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The power of Mind over the Immune System

If I told you that at the end of reading this article you would be able to hold your breath for 3 minutes, how would you feel?

That's how the sceptical audience of Wim Hof felt when he stood up at the podium last year in an LA conference. He had just told them that they would be able to able to hold their breath for three minutes at the end of his talk. Eventually, he did it! He got them to first hold it for 30 seconds. Then for 1 minute, 30 seconds. And then for three minutes. He has a 'technique' creatively called Wim Hof Method which is a form of breathing practice. He is also dubbed as 'The Iceman' by the media for this ability to withstand freezing temperatures and setting the Guinness world records for swimming under ice and prolonged full-body contact with ice, and for a barefoot half-marathon on ice and snow.

Amongst other things, he also claims to voluntarily influence his immune system through meditation, mental training, breathing and natural processes. He has been a subject of several scientific studies one of which was about injecting him with an especially violent strain of a bacteria and while other subjects suffered from flu-like symptoms including vomiting and indigestion, Wim Hof's response was remarkable and he was reported to have 'hardly any flu-like symptoms'. 

So how does one control the immune system simply with the mind?

The field that searches for these explanations is known as  psychoneuroimmunology  (PNI). Studies during the 1980s and early 1990s revealed that the brain is directly wired to the immune system — portions of the nervous system connect with immune-related organs such as the thymus and bone marrow, and immune cells have receptors for neurotransmitters, suggesting that there is crosstalk. It is now accepted that the body's response to stress can suppress parts of the immune system and, over the long term, lead to damaging levels of inflammation.

Large epidemiological studies — including the Whitehall studies, which have been following thousands of British civil servants since 1967 —  established that chronic work stress increases the risk of coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes, for example. 

Studying well-being is trickier though. It is more slippery to measure than stress — there is no biological marker such as cortisol to fall back on and no simple way to induce it in the lab, and mainstream biologists tend to look down on fuzzy methods of data collection such as questionnaires. However, the evidence is mounting and the science has grown leaps and bounds in the last few years.

In 2013, Nature reported this pioneering research establishing hitherto unknown links between the brain and the immune system. Since then, the field of PNI has matured. Our understanding of how only chronic stress actually makes us suffer, and how positive psychology, meditation and mindfulness helps, has developed. In Aug 2018, Scientific American led with their cover story on 'Seventh sense' where they called our immune system being intricately linked with our brain enough for it to be our seventh window to the world on top of our six senses.

Modern stresses lead to chronic and unhelpful inflammation, which over time damages the body's tissues, increasing the risk of chronic diseases such as atherosclerosis, cancer and diabetes. This is where digital health is coming to rescue with building reliable and accessible solutions for scale. (A deep dive on them coming soon!)

It kind of makes sense why we it's no good being 'worried sick'

Lastly, lest you should be holding your breath, I haven't forgotten about the three minutes! Check out the Wim Hof Method yourself and see if it works for you. (It got me to unbelievable 2 mins!) 

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