Tilting Our Homeostatic Balance for COVID-19 Prevention (Part 1): Mechanisms from Mind-Body Medicine

By Saybrook University

Mind-body medicine can help minimize risk to COVID-19. Mind-body practices include a full range of activities that aid healing and wellbeing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left no person on the planet untouched. In this two-part series, we explain evidence for using mind-body practices to help minimize risk to COVID-19. We also offer an extensive collection of resources in the references list. For the discerning and inquiring reader, we provide a platform for an interdisciplinary, integrative strategy to not only fight COVID-19 but also come out stronger on the other side.

As of May 11, authorities had reported more than 4 million cases globally of COVID-19 infections, with over 1.3 million cases confirmed in the U.S. While the numbers sadly change each day, Johns Hopkins has reported a total of 283,387 deaths worldwide, with 79,531 of those in the U.S. alone. With limited testing, experts assume a far greater number of people are infected than reported. Early evidence indicates many people are asymptomatic or contract cases so mild that they do not seek medical help. It is still unclear whether those who have recovered from the virus develop immunity. Scientists project that a vaccine is at least a year away. With the duration and long-term impact of this outbreak so unpredictable, this situation demonstrates more than ever that our world is VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

While scientists and public health officials race to find treatments and develop a vaccine, it is clear that every person needs to adopt a strategy of prevention and to optimize their ability to recover. To boost immunity and mitigate the ever-present inherent stress, myriad self-care practices can be customized and adapted to suit each individual. Among the self-care repertoire lies a spectrum of mind-body practices that are evidence based. It is important to emphasize that such practices cannot replace conventional medical treatment. 

Mind-body medicine (MBM) is based on an inherent connection between mind-body-spirit and includes practices such as mindfulness, biofeedback, and imagery. When faced with the seemingly gargantuan challenges of negotiating a COVID-19 VUCA environment, deep breathing, meditation, or yoga might seem like insignificant responses. Yet the benefits associated with mind-body practices could be exactly what we need to tilt our homeostatic balance to fortify resistance to infection and, if needed, more readily cope with an infection. There is some growing indication that mind-body practices can support recovery in those already infected with the virus. The key mechanisms appear to relate to reducing systematic inflammation and managing the stress response.

Research on stress and immunity

The word stress often carries a negative connotation, but the experience of stress is a familiar and unavoidable part of life. Stress is a constellation of events, including a stressor (i.e., stimulus) and our perception of that stressor (i.e., the reaction on our brain) that activates the body’s natural biological reaction: the fight-or-flight response. While short-term stress (lasting minutes or hours) is helpful, motivating, and protective, long-term stress (lasting several hours per day, week, or months) throws the body out of balance and causes unwanted inflammation, which is damaging to both the mind and body. As it turns out, a prolonged episode of stress will disrupt a wide variety of immune functions.

The stress response also increases harmful pro-inflammatory cytokines. The good news is that by engaging in mind-body practices we can reverse, or even prevent, the damage caused by chronic stress. In re-orienting our stress response, we can enhance our immune system, balance our body’s production of cytokines, and be better equipped to resist COVID-19.

Mechanisms to fight COVID-19 using mind-body channels

As research continues to emerge, we are beginning to see the health effects of this novel virus. Data suggests that the major way in which the coronavirus claims its victims is by triggering a cytokine storm, a form of systemic inflammation that is triggered in the immune system. In the case of COVID-19, this inflammatory response can attack the lungs and respiratory system leading to further, potentially lethal complications. In most cases, this cytokine call to action is a healthy immune response, but a cytokine storm is a damaging overreaction by the immune system.

Given what we know about stress’s ability to increase harmful cytokines, one response to COVID-19 might be to use mind-body practices to help support the immune system. Research suggests that mind-body therapies and practices can lower markers of inflammation and cytokine expression. Again, such practices cannot replace conventional medical treatment. Still, mind-body practices can prompt the body to respond in a more appropriate, balanced way.

Mind-body medicine for COVID-19

MBM focuses on the interactions between the mind and the body and the powerful ways in which you can participate in your own health and healing. This occurs through the complex psycho-neuro-immunological system (PNI) where mind and body physiology mutually influence the whole. MBM remedies share a common function: They initiate a change in one realm to affect a positive change in equilibrium of the whole. That is to say, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes can affect and shape every aspect of our psychological and physiological functioning, and in turn, how we care for our bodies can affect how we think, feel, and what we believe. This means that we have many opportunities to care for ourselves.

In Part 2 of “Tilting our homeostatic balance” we suggest specific mind-body practices to help manage the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Luann Fortune, Ph.D., LMT, is a faculty member at Saybrook University in the Department of Mind-Body Medicine, where she also coordinates the specialization in Mindful Leadership in Healthcare. Her research focuses on integrative health and wellness.

Shannon McLain Sims, Ph.D., M.S., holds a degree in Mind-Body Medicine from Saybrook University’s College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences where she currently serves as a post-doctoral fellow.

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