Mind your body: the optimism-immunity connect

During the second year of my graduation, the university faculty went on a protest strike. Our classes were held for only three days a week. For the hostel students, though it meant a four-day weekend. It was not possible to travel home each time. I went to my local guardians to stay.

Once while returning to college, I was accompanied by my two classmates-a pair of twin sisters, Anju and Madhu. In the bus Anju sat beside me and Madhu on the seat ahead with her face turned to us. Anju was few minutes elder and had a stoic constitution, Madhu however was weak and fell ill easily. We were engrossed in our conversation during the hour long journey to college.

After few stops a well-dressed man boarded the bus and sat on the empty seat beside Madhu. In the changing October weather, he seemed to have caught a bad cold. His eyes were glazed, face flushed and we could hear him sniffle and snort. Anju pulled a disgusted face and grumbled, “Why did he have to sit here, Madhu would again fall ill.” Madhu heard her sister and gave her a glare. Anju was not to be deterred; she went on, “Why do they use public transport on sick days?” Madhu folded her hands together in a ‘pray keep shut’ gesture. She offered the man a paper napkin from her bag, her face full of sympathy for his miserable state. After few stops he got up and disembarked.

The two sisters were a pair of bickering sparrows, “Gosh Anju! You are so rude, why were you dropping insults in his ears? Don’t I travel when I am half sick?” Anju stated with confidence, “You’ll learn when you catch the infection.”

We reached college and attended our classes. At noon I went to the hostel mess for lunch, only to return for the afternoon class. At 2:30 in the afternoon, Anju was sneezing profusely, eyes watering copiously. Madhu still sat handing her the paper napkins. In my young, rudimentary sense of justice I had smirked that she had to pay for being hostile to the man or perhaps his curse had caught up more than the infection. That day I did not know that thoughts and beliefs influenced body’s physical environment too.

Now when I read a lot of literature on linkages between body and mind, I can guess why that happened. For the same infection in the environment, one sister fretted and the other was sympathetic. Panic involuntarily switches on the HPA axis (hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenalin Axis) it releases the cortisol that keep the body in ‘ignition on’ state. The alerted state of mind comes at a physiological cost- it suppresses the immune system. The sympathy on the other end releases vasopressin, the attachment hormone that is protective in nature. It strengthens the immune system. This is the reason, why mothers of infants go on facing infections without falling sick themselves.

Optimism doesn’t just boost your mood, a glass-half-full attitude also strengthens the immune system. University of Kentucky psychology professor Suzanne Segerstrom co-authored a study on link between optimism and immunity.
To investigate the connection, Segerstrom recruited 124 incoming law students and had them complete five questionnaires and immunity checks over the course of a year.
To test immunity, the students had a dose of dead mumps virus or candida yeast injected under the skin of the forearm. These harmless cocktails trigger a cellular immune response, resulting in a small bump at the injection site. By measuring the bump, researchers could estimate the strength of the immune response.
As the students experienced classes, exams and internship interviews, their optimism levels rose and fell. So did their cell-mediated immunity. The study found that as students became more optimistic, they showed stronger cell-mediated immunity, the flood of immune cells that respond to an invasion by foreign viruses or bacteria. When optimism dropped, so did cell-mediated immunity. 

Consciously directing one’s mind to think positive thoughts that cause the body to produce health-enhancing bio-chemicals has been successfully done by various techniques. These practices result in increased longevity, lowered stress levels, a healthy immune system and a reduced risk of heart disease.

I remember that day both Anju and Mandhu said the same statement, “See I told you! I knew this would happen.”
Had I met them now I would have told them, you are both right you got what you thought. Your belief does decide your destiny keep your thoughts positive.

Study reference:


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