Beauty, Immune System and Depression


When people are depressed, it can feel pointless to take a walk in nature, listen to inspiring music or read something that stirs curiosity.

Attempting to awaken positive emotion requires monumental effort during a bout of depression and seldom makes us feel better in the present. However, there may be long-term benefits in making an effort to do these activities anyway.

Positive Emotion and the Body

Researchers at UC Berkeley have linked the awe and inspiration we experience when touched by spiritual, natural, or artistic beauty to lower levels of cytokines. Cytokines are inflammatory proteins that keep our immune system running in high gear.

We need cytokines to rev up the immune system when our body is fighting an infection, illness or injury. However, continuously elevated cytokines and inflammation have been associated with disorders such as depression, heart disease, arthritis and type-2 diabetes.

Science seems to be proving what many individuals already believe, that experiencing positive emotions – particularly awe and wonder – is just as important as a nutritious diet, adequate sleep, and regular exercise for our mental and physical well being.

Depression and Cytokines

According to previous research, individuals with depression have increased levels of a cytokine called TNF-alpha. This suggests that when cytokine TNF-alpha signals the brain to produce inflammatory molecules, the release of neurotransmitters and hormones related to appetite, mood (e.g., dopamine, serotonin), sleep, and memory are blocked.

In the study conducted at UC Berkeley, young adults who experienced more positive emotions such as compassion, amusement, awe, love, pride, and joy were found to have the lowest levels of Interleukin 6, another pro-inflammation cytokine.

The scientists speculate that awe and wonder are especially powerful predictors of reduced cytokines because they are associated with curiosity and a longing to explore – behavior that depressed individuals tend to withdraw from.

Influencing Ourself Well

“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,” said researcher Dacher Keltner.

It is not known which comes first, reduced cytokines or positive feelings. The influence may work both ways. Perhaps knowing this will help us put our self in awe inspiring environments or activities even when depression tells us it is pointless.

“Let the beauty we love be what we do.” ~ Rumi

Source: Science Daily
Photo credit: Vern / flickr creative commons


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