At Leapfrog we’re often saying how brilliant the body is at producing wondrous molecules like lactoferrin that keep us healthy (and how lucky that we can harness its power in our chewable tablets). But if we have everything we need within us to fight disease and survive, why do our own ‘drugs’ stop working? This is a question that has been driving forward Professor Fulvio D’Acquisto, an immunologist at the University of Roehampton. He believes that we are more than just cells and organs – we exist within the context of the life that we lead and that what we feel impacts our immune system at a cellular level. So can we use an emotional toolbox to build a stronger immune system?
“The immune system is the mirror of what you feel and experience. Our immune system is the sensor within us that sees bacteria and viruses that are invisible to the naked eye, but similarly bad emotions or good emotions that we experience cannot go undetected,” says Fulvio, “So, similarly to detecting a pathogen, your body detects feelings, and there must be some sort of communication between the two. There has to be a sensor that adjusts to what you are feeling.”
Having worked with suicidal people during his training, Fulvio discovered they were often suffering from cold or flu. That correlation is no coincidence, he believes. “It’s weakness in the immune system, paired with a weakness in the way you face reality – and studies do show that psychotherapy can be as effective as anti-inflammatory drugs. There has to be a system inside that adjusts to what you experience outside, and this is what I’m interested in: marrying the classical side – signalling, molecules, cells – with what we experience in daily living.”
Glass Half Full
So what impact do positive emotions have on our immune system? Fulvio’s lab experiments have proven that when one experiences positive emotions associated with feeling good or loved, the blood composition at a cellular level completely changes. “A matching of the enrichment of life with the enriching of the immune repertoire” he says. Going on holiday, especially during the Victorian times when it was seen as medicinal, improves the quality of your blood – it’s a layering of the novelty, relaxation, and social interaction (all of which have been in short supply of late).
So, can we train our immune system to better protect us? Yes, says Fulvio: “Imagine that one glass of blood has 100 immune cells. After you go on holiday the same glass would have 500-1000 immune cells. It’s an exaggeration, but it is a marked increase in neutrophils – the fighter cells. Then you have more cells fighting the bacteria or viruses and the system gets more efficient and effective.”
Laughter Is The Best Medicine
It’s scientifically true that laughter has an effect. “The scientific literature on the effect of laughing on the composition of blood cells show it’s humungous. If you do many positive things in life, your immune system keeps being stimulated and you become more resilient. The more emotions we feel and experience, the more learning from our immune response there is.”
So, what’s the prescription? Anything that makes you happy and gets you out of your head, says Fulvio: “You might go to an exhibition and see a nice painting, or hear the chirping of birds, and the smell of flowers. The more you get into the sensing part of your body, the more the body focuses on the present moment.”
Massage in particular is something Fulvio has analysed. Biologically we are designed to respond to soft touch: it influences the thymus organ and regulates the number of lymphocytes we have in circulation. “Massage is a dedicated time you give yourself to another person and there’s often music and an oil essence, so it’s not just the physical touch” he says, “It’s the combination of things, and when you engage with all the senses you are completely present and that changes the immune response.”
Fulvio would like to see patients take agency in their treatment – determining with a social scientist which positive experiences should go alongside their medication. Say, a walk on the beach or in the forest. “Everyone has an emotional toolbox that is unique to them and we need to be aware of what it is that makes us feel better and lifts our emotional state. The moment we take responsibility and don’t just rely on a pill to heal us, then even the drug itself has a completely different impact on the person.”
It seems simple, silly even, says Fulvio, but the science says it works. Our emotions are important levers in our immune system function. “When you go through a disease you create an immunological memory. That memory is what we have a vaccine for – for us to experience the disease so that we’re ready for it the next time. So, if we’re doing it at the level of biology why are we not doing it on an emotional level?”
To see an IGTV of this interview, click here.