The Ties That Bind: Relationships and Our Immune System

By Shawn Radcliffe

photo: © Chi Hung Cheung

Thirty years ago many scientists would have scoffed at the idea that your health could be affected by what goes on in your mind or with your emotions. But today, the mind-body connection is a fertile area of research.

Scientists now know that the immune system talks to the brain and the brain talks to the immune system. These connections play an important role in both preventing disease and maintaining your health.

The brain, however, doesn’t exist in isolation. It is intimately tied to our environment, which includes the social networks we develop throughout our lives. And even when we are physically alone, we still carry those connections within us.

“Somewhere in our brains we carry a map of our relationships,” wrote Dr. Esther Sternberg, an expert on neural-immune science, in her book The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions. “It is our mother’s lap, our best friend’s holding hand, our lover’s embrace — all these we carry within ourselves when we are alone. Just knowing that these are there to hold us if we fall gives us a sense of peace.”

This sense of connection is what social psychologists call embeddedness. It’s opposite—which many of us may be more familiar with—is loneliness.

With this internal map in hand, we are able to navigate the world and maintain the healing benefits of strong social bonds, even when we are sitting alone at a train station far from our family and friends. But the flip-side is also possible—people who are surrounded by many others can also suffer from a dearth of social connectedness on their internal map.

So when we talk about the “ties that bind,” we might as well be speaking about an extension of our immune system. Our family and friends are like a vast collection of immune cells striving to maintain our health and protect us from disease. Our social networks, then, are tied into our inner immune network—all through the power of our emotions.

“The emotions [that our social bonds] evoke are among the greatest forces that affect our hormonal, our nerve chemical, and our immune responses — and through these, our health and our resistance to disease,” wrote Sternberg.

In an interview at the University of Minnesota, though, Sternberg cautions against seeing the mind-body connection as a cure for all illnesses. In general, and especially with complex genetic diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, many factors combine to throw off the body’s balance.

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