Editors note: The following article is being re-published with permission from author Cindy Perlin, LCSW. The full article and similar articles can be found on her website, https://www.paintreatmentdirectory.com/ .
Chronic pain patients already have enough physical, emotional and financial challenges. Now there’s COVID-19, the new coronavirus that is causing fear and havoc around the world. One thing that’s abundantly clear is that people with a healthy immune system are not at serious risk. There are many ways you can improve immune system health that aren’t being discussed by health authorities in the mainstream media.
When it comes to pain treatments, some of them are likely to decrease immunity and others are likely to help. What follows is a list of immune suppressing and immune boosting pain treatments. If you are on a drug that suppresses immunity, do not panic and go off of it—rapid tapering or abrupt discontinuation of many of these medications can be dangerous. Consult your physician! Instead, be especially mindful of those treatments you might be able to add that will help boost your immune system—and possibly help you slowly reduce use of those that are not good for your immune system.
Pain Treatments that Suppress Immunity
Corticosteroids (prednisone, cortisone, etc.)
According to the Cleveland Clinic and many other health authorities, steroids reduce the production of chemicals that cause inflammation. That is why they are commonly used to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. While suppressing inflammation, corticosteroids also reduce the activity of the immune system by affecting the way white blood cells work. This creates a lowered resistance to infection.
A 2019 review of the evidence of opioid impact on the immune system concluded that both illegal and prescription opioids negatively impacted the immune system in multiple ways. These included suppression of natural killer cell activity, suppression of antibody production and antibody response, depression of T cell mediated adaptive immune responses and more. Studies have shown increased infection rates, particularly for pneumonia, in patients who were taking opioids for long term treatment of pain.
A 2009 study looked at whether non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including ibuprofen, Tylenol, aspirin and naproxen, reduced immune response. The researchers concluded that these drugs inhibit antibody production in human cells and that “the use of widely available NSAIDs after infection or vaccination may lower host defense”.
Immunosuppressant drugs are used to treat Lupus, MS, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases. They are also prescribed for patients who have received organ transplants to decrease the chances the organ will be rejected. Immunosuppressant drugs are designed to reduce the strength of the immune system. This leaves the patient’s body more susceptible to infections.
Pain Treatments That Boost Immunity
Things you can do on your own at home
One of my recent blogs was about how meditation boosts the immune system and reduces pain. According to a 2018 literature review of meditation and immune function, many different types of meditation have been shown to enhance the immune system, including Mindfulness Meditation, Transcendental Meditation and Qigong. The common factor in these types of meditation is their relaxation effect. Meditation improves several markers of immune function, including natural killer cell activity, B-lymphocytes, telomerase activity, and CD8+ T-Cells.
There are many apps and YouTube videos that teach meditation at little to no cost. Palouse Mindfulness offers a free online 8 week mindfulness course. Incorporating a regular meditation/relaxation practice into your life is one of the best things you can do to improve your health. Why not start now?
Want more hands-on guidance? Find mind-body medicine practitioners here.
There’s an old saying, “Laughter is the Best Medicine”. Modern research shows the truth in that statement. Laughter has been shown to improve immunity by increasing production of antibodies, and increasing activation of T-cells, including Natural Killer cells. Laughter also improves mood, decreases stress hormones, lowers bad cholesterol and systolic blood pressure and raises good cholesterol. It also lowers pain.
Another great thing about laughter is that it is so readily available for free. If you live with funny people or pets, great. Even if you don’t there’s plenty of options on the internet, including on YouTube (funny cat videos are very popular!) and on TV. My favorite source for humor is the comedy channels on SiriusXM Radio, a low-cost subscription service you can listen to on any electronic device. They also offer an amazing array of talk and music channels. They offer a free trial HERE. If you own an Alexa device, you can ask it to tell you a joke. The jokes are pretty corny, but they are funny.
The power of prayer to heal is a very controversial subject in science and medicine. Religious people tend to live longer, healthier and happier lives. Since scientists can’t prove or disprove the existence of God, they are prone to attributing these better health outcomes to a placebo effect or relaxation effect of belief and prayer. What is much harder for scientists to accept is the power of intercessory prayer, that is the power of praying for others. Studies have shown positive effects even when the patients are not aware that they are being prayed for. One of my biofeedback colleagues, the late Dr. Jeffrey Cram, was actually able to measure the physiological effects of prayer when the subjects did not know they were being prayed for and the person praying was 250 miles away. Dr. Cram found that while the subjects were being prayed for there was a decrease in muscle tension around their heart chakra (at T6) that was significant at p<.000008.
The scientific data is mixed on the power of prayer. A 2005 review of the literature concluded that “Religious interventions such as intercessory prayer may improve success rates of in vitro fertilization, decrease length of hospital stay and duration of fever in septic patients, increase immune function, improve rheumatoid arthritis, and reduce anxiety. Frequent attendance at religious services likely improves health behaviors. Moreover, prayer may decrease adverse outcomes in patients with cardiac disease.”
Whether you pray for your own health, or others pray for you, prayer can have many beneficial effects.
A 2019 review of studies of physical activity and immunity found that moderate exercise boosts the immune system and reduces inflammation. Habitual exercise improves immune regulation. Very intensive exercise, such as running a marathon, increases illness risk.
Supplements That Relieve Pain and Boost Immunity
Marijuana and CBD
The impact of marijuana and CBD on the immune system is somewhat controversial. The cannabinoids found in marijuana and CBD interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system, which has a key role in regulating immune response. CBD and THC can act as immunosuppressants that are helpful in autoimmune diseases, but other studies show that regular cannabis use can increase white blood cell counts in immunodeficiency disorders such as HIV, suggesting an immune-boosting effect. A 2017 study also found that CBD decreased the replication of hepatitis C virus.
Marijuana and CBD are well known as effective pain relievers. It now appears that, unlike immunosuppressive drugs, they can reduce the inflammatory response while not harming, and even augmenting, the body’s ability to fight infections.
Kratom is a Southeast Asian herb that has been shown to be effective for pain relief. It has been used medicinally for hundreds of years. Its traditional uses included to treat fever and skin infections. Kratom contains many beneficial compounds that can boost the immune system and that have anti-viral properties.
Ginger is best known for its tummy-soothing properties. It is also a powerful anti-inflammatory. Like many other herbs, including marijuana and kratom, it also has immune boosting effects against viruses and other pathogens.
Ginger is a tasty addition to many foods in fresh or powdered form. It can also be consumed as a candy in crystalized form, consumed as a tea or taken as a supplement.
Turmeric is one of the healthiest herbs known, with hundreds of beneficial effects. It’s used as a spice in Indian and other cuisines and is what gives curry powder its yellow color. Its active ingredient is curcumin, which has powerful anti-inflammatory effects that can reduce pain. It also enhances antibody response, which can help fight infections.
You can cook with the spice. Turmeric/Curcumin is also widely available as a supplement.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids have long been known for their anti-inflammatory effects that can be very helpful for pain relief. Recent research has also shown, as it has for many other nutrients and herbs, that omega-3 fatty acids also improve immune response to infections. They are part of the cell membrane of all the immune cells. Omega-3 fatty acids have beneficial effects on microphages that patrol the immune system looking for invading pathogens and on neutrophils that help clear pathogens from the system. They also exert beneficial effects on T-cells.
Omgega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines, as well as flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and soybeans. You can also take them in supplement form.
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