As a refresher, here’s a simplified explanation of how stress works in the body:
The brain perceives a threat and releases a specific hormone in the hypothalamus, which stimulates the release of another hormone in the pituitary gland (also in the brain).
This hormone makes its way to the adrenal glands (located above the kidneys), where, you guessed it, more stress-inducing hormones get released, this time into the bloodstream.
With the release of these final hormones throughout the whole body, we are now prepared for “fight or flight”.
Since the process runs downstream from the Hypothalamus (H) to the Pituitary Gland (P), and finally to the Adrenal Glands (A), the whole system is commonly referred to as the HPA axis.
The hormones (called glucocorticoids) released at the end of the HPA axis have well-documented effects on immune function. Namely, glucocorticoids suppress immune function, which is why patients with autoimmune diseases are often prescribed glucocorticoids to downregulate their own overactive immune systems.
But when the HPA axis is chronically overactive, these glucocorticoids can suppress the immune system to the point where the body becomes susceptible to disease. This is how chronic stress can make us sick.
HOW MEDITATION IMPROVES HPA AXIS FUNCTION
While the research is still tentative, there are several randomized controlled trials showing that meditation can downregulate the HPA axis and thus reduce chronic stress.
Inflammation is a mechanism for your body to fight off disease or heal from injury. Blood vessels expand, allowing more blood, and therefore immune cells, to reach the affected area. While this is useful for fighting off a cold or preventing infection from a splinter, chronic inflammation is very problematic. Inflammation has to subside for the healing process to take full effect; if it doesn’t, the body is at an increased risk of disease.
Meditation has also been shown to reduce levels of several key inflammatory proteins, suggesting that over time, it can promote a more optimal immune response.
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1) Bellavance, Marc-André, and Serge Rivest. “The HPA - Immune Axis and the Immunomodulatory Actions of Glucocorticoids in the Brain.” Frontiers in immunology vol. 5 136. 31 Mar. 2014, doi:10.3389/fimmu.2014.00136
2) Black, David S, and George M Slavich. “Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences vol. 1373,1 (2016): 13-24. doi:10.1111/nyas.12998