Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is the best psychological therapy to boost the immune system, a new review finds.
CBT is superior to other types of therapies at reducing disease-causing inflammation in the body.
While CBT is best known as a treatment for psychological problems like depression and anxiety, it also boosts biological processes.
Dr George Slavich, study co-author, said:
“People automatically go to medication first to reduce chronic inflammation, but medications can be expensive and sometimes have adverse side effects.
In this review, we wanted to know whether psychotherapies can also affect the immune system and, if so, which ones have the most beneficial effects over the long term.”
Researchers reviewed 56 separate randomised controlled trials that tested how various non-drug therapies affect the immune system.
The results showed that CBT was particularly effective at reducing pro-inflammatory cytokines in the body.
If cytokines remain at high levels in the body, they can cause a range of physical problems, such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
Mental health problems like depression, anxiety and schizophrenia are also linked to high levels of inflammation.
Dr Slavich said:
“This seems to be a case of mind over matter.
Psychotherapies like CBT can change how we think about ourselves and the world, and changing these perceptions can in turn affect our biology.
The results of this study take this idea one step further and suggest that psychotherapy may be an effective and relatively affordable strategy for reducing individuals’ risk for chronic diseases that involve inflammation.”
The findings are a boost for those who prefer a non-drug approach, said Dr Slavich:
“There are many people who would prefer to use non-drug interventions for improving their immune system function.
In some cases, they can’t take certain medications because of medical reasons, and in other instances the medications they need are too expensive.
And then there are people who simply prefer a more holistic approach to improving their health.”
Psychotherapy emerged as the best non-drug approach, said Dr Slavich:
“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.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in JAMA Psychiatry (Shields et al., 2020).