Resilience and Immunity
What is resilience?
If we think of a tree planted in a different climate, they simply adapt. This is resilience. We have the same ability to respond to environmental changes and recover with the least negative effect.
We are capable of coping with difficulties and this is an important part of positive psychology. We all respond to adversity in different ways, and sometimes not positively.
“Resilience is where the mind and body converge”
Alex Manos, co-founder of Healthpath
And why is it so important?
We all have to face a range of challenges and stressful situations in our daily lives. Whether it be the pressures of the pandemic, our relationships, work and so on. We respond via the involuntary part of our nervous system, called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is responsible for the regulation of physiology, including our heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and digestion.
‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf’
An interesting theory to introduce is The Polyvagal Theory by the professor, Stephen Porges. This brings a more nuanced understanding to our general interpretation of the function of our nervous system. Our ANS comes in two parts, the parasympathetic (‘rest and digest’) and the sympathetic (‘fight or flight’). With the Polyvagal Theory, Stephen Porges introduces a further response known as ‘immobilisation’ or ‘shutdown’. He suggests this comes from an evolutionary hangover where ‘playing dead’ was a survival response.
This theory provides an explanation and understanding that a constant state of stress and inability to function, may be damaging to our health.
Resilience can be seen across all our systems, but the key system at the moment is our immune resilience.
What is Immune resilience?
Immune resilience is an efficient immune system that can attack and eliminate foreign bodies such as pathogens or viruses, bringing us back to the usual surveillance level after that invader has been dealt with. For example, if you have an injury that goes red and can be inflamed, but soon after these symptoms disappear and we are healed.
Psychological stress alongside excess inflammation in the body can contribute to the dysregulation of the immune system. Often it stems from not only physical stress (e.g. an inflammatory diet or pathogens, bacteria, viruses), but also mental stress such as low mood swings and negative thoughts.
This could be seen as the tip of an iceberg. When we are not able to eat our way out of the stress, we need to return back to The Polyvagal Theory and deal with the stress. This is when tools to build our resilience to the stress become useful, such as the overall tool of self compassion (mindfulness).
Is there a way to measure resilience?
Is our immune system functioning as it should? Are we supporting it enough?
If we are lacking nutrients to support the system or we already have high levels of inflammation in our body then our immune systems may be quietly struggling. But what is triggering the inflammation? As practitioners, we need to consider all the factors that are at play by compiling case histories and a full analysis. Practitioners may often begin by addressing the gut function.
We can also gain an idea of our level of resilience through measurement of our heart rate variability (HRV). Measuring HRV tells us the naturally occurring beat-to-beat changes in heart rate. A high heart rate variability reflects a better capability of adapting to constantly changing environments, without eliciting an immune response. It measures our ability to recover and how daily activities or external stimuli impact our health and wellbeing.
In future blogs I will be talking more about gut health, HRV and tools we can use to build our resilience supporting us physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally.
For now, you can read more about HRV here and if you are interested in measuring your HRV with help on interpretation of your results, then please feel free to contact myself and my colleagues at Biohealth Clinic ()
Cleve Clin J Med. 2009; 76(Suppl 2): S86–S90
Nature Reviews Neuroscience 2011; (12): 453–466
Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010 Dec; 67(12): 1211–1224.
Fam Process. 2016 Dec;55(4):616-632
Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2020 Jan-Feb; 28(1): 26–39