trisha hadley

CAM Series: Psychoneuroimmunology

The second in a series of posts on CAM topics. I spent a year studying the integration of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) into the Western healthcare system at Georgetown; here I share my thoughts. See this post for some background on the biopsychosocial model as it's related to all things CAM.


If I had to pick a favorite, this would be it. It's right up there with 11.1.13 set two, acai + blueberry Ombar chocolate, and sunsets at Grand View Park.

As the name so eloquently implies, psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) lies at the intersection of several scientific fields. If neuroscience is the intellectual older brother, PNI is his hip, younger sibling (likely dancing around barefoot listening to 11.1.13 and dreaming of summer tour.)

Illuminating an intricate web of the body's circuitry, PNI involves the physiology of the brain, activity of the mind, communication and integration with the endocrine and immune systems. While the entirety of PNI is much beyond the scope this post (and our current understanding), there are aspects that I have found quite compelling. Simply put, thoughts and emotions have meaning and tangible, measurable effects on the body.

Let's illustrate a sliver of this web by looking at natural killer (NK) cells, a powerful immune component fighting cancer and viral infections. Studies of depressed individuals show diminished NK cell activity, while guided imagery and relaxation techniques have been shown to increase NK activity (as well as providing a slew of other augmented immune responses) in women undergoing breast cancer treatment. NK cells also have receptors for different hormones that can further modulate their activity. Let's refresh. Depression = less NK. Relaxation = more NK. Hormones can change NK. These dynamic responses exist due to the integrated nature of all of the (previously characterized as separate) body systems. Elements of each system have the ability the enhance or suppress elements of the others via direct signaling, secretion, and/or the the presence of receptors, and this communication is far more comprehensive than originally characterized. 

If that was a bit too much on the science front, take away the connection between the mind and body. Our immune system is stronger or weaker based on the state of our mind. That's pretty amazing. Utilize your mind and its untapped potential to be well. I often find the hashtag #healthyishappy on popular health and wellness sites. While I agree with that (#obvi), I think we underestimate the power of #happyishealthy. (CheckItOut.)

See what I mean? PNI is just the hippie little sib of neuroscience. And you thought that was just a labored metaphor into which I tried to incorporate Phish. It really is all peace + love, people.

But really, who's ready for summer tour?

Background image by Sebastian Glasl.