When I was a little boy, Mom used to remind me, “Son, don’t get caught in the rain, you will catch fever. Also don’t stay under the hot sun, you will catch fever.” True enough, every time I got caught in the rain, or stayed under the hot sun, I would somehow catch fever.
My mind talked to my immune system that responded accordingly, thus I had fever every time I got caught in the rain or stayed under the hot sun. Many years later, I grew up wiser, and figured out that, there is no good scientific reason for me to catch fever because of the rain or sun. Upon realising this, that “rain and sun curse” scrambled out of my mind, like a ghost that was asked to leave, and since then I hardly had fever regardless of whether it rains or shines.
Until 1983, our brain was thought to control every system of our body except our immune system. Our immune system or ‘the soldiers within us’ were thought to function on its own (autonomously) without ‘talking to’ or taking orders from our brain.
Neuroscientists and immunologists once thought that our brain and immune system had nothing to do with one another until Prof. Dr. David Felten, Professor of Neurobiology at the University of Rochester, observed and pointed out that a bunch of nerve fibres from the brain actually connects to cells of the immune system in our spleen. This great observation lead him to explore and confirm that our brain actually talks to the soldiers in our body, in their own language, through signaling pathways by using hormones and neurotransmitters.
Each of us perceive things differently, according to our genes, upbringing, the environment that we grew up in, and whatever we heard, read or think. All these interact with one another to establish a certain consciousness in us that determines our unique physical, emotional and immunological systems of reaction to whatever stimuli that confront us from time to time.
For example, if you have owned a pet dog before, and like dogs, your reactions towards a friendly dog approaching you would be so different from another person who dislikes dogs and was recently bitten by it.
The former would welcome the dog with a warm feeling, and talk to the dog. Imagine the sort of happy hormones and neurotransmitters that would run through his body. In contrast, the latter’s mind would run into a frenzy. His “emergency hormone” called adrenaline would secrete in large quantities, to induce a state of preparedness to fight or to flee himself from the scene. His brain and adrenal glands would also release a large quantity of stress hormone (corticosteroids) that affects his immune system adversely in the long run.
Corticosteroids work by reducing the activity of our immune system and decreasing inflammation. Inflammation is a process in which our body’s white blood cells and chemicals protect us against infection and foreign substances such as bacteria and viruses.
Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is a relatively new field of study that explores and elucidates the great connection and interactions between our mind, body (nervous system) and immune system.
The importance of psychoneuroimmunology in the management of our health cannot be underestimated. Apart from good nutrition, and exercise, there is a need to understand that the stressors of life such as work stress, relationship stress, sleep deprivation, chronic worries and anxiety can all overwhelm our balance of good health by weakening the soldiers in us, and disrupting our body’s self-defense. When the soldiers in us are weakened, diseases such as infection or cancer may emerge and fester, often leading to serious consequences including death.
Stress is often overwhelming, more so in this modern era of a rat-race, where productivity is seen as all important, at the expense of the general health of the workforce. Many people are being pushed to the maximum, often to the point of collapse of their immune system.
As a family physician, I am seeing increasing number of such people – people who present with severe recurrent headache, repeated chest pain, a racing heart, feeling of suffocation, or an inability to sleep. Often they are successful people who are at the peak of their performance and holding high posts in the corporate ladder.
Sometimes these conditions are primary. They may not have any other stress factors – no work, relationship or financial stress, whatever. They just feel a fatal heart attack or a hidden cancer is going to kill them soon. Perhaps they just read about the confession and revelation of the ex-CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, who climbed to the top of the corporate ladder and died of cancer at a relatively young age. Or maybe somebody in the neighbourhood just died of a sudden heart attack.
Chronic anxiety and insomnia are so common and increasing. If they are not attended to appropriately, they ultimately lead to a downward
spiralling condition I called PSYCHONEUROIMMUNOPATHOLOGY – or simply the disease of the mind-body-immune system complex.
People with such problems need a thorough check-up, followed by good counselling by an emphatic compassionate doctor with good listening skills to thoroughly address their concern and uproot the baseless fear in them. They need to be convinced that there is really nothing wrong in them except for that fear of dying soon of an incurable disease. Once this is done, the stress is terminated, and his well-being restored.
If they are not attended to, the prolonged worries and concern shall continue to ruminate in their mind. This constitutes a major stressor in their life that would spiral them into a vicious cycle that could affect their immune system and general well-being adversely.
Ultimately what they fear might become a reality as a result of their persistent weakened immune system: what a self-fulfilled prophecy! Truly, the stressors of life can potentially kill many, in this stress-prone era.
Dr. Victor Ti, MD, MFAM (Malaysia), FRACGP (Australia), Dip P Dermatology (UK), Dip STDs/AIDS (Thailand), Dip. AARAM (USA), LCP of Aesthetic Med. (Malaysia) is an experienced specialist generalist (Family Physician) of BH Clinic, Phnom Penh. As a specialist generalist, he is skillful at diagnosing all general diseases and excluding the sinister ones. Apart from the general diseases, Dr. Victor is also known for his skill in skin diseases, sexually transmitted diseases, minor surgery and aesthetic medicine. He can be contacted via messenger m.me/bhclinic1 or Tel: 023900446