Resilience is the process that allows you to adapt to an adverse condition or stress, recover and return to homeostasis, or balance.
There are certain qualities – such as a positive outlook, coping tools and social support – that promote psychological resilience. Interestingly, people with more resilience tend to also be the same people who have more robust immune systems. And the connection goes the other way too. A strong immune system promotes resilience in other aspects of life and health.
In a 2018 article in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, authors describe how resilient people have a different “immunophenotype” – meaning the way that specific immune genes are expressed – vs. those who are more prone to stress and inflammation. Note: this has everything to do with epigenetics!
We aren’t looking at the genes themselves, but the environmental factors – think sleep, nutrition, toxins, etc. that influence what genes get turned on or off. Excitingly, this means we have the ability to strengthen our resiliency by modifying how we think and behave!
An example of these connections that we’ve been discussing is depression. In depression, there is a loss of resilience to the stresses and toxic exposures of life. What’s interesting is that those with major depressive disorder also have an increased rate of inflammatory disease, suggesting that the immune system is playing a role.
Anti-inflammatory treatments are a new area of research for depression, as managing inflammation seems to promote better resilience.
Of note, those with inflammatory conditions including diabetes and heart disease are more at risk for severe outcomes with COVID-19. The immune system is already shifted towards inflammation and then the disease pushes inflammation even more.
When it comes to the immune system’s resilience, what’s crucial is having the appropriate response. This means having a big enough response when stimulated by something foreign, like a virus, but also having no response and remaining passive to things that don’t pose a threat, like a food or pollen for example.
An over responsive immune system, might mean environmental allergies, food allergies or autoimmunity. We don’t want too little immune response, or too much, but just what’s appropriate. It’s this sweet spot that we best cultivate resilience.