A few weeks ago, a fascinating story about the effect of the mind on physical well-being was widely published in the newspapers. A group of hotel room maids received a physical exam and were told that their work—making beds, cleaning baths, and vacuuming rooms—is equivalent to daily moderate exercise and is good for their health and fitness. Another group of maids, in another hotel, received the physical exam only. Three weeks later, the maids who had been told that they were in good physical shape reported feeling in good health, had a low rate of absenteeism, and reduced their blood pressure from the initial exam. None of these were evident in the control group. Impressive but hardly compelling. The usual criticisms of small groups, non-random selection, and the short observation time are real experimental issues, and “more studies are necessary” is the usual caveat following such experiments.
Enter the immune response
During the last two decades, sporadic reports were published in the scientific literature, claiming that both in animals and humans, the state of mind had a significant effect on immunity. Stress in animals suppressed their immune response and increased their susceptibility to infection and cancer. Similar results were shown in humans, albeit under less controlled conditions.
Now comes a report in the April issue of the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, by Drs. Irwin and Holmsted of UCLA and Dr. Oxman of UCSD. They examined the effect of Tai Chi on elderly people’s immunity to shingles, caused by a virus called varicella zoster.
The randomized, controlled clinical trial included 112 healthy adults ages 59 to 86 (average age of 70). Each person took part in a 16-week program of either Tai Chi or a health education program that provided 120 minutes of instruction weekly. Tai Chi combines aerobic activity, relaxation, and meditation, which the researchers’ note have been reported to boost immune responses. The health education intervention involved classes about a variety of health-related topics.
After the 16-week Tai Chi and health education programs, with periodic blood tests to determine levels of VZV immunity, people in both groups received a single injection of VARIVAX, the chickenpox vaccine that was approved for use in the United States in 1995. Nine weeks later, the investigators did blood tests to assess each participant’s level of VZV immunity, comparing it to immunity at the start of the study. All of the participants had had chickenpox earlier in life and so were already immune to that disease.
Tai Chi alone was found to increase participants’ immunity to varicella as much as the vaccine typically produces in 30- to 40-year-old adults, and Tai Chi combined with the vaccine produced a significantly higher level of immunity—about a 40% increase over that produced by the vaccine alone. The study further showed that the Tai Chi group’s rate of increase in immunity over the course of the 25-week study was double that of the health education (control) group. The Tai Chi and health education groups’ VZV immunity had been similar when the study began.
In addition, the Tai Chi group reported significant improvements in physical functioning, bodily pain, vitality, and mental health. Both groups showed significant declines in the severity of depressive symptoms.
Is this study convincing?
The study was well-designed, well-controlled, and carefully executed. It is the first study in humans that lends credibility to the notion that our immune response is controlled by the brain. This study is a harbinger of more serious studies, not only demonstrating the mind/body connection, but also the physiological mechanism by which this is accomplished.
Is the day coming when we are able to will ourselves to better health? How exciting!