Relief from depression can help against
By Richard Firshein published July 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Your daily mood isn't all in your head; it also affects your physical health. Research shows that depression and resistance to disease are strongly linked. That's particularly significant when battling an illness like cancer, since having a strong immune system can help save your life. I think of cancer as a disease that must be fought with treatments for both mind and body--with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy when needed, but also with techniques which boost mood and immunity naturally.
Social support, for example, can extend the life of a cancer patient. In 1989, a landmark study on emotions and cancer was published in The Lancet, a prominent British journal. It found that women with cancer who attended support groups lived twice as long, on average, as those who did not. A 1993 study from the University of California at Los Angeles indicated that patients who had survived cancer for at least five years and attended group therapy lived three times as long as those who didn't seek therapy When people are grieving, their T-cells and natural killer cells--both important immune system defenders--function less effectively. Support from family, friends and fellow sufferers not only provides comfort but may improve a patient's health by bolstering immune cells.
People who feel isolated face the opposite effect: depression and anxiety can increase the risk of cancer. In 1998, the National Cancer Institute published a study of 4,825 healthy individuals, 146 of whom were chronically depressed. Those who had been depressed for at least six years were more likely to develop cancer. Another study, from Ohio State University, found that breast cancer patients who reported high levels of anxiety about their disease showed a major reduction in the effectiveness of their natural killer cells. That doesn't mean that mood can cause cancer, but it does imply that depression and anxiety lower immunity--and that can be a risk factor for cancer.
A provocative 1998 study published in the Journal of Research and Social Medicine, however, suggests that cancer might cause depression. Researchers examined 43 patients with liver tumors and found a significant correlation between clinical depression and an immune modulator called interleukin sIL2r alpha. This chemical is released when our immune system battles cancer cells--so the same substance which fights the disease may also biologically trigger depression. Scary as this may sound, it's actually good news because it gives us some new tools for treating cancer patients. In addition to surgery and medicine, we can use the power of the mind to impact health.
There are a host of natural remedies which I recommend to patients diagnosed with cancer, especially immune boosters like alkylglycerols, green tea and maitake mushroom extracts. But just as important is for patients to seek out emotional comfort and support to help improve their outlook on life. Taking the time to meditate and reflect on our experiences can alleviate stress and negative thoughts, thus strengthening the immune system. The mind-body connection is powerful, and we need to use it to our advantage.
Dr. Richard Firshein is founder of the Firshein Center for Comprehensive Medicine in New York City and author of The Nutraceutical Revolution (Riverhead Books).