The Role of Gratitude in Health and Well-Being
Of all the topics I’ve researched over the seven years I’ve written the thought bullets for WIN Wyoming, one of the topics I continue to spend time reflecting on is the article I wrote on happiness (February 2003). Three years later, I decided to revisit the topic and report on a recent article written by Carol Patton, a free-lance journalist from Las Vegas. According to Carol’s article, our thoughts not only influence our sense of happiness, they can also have an impact on our immune system and general sense of well-being.
There is a growing body of evidence in the research showing that feelings of gratitude, thankfulness, and appreciation can boost the immune system and help minimize the ill-effects of illnesses. One study found that people who scored high on happiness tests developed more antibodies when given a flu vaccine.
With the help of technology for mapping activity in the brain (magnetic resonance imaging), researchers can study how the brain reacts to different thoughts. When people have thoughts about worry, anger, pessimism, or frustration, the right prefrontal cortex of the brain is activated and the body is flooded with stress hormones. When individuals have thoughts about gratitude, kindness, optimism or hopefulness, the left prefrontal cortex is activated which floods the body with endorphins, the brain’s pain-fighting chemicals.
A recent article reported in The Journal of Neuroscience, helps to explain the powerful effect of placebos. Researchers from the University of Michigan provided direct evidence that endorphins can reduce a patient’s perception of pain. According to the research, when participants of the study merely began thinking a medicine would bring pain relief, those thoughts caused the brain to release endorphins and brought about pain relief. This study and others demonstrate the power that human thinking can have on overall well-being.
The article suggests one way of increasing your sense of gratitude is by keeping a journal of all the things in life you are grateful for such as a warm house in the winter, a good friend, and a cupboard of food. The article also suggests you develop gratitude toward small things in life you might often take for granted like a great cup of coffee or tea, a beautiful sunrise, a giggle of a child, or a friendly nuzzle from your dog.
The article also states that learning how to use gratitude as a healing tool in your life is a “process,” not a “quick fix.” It is a process not only based on making a conscience effort to think more thoughts of gratitude, but the process also includes allowing your body to relax and figuring out ways to decrease your anxiety so a natural sense of gratitude rises to the surface.
Count Your Blessings - Being thankful can have a surprising effect on health and well-being. Carol Patton, Td&n, Fall 2005, pages 26-28.
Zubieta JK, Bueller JA, Jackson LR, Scott DJ, Xu Y, Koeppe RA, Nichols TE, Stohler CS. Placebo effects mediated by endogenous opioid Activity on μ-opioid receptors. The Journal of Neuroscience, 25(24):7754-7762. August 2005.
Compiled by Betty Holmes, MS, RD
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