Psychoneuroimmunology is the combined modalities of psychology (thoughts a person has), plus neurology (physical paths traveled in the brain), plus the immune system, with the capability to combine to create one interactive feedback loop. This discipline has conceded that “Stress taps into the very same circuit (the sympathetic nervous system) as infection, but starting in the brain rather than the immune system.” (1)
The American Psychological Association says that Dr Steven Maier and his colleagues whom have been studying psychoneuroimmunology for some time, have been exploring a stress induced “sickness response’. Dr. Maier concludes that, “Stress is actually another form of infection, and the consequences of stress are...activation of circuits that actually evolved to defend against infection”.(1)
This was an important milestone on my path towards understanding what I saw now as allergy and inflammation as a brain dysfunction. Stress being communicated through the nervous system indicates a circuitry outside of the immune system’s process. Could the stress be signalled from internal adaptive protection mechanisms in the cells themselves and cause a circuit of infection defense strategy? In this case, and just as in the process of an external stress initiation, stress in the cells would send chemical messages along the afferent fibers of the vagus nerve to the brain to produce the same response as a life threat. The efferent message back to the organs would then be one to defend against infection. With Dr. Maier’s conclusion, I found initial footing for my hypothesis: that adaptive cellular defense strategies can trigger a sympathetic dominant response of fight or flight in response to mis-metabolized chemical neurotransmitters and hormone metabolites, using infection mechanisms beyond and bypassing an antibody generating defense. Then, and equally important to note, cellular memory then stores this response just as it does a vaccine modulated response in order to defend itself in the presence of the same offender in the future. This dysfunctional, or perhaps better termed “Defensive Metabolism” is a trauma that can present both physically and mentally, and can appear difficult to down-regulate once initiated. Through interoception, we can understand that if we listen to our body, seek to understand its adaptations, and adjust accordingly, we stand to repair homeostasis in quick order. If not, our nervous systems will seem to fail us by not self-soothing and “act out”,(2) as seen through symptomatology. The functional balancing action to these defensive adaptations would be a holistic recovery management plan including an awareness of and activation towards a parasympathetic environment, understanding the cells’ adaptive responses, and re-training the imprinted recording code in the brain’s programming.
What does this mean for you facing autoimmune or chronic illness?
Could it be that stress, trauma, adaptation, pessimism, etc can turn off the immune system? Can the cells perceive a threat and put up their own defense outside of the immune system?
What it means is that stress engages not only a "fight or flight" responsible nervous system, but could be engaging an OLDER memorized nervous system that shuts down key immune functions just like a reptile "plays dead". Dr. Martin Seligman agrees with my position as he states in his book, "Learned Optimism" that stress, depression, trauma, pessimism can, in fact, turn off the immune system.(3) So what if it's NOT overactive immune, but a cellular defense response?
Stress, both internal and external, WHY the cells are putting up a defense needs to be looked at in order to construct an environment conducive to healing, or all the physical methods, drugs, and supplements that you are trying won't quite be enough.
1 Porges, M. (2019). Daily vagus nerve exercises: Self-help exercises to stimulate vagal tone. Relieve anxiety, prevent inflammation, reduce chronic illness, anxiety, depression, trauma, PTSD and lots more. Independently Published, P.38.
2 Porges, S. W. (2017). The pocket guide to the Polyvagal theory: The transformative power of feeling safe (Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company, p.149.
3 Seligman, M. E. (2011). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. Vintage.
Amanda Plevell, PhD, CNHP is a Natural Health Practitioner with a key interest in Psychoneuroimmunology and autoimmune specific immunology. Find her credentials here, and search the AAANMC for additional information.
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