Psychosocial interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have always been a boon for emotional and mental health, and a new meta analysis published in JAMA Psychiatry suggests it may provide an immune system boost as well.
Researchers conducted a review of 56 clinical trials, representing 4,060 participants that tracked changes in immunity over time during the course of psychotherapy. Shields, et. al, looked at eight different psychosocial interventions, such as CBT, behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, and psycho-education, as well as seven markers of immune system function, including inflammation, antibody levels, viral load, and natural killer cell activity.
They found that across the interventions, there was a strong association with enhanced immune system function, and that persisted for at least six months following treatment. The associations were most significant for CBT or combined interventions, but as a whole, all intervention types provided some level of improvement in immune system function. The main takeaway here is that psychotherapeutic interventions have a variety of beneficial effects on the immune system.
There are long-held stigmas attached to people seeking psychotherapy for their mental health. Understanding the numerous benefits can go a long way toward fighting those stigmas and letting people know that therapy can help anyone, even those without a diagnosed mental health condition.
The reason that psychotherapy, and particularly CBT, might have such a direct effect on immune function was not part of the study, which was one of its drawbacks. But the assessment of inflammation markers gives a clue about what the underlying mechanism at play might be.
Inflammation has often been connected to numerous health issues, including cognitive and mental disorders from dementia to depression. A review of the literature published in Frontiers in Immunology highlights that, while many factors play a role in the development of depression, there have been links to increased inflammatory activation of the immune system, which affects the central nervous system. It notes that antidepressants have been shown to decrease inflammation, while higher levels of inflammation can lower treatment effectiveness.