By Brian Reid Posted Date: July 11, 2003

Stories of patients using meditation and positive energy to will themselves to health have been floating around since the days of leeches and bloodletting. For the most part, physicians have treated the mind-over-disease idea as an offshoot of voodoo medicine. Until recently, that is. Within the past 20 years, doctors and scientists have begun studying the mind-body connection in earnest, and now they’re pinning down the science behind the brain’s ability to influence healing. While you can’t tell your immune-system cells where to go, it’s becoming increasingly clear that you can nudge them along.

“These aren’t trivial effects,” says Michael Irwin, M.D., director of the Cousins Center of Psychoneuroimmunology (that’s 39 Scrabble points, not counting double word bonuses) at UCLA. He’s testing what happens when people are taught to lighten up. “The effects we see with these behavioral interventions are bigger than those found with a placebo.”

Here’s proof: six scientific strategies you can use to think your way to better health.

1. Change Your Mind

Stress is the number-one mental culprit in the delay of wound healing. Ohio State researchers studied 11 dental students, taking a chunk of flesh from the roofs of their mouths during summer vacation. Then, 3 days before the first exam of the next school term, they took a chunk from the opposite side of each student’s mouth. On average, the wounds took 40 percent longer to heal during stressful exam time than during the carefree days of summer.

“You can become a victim of the environment or the mind,” says William Malarkey, M.D., director of Ohio State’s clinical research center and a member of the Center for Stress and Wound Healing, “or you can proactively change the environment of your mind.”

What you can do: Take a deep breath. Hold it. Exhale slowly. Research has shown that relaxation techniques–such as controlled breathing with a focus on long, drawn-out exhalation–lower the effects of both stress and blood pressure. If you don’t have the patience for relaxation methods or yoga training, try a Walkman-like device called Resperate, which guides you toward therapeutic breathing. It’s available at for $300. (The yoga class sounds better and better, doesn’t it?)

2. Visit Pluto

The best way to let your mind boss your body around is to enter a trance state, says Jim Nicolai, M.D., a fellow in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona. Hypnosis is one technique you can use to hit that trance state, but you don’t need a swaying gold watch to do the trick to yourself.

“Having a daydream is a good example,” says Dr. Nicolai. “You can sense that there are things going on outside of you, but you just don’t care. You’re focused.” When Harvard researchers used an MRI to examine what happens to the brain during meditation, they found that the practice activated parts of the brain involved in attention. And your cosmic voyage can do more than just help your body repair itself. Dr. Nicolai says trancelike states are ideal for working on your free throws.

Once your head is in the clouds, it’s easier to tell your body what to do. Using techniques such as Dr.Benson’s relaxation response cuts down on the level of stress hormones. Dr. Benson acknowledges that they play a role in revving men up to run or fight, but the hormones can be damaging when they leach into the rest of life. “What good is getting excited if you’re not going to run or fight?” he asks.

What you can do: If you’re up for seeing a hypnotist, look for a health-care professional–such as a psychologist–who is licensed to perform hypnotherapy. (The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis directory is at A “certified” hypnotist doesn’t necessarily have the medical background. If that’s too Amazing Kreskin for you, just let your mind wander. Daydreaming isn’t hard. Though Dr. Nicolai says that about 20 percent of us have trouble getting into a trance, he says it’s a skill you can work on–starting with those breathing exercises.

3. Recruit a Platoon

Friendships go a long way in helping a person on the mend. Decades of research suggest that support is a great way to improve coping skills in terminally ill patients, but new studies have shown that a good marriage actually juices the immune system even in those who aren’t fighting for their lives.

“If we’re isolated from those around us, we ourselves are at risk,” says Dr. Irwin. “We need to have good social bonds.”

Of course, the knife cuts both ways. Just as a strong bond with the buds or a happy marriage helps you bounce back more quickly, squabbling with your honey does a lot more than trigger depression and the urge to pour doubles of Johnnie Walker. For starters, it disrupts your immune system and your cardiovascular system, complicating more than just the healing of a broken heart.

What you can do: When it comes to social support, both quality and quantity count. A Carnegie Mellon University study found that people with the most types of social bonds are the least susceptible to the common cold. (The researchers didn’t mess around, either. After evaluating the social ties of 276 healthy people, the scientists shoved cold-virus samples up the patients’ noses.) As for quality, it pays to fight fair with your wife–couples who show “hostile behavior” in their relationships, whether they’re newlyweds or have been married for decades, have weaker immune systems than those in loving relationships who are good communicators. A healthy sex life gooses the mind’s protective power over the body, too.

Psychologists at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania recently discovered that sex improves your immune system by up to 30 percent by boosting levels of immunoglobulin A, your body’s first defense against cold and flu germs. Get your flu shots, men!

4. Meet the Beast

Ignoring big problems will screw up your immune system as quickly as ignoring a big MasterCard bill will screw up your credit. If there are problems in other parts of your life, pushing them to the back burner isn’t likely to lower your stress level, and it’s almost certain to depress the immune cells that keep you operating at peak power.

A 2001 study by Ohio State researchers found that during periods of high stress, concentrations of immune cells were significantly higher in people who tackled their problems or emotions directly than in those who avoided them. Especially at high stress levels, so-called active coping sparked the immune system to keep up its guard.

What you can do: When it comes to anxiety in your life, avoid whining, avoid hitting the bottle, and avoid avoidance. The active-coping mantra, which has been linked to lower rates of depression, requires changing or removing the source of stress and emphasizes long-term planning and patience. It worked for Lance Armstrong, whose desire to face his cancer head-on impressed doctors more than his will to live. “It was a bring-it-on attitude,” says his doctor, Lawrence Einhorn, M.D., of the Indiana University school of medicine.

5. Beat the Blues

Those with a tendency toward depression or anxiety also tend to have immune systems that aren’t operating at their peak. Scientific models mimicking depression in mice have found that depressed mice are more susceptible to a form of the herpes virus. And the data is clear that, in humans, depression and the nation’s number-one killer–heart disease–go hand in hand.

“We know that if you’re depressed, you’re at risk for cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Irwin. “You have a fivefold higher risk of having a heart attack.”

Depression treatments are well understood: See a therapist and talk to your doctor about antidepressant medications. The payoff can go well beyond emotional well-being. Return your mind to top form, and your body will follow.

What you can do: Sweat the blues away. James Blumenthal, Ph.D., a professor of medical psychology at Duke University, assigned 156 people with major depression to one of three groups. Some took antidepressants, some were charged with exercising moderately for 45 minutes three times a week, and some did both. The results: Pills worked no better than pushups, and, 10 months later, those who exercised were least likely to have their depression return.

Another study suggests that participating in sports like rock climbing or kayaking–anything that gets your adrenaline pumping–can have a significant impact on the body’s ability to deal with stress. Texas A&M researchers found that fit men experience less psychological stress when doing challenging activities than do out-of-shape guys. And the better shape they were in, the better the men’s bodies could react to mental stress.

Rock on: To find the best places to climb in your area, go to For kayaking, check out If you’re looking for something that combines a bunch of adrenaline boosters in one contest, go to the Hi-Tec Adventure Racing Series.

For an even more powerful mood lifter and immune booster, exercise your social skills along with your body. If you’re new to an area and want to make friends, try beach volleyball. “It’s by far the most popular sport we offer,” says Jason Erkes, president of the Chicago Sport and Social Club. And, better yet, according to Erkes, the skill level is low, “so you don’t have to worry about making a fool of yourself.” Plus, you’ll find lots of girls. In bikinis. If you live near a major city, go to to find a program or league near you. Or check out your neighborhood YMCA, parks-and-recreation department, college extension program, or health club. Or just tear up your front lawn, fill it with sand, set up a volleyball net, and see who shows up. And hope they show up in bikinis.

6. Page Dr. Carlin

Voltaire, two centuries ago, said that medicine “consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.” Now, science has proved it. In a 2001 study, a group from Loma Linda school of medicine took 52 men and showed them a goofy videotape for an hour, taking blood samples 10 minutes before, 30 minutes into, and 12 hours after the video.

The number of natural killer cells (they kill germs, not people) in the subjects’ blood increased during the video, and remained high 12 hours later. Though the men in the study were healthy, the researchers say that the immune boost seen in the patients helps explain the results of past studies, such as the group’s 1997 finding that heart-attack patients who watched 30 minutes of funny shows daily had lower blood pressures, needed fewer drugs, and suffered fewer additional heart attacks than their peers hooked on the History Channel.

What you can do: In the 1997 study, the Loma Linda heart patients saw results when they picked sitcoms. (Yes, all those Seinfeld reruns are doing you some good.) In the more recent study, the 52 healthy guys who had their blood drawn watched the tired watermelon-smashing shtick of the trapped-in-the-’70s comedian Gallagher. (Their fault–they chose the video.) But there was no difference in results. Research shows that humor–whether it’s the laugh-out-loud kind or just a chuckle–reduces levels of stress hormones, regardless of whether it’s tasteful and sophisticated or slapstick and stupid. So, come next cold and flu season, leave the echinacea with Dr. Phil and make an appointment with Drs. Moe, Larry, and Curly.