Meditation: Links Between the Immune and Nervous Systems

Scientists generally believe that it is not possible to voluntarily influence the autonomic nervous system, which regulates — among other physiological processes — heart rate, breathing, blood circulation and the immune response. However, results from a new study show that, using techniques developed by Wim Hof, it is indeed possible to modulate our own autonomic nervous system and, consequently, our own immune response.

“Iceman” Wim Hof is internationally known for his unusual accomplishments — he ran a marathon above the Arctic circle and climbed the highest mountains on earth in only shorts, appeared on several television stations by sitting in a cylinder filled with ice cubes up to his neck, run a marathon in the Namib desert without water consumption, and successfully carried out many more “impossible” feats — in doing so, he has shown “what the human body is capable of once you find the flow within your physical and mental state.”

Photo credit: Mitchell Joyce, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0


Results from the new study (Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans), published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (May 2014)raise hopes for people with chronic inflammatory diseases, as for example rheumatoid arthritis — the results indicate that the techniques developed by Wim Hof allow to control and decrease the levels of inflammation.

The study included 24 volunteers — 12 volunteers were trained for 10 days in meditation (third eye meditation), breathing techniques and exposure to cold (immersions in ice cold water). The other 12 volunteers represented the control group and were not trained. After completion of training, all volunteers were injected with endotoxin, a component from the cell wall of bacteria that elicits a response from the immune system.

Peter Pickkers, one of the researchers, said in a press release “”By administering a dead bacterial component we are actually fooling the body. The immune system responds as if living bacteria are present in the blood stream and produces inflammatory proteins. As a result of this the subjects develop symptoms such as fever and headache. We can therefore use this approach to investigate the immune system of humans.”

The researchers demonstrated that, in the trained volunteers, endotoxin injection results in the voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system — the trained volunteers produced much higher levels of epinephrine than the untrained ones. Epinephrine is a stress hormone that is released during increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system and suppresses the immune response. The researchers found that, in the trained volunteers, the release of inflammatory proteins was attenuated, resulting in the decrease of symptoms such as fever and headache. In conclusion, results from the study show that “voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system results in epinephrine release and subsequent suppression of the innate immune response in humans.”

18 Responses

  1. mcroix
    mcroix at | | Reply

    I believe linking meditation and the immune system is a small link in a huge chain that encompasses the immune system. Developing practices, like meditation, to a healthier body and mind will naturally lead to your immune system to be stronger than compared to someone who experiences high amounts of chronic stress.

    Another small link to the huge chain of the immune system is sleep. It is common knowledge how important and critical getting sleep is to the whole well being of the body. According to the recent study, Self-reported sleep duration, white blood cell counts and cytokine profiles in European adolescents: the HELENA study, a higher amount of IL-4 concentration where found in adolescents who slept an average of eight to nine hours. According to the research IL-4 acts as an anti-inflammatory cytokine, in addition to its multiple functions.

    I wonder if there is a link between meditation and sleep, where both increase the production of the IL-4 cytokine. Is it possible that mediation activates similar pathways that cause this to occur? It would be interesting to try the same test on a group of people who just slept for eight to nine hours and see how much inflammation would occur compared to the group that practiced meditation techniques.

    1. Rene P.
      Rene P. at | | Reply

      Hi mcroix,

      I can think of a rather simple link between meditation, sleep and interleukin-4—cortisol. Cortisol is a glucocorticoid secreted by the adrenal cortex in response to stress and, amongst its many effects, it causes helper T cells to shift towards a Th2 response characterized by the release of interleukin-4. With regards to sleep, the body becomes hypoglycemic after 8 hours with no food and this is registered by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis as a stressor necessitating the release of cortisol, which is why there is an increase of about 50% in cortisol levels during the late-night hours. This increase in cortisol would then lead to high levels of interleukin-4, as explained above. As for the effects of meditation on interleukin-4, I’m afraid that the opposite would probably be observed. Working under the assumption that meditation reduces stress, cortisol, the “stress hormone,” would also be reduced and thus the Th2 shift and subsequent IL-4 release would not occur.

  2. PY
    PY at | | Reply

    The experiment performed above may have introduced a new research aspect on the nervous system innervating the immune system. The paper posted above mentioned that norepinephrine levels were consistent between both control and experimental groups. However Autonomic innervation and regulation of the immune system (1987–2007) q reported that Norepinephrine(NE) is able to regulate immune cell activities. They stated that NE was able to to inhibit production of TNF alpha when macrophages are stimulated with LPS. They also reported that it can moderate IL6 secretion. They also described of the role NE plays a significant role on adaptive immune response. Despite the paper from the blog post did not focused much on leukocytes, they have showed that the innate immune system is modulated by a different mechanism than others reported. This allows for more research opportunities in that area. In short, I wish to see more experiments focused on leukocytes and the changes that occurs. Being able to modulate the immune system with out any chemical influences is a major breakthrough in the field of immunology.

  3. Mila A.
    Mila A. at | | Reply

    Meditation has been around for many centuries, it is the ability to train your mind or induce a mode of consciousness. It is amazing that throughout the use of meditation it has been discovered to have several health benefits. I believe this study is a great example of the effectiveness that meditation can have on the body. While scientist may believe that it is impossible to have any voluntary influence on the autonomic nervous system, I disagree. The techniques utilized by Wim Hof along with this study prove that having some control over our body’s autonomic nervous system and immune system is possible. I do understand why scientist would be skeptical that we could control our own body’s in this way. For many years now, scientist have believed that only the autonomic nervous system can control the unconscious actions of our body, and yes it has been proven to do just that. However, as science and medicine are constantly evolving they must be open to other methods of healing. The sole purpose of meditation is to be conscious of what we are not normally conscious of. Autonomic functions include control of respiration, cardiac regulations, vasomotor activity and even some reflex actions. Meditation involves breathing techniques, muscle relaxation and awareness of various body sensations. These meditation techniques often coincide with what the autonomic nervous system does. Meditation also includes positive thinking which can also reduce the stress response because it can calm our body’s very energy consuming “fight-or-flight” response. I believe that through more research of meditation we can find ways to work together with our autonomic nervous system and strengthen our immune response to various health issues in our body. With that being said, I do not believe that this is all we need to cure diseases and reduce inflammation, as the use of medication is also very beneficial. This is just an area that science and medicine should seriously take into consideration when formulating new ways to combat diseases.

    1. PS
      PS at | | Reply

      Mila, you briefly mentioning the importance of positive thinking reminded me of how vital and powerful positive thinking is for the humankind. While the compelling evidence for meditation and its effects on stress marks it undeniably beneficial, the way we think about stress also has implication on our overall health. I recently read a fascinating study by Keller et al. in which it is report that individuals who experience high amounts of stress and perceive this stress to be harmful to their health show a 43 % increased chance of premature death compared with those who do not think of stress in a negative way. The researchers used a cumulative hazards model to estimate the number of deaths occurring every year due to stress. If a causal relationship does exist between stress, negative perception of this stress, and death then 20,231 deaths each year would be attributed to stress and the negative thinking associated with it. We are often reminded of the numerous negative effects that stress has on our bodies: lower immune system functions, increased cardiovascular disease, diabetes — epitomizing it to be an enemy in our eyes. What if we thought of our stress response as something that is helpful, perhaps preparing us for a challenge? A study report from Harvard University describes that humans can cognitively control their response to stress. They report that while monitoring participants’ hearts during induced stress they found that most of the individuals exhibited restricted blood vessels, however those that were notified of the helpful effects of stress prior to the study exhibited relaxed blood vessels. This demonstrates that how we think about stress is also a key element that is effecting how the stress response is operating in our bodies.

      In addition, oxytocin what’s known to be the “cuddle” hormone is interestingly enough also a part of the stress response. This hormone may be motivating us to seek support during stressful times. It has been reported to have anti-inflammatory properties. Chronic stress raises inflammation in our body, the immune system is activated, thereby compromising it by inhibiting the necessary histamine secretion and inflammatory responses. I wonder what effects oxytocin release during stress has on the immune system.

  4. HJD
    HJD at | | Reply

    It should not take one very long to understand how the immune and nervous system are linked together. Whenever we feel sick, we are more irritable and do not always process things the way we normally would when we feel fine. Heightened stress levels can lead to numerous heart problems. “Inflammation is therefore an important biological event that might increase the risk of major depressive episodes, much like the more traditional psychosocial factors” (NCBI). Furthermore, meditating has shown numerous benefits for the nervous system, such as lowering stress, anxiety, and tension in the muscles/body. A study was done at the University of California, Los Angeles, where 50 HIV-positive adults that meditated delayed their HIV progression significantly more than those that did not meditate. Researchers concluded “the more mindfulness meditation classes people attended, the higher the CD4 T cells [were] at the study’s conclusion.”

  5. UP
    UP at | | Reply

    I wanted to research on what types of specific meditation practices are more commonly known to reduce stress/anxiety. I found an article that conducted a study utilizing the transcendental meditation (TM). Transcendental meditation is termed as an effortless, stylized form of relaxation. This type of meditation requires 20 minutes of time two times a day (morning/evening). Researchers had 19 subjects who performed normal TM and a more complex form of TM termed Sidhi-TM. The 16 subject control group did not perform any meditation practices during the course of the trial.

    After the completion of the trial, the results proved to be promising. For the subjects who performed either type of TM displayed a higher level of CD3, CD4, CD8 lymphocytes in addition to higher levels of B lymphocytes and natural killer cells (NK cells). For the subjects in the control group, the results were lower than those observed in TM subjects. however, results were non-significant for total leukocytes, granulocytes, monocytes, and CD3 lymphocytes.

    Psychoneurimmunology, which is the study of the interactions between psychological factors, the central nervous system, and the immune system has recently been of great debate in the medical world. These researchers believe that the different levels of the immune system cells can partially be due to modulation of the neuroendocrine axis activity through meditation. Because anxiety levels were similar for both groups in this study, these researchers also believe that the higher level of immune system cells in TM patients was indeed due to meditation techniques in contrast to anxiety levels.

    Along with these researchers, I think it is also important to note that the higher level of immune system cells can also be due to environmental factors, therefore it isn’t completely reasonable to link specific transcendental meditation to an increase in immune system cells.

    Dominguez, Maria L., Duran, Carmen., Garcia, Lucia., Infante, Jose R., Peran, Fernando., Rayo, Juan I., Roldan, Ana., Serrano, Justo. (2014). Levels of immune cells in transcendental meditation practitioners. International Journal of Yoga. 7(2): 147-151.

  6. NK
    NK at | | Reply

    It is amazing what the human body is capable of and how something as simple as meditation can have such a great impact on our immune systems. That got me thinking about chronic infectious diseases that we currently do not have any cures for and if meditation can help those individuals living with chronic diseases. My curiosity led me to find a study called Psycho-Endocrine-Immune Response to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Individuals Infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus: A Quasiexperimental Study, which tested the health outcomes that derived from Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in patients that were HIV positive. MBSR is an 8 week long intensive training that combines meditation and yoga with the focus on self-observation and moment-to-moment awareness with the goal to achieve insight on thoughts and sensations and develop new perspective. 56 HIV-infected individuals were used for this study. The ones that were enrolled in the MBSR program were compared to those that did not complete the program and the results showed an increase in natural-killer (NK) cell numbers and as well as an increase in the activity of these cells. NK cells are lymphocytes that play a vital role in killing virally-infected cells in the human body. An increase in NK cells can greatly reduce the number opportunistic infections that HIV patients come into contact with by improving their immunity. This study is demonstrates that individuals living with chronic illnesses such as HIV, may be able to reduce infections caused by opportunistic pathogens which is a constant struggle for these patients, just by doing something as simple as meditation.

    Robinson, FP, HL Mathews, and L Witek-Janusek. “Psycho-Endocrine-Immune Response To Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction In Individuals Infected With The Human Immunodeficiency Virus: A Quasiexperimental Study.” Journal Of Alternative & Complementary Medicine 9.5 (2003): 683-694. CINAHL Plus with Full Text. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.

    1. HP
      HP at | | Reply

      The introduction of meditation technique called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) got me interested in doing a little more research on it. I found that this was the most widely mediation technique used in the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. They conducted several experiments, one which you have mentioned using HIV positive patients to see the influence of this medication technique on their immune system. Another interesting research that was also conducted involved 25 workers to practice the MBSR and 16 others served as a control group. The study was done over a period of 8 weeks where the experimental group performed the MBSR and also mediated per hour at home. After 8 weeks, all the participants including the control group were given a flu vaccine and blood samples were tested for antibodies against the flu at 4 weeks and 8 weeks. The group of people that performed the MBSR had twice the amount of antibodies and they lasted up to 4 months. They researchers concluded that there was a high level of activity in the left side of the brain that involved positive mood, reduced stress and anxiety and better performance of the immune system making many more antibodies against the flu vaccine. In this manner, we can see how meditation does improve overall health in healthy and non-healthy patients like the HIV.


  7. citedone
    citedone at | | Reply

    It is clear that the activities like meditation, yoga, and related practices have effect in activating immune and endocrine pathways. All of the activities have one aim, that is to reduce stress in people’s daily life. Such stress reduction may directly change the endocrine concentration, then affect other interleukins in immunology system. However, different activities may have different effect. One study in 3 years ago investigated the differences of potential stress-reduction benefits between the Yoga expert and novices. Yoga experts had lower overall IL-6 TNF-α, and LPS-stimulated IL-6 and TNF-α production serum levels than novices, that was consistent with the study of meditation in this blog. However, in Yoga Study, there was no overall differences in endocrine responses, while in meditation study, the intervention group resulted in profoundly increased plasma epinephrine levels. Not surprise to see the difference. Because firstly, yoga and meditation are two different practice, of course there are minor change inside body through these two activities. Secondly, the experimental process was not the same. In yoga study they directly measured the level of cytokine and endocrine after yoga practice, but in meditation study they injected endotoxin after practice. Thirdly, there may be other endocrine changes in yoga practice. Overall, those stress reduction activities can activate immune and endocrine pathways.

  8. IU
    IU at | | Reply

    Many religious organizations practice meditation as spiritual traditions to improve one’s mental capacity, physical health or mental health through breathing exercises to clear the mind, which is good for mind, body and soul as stated in the primary article. Meditation has been known for years to improve spiritual, physical and mental health. Seeing the connection with nervous system and immune system has recently advanced. There is a great need for preventing or treating psychiatric diseases. In the article, Immune system to brain signaling: Neuropsychoharmacological implications (2011), authors, Andrew Miller and Lucille Capuron plunge into the deep with implications on how nervous and immune system interactions can be vital for treatment, therapies and prevention of behavioral disorders such as neuropsychiatric diseases more importantly depression and other mental health disorders. As stated from the primary article of this blog, Wim Hof states how the nervous system of trained individuals will cause the release of signaling which will turn on a fast response to the immune system to fight infections by skipping the innate immune response and starting with the adaptive immune response. This implies that within the network of cytokine signaling turns on pathways of the nervous system necessary to connect the dots across multiple disciplines such as psychiatry, immune system and nervous system. I am certain this will improve the art of medicine and reduce or prevent complicated diseases we face in the world today.
    Refrences: Capuron, Lucile and Miller, Andrew (2011). Immune system to brain signaling: Neuropsychopharmacological implications. Pharmacology & Therapeutics.

  9. RMR
    RMR at | | Reply

    Although modern medicine has revolutionized the methods used to treat infection and disease in humans, it has proven to be an effective yet risky approach to many conditions. Alternative therapies like meditation continue to gain attention for treating diseases, which unlike drugs, do not cause unwanted side effects or cost money to reap the benefits. News articles are consistently published to convince readers the importance of a “healthy lifestyle,” achieved through practicing nutritious eating habits, moderate exercise, relaxation techniques such as meditation, and adequate sleep. Alternative medicines are now being studied to display their effectiveness in treating conditions like autoimmune disease; this particular study provides a mechanism for the influence meditation has on the immune system, and the data collected strongly suggests how effective this practice is on inflammatory cytokine production. Previous comments on this post provide additional information on how sleep, yoga, and additional meditation techniques are beneficial to immune responses. An article published in 2010 describes neural-immune interactions during electroacupuncture therapy, which could also be important in treating patients with autoimmune diseases. Various subjects are studied for their response from electroacupunture (EA) therapy, and they all displayed enhanced NK cell cytotoxicity and a balance of Th1 and Th2 cells modulated by cytokines released during EA stimulation, which is linked to neurotransmitter activity initiated by the central nervous system. Similar to epinephrine release during meditation, opioids are stimulated to be released in the hypothalamus to control immune cells expressing opioid receptors, like NK cells.

    Ultimately, the body wants to achieve a state of homeostasis and to maintain a healthy balance between immune responses when faced with infection. Cytokines are key regulators of the immune responses and as we can see from these studies, neurological control on cytokines is very important; meditation is one relaxation technique that reduces stress and allows the immune system to achieve a balance of inflammatory responses to maintain homeostasis. Further studies that incorporate the adaptation of the central nervous system and immune system to different alternative therapies are important to provide doctors with facts proving the advantages of these practices in patients with autoimmune diseases. The potential of these treatments to benefit patients has no limit, and doctors need to stress the importance of practicing them with guidelines to encourage patients to believe in them.

    Acupuncture and immune modulation.

    Neurohormonal-cytokine interactions: Implications for inflammation, common human diseases and well-being

    1. HP
      HP at | | Reply

      Your post was very interesting and I really liked how you brought up the idea of alternative medicine. There have been a lot of studies that focus on alternative and holistic medicine and many people are actually going towards this path. I worked with an alternative and holistic doctor for almost two years and it was very fascinating to me how the patients reacted and embraced this type of medicine. I guess patients are just fed up with prescription drugs that fix one thing but cause many other side effects and health concerns. Alternative medicine involves acupuncture techniques, meditation, and herbal medicine to achieve an overall healthy state of mind and body. I really fell in love with this type of medicine myself and have started to incorporate many of the aspects used in this new medical program that have had a positive influence in my life.

  10. Katherine D.
    Katherine D. at | | Reply

    In this day and age stress is ever prevailing leading to depression as well as decreased ability to fight off infections. Many cultures have long embraced practices like yoga, tai chi, or meditation, to contribute to a healthy mind and body and we now know why these practices have survived for so long: they work! These activities have a positive effect on both the mind as well as the immune system, boosting immunity to help the body fight off infections. According to the article Modulation of immune responses in stress by Yoga acute and chronic stress affect the immune system by leading it towards a nonspecific or specific immune response. In either case, the immune response to a stressor becomes switched on for a period and is then switched off for the body to recover. Repeated stressors, however (the kind of stress that can lead to depression) can affect the immune response by allowing no recovery period prolonging the immune response. They can affect the immune response by affecting the adaptation to a particular pathogen or causing an inadequate immune response to be mounted. The article supports yoga as being a positive way to deal with this stress response as “Yoga leads to an inhibition of the posterior or sympathetic area of the hypothalamus, optimizing the body’s sympathetic responses to stressful stimuli, and restores autonomic regulatory reflex mechanisms associated with stress.” It then gives examples of poses and their effect on the immune system which I find fascinating. For instance, tortoise poise stimulates the thymus and downward facing dog helps sinus flow and mucus washing of the lungs. I think more people should embrace these kind of activities to not only deal with stress, but to prevent the negative stress-induced effects on their immune system. Healthy mind leads to healthy body.

  11. Kmiller
    Kmiller at | | Reply

    When I look at using meditation to control our autonomic nervous system it makes me think of the saying mind over body. This study goes along way to show how it is possible through meditation to gain some control. It also made me think of a study I read where looking at a photo of someone who is visually sick could illicit a more aggressive immune response. They had two groups, the test group looked at photos of visually sick people, the control group looked at pictures of guns. Both groups where given a bacterial stimulus. The test group showed the significantly more aggressive immune response. This was measured by proinflammatory cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) production. Mere visual perception of other people’s disease symptoms facilitates a more aggressive immune response. I would love to see these test redone with EEG readings being performed during the meditation and also while the photos are being looked at.

  12. JLH
    JLH at | | Reply

    This post led me to question if meditation may be an effective treatment for those who suffer from chronic inflammation associated with arthritis, IBS, and heart disease, the number one cause of death in America. An article published in Nature mentioned in Wim Hof’s blog
    stated that individuals trained by Mr. Hof were able to produce higher amounts of IL-10, associated with anti-inflammatory action. However the researchers conducting the study warned that these experiments only explored the effects of meditation on short-term inflammation. I was able to find an article that looked into yoga’s effect on inflammation in cardiac patients: Effects of Yoga on Inflammation and Exercise Capacity in Patients with Chronic Heart Failure (2008). This study looked at cardiac patients from Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, GA, some of whom were required to attend yoga sessions twice a week. It was found that levels of inflammatory markers, IL-6 and CRP, were significantly lower in patients subject to the yoga regiment. With these results, it seems yoga/meditation may be a beneficial addition to treatment plans for those cardiac patients who require extended hospital stays.

  13. BP
    BP at | | Reply

    I enjoyed reading this blog post as I am a big fan of meditation and yoga. It gives the body time to stop and relax from our hectic daily activities. Since the previous comments have solidified the connection between the immune system and nervous system while meditating, I thought I would mention how recent studies have found that meditation rebuilds the brain’s gray matter in just 8 weeks. An MRI study by experienced neuroscientists at Harvard explain how participants showed a major increase in gray matter in the hippocampus of the brain. This region of the brain is responsible for short-term and long-term memory as well as self-awareness and compassion. MRI results also showed a decrease of gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is responsible for stress and anxiety. The participants spent on average 27 minutes per day meditating and this is all it took to show a clear change within the brain. As Katherine D has explained earlier, more people should engage in these activities in order to improve their mind and body.

  14. Maruf Hoque
    Maruf Hoque at | | Reply

    I agree with a lot of the thoughts presented above. When coming across posts such as this, I think that is critical to study the connection between the immune system and the brain. There are numerous immune signals and processes that have been hypothesized that could in some way, shape and form affect signals in the brain. Throughout history people have been practicing meditation and currently the mechanism of meditation is not fully understood. Research studies have shown that there are certain immune system signals (cytokine release, etc.) that affect brain signals. The brain as we know is one of the most complex organs of our body consisting of billions and billions of neurons with trillions of connections. At this point and time we clearly have no idea how one alteration of these neural pathways by a cytokine could impact the overall brain stimulation. Since this topic is still not completely understood, the potential benefits of meditation are limitless. Further research needs to be completed in order to fully understand the benefits meditation has on our immune response.

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