What is PNI? Watch Dr. Chris’s short explainer video about why it’s such an exciting field to learn about! It really affects us in our day-to-day lives!
Psychoneuroimmunology is the growing field of study that blends behavioural science with neurological, endocrine, and immune processes. It is at the wildly fascinating intersection between mind and body.
Instinctively we have known for a long time that how we think affects how we feel. This new field explains the scientific understanding of how psychology and physical body processes interact.
What we are discovering is that there is a bi-directional conversation happening between the body and the mind, meaning that the body can affect the thoughts we have, while our thoughts can also affect our physical bodies through the immune, hormone and neurological systems.
Starting with the mind, the brain communicates with the body through the autonomic nervous system, which is composed of the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems. Generally, the sympathetic system is known as the excitatory “flight or flight” system. The parasympathetic nervous system is the more relaxed “rest and digest” system. Both systems are necessary, and what is most important is the balance between the two. You need to be stimulated enough to wake up in the morning, to focus and work, and to exercise and be energized, while you also need to be restful enough to sleep at night, recover energy, and to properly digest food.
When the balance is off, the body gets a one-sided signal from the brain that has downstream effects on many systems. A constantly stressed brain will create changes to the physical structure of the brain and lead to decreased immune function. It does this by creating neuropeptides within the brain that travel to the blood stream and reduce the number and the effectiveness of immune cells, as well as change the balance of hormones in the body to reflect a more stress-responsive state. This is how our thoughts and worries can lead to physical changes that have real consequences like getting sick more often, decreased ability to fight serious infections, and increased inflammation, digestive issues, and pain.
This pathway can work the other way around as well. Having chronic inflammation or from auto-immune conditions, recurrent infections, or even from chronically elevated blood sugar levels, also affects the functioning of the brain. These inflammatory states create molecules called cytokines that carry the signal to the brain that causes a person to experience things like stress, anxiety, worry, and repetitive thoughts.
When someone is experiencing physical or mental symptoms it’s now becoming very apparent that both the mind and body need to be addressed if we want to get to the root cause. Psychoneuroimmunology explains how interconnected our systems truly are, and how we must look at the person as a whole to make real changes to our health and wellbeing.