how deep breathing will enhance your well-being

Natasha Mitchell: Dr Esther Sternberg has written The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, she’s a world leading neuroendocrinologist, rheumatologist and researcher into brain immune interactions generally with the National Institutes of Health and she’s my guest today. Welcome to Australia, Esther.

Now look, your great passion is the connection between emotion and wellbeing, emotion and illness, emotion and disease. There was and there continues to be some resistance to this idea that states of mind are linked to states of physical wellbeing. I mean certainly for a very long time, until quite recently the immune system was seen to be quite distinct from the brain, wasn’t it?

Esther Sternberg: Well yes and I think — I’m trained as a rheumatologist/immunologist and I actually came from that background, even though I grew up knowing Hans Selye who coined the word ‘stress’. Back in 1936 he published a paper, a landmark article in Nature magazine and was convinced that there was a general adaptation response he called it. He really described the stress response and he went around the world, borrowed that word from the physicists, and got that word ‘stress’ into every dictionary around the world. He was almost evangelical in pushing this concept of stress. And in those days it was hard to prove the connections that he was talking about.

So back in the 16th century when anatomists began to dissect the human body and discovered that disease was associated with abnormalities of anatomy. Back in the time of Descartes when the brain, the mind and the emotions were separated from physical illness, the concept was that if you couldn’t see it, it wasn’t real. And until very recently we didn’t have the scientific tools to see the emotions. The anatomists could look at the brain but they couldn’t figure out how that worked. They didn’t even know what the immune system was, you know there were these lymph nodes and things but they didn’t know what they did.

Fast-forward to the 1960s, to the mid 20th century, and we finally began to have the tools both in immunology and neuroscience to understand how these systems worked at a very detailed molecular and cellular and genetic level. Gradually the pieces of the puzzle fell together and it became clear that yes indeed immune organs are enervated by nerves, that nerve chemicals are released from these nerves that affect very profoundly how the immune system functions; that certainly the stress response, the brain’s hormonal stress response results in the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands, and everybody knows that cortisone can be used to stop a poison ivy rash, put cortisone cream on. You inhale cortisone nose spray for rhinitis. Cortisone is the most potent anti-inflammatory drug that our body makes.

And effectively what happens is when you’re stressed you’re giving yourself multiple shots of cortisone, and cortisone dampens the immune system’s ability to fight infection. So that explains how chronic stress with massive doses of cortisone around all the time can suppress your immune system’s ability to fight infection and that’s why people who are chronically stressed have more frequent and severe viral infections, more prolonged wound healing, when you go out to get a vaccine you get your flu shot, the take rate of that vaccine is very low, it’s ineffective…

Natasha Mitchell: Your produce fewer antibodies in response to the vaccine?

Esther Sternberg: Yes, that’s right. Then there’s speeding of cancer growth, speeding of chromosomal ageing. So you know there are many arguments and many reasons as to why one should do as much as one can with the variables that we can control, such as the environment, such as place and space around us, to help buffer against that stress response.

Natasha Mitchell: An interesting story you tell is about the relationship between breath and health.

Esther Sternberg: Well breathing — I talked about the stress response but the opposite is the relaxation response. So when you’re doing deep breathing when you’re meditating, or doing yoga, or Tai Chi, or when you’re doing gentle exercise you breathe deeply and slowly and that kicks in another nerve called the vagus nerve. Vagus means wanderer, and it goes through the lungs, the heart, it’s what slows the heart but it also slows the heart to make it beat more effectively and in a more variable way which is a good thing. It goes to your gut, it relaxes your gut, it goes to your liver. And what happens when you’re breathing deeply and slowly, when you’re exercising gently you’re just kicking in that vagus nerve, that relaxation response and you’re reducing the stress response.

And the other thing that happens when you’re in these relaxed states your positive nerve chemicals and hormones are released in the brain that are also good for the immune system. So gentle exercise has been shown to be good, not only for the immune system but also for the brain and for positive mood states.

Natasha Mitchell: How are those positive neurochemicals associated with, well feelings of pleasure, why are they good for the immune system?

Esther Sternberg: Well partly because they block the stress response but partly also because their direct effects — there have been shown positive direct effects — so for example endorphins on the immune system. So there’s a shift of the emotional state and the physical state related to the release of many different nerve chemicals. The vagus’s main nerve chemical acetylcholine is also beneficial to the immune system so there’s a coordinative response when you get into these positive states that boost mood and is also good for the immune system.

The full transcript of this interview can be found at

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