NEWS Mental Health News Psychotherapy Can Benefit Immune System, Study Shows By Elizabeth Millard Elizabeth Millard LinkedIn Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition. Learn about our editorial process Updated on August 05, 2020 Fact checked Verywell Mind content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication. Learn more. by Sean Blackburn Fact checked by Sean Blackburn LinkedIn Sean is a fact-checker and researcher with experience in sociology and field research. Learn about our editorial process Share Tweet Email Print Psychotherapy can have physical benefits in addition to mental health benefits. FatCamera / E+ / Getty Images Key Takeaways A new study suggests a connection between psychotherapy methods and improved immune system function.The likely mechanism is improved regulation of inflammation, which can have a profound impact on immunity.Psychotherapy can also improve lifestyle behaviors, another boon to immune function. Psychosocial interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have been a boon for emotional and mental health, and a new meta-analysis published in JAMA Psychiatry suggests you may also get an immune system boost as well. Researchers conducted a review of 56 clinical trials, representing 4,060 participants, that tracked changes in immunity over time during the course of psychotherapy. They looked at eight different psychosocial interventions—such as CBT, behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, and psychoeducation—as well as seven markers of immune system function, including inflammation, antibody levels, viral load, and natural killer cell activity. They found that across the interventions, there was a strong association with enhanced immune system function, and that persisted for at least six months following treatment. The associations were most significant for CBT or combined interventions, but as a whole, all intervention types provided some level of improvement in immune system function, according to study author Grant Shields, PhD, at the Center for Mind and Brain at University of California, Davis. Grant Shields, PhD The main takeaway here is that psychotherapeutic interventions have a variety of beneficial effects on the immune system. — Grant Shields, PhD There are long-held stigmas attached to people seeking help—such as psychotherapy—for their mental health. Understanding the numerous benefits can go a long way toward fighting those stigmas and letting people know that therapy can help anyone, even those without a diagnosed mental health condition. The Inflammation Connection The reason that psychotherapy, and particularly CBT, might have such a direct effect on immune function was not part of the study, says Shields. But the assessment of inflammation markers gives a clue about what the mechanism might be. Inflammation has often been connected to numerous health issues, including cognitive and mental disorders from dementia to depression. Commentary published in Frontiers in Immunology highlights that while many factors play a role in the development of depression, there have been links to increased inflammatory activation of the immune system, which affects the central nervous system. Those researchers note that antidepressants have been shown to decrease inflammation while higher levels of inflammation can lower treatment effectiveness. In terms of immune function, inflammation is part of the body's natural defense mechanism, and it plays a role in healing. But when it goes into overdrive, that's when the health issues begin to crop up. Keeping it regulated in a way that harnesses the power of inflammation without letting it surge is an important part of maintaining health at every level, says Shields. "The results of this study underscore how much mental and emotional issues can affect physiological reactions, and that goes both ways," says Ian Sadler, PhD, psychologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. "For example, we often see people with compromised immune function and chronic health problems facing mental health challenges. Addressing physical health will have an impact on mental wellbeing, and vice versa." Lifestyle Factors Can Play a Role Addressing emotional and mental difficulties can also affect the immune system, including inflammation levels, because it could prompt changes in behavior, says Lauren Bylsma, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. For example, if someone is empowered through therapy, they may be more inclined to make changes such as: Exercising moreEating healthier foodsPursuing more social interactionsCreating a better sleep scheduleImplementing anti-stress strategies All of these shifts have been shown in past research to affect immune system function, in part because they reduce inflammation but also because they improve gut health—a major aspect of psychological well-being, Bylsma says. "It's all interconnected in terms of how your mind and body are responding," she notes. "Generally, when people start feeling better mentally, they start to implement behaviors that support their health. And that begins to build on each other." For example, if you start exercising more, studies suggest you tend to sleep better. When you get more quality sleep, that lowers inflammation levels and improves gut health, and in turn, that improves mood and emotional resilience. "These systems all work together, and it starts with small changes in some behaviors, along with setting reasonable goals, and then you'll likely find that it gets easier to adopt healthier behaviors from there," says Bylsma, adding that a first step of psychotherapy could be the kickoff needed to start this ripple effect. What This Means For You For many people, finding the right fit for psychotherapy method can take some time, and may involve multiple types of therapies. For instance, CBT may be paired with mindfulness, behavioral therapy, and medication. Talk with a mental health professional about potential options that fit with your needs. If you or a loved one are struggling with a mental health condition, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database. 2 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Shields GS, Spahr CM, Slavich GM. Psychosocial interventions and immune system function: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. JAMA Psychiatry. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.0431 Lee CH, Giuliani F. The role of inflammation in depression and fatigue. Front Immunol. 2019;10:1696. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2019.01696 By Elizabeth Millard Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? 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