Sequel to How Beliefs Affect Our Health
Article At A Glance
You’ve probably heard that our beliefs affect our health. Amazingly, studies show that our beliefs may even be able to rewire our genetics; in part 2 of the article, learn how our beliefs can affect our immune system.
We’ve learned that environmental signals change the activity and structure of cells, including which genes within the nucleus are active. Repeated environmental signals also affect the receptors in the cell membrane.
Reprogramming Our DNA and Our Cell’s Receptors
Each receptor in a cell’s membrane is specific to one type of stimulus, like a neuropeptide, a hormone, or sunlight. When a cell is exposed to certain stimuli more often than others, it makes more receptors for the stimuli it’s exposed to most often. Cells also adapt by reducing the number of receptors for stimuli they’re exposed to less often.
This conditioning process causes us to crave even more of the stimuli we expose our cells to often. In this way, the body can control the mind, and we can become addicted to certain stimuli. And since every thought and emotion have corresponding neuropeptides that travel to our cells, we don’t just crave things like sugar—we crave things like habitual thoughts and emotions.
When cells divide in mitosis, the new cells produced have the same genetic activity, number, and type of receptors. This is one of the ways in which we can change our biology: through the gradual process of cell programming and cell division. Cells divide and are replaced at varying rates throughout our body. As one cell divides and becomes two cells, we now have twice as many cells of that type—with the genetic activity and number and type of receptors that we’ve programmed it to have.
How Beliefs Can Reprogram Our Neural Circuitry
If we want to use positive thinking to change the cells in our body, we must first change the thoughts and beliefs that create the electrochemical messages and neuropeptides being sent to our cells.
As we learned, neuropeptides are called molecules of emotion because they trigger us to feel an associated emotion. There are more than 100 neuropeptides that have been discovered so far, and each one is associated with certain emotions, behaviors, and physiological activities.
When a neuropeptide triggers us to feel an emotion, our brain notices. This stimulates another thought that is closely matched to the emotion we’re feeling, which triggers the release of more of the same neuropeptide. Unless we consciously intervene, this cycle repeats over and over. Our thoughts and the corresponding emotions keep us stuck in a pattern of thinking and feeling a certain way. The more often the neurons involved in this pattern fire in the same pattern, the more deeply learned the pattern becomes—keeping us stuck in a fixed way of thinking and feeling.
How Our Habits Affect Our Genetics
Remember, our genes are turned on and off by our environment, which includes our thoughts, beliefs, and corresponding emotions. So as our hardwired neural patterns send the same neuropeptides to our body each day, the same genes are expressed, keeping us stuck in the same state of health. The only way to change which genes are expressed is to change the environmental signals being sent to our cells.
Studies show that 40 to 95 percent of our thoughts, emotions, and behavior are habitual—the same as the day before and the day before that. These habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting are controlled by our subconscious mind. Experts agree that our subconscious mind has a much greater effect on our health than our conscious mind.
Reprogramming Our Subconscious Mind
So the big question is: How do we reprogram our subconscious mind to think more positive thoughts and send more positive signals to our body? We apply the principles of self-directed neuroplasticity, a phrase coined by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, which describes the act of consciously and intentionally changing your brain activities.
There are many ways to stimulate and direct positive changes in your brain activity, but the key to making those changes last is repetition. The older we get, the more hardwired our brain activities become, and the more practice and repetition it takes to override our deeply learned neural programs.
How to Reprogram our Beliefs
Some ways you can reprogram your habitual thoughts, beliefs, and emotions are:
- Repetitive positive thinking
- Allowing yourself to feel the emotion associated with the positive outcome that you desire
- Getting yourself into new environments, trying new experiences, and doing daily activities in new ways
- Visualization and mental rehearsal
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Body-centered therapies
There are many books, therapies, and different approaches that allow you to reprogram your subconscious mind. Two books that may be helpful to start with are Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself by Dr. Joe Dispenza and The Mind and the Brain by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz.
Our Beliefs, Health, and the Immune System
The immune system is how our body heals from injuries, fights off foreign invaders, and protects against internal threats. When our immune system is not functioning optimally, we can succumb to viral and bacterial infections, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.
Many miraculous or unexplained instances of healing can be attributed to the immune system kicking into gear in response to a signal from the environment. One example is Anita Moorjani’s story, which she tells in her inspirational book Dying to be Me. On the brink of death, with cancerous tumors growing throughout her body and her organs shutting down, Anita had an out-of-body experience. She knew that if she chose to live, she would experience a full recovery. When she awoke after being in a coma for 30 hours, her organs had begun to function again. Over the coming weeks, her tumors completely disappeared.
How Positive Emotions and Beliefs Improve Immune Function
Studies consistently show how positive emotions and expectations improve immune function. A 2014 study of older adults showed that those who tended to have positive memories had stronger immune functions than those who tended to have more negative memories.
An interesting study of mice showed how positive expectations that result in the clinical benefits of the placebo effect are mediated by the brain’s reward system. When the mice’s reward system was stimulated, they were better able to fight off a bacterial infection.
And a 2007 study carried out by scientists in Japan found that laughter improves immune function. After watching a funny video and laughing with hospital staff, test subjects had up-regulated 39 genes, 14 of which were related to natural killer cell activity.
Our Brains and the Immune System
Communication between the brain and the immune system is critical to our health. Current scientific evidence indicates that the neuroendocrine system (the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis) is the most powerful regulator of the immune system. The neuropeptides released in this axis stimulate hormones that regulate the immune system and also act on the central nervous system, which generates immunoregulatory nerve impulses. These neuroimmune mechanisms play an essential role in maintaining healthy immune function, and when they aren’t working properly, they can set the stage for autoimmune disease, chronic inflammation, and more.
We’ve learned how thoughts and emotions can cause genes to be expressed or suppressed. These epigenetic modifications can affect both our innate and adaptive immune responses. And now, scientists are developing therapeutic approaches for certain diseases, such as cancer, that utilize epigenetic changes to strengthen the immune system and improve the efficacy of conventional treatments.
Stress, Our Immune System, and How Beliefs Affect Our Health
Chronic stress, while different than simply having negative emotions, can often lead to a pessimistic attitude and negative expectations. In a 2005 study, wounds of stressed patients took 40 percent longer than normal to heal, and the stressed patients had decreased levels of growth hormone at their wound sites. The stressed subjects expressed genes that encoded proteins responsible for cell cycle arrest, death, and inflammation. Another study found that people suffering from PTSD had six to seven times more epigenetic variations, most of which involved weakening the immune system.
Studies also show how stress makes it more difficult for us to fight off viral infections, including HIV and COVID-19. A 2001 study at UCLA found that HIV spread more quickly in patients who had higher levels of stress, and stress made them less responsive to antiretroviral medications. Chronic stress, anxiety, and depression increase the risk of getting COVID-19 and having severe symptoms and also increase the risk of having long COVID.
It’s important to remember that chronic stress can lie beneath the surface; it’s easy to adapt to an increased level of stress. We can be unaware that our subconscious mind is hyper-vigilant and constantly stimulating the release of stress hormones to our body, weakening our immune system.
Cultivating Health Through Relaxation and Our Beliefs
In The Biology of Belief, Dr. Bruce Lipton reminds us that avoiding or eliminating negative stress only brings us to neutral. To be optimally healthy and “fully thrive, we must actively seek joyful, loving, fulfilling lives that stimulate growth processes.”
Research shows that activating the relaxation response with just one session of meditation immediately triggers the expression of genes involving immune function, energy metabolism, and insulin secretion and suppresses genes involved in inflammation and stress. Similarly, eight hours of mindfulness meditation reduces levels of proinflammatory genes and causes epigenetic changes that are associated with faster physical recovery from stressful situations.
And a 2008 study found that after practicing meditation and mind-body practices for eight weeks, participants upregulated 874 genes that promote good health and downregulated 687 genes that are involved in the stress response.
How to Learn More about Beliefs and Our Health
The Biology of Belief is an entertaining read about cell biology and includes a discussion of how energetic forces, including thoughts, affect cellular behavior. You Are the Placebo offers more direct inspiration on how to use your thoughts and beliefs to change your health.
And if you are suffering from any health condition, always ask yourself: What is my internal or external environment that could have contributed to this condition? What can I change or take control of?