Are you a glass half-empty or half-full type of person?
Most of us like to think we have the half-full perception because, well, no one wants to be the “negative Nancy”! But, did you know that staying positive and striving for happy emotions physically benefits your body? This article reviews the mind -body connection of positive emotions and how they help reduce inflammation and improve overall health.
First, What is the Mind Body Connection?
Despite all the sub-specialties in conventional medicine, the body’s different organ systems do not work solely on their own. In fact, organs work together to create a complicated, interconnected system. The mind and body connection is a two-way street.
Our emotions, beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and attitudes have an incredible effect on the everyday physical functioning of our body. Have you ever had an important exam, job interview, or presentation to give? You may have experienced a stomach ache or (TMI- lots of bathroom visits) beforehand, which are classic examples of the physical manifestation of our mind! Likewise, our foods and activity have profound effects on our mental state. For example, research shows that people who eat less than five servings of fruit and vegetables per day are at a higher risk for depression (1). On the same note, some studies show exercise may reduce depressive symptoms to the same extent as antidepressants (2).
Mind body medicine uses the power of the mind body connection to heal, with interventions like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and tai chi – all of which help to create more positivity!
What are Positive Emotions?
It seems obvious at first, but what exactly are positive emotions? Does it just mean a state of happiness?
One 2018 study researched various positive emotions and their effects on inflammation (3). People with more diverse positive emotions had lower levels of inflammatory proteins, like CRP and fibrinogen. The researchers defined positive emotions through 16 markers:
- At ease
Of course, this doesn’t encompass all of our happy emotions! Many researchers also include positive emotions such as joy, love, hope, and serenity.
How do Positive Emotions Reduce Inflammation?
The piece of advice to “stay positive” is actually a pretty good one! Research consistently shows that positive emotions reduce inflammation in the body. While some inflammation is healthy (and a normal response to injury), chronic inflammation over time leads to damaging effects. Inflammation plays a huge role in the development of diseases like insulin resistance (leading to diabetes), heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and even overall risk of death (3).
So, how do positive emotions lower inflammation? Here are three main theories:
Positive Emotions Affect Gene Expression
Ok, get ready to jump into a little science talk – don’t worry, we’ll break it all down for you! Our DNA is our unique genetic code that holds all of our body’s instructions. A gene is a small section of DNA, and carries information to make various molecules in the body. When our DNA and genes are made into molecules (usually little proteins), it’s called gene expression. Our body tightly controls gene expression through either an on/off switch (turning on or off certain genes), or a volume control (turning up or down the production of genes) (4).
Turns out, positive emotions and mind body interventions can modify our gene expression for the better! Two large studies found that these practices can actually “turn off” and/or “turn down” pro-inflammatory genes (5, 6). In a very basic generalization, positive emotions change our genetics by reducing the genes that normally cause inflammation! Pretty cool, right?
They Reduce Inflammatory Chemicals
The change in pro-inflammatory genes is just the beginning. There are many inflammatory chemicals that increase during times of chronic stress, injury, depression, and negative experiences/emotions. Some of the most common ones are CRP, IL-6, and fibrinogen. Stress hormones, like cortisol, can also increase inflammation. Many of these inflammatory chemicals have strong associations to various chronic diseases.
However, positive emotions may reduce levels of these inflammatory chemicals in the blood (7-9). Research also shows that women, more than men, have significant responses to inflammation in response to positive emotions. Additionally, women have stronger reductions in inflammatory chemicals with more positive interpersonal events (7). Here’s what that means: a girls night with your friends may literally be anti-inflammatory. HELL. YES.
Positive Emotions Rewire our Brain
The scientific name for this is neuroplasticity. Our brain rewires itself based on experiences, growth, learning, exercise, and emotions. Having more positive emotions leads to a snowball effect because your brain begins to prefer positive thinking pathways. Love, arguably one of the most powerful positive emotions, is suspected to have the most profound effect on neuroplasticity (10). In one animal study, researchers gave one group of rats more “TLC” (I.e. petting, holding etc.). The result of the TLC was a 50 percent increase in those rats’ lifespan (10).
Positive Effects on Disease
Everyone could stand to be a little more positive these days, but positive emotions may have a more significant effect on certain health conditions such as:
- Heart disease (6)
- Autoimmune disease
- Especially those in close association with increased inflammatory labs (Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, untreated Celiac disease etc.).
- Insulin resistance
- HIV (11)
- High blood pressure (12)
Research also shows that a positive outlook aides healthy behavior changes.
Tips to Create More Positive Emotions
Don’t worry – embracing more positivity in your life doesn’t mean you have to walk around like Mary Poppins every day! There are many small things to incorporate to generate more positive emotions, and thus, reduce inflammation in the body.
Incorporate a Mind Body Therapy
The mind and body connection is a beautiful relationship that we want to honor! Integrating a mind body therapy into your routine helps promote mindfulness (embracing the present moment), gratitude, relaxation, and more. Examples of mind body therapies include: meditation, yoga, prayer, massage therapy, acupuncture, tai chi, qi gong, and deep breathing.
Maintaining a positive outlook is difficult when negativity of others pulls you down. Evaluate the people with whom you spend the most time, and hang with the positive ones. In negative situations, try changing the subject to a more positive tone. If the others are receptive, try talking with them about your goals in an open, and respectful manner.
Duh, right? But no really, the act of smiling sets off a cascade of positive emotions and hormones. It’s also contagious, meaning others may smile back at you, which then makes you smile again! (Are you smiling? 😉) We should follow children’s leads on this one. It’s estimated that children smile, on average, 300-400 times per day. Adults, unfortunately, only smile about 30-40 times per day. We know it may seem weird at first, but practice smiling throughout the day. Whether you’re driving, walking past a stranger, sitting at your desk, or reading this post – smile.
Be Kind to Yourself
We are truly our own worst critics. Of course, the diet industry doesn’t help that at all, either! Practicing self-compassion increases levels of happiness, life satisfaction, and body appreciation (13). Consider keeping a kindness journal in which you write one nice thing about yourself every day. Having a bad day? No problem! You’ll have tons of nice things written about yourself that you can go back and read at any given moment❤️.
Going through a health change is tough. And sometimes, life in general is just tough. It may seem impossible to maintain a positive outlook during these times! That’s why we’ve developed the 131 Method in a manner that supports, uplifts, and continually motivates you to change your mindset so you can change your life.