Recently, we have been in the midst of an influenza outbreak that has been serious enough to close schools, overwhelm emergency rooms and disrupt many of our holiday plan. We struggle to understand the cause(s) of flu, how it is spread, if the vaccine is effective and how to avoid getting sick. Surprisingly, the increased stress from this flu outbreak and the holiday’s activities may actually lower our immunity making us more susceptible to getting sick. The health of our immune system has been increasingly linked to the function of our brain and spine – but is it possible to actively influence our brain and spine health and improve our overall immunity?
Briefly, how does our immune system work? The immune system is our body’s “defense system” that allows us to recognize foreign substances, determine if they are dangerous or harmful and mount a protective response that will isolate the substance, break it down and then eliminate it from our body. A strong immune system requires a coordinated and appropriate series of chemical response by several organs of our body. If an organ of our body can not respond appropriately, which often happens with a debilitating disease, then we become more susceptible to illness. We can also become “worn down” by a stressful event or a series of stressful events, which weakens our response increasing our susceptibility to disease. It is the cumulative impact of stress that often makes us most prone to colds and flu.
How does brain and spine functions influence our immunity? The brain and spine interact with the immune system through the use of hormones, neurotransmitters and enzymes. Hormones influence body functions like heart rate, breathing, inflammation and healing. Neurotransmitters either increase or decrease the speed of nerve transmission along a nerve pathway. Enzymes are responsible for “cleaning up” dead tissue and isolated bacteria and viruses that have entered the body. When stress causes all of these chemicals to be increased for prolonged periods of time your immune system suffers. Additionally the nerve pathways that begin in the brain and travel down the spine to the body become depressed which results in diminished immune system function. The combination of all of these factors makes an individual more susceptible to common infections like the flu but also increases the chances of more serious viruses and bacteria
What can we do to promote brain and spine health? In 1986 Dr. Ronald Pero found that people who received long term chiropractic care had increased immune competence – immune strength than those who had not received chiropractic care. A more recent pilot study by S. Davison and G.F. Parkin-Smith from the Great Britain found that chiropractic care changed lymphocyte production in a small group of people but felt that the results merited a larger study. Dr. Fredrick Carrick found that chiropractic adjustments of the cervical spine influenced brain function measured by mapping a change in vision following the adjustment. All of these studies suggest that stimulation of the spine (particularly the cervical spine) produced either improved immune function or increased brain activity. In addition to chiropractic care, isometric neck extension exercises, the use of an upper body bicycle, acupuncture and Tai Chi may also improve the brain-spine-immune connection by improving the nerve pathways between the brain and body.