Psychiatry Professor Explains How Mental Health Can Impact Your Immune System

Both our mental health and our physical health go hand in hand. Demonstrating this relationship, health experts state that certain mental health disorders may place one at an increased risk for various health conditions including asthma, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and more (via WebMD). In an exclusive interview with Health Digest, Dr. Michael Irwin, Cousins Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA Semel Institute, explains how our mental health can also affect the health of our immune system, and vice versa.

"The CNS (central nervous system) and the immune system reciprocally communicate," Dr. Irwin states. "Changes in the brain induced by perceived stress, sleep disturbance, or depression can alter the immune system; all producing decreases in our ability to respond to infections, and increases in inflammation, which can lead to cardiovascular disease and certain cancers." He goes on to explain that these changes in our immune system can, in turn, produce "sickness symptoms," including fatigue, depressed mood, or changes in sleep.

Three mental health conditions than can affect immune system health

In particular, Dr. Irwin tells Health Digest that perceived stress, sleep disturbance, and depression are three mental health conditions that can most greatly affect our immune system health. "Insomnia or sleep disturbance leads to increases in stress response systems such as increases in sympathetic nervous system activity," he states. According to experts at the Cleveland Clinic, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks into gear during stressful situations, prompting increases in heart rate, blood flow, decreases in digestion, and more. "Such increases in SNS activity leads to decreases in our ability to fight infections, and increases in inflammation," Dr. Irwin explains.

With much of his research focused on the relationship between sleep and immunity, Dr. Irwin suggests that those looking to improve their physical and mental health, as well as their quality of life, first focus on issues related to sleep. "Insomnia is typically an early symptom of adverse stress and/or depression. Also, insomnia is a risk factor for depression," he states. "We have shown that treatment of insomnia can prevent the incidence of depression. So insomnia treatment would be the focus of preventing depression as well as adverse effects on the body," Dr. Irwin concludes.