Inflammation and Immunity – how CBT can help
Updated: Oct 24
Research has found that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is linked with reduced inflammation. Why is this important?
Inflammation is an important aspect of our immune system’s healing response to anything that can cause us harm. When the body detects an intruder such as an injury causing foreign-body, bacteria, virus or toxin, it launches a biological response to try to remove it. This inflammatory response includes a release of antibodies and other immune system proteins and increased blood flow to the area of damage. This acute inflammation process which may include pain, redness, heat and swelling, usually lasts a few hours or days. We can see inflammation in action when we cut ourselves – we may have pain and see swelling around the area but as the cut heals, the inflammatory processes reduce. Whilst we can see inflammation externally e.g on our skin, inflammation processes occur inside the body as well.
Chronic inflammation occurs when this immune inflammatory response lingers leaving our body in a constant state of alert. Over time, this chronic inflammation high alert state may have damaging effects on our tissues and organs and is thought to have links with many conditions such as asthma, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, some cancers, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders and depression. So, whilst acute inflammation is vital for our body to heal itself, chronic inflammation is not a desirable state as it can have deleterious effects on our physical and mental health.
What does the research about CBT say?
A study carried out earlier this year analysed the findings of 56 other research studies that explored the links between different psychotherapies and inflammation in the body. The analysis revealed CBT to be the psychotherapy intervention associated with the greatest improved immune system function. This raises an important question about the use of approaches aside from medication to reduce inflammation. One of the study authors told Science Daily "out of all of the interventions we examined, CBT was the most effective for reducing inflammation, followed by multiple or combined interventions, moreover, we found that the benefits of CBT on the immune system last for at least six months following treatment. Therefore, if you're looking for a well-tested, non-drug intervention for improving immune-related health, CBT is probably your best choice." You can access the research study here.
What’s really interesting to draw from this finding is that a psychological intervention can have such an impact on our physical functioning, reiterating the link between our
mental and physical states. Intuitively we know that if we’re not feeling good psychologically - whether that’s due to a specific mental health difficulty or challenges from life / our environment that are stressful - it’s likely to impact us physically and vice versa, if we don’t feel good physically this impacts how we feel psychologically. So it makes sense that CBT can have more far reaching effects than just what goes on in our mind.
Another approach that I use in my therapy work alongside CBT is yoga and it turns out yoga has the capacity to reduce inflammation as well. A study carried out in 2018 reviewed the findings of 15 other research studies that explored the links between participation in yoga practise and markers of inflammation in the body. The analysis suggests yoga to be a viable intervention to reduce inflammation. This study can be accessed here.
If you’re concerned about chronic inflammation, you should of course speak with your doctor, but it may also be worth exploring CBT or yoga to see if it can be helpful for you.