How Meditation Improves Immunity
In my functional medicine practice, I work with a lot of patients who have chronic infections, like yeast overgrowth, Lyme disease, and mold toxicity, that weaken their immune systems through constant battle with bacteria and mycotoxins. Meditation is one technique I advise to reduce inflammation, protect the body’s microbiome defenses, and increase cellular resiliency to stress.
Mindfulness is a popular form of meditation that entails completely focusing one’s mind on an object, such as the act of breathing. The effort to sustain focus on a single item with as little distraction from other thoughts as possible has a profound calming effect on the mind and body. This technique and other forms of meditation have many immediate benefits that build over time with continued practice.
Breathing and oxygenation
Deep breathing exercises are a great way to begin a meditation practice and help our body and mind attain states of harmony, awareness, and connection with ourselves and the world around us. By inhaling and exhaling using the large diaphragm muscle that separates our chest from our abdomen, called diaphragmatic (or abdominal) breathing, we can slow down our breath and better fill our lungs to capacity.
Slow breathing, particularly around six breaths per minute, brings more air more deeply into the lungs with each inhale to provide optimal oxygen for our bodies’ needs.1 The brief, shallow chest breaths typical of most daily life leave more physiological ‘dead space’ in the lungs, where many of the tiny air sacs called alveoli cannot do their job of exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen. Healthy cells need oxygen, while most cancer cells and tumors thrive in oxygen-poor environments.
How to do deep diaphragmatic breathing
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, it can be helpful to lie down to start with or sit in a chair, until you become more accustomed to breathing this way and develop the strength of your diaphragm.2 Place one hand on your stomach just below the rib cage to help feel the movement of your diaphragm, with your other hand on your upper chest. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach pushes outward against your hand, filling your lungs to the bottom, while the hand on your chest remains still. On the exhale, tighten your stomach muscles so that your lower hand moves closer to your spine, letting the air leave your mouth through pursed lips, again while keeping the hand on your chest as still as possible.
Diaphragmatic breathing also stimulates the vagus nerve, an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system that connects your brain to various organs of your body. Increasing vagus nerve activity, or vagal tone, induces a calming effect on several organs, particularly the heart and digestive tract, while reducing immune markers of stress.
Chronic vagus nerve stimulation has even shown positive results for the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Chron’s disease,3 conditions resulting from an imbalanced immune system that causes bloody diarrhea and abdominal pain.
Blood tests for inflammation and aging
To check for systemic inflammation in the body, we can measure several biomarkers in the blood that indicate immune activation. Clinical studies have found that mindfulness meditation reduces levels of two key compounds that are active in inflammation: C-reactive protein and NF-kB. Additionally, mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase levels of CD4+ T cells — a type of immune cell that seeks and destroys virus or bacteria-infected cells — in people infected by HIV, a virus that kills T cells.4
Telomere length is one way to measure a person’s ‘biological’ age, which, depending on lifestyle, environmental, and genetic factors, can be significantly more or less than the same person’s chronological age (how many years that person has been alive). As we age, the end caps on our chromosomes that protect them from degradation, called telomeres, get shorter and shorter. Shortening of telomeres is a biomarker of cellular aging and susceptibility to apoptosis (natural cell death). Clinical trials have found that mindfulness meditation supports telomere length in immune cells.5
Microbiome and stress
Whether physical or psychological, stress triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, which increases the production of certain hormones and neurotransmitters that can be useful in the short-term, but when chronically activated create inflammation in different parts of the body and ultimately a weakened immune system. Such inflammation and dysregulation of our bodies’ signaling systems impacts not only our own cells, but also those of our microbiome.
Stress-induced changes to the body’s internal chemical environment affect the health of the bacterial populations in our gut and can reduce their ability to maintain a healthy intestinal barrier.6
Meditation is an effective tool for supporting an environment where helpful microbes can thrive and produce short-chain fatty acids that have anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor effects, while also preventing a leaky gut and colonization by harmful microbes.
In addition to being good for your immune system, meditation is great for building a sense of wellbeing and contentedness, as well as discipline and focus, all of which contribute to a happy and healthy life. So, if you feel like your immune system could use extra support, consider giving meditation a try, and explore my top six tips to boost immunity. There are numerous online resources for how to meditate, and during a regular health consultation I can provide you with strategies and tips for making the most of your meditation practice.