleys that allow our experience of everyday life to change the way disease unfolds in our body,” says Dr. Steve Cole, PhD., research scientist and Semel Institute Professor of Medicine, UCLA. “Part of the reason it’s important to do this kind of work is that it helps us understand what’s going on in the black box of epidemiology (the branch of medicine that deals with incidence, distribution and possible control of diseases
and other factors relating to health), how differences in life’s circumstances can turn into differences in disease and why that actually makes sense given our evolutionary heritage.”

Along with meditation, other mindful practices like yoga and tai chi have helped combat the body’s inflammatory response to stress and other mind-body conditions. This inflammation in the body leads to a wide variety of chronic health conditions including cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, depression and even cancer.

The findings at the Cousins Center are also working their way into general-medicine practices across the country.

“One of the things that we’re beginning to do is to move
what we know into the primary- care setting and export it into the global community,” Dr. Irwin says. “Over 120,000 people are taking our online courses. Our research is really pointing in the direction for the use of these interventions to prevent disease and to promote health and wellness”