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12-29 How mental health disorders can affect the immune system

How mental health disorders can affect the immune system

The immune system is the battlefield in the human body. It fights diseases and infections, and works hard to keep our bodies healthy. White blood cells, formally known as leukocytes, are the main soldiers in the immune system. They release chemicals to kill pathogens, and take up old debris and transport it into the lymphatic system, where it is filtered away from the rest of the body.

Many autoimmune diseases activate and destroy a body’s own immune system. Multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus are examples of chronic diseases that are autoimmune in nature.

A recent study from Finland discovered that mental health may be directly linked to the body’s immune system. This correlation makes sense, considering that the immune system works to fight against physical stress on the body, and it has been shown that mental and physiological stress can manifest in physical ways.

Stress and the immune system

The University of Eastern Finland released a study, showing that physiological stress in children, resulting from adverse childhood experiences and sleep disturbances, interferes with immune system regulation. The researchers also found that major depressive disorder (MDD), one of the leading causes of disability globally, has a marked effect on the immune system.

According to the study, “serum levels of interleukin-5 were elevated in persons with MDD. Interleukin-5 has been previously associated with immune system T helper cells and conditions such as allergy. Persons with adverse childhood experiences had lower levels of adiponectin, which is an anti-inflammatory substance mainly secreted from adipose [fatty] tissue. Abuse of alcohol in the childhood home was also associated with lower levels of the plasminogen activator inhibitor PAI-1, which regulates blood clot dissolving. Elevated PAI-1 levels, on the other hand, were associated with sleep disturbances.”

Depression and inflammation

When the immune system is in disarray, it can create the potential for an invasion of infections, leading to physical harm on the body. Therefore, it is imperative that people take care of their immune systems. A person can do this by not only caring for the physical body through diet and exercise, but also maintaining good mental health.

Cytokines, which are markers of inflammation, have been known to skyrocket in people with depression, confirming the fact that the immune system is definitely at risk when the body is overcome with depression. Often, patients will present with physical pain such as abdominal pain, musculoskeletal pain, headaches and even chest pain to be diagnosed with, not a physical ailment, but with a mental disorder such as depression. This psychosomatic effect is commonly seen due to an increase in the inflammation markers within the immune system. Depression should be viewed and evaluated as a whole-body approach, taking into account the multiple systems it can affect within the body.

Mental health disorders are not the only disorders causing stress on the body. Everyday occurrences that drastically affect emotion and cognition can also create stress, thus weakening the immune system. Toxic relationships with friends, lovers, co-workers and family members can drastically take a toll on the mind and on the body. Managing a healthy life by relaxation techniques, positivity and a healthy lifestyle can dramatically improve mood and prevent the immune system from breaking down.

Treatment is available

If a teen is struggling with a mental health disorder like depression, treatment is available. Sovereign Health of Rancho San Diego addresses behavioral health disorders, mental disorders and substance abuse in teens ages 12 to 17. To learn more about hour treatment programs for teens, contact us through our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a senior staff writer at Sovereign Health and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of medicine. She is a physician and author who also teaches, practices medicine in the urgent care setting and contributes to medicine board education. She is also an outdoor and dog enthusiast. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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