There’s a growing body of research linking mental health and the immune system. In his new book, The Inflamed Mind, Professor Edward Bullmore claims that we need treatments that can break the vicious cycle of stress, inflammation and depression. Speaking on the BBC this morning, Professor Bullmore said it was time to abandon Cartesian dualism and “treat mind and body as if they were more integrated” (Today, Radio 4). Although welcome, this realization comes rather late in the day. Candace Pert recognized that the mind and the body are aspects of a single system back in the 1980’s, and introduced the concept of the ‘bodymind’. That insight has been borne out by neuroscience, embodiment research and embodied therapy, so it’s good that psychiatry is catching up!
Candace Pert was the first person to recognize the existence of endorphins, the body’s very own opiates. Endorphins are feel good hormones that are released when we exercise or experience pleasure. The runners high, a chocolate hit and even the kick of a hot curry all depend on endorphins. Endorphins don’t just create feelings of pleasure; they also counteract the effects of stress and play a role in maintaining the immune system.
All this suggests to me that increasing the production of endorphins might be an effective way to treat depression. Kinesthetic meditation – aka ‘the endorphin effect’ – is a simple technique to stimulate the production of endorphins at will. There’s been very little research on kinesthetic meditation, but what evidence we have is intriguing as it was shown to “improve subjective and objective measures of wellbeing” (Bullen et. al., 2006). Kinesthetic meditation also reduces the level of cortisol, a hormone produced in response to stress. This is significant because elevated cortisol is associated with an increased risk of depression and a reduction in the effectiveness of psychotherapeutic treatment.
There’s a complex picture emerging connecting stress, depression, cortisol and the immune system. The interactions between these elements are still unclear, but I think endorphins could play a key role. So could kinesthetic meditation be an effective intervention for the treatment of depression? On paper, it looks promising, but without further research we can’t be sure. Meanwhile it might be worth teaching kinesthetic meditation to people experiencing depression; it has no known negative side effects and it’s free!