Our immune systems are a key part of the mental health puzzle.
Immune systems play a key role in keeping us healthy. Our bodies rely on them to destroy any germs that could make us sick, thereby protecting us from infection.
But it’s not just our physical health that’s affected by this relationship. As the emerging field of immuno-psychiatry acknowledges, there is a special connection between our immune systems and our mental health.
We sat down with Professor Michael Berk – Director of the Institute for Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Translation (IMPACT) at Deakin University – to talk the burgeoning field of immuno-psychiatry.
Connecting the dots between immune response and the mind
In layman’s terms, immuno-psychiatry explores this relationship between the immune system and our mental health.
“It recognises that mental health disorders are associated with changes in immune functioning,” says Professor Berk. “It’s hoped that, through understanding these changes, it might be possible to target them with specific treatments and thereby improve mental health.”
Scientists and physicians have been connecting the dots between the immune system and psychiatric disorders since the late 1800’s. But immuno-psychiatry as a discipline is still developing – and with it, the exciting possibilities of novel therapies.
Here’s what researchers already know: many mental health conditions – such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia – are associated with increased inflammation.
This is the body’s response to things that are trying to harm it, like infections or injuries; in an effort to heal itself, the body will release chemicals that activate a specific response from the immune system.
On the outside, this can show up as redness, swelling and heat – like when you graze your knee and the skin around it feels irritated and tender.
When it comes to mental health, we’re looking at less tangible sources of inflammation.
“The body can be influenced by many of the known causes of mental health problems, such as trauma, stress and lifestyle risk factors – like poor diet and physical inactivity,” says Professor Berk.
So even if there’s no obvious injury or germ that needs to be vanquished, the body can still mount an immune response. But when it comes to mental health, that might not be the best thing.
Targeting inflammation to treat mental health
This link between the immune system and the mind has the potential to change the way we diagnose, treat and manage psychiatric disorders – although we can’t bring it into clinical practice just yet.
“We’re not yet able to use markers of inflammation for diagnostic purposes,” Professor Berk says. “But there is much promise in using treatments that target inflammation. In terms of lifestyle, both a healthy diet and physical activity reduce inflammation and are helpful for mental health conditions.”
Perhaps in the future, managing a psychiatric condition will involve speaking to a nutritionist or an exercise physiologist as well as a doctor.
Professor Berk says that anti-inflammatory medications could also be used to manage mental health conditions.
“Statins (used to help lower cholesterol), minocycline (used to treat bacterial infections) and celecoxib (an anti-inflammatory drug) might be helpful to treat mental health disorders like depression and schizophrenia. The data remains promising, albeit preliminary.”
These possibilities are explored in Immuno-Psychiatry: Facts and Prospects (Springer), a new book co-edited by Professors Michael Berk, Marion Leboyer and Iris Sommer. The book seeks to examine the physiology of the immune system in the brain, and its effect on psychiatric disorders.
As the name suggests, immuno-psychiatry has its roots in psychiatry. But the field has the potential to benefit researchers across health disciplines.
“Inflammation is likely to be a mechanistic bridge between mental health and physical health conditions,” Professor Berk says. “It seems to be a risk factor for both mental health and physical health conditions. Many treatments for physical health conditions that influence inflammation might improve mental health conditions.”
The implication is that by targeting an area of our physical health, we could indirectly treat our mental health at the same time.
This relationship between the body and the mind is one that we already use in everyday life. Think about the advice to do some exercise when you’re experiencing a low mood; we know that when we exercise, as well as producing endorphins, we reduce inflammation, thereby treating our mental health by addressing our physical health.
Factoring our immune systems into the equation seems to be a key part of the mental health puzzle.
Professor Michael Berk is the Director of the Institute for Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Translation at Deakin University. Check out this profile piece to learn more about his research.
Curious? Discover more in Immuno-Psychiatry: Facts and Prospects.