The anti-inflammatory effects of a sense of awe and wonder
I often talk about the deleterious effects of uncontrolled, chronic inflammation on our health and well-being – it underpins every long-standing condition, including many cancers, heart and cardio-vascular disease, type 2 diabetes (and the complications of poorly controlled type 1 diabetes), depression, neurological conditions including dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, kidney disease and more.
In fact, chronic inflammation correlates with every illness that we associate with ageing.
If you read my column regularly, you’ll know that I always try to provide helpful solutions to reducing one’s chronic inflammatory status – by making healthy lifestyle choices to get unhealthy inflammation under control and even eliminate it completely. These lifestyle choices include eating a healthy diet and taking appropriate exercise – and employing stress management techniques such as mindfulness meditation.
I was fascinated to read recently, a rather surprising study from the University of California at Berkeley where their researchers discovered that a feeling of “awe” can also serve to counteract dangerous chronic inflammation.
I say that this is a surprising study because I believe that we all instinctively know that good feelings make us feel better and probably make us healthier too – and now the research exists to support this idea.
The kinds of ‘awe’ that the researchers studied included people’s responses to nature and beauty – for example, views of the Grand Canyon, listening to Schubert’s Ave Maria, walking through a beautiful forest and viewing great works of art like the Sistine Chapel. These ‘awesome’ stimuli provoked positive emotional responses in the people being studied – and this led to them producing lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines – the hormonal messengers which ‘tell’ our bodies to ramp up our inflammatory response – so that our immune systems work harder.
The lead researcher on this study Dr. Jennifer Stellar explained:
“Our findings demonstrate that positive emotions are associated with the markers of good health.”
Cytokines are necessary for launching a protective response and they swiftly direct cells to our body’s battlegrounds to in order to fight infection, disease and trauma. Under normal circumstances this is helpful and potentially lifesaving.
Chronically high levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines are associated with poorer health; physically and mentally as discussed above, however we have only recently discovered that elevated pro-inflammatory cytokines have a negative effect on us emotionally.
In fact, elevated pro-inflammatory cytokines have been tied to depression.
One recent study found that depressed patients had higher levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokine known as TNF-alpha than their non-depressed counterparts. It is currently believed that by signaling the brain to produce inflammatory molecules, these cytokines can block key hormones and neurotransmitters – such as serotonin and dopamine – that control moods, appetite, sleep and memory.
While we’ve known for a long time that a healthy diet, adequate sleep and healthy exercise bolster our body’s defenses against physical and mental illnesses, the Berkeley study on the effects of a sense of awe and whose findings were just published in the journal Emotion, is one of the first to look at the role of positive emotions in the context of overall well-being.
One of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Dacher Keltner explained:
“That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,”
Two separate experiments were conducted in which over 200 young adults reported on a given day the extent to which they had experienced positive emotions such as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. Oral mucosal transudate (swab samples of gum and inner cheek tissue), which were taken that same day showed that those people who experienced more of these positive emotions, especially awe, wonder and amazement, had the lowest levels of the cytokine, ‘Interleukin 6’ (IL6), which is a marker of inflammation.
In answer to why awe would be a potent predictor of reduced pro-inflammatory cytokines, this study suggests that “awe is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore, suggesting antithetical behavioral responses to those found during inflammation, where individuals typically withdraw from others in their environment,” Stellar said.
As for which came first – the low pro-inflammatory cytokines or the positive feelings – Stellar said she can’t say for sure:
“It is possible that having lower cytokines makes people feel more positive emotions, or that the relationship is bidirectional.”
Overall, the ‘take-home’ message is that we all need to get out into nature, look at art, listen to beautiful music and take the time to nurture ourselves truly and deeply – as well as eating well, meditating, getting enough sleep and exercising.
If we can do this, we’ll be awesome!