We are all familiar with the saying “Mind over matter.” We have probably all demonstrated it a little whenever we have pushed through fatigue and kept going.
But is the saying true in a more general sense and can the power of the mind affect our immune system? And why, when we are all awash with sanitizer and disinfectant, are we getting more infections and allergic reactions than ever before?
Livehealthy asked Dr Nasr Al Jafari, medical director of DNA Health and Wellness in Dubai, Dr Layal Ksaybi, a functional dentist based in Dubai, and Ayesha Al Hammadi, researcher in cell biology at New York University Abu Dhabi, for their thoughts.
Let’s start with the basics: what is the immune system?
Ayesha Al Hammadi: It’s how the cells in our bodies recognize outside cells or pathogens and how they react to any foreign body. It’s amazing how these cells work, from macrophages, which secrete a specific enzyme to fight bacteria, to the T cells which activate the B cells, which are like a factory for producing huge amounts of antibodies.
Dr Layal Ksaybi: It is the body’s mechanism for defending itself from any external factors – dust, bacteria, everything we touch, basically.
Dr Nasr Al Jafari: There are two main aspects to it. There’s the crude first line of defense we are all born with and then the adaptive immune system which produces antibodies against invaders.
Most people think the immune system is there to protect us from infection but it has a fundamental role in keeping abnormal cells in check and preventing abnormal cell division which can lead to the production of cancer, for example. We all have cancer cells in our body all the time but the immune system does a very efficient job of keeping them in check.
Are we all born with the same level of immunity?
Dr Layal: Immunity is not 100 percent genetic. Environmental factors also affect immunity. An overactive immune system will result in more allergic reactions. We didn’t used to be so allergic to dust or pollen – those are 20th century conditions.
An underactive immune system is very rare and it’s usually because of medication, such as chemotherapy.
Dr Nasr: Some people are predisposed to having a better or worse immune system but the early life environment is fundamental, going back to the fetal environment, the mode of delivery in giving birth, breast-feeding. These form the blueprint for the rest of your life.
It’s been shown that people born by Caesarean section have stark differences in their microbiome. A study in Sweden found a huge contrast between babies born at home in the traditional way, with people and animals around, and babies born in hospital.
Can the way we think affect our immunity?
Dr Layal: I firmly believe that our thoughts determine our actions and I firmly believe the body has the ability to heal itself. I’ve heard of people so worried about getting Covid-19 that they get it, while others are quite careless and keep going out and seeing people and their health is top notch because they’ve told themselves they won’t get it.
A positive mindset is very important. Instead of panicking if you get a sore throat and making yourself feel worse, ride it out. If it gets really bad then there’s always the hospital.
Dr Nasr: I think thoughts do influence health. One way is through stress, hormones and regulation in the autonomic nervous system – what’s referred to as ‘fight or flight’ – and it’s proven that the autonomic nervous system regulates our immunity.
Then there’s the placebo effect, which has almost a negative connotation but is just proof that our thoughts can deliver positive outcomes both mentally and physically. People don’t think of themselves as being electrically-charged with cells vibrating and communicating with each other, but we respond to different frequencies and our thoughts produce frequencies.
Are we too obsessed with hygiene?
Dr Layal: There’s an obsession with staying clean and it’s not good. I am totally against antiseptic mouthwash. A lot of people overuse it and it’s really the worst thing you can do. The mouth contains good and bad bacteria and about 99 percent of them are good, and we need them to maintain balance. But mouthwash kills the good as well as the bad. I’ve heard of patients getting eczema or rashes from overuse of sanitizer.
Our immune system has been working really well for a very long time. It fights off all the external pathogens and keeps a memory of them so if we’re attacked again, it knows what to do. But when we wash our hands or rinse our mouths excessively, the immune system doesn’t really have a job to do and it becomes underactive. Then, when we do get hit by certain bacteria, it overreacts.
We don’t need to run to the emergency room every time a child falls on to a dirty floor. If some food falls on the floor, pick it up and eat it. Give your immune system something to do.
Dr Nasr: There is no proven link to how hand sanitizer affects immunity but that doesn’t mean it isn’t plausible. Sanitizer is a double-edged sword. People are using it as a substitute for proper handwashing and inadvertently putting themselves at risk.
I firmly believe we have reduced the diversity of our microbiome because of hyper hygiene and we know how fundamental our microbiome is, not just for the development and maintenance of our immune system but also for general health.
Here’s an important point: reduced infections means reduced exposure to fever and it’s been proven that the body becomes more robust when exposed to fever. Western allopathic medicine has convinced us that fever is a symptom of illness when in fact it’s a symptom of healing.
One of the best ways of ensuring your child’s health improves is to let them get sick and stay sick until the illness has run its course.
What are the signs of low immunity?
Dr Nasr: Frequent infections, obviously, but anyone with chronic disease has compromised immunity. In the modern world, that means diabetes, obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease and even dementia, which are all products of inflammatory disregulation. It means more kids with allergies.
This is all in the last 40 years or so but genetic changes don’t happen that quickly so there’s clearly something going on in the environment. A plausible explanation is that our immune systems aren’t being well-trained so it’s leading to a lot of disregulation.
Dr Layal: The mouth is the entry point to the body so things happening elsewhere in the body can manifest orally. For example, if you eat something that upsets your stomach, you’ll notice a mouth ulcer right away. But it’s not coming from your mouth, it’s actually from your digestive system – people just don’t make the connection.
How can we boost our immune system?
Ayesha: There are lots of ways. Maintain good hygiene, don’t smoke, don’t drink too much, don’t stress yourself, exercise to boost cardio health and circulation. I’m a very active person, more than my brothers, but I’m the one who never gets infections. Many studies show that sleeping well helps the immune system.
Dr Layal: There’s a misconception that there is one specific way to boost the immune system. We forget that it is a system – it’s multiple entities all working together and like all systems, it needs balance and harmony. Exercise is not just about keeping fit, it keeps the blood pumping too. So you have to look at the physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual aspects.
At the end of the day, you are what you eat. What you put in your mouth will affect your mood and how you look. During Covid, many people have given up on a proper diet. There’s been a lot of emotional eating and snacking on sugary, processed foods. I’m seeing patients I’ve had for a long-time who were always fine and now they’re coming in with two or three new cavities and bleeding gums.
Dr Nasr: Processed food is not only inflammatory, it’s deficient in nutrients and fiber. Our health is proportional to the diversity of our microbiome so you need nutrients from different sources. It’s not just about eating a couple of things you like.
Also the frequency and timing of eating is important. It’s known that eating less frequently and earlier in the day has benefits for the rest of our health. Snacks were only created 60 years ago when the food industry convinced us that we can’t possibly last from one meal to the next without eating.
Personally, I’m trying cold therapy and sauna therapy and I’ve seen profound effects on my mental wellbeing, my stress response, focus and sleep.
Dr Nasr Al Jafari, Dr Layal Ksaybi and Ayesha Al Hammadi were guest panelists at the Livehealthy Festival on January 22, 2021
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.