Psychoneuroimmunology: Life, Stress, and Your Immune System

Meditation in nature can bring inner peace and health.
Learn what PNI says about stress and its effects on your body. Tom Merton/Getty Images

You may have suspected for a long time that the events that occur in your life may be having an impact on your health. Perhaps you've noticed that you get sick more often when you're stressed, or you felt chest pains when a relationship went south. (Or maybe you've simply heard about the link in the news or any of the many books out now that detail this connection.) How do we know that there is a link between what happens to us and what happens within us?

Research is being conducted all the time that proves the link. And there are many, many links.

Psychoneuroimmunology: The Mind-Body-Behavior Connection

One of the main branches of research to study this link is the relatively new field of psychoneuroimmunology. (Let's just refer to it as PNI from now on.) In a nutshell, PNI studies the connection between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of the body. A more detailed description of PNI was given in an interview with Dr. Robert Ader, a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, and one of the pioneers of this rapidly growing branch of research. It reads as follows: "Psychoneuroimmunology refers, most simply, to the study of the interactions among behavioral, neural and endocrine (or neuroendocrine), and immunologic processes of adaptation. Its central premise is that homeostasis is an integrated process involving interactions among behavior and the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems."

The field grew from the work if Ivan Pavlov, the Russian researcher who proved the effectiveness of classical conditioning model (remember the man who trained dogs to salivate to the sound of a bell?) when it was suspected that the body's other systems may be altered by conditioning as well. American researchers took the research further in the United States, and we now know for certain that immune responses can be enhanced or suppressed with a wide variety of conditioned cues as well as the placebo effect.

This has been hugely beneficial for research--we are gaining a clearer understanding of the links between lifestyle and personality factors and immunity as research continues. The following studies are examples of what we have learned through the field of PNI.

Childhood Stress and Adult Health

One study by Christopher Fagundes and colleagues examined childhood stress and later immunity by examining women's vulnerability to the development of herpesvirus-related conditions in the wake of a highly stressful event--a breast cancer diagnosis. One hundred eight breast cancer survivors completed questionnaires examining early childhood stressors, and gave samples of their blood. Researchers identified those who had experienced greater levels of childhood stress, examined antibody markers in their blood, and found that those who had experienced higher levels of childhood stress had higher levels of antibody titers, as well, which signified a less robust immune response. This study suggests that there are long-lasting.  Here are some strategies you can use to help your child manage stress.

The Stress of Poverty On Health

Another group of researchers headed by Jennifer Dowd studied children and their antibody responses.

They examined these antibody markers in the blood of children living in poverty and found that those who lived in poverty for a certain time had a weaker immune response to cytomegalovirus. They also found that this effect was more pronounced in older children, suggesting that there were far-reaching consequences that may build upon each other. This study offers more evidence that there is a connection between early childhood stress from poverty and reduced immune functioning in childhood as well as in later adulthood. Read more about childhood stress and poverty, and what can be done.

Social Support, Socioeconomic Status, and Breast Cancer

A third study examined the antibody markers of women going through breast cancer treatment and also looked at the potential impacts of social support and socioeconomic status.

As expected, highly educated women with higher levels of friend support experienced lower levels of antibody titers, which reflected a stronger immune response. Perhaps surprisingly, however, was the finding that women of low socioeconomic status did not experience the same protective benefits from friend support. This information backs up the previous study's association between poverty and immunity, and it shows one more important variable that affects the relationship between stress and immunity. Read more research on social support.

Studies like these can be useful in helping us to better understand the effects of stress and other lifestyle factors on immunity and our overall health. And, as you can see, they each offer a piece of the puzzle--each piece creates a better view of the big picture and a deeper understanding of how stress affects us and what we can do.

The following resources can help you to better understand the link between stress and health, and what you can do to promote wellness in yourself. We can't always control our circumstance, but it helps to understand how they might affect us and to know what we can to offset the effects of stress in our lives and build resilience within ourselves.

Further Reading:


Dowd, Jennifer; Palmero, Tia; Aiello, Allison. (2012). Family poverty is associated with cytomegalovirus antibody titers in U.S. children. Health Psychology Vol 31(1).

Fagundes, Christopher P. et. al. (2012). Social support and socioeconomic status interact to predict Epstein-Barr virus latency in women awaiting diagnosis or newly diagnosed with breast cancer. Health Psychology Vol 31(1).

Fagundes, Christopher P.; Glaser, Ronald; Malarkey, William B.; and Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice K. (2012). Childhood adversity and herpesvirus latency in breast cancer survivors. Health Psychology.

Freeman, L. W. (2009). Mosby's complementary and alternative medicine. (3 ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby.

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