Chronic inflammation raises our risk of diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. A new study shows that it’s not just magicians and monks who can use the power of their minds to overcome physical challenges. And a UCLA professor says “mind over matter” may actually succeed in lowering our inflammation levels — without drugs.
Our defense system senses when a thorn, bacteria, or virus invades our bodies. Our immune systems react to that invasion with inflammation to isolate the invaders and to heal the body from the invasion.
There are two types of inflammation: Acute and chronic. Acute inflammation results in temporary symptoms like swelling, pain, or redness — usually caused by an injury. The injury signals to the immune system which responds with inflammation. Our bodies then heal from the injury over a short period of time.
In contrast, chronic inflammation may last for months or even years. The symptoms of chronic inflammation can seem unrelated such as fatigue or a rash, and as a result, can be challenging to diagnose. But despite what may seem like subtle signs, chronic inflammation may gradually damage our healthy organs and cells and make us susceptible to disease including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 2 diabetes among others.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen may lower pain and inflammation but in the case of chronic inflammation, the inflammation returns pretty quickly when the medication wears off. And over time these medications may boost our risk of conditions like kidney disease and peptic ulcers so they aren't the best choice for long-term management.
Prescription drugs such as corticosteroids may also reduce our inflammation levels. However, these prescriptions are linked to concerns including hypertension and osteoporosis. So treatment is challenging.
But what if the power of our minds could actually help with chronic inflammation? A new study explored that possibility in an attempt to help with treating this difficult to diagnose and difficult to treat state.
University researchers recently decided to see if therapy could lower the body’s inflammation levels. Dr. George Slavich, director of the UCLA Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research, led the study that looked at 56 clinical trials.
His team had a single goal: To see if therapy treatments used to improve mental health might also benefit our physical well-being.
Dr. Slavich and the team analyzed:
The researchers discovered that CBT provides the biggest benefit in terms of inflammation markers. It turns out that this type of psychotherapy impacts our pro-inflammatory cytokines, which tell our bodies’ cells to react to signs of inflammation. Elevated cytokine levels may contribute to chronic inflammation.
The study revealed that CBT may even help long-term conditions by lowering these levels for at least six months after therapy.
"This seems to be a case of mind over matter," Dr. Slavich said in the study. "Psychotherapies like CBT can change how we think about ourselves and the world, and changing these perceptions can in turn affect our biology.”
CBT is designed to improve the quality of life. Therapists may use this treatment for depression, anxiety, alcohol or drug issues, and eating disorders.
During CBT, patients work with therapists to understand their particular challenges and recognize unhelpful thought patterns. They then learn to use that new awareness to improve those thought patterns. For example, CBT might help someone to overcome a negative reaction to certain daily activities.
Learning to stay calm in stressful situations may be the exact key mechanism that lowers inflammation, too.
We may have many different reasons for avoiding medications, such as side effects, expense, or a desire to use a holistic method. But for those struggling with chronic inflammation, CBT may provide a new solution. It's worth noting that at no point did anyone in the study suggest that inflammation "is all in your head" but rather, that working with the mind, patients may be able to further reduce their medications or help make them more effective. It also stands to reason that, in some cases, it may be possible to eliminate the inflammation and therefore the medication entirely.
Slavich, the lead in the study went so far as to say, “If you're looking for a well-tested, non-drug intervention for improving immune-related health, CBT is probably your best choice."
Chronic inflammation may increase our risk for life-threatening conditions, such as cancer. By using psychotherapy, we may succeed in reducing our inflammation levels without drugs making medication more effective. For professional guidance in reducing inflammation levels through CBT, talk with a healthcare provider.
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