Loving kindness slows ageing at the genetic level

I’ve written a lot about the links between kindness and ageing, and part of my focus has been that kindness is the opposite of stress, at least in terms of how it makes us feel and the physiological consequences of those feelings.

Just as feelings of stress produce stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenalin), so feelings associated with kindness produce kindness hormones (like oxytocin, aka, the love drug, the cuddle chemical).

As a result, while stress increases blood pressure, kindness reduces blood pressure. This is fairly obvious, and I’ve written about it in blogs as well as in two of my books, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’ and ‘The Little Book of Kindness’.

But exciting new research has taken things further. In a 12-week randomised controlled trial led by scientists at the university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers measured the length of ‘telomeres’ before and after 6 weeks of daily meditation practice.

Telomeres are considered to be markers of ageing because they gradually reduce in length throughout our lives. Their length, and the rate at which their length reduces, not only gives a highly accurate indication of someone’s age but also how fast they are ageing.

They are end caps on DNA. A bit like the plastic ends on shoelaces that stop the shoelaces unravelling and thus ensure that you can thread the laces through the lace loopholes, telomeres help prevent DNA from totally unravelling. In so doing, they prolong the life of cells.

For the study, scientists compared the length of telomeres in people who practiced either, a) the ‘Loving Kindness Meditation’ (a Buddhist practice), where we think and feel kindness and compassion for ourselves and others, b) mindfulness meditation, or c) who did no meditation at all, to serve as a comparison. Blood samples were taken two weeks before and three weeks after the meditation practice.

Incredibly, while telomere length reduced in the mindfulness meditation group and in the control group (typical of 6 weeks of ageing), it did not reduce in the Loving Kindness group. The researchers wrote that, “… with participants in the LKM [Loving Kindness Meditation] group, on average, showing no significant telomere shortening over time.”

In other words, feelings of kindness and compassion seem to slow ageing at the genetic level. This offers further evidence that kindness brings about effects that are physiologically opposite to stress, because stress is one of the ways that telomere loss speeds up.

It is also worth noting that mindfulness meditation did also reduce the rate of loss of telomere length in comparison with the control group over the 6-week period, but only a little. We might expect this because mindfulness meditation is known to reduce stress, but the effect was not nearly so strong as it was for the loving kindness meditation. It is likely that longer term practice of mindfulness slows the rate of ageing, which is consistent with other research.

However, the effects of feelings of warmth, kindness and social connection, which we are encouraged to feel in practice of the loving kindness meditation (also known as metta bhavana), seem to produce much more powerful effects on ageing.

Exactly how it works is not fully understood, but it may involve oxytocin (the kindness hormone) and also the vagus nerve, which has been shown in research to increase in activity (vagal tone) due to practice of the loving kindness meditation.

Oxytocin has been shown to reduce stress and inflammation in immune cells, and thus prolong their health, and the vagus nerve controls the rest, relax and regenerate mode in the body, as well as the inflammatory reflex. Through the latter, increases in vagal tone have been shown to reduce inflammation. This has been cited as an explanation for the increased comparative health of stage 4 cancer patients with high vagal tone compared to those with low vagal tone (see article).

But regardless of how it works, the fact is that it does work. Kindness and compassion really do have powerful biological effects, and they might just have a significant effect on how long you live and how healthy you are.


Have you heard of my new Personal Development Club?

 

If you ever feel like you don’t make a difference

Kindness is highly contagious. It’s more contagious, in fact, than the cold.

The contagiousness of kindness is powered by what’s known as ‘elevation’, a description coined by social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt. It’s a sense of warmth, satisfaction, expansion, even gratitude. It’s the feeling we feel when we do something kind, but also when we receive kindness or even witness it.

Research by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, using a business game as a model, showed that kindness is contagious to at least 3 degrees of separation.

This means that when you do something kind for someone, they will likely be kind (or kinder) to someone else (1 degree), and the recipient of that kindness at 1 degree will be kind or kinder to someone else (2 degrees), and the recipient at 2 degrees will be kind or kinder to someone else (3 degrees).

In real life, it’s much more interesting. When you are kind to someone, given the average degree of interaction we have in a typical day, that person is likely to be kind (or kinder) to around 5 people over the rest of the day, on account of how you made she or he feel. That’s 5 people at 1 degree of separation from you. Think about it. When someone last showed you kindness, didn’t you find yourself being a little kinder to others afterwards, whether in your attitude, words, or actions?

But each of those 5 people will likely be kind (or kinder) to 5 further people, which means 25 people impacted at 2 degrees of separation from you. Now, each of those 25 are also likely to be kind or kinder to 5 further people each, so that’s 125 people at 3 degrees of separation from you. Of course, the numbers aren’t exact; sometimes a person will be kind to more than 5, sometimes less, sometimes it’s more than 5 in a single act. I’ve estimated that it just averages out at about 5 per person. This is illustrated in the image above.

In case you ever wondered how much of an impact you have, let me suggest that you’re changing the world every day. Every day!

Your acts of kindness sends out ripples that impact people at 2 and 3 degrees away from you, people you won’t even meet in your life, yet whose days are a little lighter simply because of something you might have said or did for another person. You are far more important in this world than you think you are.

Nature’s Catch 22

Image from Wordswag

I’ve written a lot about the “side effects” of kindness. There’s five of them: Kindness makes you happier, it’s good for the heart, it slows ageing, it improves relationships, and it’s contagious.

There’s talk sometimes where people say there is no truly altruistic act, that if you benefit from kindness then you’re being somewhat selfish and you’re therefore not doing it for the right reasons. It’s almost as if for a kindness to be pure, we have to suffer by doing it.

To be honest, I try not to get too weighed down with the academic debates about altruism. My opinion is that nature has built into us, that is, we have evolved, a system that encourages us to be kind for the right reasons, because being kind is the right thing to do.

I call it Nature’s Catch 22.

Here’s what I mean. The health-related side effects of kindness only occur because of how being kind makes you feel. That’s the key. It’s the warm feelings that come with kindness that release the kindness hormone, aka, the cuddle chemical, the hugging hormone, the love drug, or formally, oxytocin, a 9 amino acid-long hormone. It impacts not only brain circuits that make us feel connected, trusting, and happier, but it also acts on blood vessels to lower blood pressure and serves as a potent anti-oxidant too.

Therefore, you can only benefit from an act of kindness if you mean what you do. Why? Because you have to mean it to feel it! I’ll say that again. You have to mean it to feel it. And only by feeling it do you release oxytocin. To generate the kindness hormone and receive its benefits, your act of kindness must be real, honest, heartfelt.

It’s the feelings that generate the positive effects. Just as feelings of stress create negative effects in the body (and produce stress hormones), so feelings associated with kindness thus create positive effects.

So, a person trying to make themselves happier or improve their cardiovascular health by doing some half-hearted acts of kindness is futile. Of course, on one hand it still benefits the other person so that’s a good thing regardless, but there is no benefit to themselves because they didn’t mean what they were doing.

Perhaps I have side-stepped some of the altruism debate, but I believe that most of us are genuinely moved by the pain or suffering of others, and this makes our acts of kindness genuine.

I believe we have evolved to feel compassion, we have evolved to care, and as a result, we have evolved to be kind.

Nature’s Catch 22 has ensured it.

Our ancient ancestors who were kind for the right reasons derived more health benefits and were therefore more likely to survive and pass their genes onto the next generation.

So, we have evolved to mean it when we’re kind and to feel how it feels when we’re kind. And as a result, we receive the side effects of our kindnesses.


My new book, ‘The Little Book of Kindness’ (Gaia, Feb 2019) is due to be published on 7th Feb. I’m offering a FREE 4-lesson online course (on The Biology and Contagiousness of Kindness) to everyone who pre-orders the book before 7th Feb (pre-order quantities are used by booksellers to make decisions whether to stock a book or not). You can check out the free course HERE.

And you can pre-order the book from:

Amazon UK (Flexibound) Amazon UK (Kindle)
Amazon.com (Flexibound) Amazon.com (Kindle)
Amazon.ca (Flexibound) Amazon.ca (Kindle)
Amazon.com.au (Flexibound) Amazon.com.au (Kindle)
Barnes and Noble (Flexibound) Barnes and Noble (Nook)
Waterstones

Kindness on the curriculum

I spent some time in New York City last weekend. I’m writing a series of pieces for Psychologies Magazine called ‘The Kindness Conversation’ where I basically have, well, conversations about kindness. In New York, I had my kindness conversation with Cynthia Germanotta, mother of Lady Gaga.

Cynthia is president and co-founder (with her daughter) of Born This Way Foundation, a charity whose mission it is to create a kinder and braver world. They focus much of their efforts on inspiring kindness in young people.

After our conversation (which will be in Psychologies Mag in a few months’ time), we headed out to Baldwin High School, a school on Long Island, to participate in a kindness project that the kids there have been involved with. These kids had bought over 400 Christmas presents for children whose families are homeless.

When we arrived at the school, all of the presents had been gathered together in a large hallway in the school before the kids took armfuls each and carried them out to a school bus. They literally packed the bus full of presents. Once filled, the bus was then driven to Bethany House, which provides emergency and transitional housing for homeless families in Long Island.

As part of their ‘Multiply Your Good’ campaign, Born This Way Foundation matched the number of presents with gifts of clothing for the children from one of their partners, thus doubling the volume of donations and so that the children of Bethany House would receive toys and clothing at Christmas.

As I write this, I am in awe of the kindness I witnessed at the school. It touched me deeply. Similar to my last experience in a school (see My Day Talking Kindness to Young Children), I found myself blown away by what I witnessed. People have often remarked that I am a kind person because I write and speak about kindness. In some ways, I am trying to use my skills to spread kindness, which is why I write and teach. But I cannot help but feel that there is a difference from writing and speaking about it and actually being on the front line doing it, like these kids were. It was a real humbling experience.

The teachers at the school deserve a special applause too for having the vision and desire to involve the school kinds in such a rewarding programme where, at their young age, they could have first-hand experience of kindness, what it means, and how it makes a difference. I think it’s a great idea to involve kids in kindness projects like this, so that they can learn about kindness through experience at a young age and also, through further school work, can explore the consequences of kindness, the impact it can have on people’s lives.

Surely, learning about kindness while at school is as important as learning to read and write, as important as maths, science, music, art and languages. Kindness is fundamental to our interactions with each other. It’s a way of being, a way that colours the nature of these interactions. It is fundamental at all levels of society. It is fundamental in building and maintaining healthy communities.

Kindness is getting more column space in newspapers and magazines now than at any other time I can remember. Perhaps it’s an antidote to some of the aggression and division we see so much of in the world at the moment, especially on the political scene. Perhaps we subconsciously seek to counterbalance division with kindness, because kindness unifies.

Kindness brings people together. It dissolves disagreement and hatred. Or as philosopher, Albert Schweitzer, wrote, “Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the Sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding and hostility to evaporate.

Kindness is like glue that holds us all together. What would we be without kindness? Where would we be if we all sought to look out only for ourselves? Kindness includes others.

I think kids should be learning what kindness is in school; how it matters, why it matters, its consequences. Kindness should be on the curriculum of all schools.

I was bullied at school when I was 16-17 years old. I often wonder if things would have been the way they were for me if kindness had been on our school curriculum. Would I still have been bullied? Perhaps! Perhaps not! But I do believe that, in general, a curriculum that included studies on kindness, with opportunities for further study in later school years, would result in a noticeable drop in bullying and a significant increase in tolerance and unity and perhaps even academic performance.

Kids could be learning why kindness matters, how it impacts our health, how it spreads by inspiring ‘pay it forward’ behaviour in others. They could be learning how to actually be kind, the multiple forms it can take, from saying thank you, to paying a compliment, to listening, to being there for a friend or family member, to volunteer work, to helping people in the community, to refraining from bullying.

They could learn about the science of kindness and how it impacts our health, from how it makes us happier, can reduce risk of depression and anxiety, how it helps build resilience by counteracting stress, to how it impacts the heart and arteries, the nervous system and immune system.

The curriculum could involve practical experience of volunteering in the community, with a written report that encourages the kids to reflect on the impact of the work they did. Older kids studying kindness may even, as part of their own projects, help tutor younger kids in some of their school subjects.

Perhaps kindness as a compulsory subject on the school curriculum would have further reaching consequences too, as kids move on after school and take what they have learned into the wider world. Perhaps it would have knock-on effects in business, in how business is conducted, on the reasons why business is conducted.

Many kids who learned kindness at school may become business leaders and influence how business is done. Many could find their way into politics and their knowledge and experience of kindness may influence decisions taken at national and international levels, which surely will benefit all of us. I think we may then see the world coming together in greater ways as we recognise and embrace our common humanity, as we celebrate our similarities instead of squabbling about our differences.

“We look for a glorious dénouement [end result],” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the film and book, Choice Point (which I’m also in), “when we will discover that we are actually members of one family.” I think kindness on the curriculum might really help us with such a goal.

This might sound idealistic or even fanciful thinking, but I think it’s already happening. There are pockets of this happening everywhere, even if not formally, not least at Baldwin High School, but also in the school that my friend John teaches at, where he teaches young kids on the ASD spectrum. Their whole school did a kindness project. Some of the kids in John’s class wrote letters to me a few weeks later to tell me the sorts of acts of kindness they had been doing and what kindness their classmates had shown them. I know there are many more schools making kindness a fundamental part of children’s education and experience.

Kindness matters. Kindness makes a difference. Being kind also inspires kindness in others. It is contagious. That is a fact. I think it’s spreading through schools now. And at a time of year when we worry about catching a cold or flu, kindness is one ‘bug’ that I think we would all do well to catch.

My day talking kindness to young children

I spent a day earlier in the week at a primary school where I was talking to young children about the importance of kindness.

It was a school outside Glasgow, Scotland, on the invitation of my friend, John – aka Mr McLellan. The school has a dedicated ASD unit.

I was a little nervous as I’m not used to speaking to children. Almost all of my talks, lectures and workshops have been for adults. I usually talk a lot about the science of how kindness impacts health, as well as various aspects of the mind-body connection and self-esteem, so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to simplify things for the children or even make what I do sound remotely interesting.

John assured me that I’d be fine, that they mostly just want to know what I do and then ask me questions. My first class was John’s class, a small class of 8.

I brought a couple of my books with me and began to talk about my job as a writer. I explained that I’m an ‘author’ and showed them some of my books and various international translations, including the same book in English, German, Romanian and even Japanese, which they found fascinating. I told them that I mostly write and teach about being kind and how important that is.

I asked if any of them knew what being kind meant. A sea of hands shot up, each of the children politely waiting to be asked. I went around them one-by one, amazed as they gave lovely examples of kindness; like helping someone up if they’ve fallen down, saying nice things to people, saying ‘thank you’, paying compliments, holding a door, even being respectful.

After a little more talk about kindness they had a chance to ask questions. Mr McLellan had given them all cards the day before so that they could write their questions and read from them.

One of the first questions was, “What age are you?” so we had a guessing game, followed by another guessing game around how many pages my book has and another about how many words are in it. Faces swelled with pride when they got answers right.

I was also asked things like, “What’s your favourite TV show?” and “Do you have a car? What kind is it?” It was so incredibly nice for the children just to get to ask what they want to know, and I enjoyed it immensely.

I repeated the same thing three more times through the day for children at all ages, including whole-year assemblies for primary 7 children (ages 11 and 12) as well as primary 1 (ages 4 and 5). In one class, I talked about how I went to university and then worked as a scientist making medicines. I asked if any of them knew what a scientist is. Many of could describe some aspects of different kinds of science. Between them, they painted a good picture of what a scientist does. Since my PhD was organic chemistry, which consists of sticking atoms together to make molecules, many of which end up as medicines, I asked if anyone knew what atoms were.

I wasn’t prepared for the following answer from a small boy:

“They’re tiny little particles that make up everything. They’re so tiny you can’t see them and everything is made up of millions of them.” Then he put his finger on the table and said, “I’m touching atoms right now.”

Few adults could give such a precise answer. I was actually speechless. That he mentioned the word ‘particles’ and had a sense of their size and relative quantities just blew me away. He must have been about 9 or 10 years old.

During lunch, I sat in on choir rehearsal, where Mr McLellan played some music that the children sang along to. It was a rehearsal for an audition later in the week for BBC Children in Need.

It took my breath away. These young children, singing together, some looking at each other for comfort or approval, moved me to tears. I can’t quite express in words how moving it was.

As I write this, I still see in my minds’ eye, happy, smiling faces from some of the children I spent most time with in John’s class. Their personalities are infectious. They left a really big impression on me.

The day was an unexpected pleasure for me. As I wrote above, I was a little nervous when I arrived because I’m not used to communicating what I write and teach about to young children, but my fears were unfounded. The children really just wanted to know about me and a little bit about what I did.

I was warmed by how much they knew about kindness, how they were learning at school what it is and how important it is. They were even being recognised for being kind with little awards. I don’t ever remember formally learning about kindness when I was at school, so this was great to see.

Overall, I was deeply inspired by the teachers and classroom assistants too. People often say to me that I’m doing a great job in spreading the word about kindness by writing about it and collecting scientific studies together into books and blogs that others can quote. People call me a kind person for this reason.

To be honest, I don’t see it like that. I really don’t. What inspired me deeply was John and his colleagues. How they were with the children. How they spoke with them, taught them, comforted them. I mentioned to John that he had such a kind and gentle way with the children that you would think he was their parent. These are people – like many other teachers, carers, service workers, etc, all around the world – who are on the front line actually doing the kindness. I write about it. They doit! It really moved me.

I am so grateful that there are so many people in the world on the front-line doing kindness daily, as well as the millions of people who are simply just kind people, acting on opportunities as they present themselves daily.

I think there is a lot more kindness in the world than most of us typically see. The experience has left me with more hope, gratitude, and a good feeling that things are changing for the better, even if it’s not always immediately obvious to see.

The vagus nerve and cancer

DNA with light shining behind itI recently read a scientific paper, published this year in the Journal of Oncology (see paper), with great interest. It linked the activity of the vagus nerve with cancer prognosis.

Why is this important?

I’ve written quite a bit about the vagus nerve in some of my blogs and books (The Five Side Effects of Kindness), mainly because the vagus nerve produces an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. I’ve also emphasised how this effect is even amplified by the experience of compassion.

That’s why I found the paper so exciting because it reviewed 12 scientific studies, involving 1822 patients, and suggested a link between high vagus nerve activity and better cancer prognosis. The effect, the authors wrote, was most likely due to an anti-inflammatory effect created by the vagus nerve.

I’ve summarised the main findings of the paper below.

The authors pointed out that three main biological factors contribute to the onset and progression of tumours. These are: oxidative stress (free radicals), inflammation, and excessive sympathetic [nervous] activity (stress).

Amazingly, the vagus nerve seems to inhibit all three.

Many of the studies measured heart rate variability (HRV), which is the main index of vagus nerve activity. Briefly, when we breathe in, heart rate quickens a little, only to slow down again when we breathe out. The vagus nerve is responsible for the slowing down, and thus the difference between this increase and decrease (high and low) of heart rate – heart rate variability (HRV) – is considered an indicator of vagus nerve activity.

Generally, the paper found that the higher a person’s HRV, or vagus nerve activity (also known as vagal tone), the slower the progression of cancer, and this was true for all cancers studied. The effect was especially pronounced in late stage, metastatic cancers.

The authors suggested that in early stages of cancer, the treatment a person receives is the overwhelming positive factor and so swamps out any observable effects of the vagus nerve, but at later stages, when treatments are often less effective, the vagus nerve’s workings are far more apparent and the vagus nerve becomes the main determining factor.

So much so, in fact, that the authors found that survival time in patients with high HRV (or vagus nerve activity) was 4 times greater than in patients with low HRV (or vagus nerve activity).

The effect of the vagus nerve on inflammation was suggested as the main factor. It is known as the ‘Inflammatory Reflex’. The vagus nerve basically turns off inflammation at the genetic level by turning down a gene that produces TNF-alpha (Tumour Necrosis Factor), which is an inflammatory protein in the body that sets off a cascade of inflammation. Thus, the vagus nerve can effectively control inflammation in this way. Therefore, higher vagus nerve activity usually means lower inflammation.

In one study of patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, for example, patients with high HRV (or vagus nerve activity) survived longer and had lower inflammation levels than patients with low HRV (vagus nerve activity).

The study authors wrote that, the vagus nerve “may modulate cancer progression by inhibiting inflammation.”

The study also showed that tumour markers in other cancers (like PSA – prostate specific antigen – for example) were also lower in patients with highest vagus nerve activity.

So, the question is: can we increase our vagus nerve activity?

The answer is yes.

There are a few ways, in fact, that include:

-exercise

-meditation

-yoga

-practice of compassion

I’d like to draw your attention to the latter because I’ve written about this before and it demonstrates a powerful link between mind and emotions and physical health.

Studies have shown a link between compassion and vagus nerve activity, an idea first put forward by Stephen Porges, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and now widely known as polyvagal theory.

For example, vagus nerve activity has been shown to increase through regular practice of a compassion meditation (the Buddhist’s metta bhavana or ‘Loving Kindness’ meditation). Here, we consistently cultivate a feeling of kindness and compassion for ourselves and others.

The same meditation has also been shown to lower a person’s inflammatory response to stress, presumably via increasing vagus nerve activity.

So, yes, we can increase vagal tone!

For me, this research is extra evidence that exercise, meditation, yoga, and even compassion, offer us far more protection from illness than we have imagined up until now. Now we are beginning to see the underlying biological mechanisms that explain why these practices are so beneficial.

Of course, exercising, meditating, doing yoga or being a nice person doesn’t mean a person will be immune to cancer. We all know that’s not true. But it might mean that they offer us a degree of protection, perhaps lessening the impact of some of the factors that do cause cancer.

Can kindness boost the immune system?

In other blogs, I’ve written how kindness is the opposite of stress in terms of its physiological effects. At first, one might imagine that peace is the opposite of stress, but peace is more the absence of stress than its opposite.

In a number of different ways, kindness produces opposite effects from those that stress causes.

It is very well known that stress supresses the immune system. Part of this is due to the stress hormone cortisol. So effective is cortisol in suppressing the immune system, in fact, that millions of people use it every day as hydrocortisone cream without realising that hydrocortisone cream is cortisol, but in cream form. It acts to reduce inflammation (part of the immune response), which is why it is used to treat conditions like eczema, itching, and rashes.

When we are kind, at the very least it spares us some stress and so, by default, allows the immune system to work more optimally by minimising cortisol production.

But can kindness do more than this and even enhance the immune system?

The Mother Theresa effect was named after a Harvard University study where volunteers watching a video of Mother Theresa carrying out acts of kindness and compassion experienced an immune boost.

In the study, researchers took secretory immunoglobulin-A (s-IgA) samples from 132 volunteers before and after watching the video. Found in saliva, it is the immune system’s first line of defence if a person eats something that’s contaminated, and is generally considered a fairly good indication of overall immune function.

After watching the film, their s-IgA levels were significantly elevated and remained elevated for a while afterwards as the volunteers kept thinking about particular scenes from the film.

In a different experiment, researchers at the HeartMath Institute, in Boulder, Colorado, asked volunteers to cultivate feelings of care and compassion for just 5 minutes. Similarly, they also received an immune boost, with s-IgA levels increasing by around 50% and again staying elevated for some time.

Empathy is a relative of kindness. One might think of empathy, in fact, as the seed that grows into kindness. It starts when we feel moved by the pain of a person (or animal). This is empathy – I feel your pain. It eventually evolves into a willingness to act to ease the suffering or to help in some other way.

A randomised controlled trial of 719 patients with the common cold found a connection between empathy shown to them in a doctor’s consultation and how quickly they recovered, indicating a link between empathy and immune function.

In the study, the volunteers were asked to rate how much empathy they were shown during a consultation. This is by no means meant as a criticism of doctors. There are a number of reasons why a doctor might be perceived as not showing empathy, which can include having so many patients and almost always be under time pressure, which sometimes means having to fill out forms while consulting.

Anyhow, each patient was asked to score the doctor for empathy shown to them on a 1-10 scale, using a CARE questionnaire (Consultation And Relational Empathy). Of those who scored the doctor a perfect 10 (around a third of patients), they had reduced severity of symptoms, recovered faster and also had higher immune function.

In each of the above studies, the effects are likely because of how empathy and kindness make us feel. Feelings generate biochemical products. For example, feelings of stress generate stress hormones (including cortisol). Feeling happy generates dopamine and serotonin. Feeling uplifted or excited can produce the brain’s natural versions of morphine. It is also known that feelings associated with empathy and compassion produce oxytocin. It seems that they also produce products that alter immune function.

So, to answer the question in the title of this article, I’d say, Yes. It seems to me that kindness can boost the immune system.

 

References

All references are cited in David R Hamilton PhD, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness‘ (Hay House, 2017)

The right thing to do

elderly woman smiling with her caregiverI was in Chicago for a couple of days recently. Among many things, one thing that stood out for me was the number of homeless people who were not asking for money. One was just a young girl, who couldn’t have been more than 18. Some of their cardboard signs said things like,

Please. I’m not looking for money. I’m just hungry and cold” and “Can you spare some food, please?

Many of us mistakenly imagine that homeless people will spend money on alcohol or drugs. They just wanted food. But on that point, even if they would spend money on alcohol; how many of us, after a hard or stressful day at work, reach for a glass of wine or a beer as soon as we get home. It offers us comfort and an escape, of sorts. Why should it be different for homeless people, given the stress they live under? I guess I’m saying that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

So, for the rest of the day, each time I saw such a sign, I popped into a shop to buy a sandwich, or something sweet or even warm and offered it to them. They were immensely grateful. In turn, I felt absolutely great inside.

Now, I’m not at all trying to impress you. Any kindnesses I do are tiny in comparison with the acts of kindness done daily by millions of people around the world. What I wish to convey is that I often come across the attitude (mostly in science and with males), that kindness is selfish if it makes you feel good.

Some say, if it feels good then you’re not doing it for them, but for yourself. That I felt so good about buying food for these homeless people got me thinking about this. And here’s the thing.

The reason kindness feels so good is because deep down we know it’s the right thing to do. When we help someone, we align our actions with our core – our core identity. We are genetically wired for kindness. The kindness gene, in fact, is 500 million years old – it’s one of our most ancient genes – which is WHY kindness impacts our biochemistry (see ‘Molecules of Kindness‘ and ‘Born to be Kind‘). It’s our deepest nature.

Helping others makes us happier because were sensing that deep feeling of rightness, that ‘This is who I am!!’ … ‘This is what it’s really all about!!’. Being kind touches that deep part of ourselves that cuts through all the crap and reveals a feeling of joy. Kindness doesn’t just make us feel good, it reveals joy.

Let me say that again. Kindness doesn’t just make us feel good. It reveals joy.

It cuts away the blocks to joy, to happiness, to peace.

So my answer when anyone calls it selfish if it makes you feel good, I’d say that’s merely a misunderstanding of where the good feelings come from!

So be kind during this holiday season. You never know the difference even one seemingly small act of kindness might make for someone.

The opposite of stress

Everybody knows what stress feels like. We also know what it feels like when we’re kind, when someone is kind to us, or even when we witness kindness.

The feelings are opposite. Most of the effects inside the body are the opposite too.

Feelings of stress generate ‘stress hormones’ in the brain and body, like cortisol and adrenalin.

Feelings of kindness generate oxytocin and nitric oxide (I affectionately call them ‘molecules of kindness’). Stress creates tension in the nervous system, pushing it into ‘fight or flight’; Kindness relaxes the nervous system, guiding it into ‘rest and relax’.

Stress increases blood pressure, kindness reduces it.

Feelings of stress generate free radicals and inflammation in the arteries and immune system, which can eventually lead to cardiovascular disease. Feelings of kindness reduce free radicals in the arteries and immune system. Kindness is, in fact, ‘cardioprotective’ (protects the cardiovascular system).

Stress weakens the immune system, kindness boosts it.

Stress makes us unhappy; kindness makes us happy.

Stress is linked with depression; kindness is protective towards depression.

And just to top it off, while stress speeds up ageing, kindness slows ageing.

The Science

Here’s a little by way of a simple explanation for some of the above effects.

Stress is linked with cardiovascular disease. Small amounts of stress are OK and even relatively large amounts too, if not too frequent, but consistent stress is associated with poor health outcomes through having a negative impact on the heart, arteries, and immune system. Stress is ultimately associated with shortened lifespan.

On the other hand, the warm feelings we get through kindness generate oxytocin and nitric oxide. Nitric oxide softens the walls of our arteries and improves blood flow around the body. Together, oxytocin and nitric oxide reduce blood pressure.

Where stress increases free radicals (oxidative stress) and inflammation in the arteries and immune system, which is linked with hardening of the arteries, research on oxytocin using cells from the arteries and immune system found that it reduced free radicals and inflammation in the arteries and immune system, effectively acting as an efficient antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

Research also shows that in relationships where there is more kindness, love and affection, there is also much less hardening of the arteries. It’s almost as if when we harden towards others, so we harden in the inside, but when we soften towards others, so we soften on the inside too. I love the symmetry!

Stress increases activity of the sympathetic nervous system, placing the body on alert. Kindness and compassion, on the other hand, increase parasympathetic activity, allowing the body to relax and regenerate. Kindness and compassion increase vagal tone, which is a measure of parasympathetic activity.

Stress can have a long-term negative effect on the immune system. Kindness, on the other hand, explains the ‘Mother Theresa Effect’; this is from research that showed that the immune systems of volunteers were boosted when they watched a video of Mother Theresa of Calcutta performing acts of kindness.

Kindness also makes us happier and is an antidote to depression. Many pieces of research comparing people performing acts of kindness with people going about their normal business show that people doing kindnesses become happier. Other studies find that, statistically, people who do regular volunteer work are generally happier and suffer less depression than people who don’t.

What surprises many people is that kindness slows ageing. It’s pretty obvious, really, when you really think about it. It is common knowledge that stress speeds up ageing. We’re all familiar with the tales of people whose hair went white rapidly once they began a stressful job. Stress causes oxidative stress (what happens when free radicals wreak havoc) and inflammation, which accelerate ageing of the heart and arteries, immune system, joints, muscles, hair, skin, brain … pretty much the whole body.

Kindness slows ageing in a few ways. Indirectly, simply through sparing ourselves stress we spare ourselves some of these effects. But more directly, the products of kindness (oxytocin, nitric oxide, and increased vagal tone), actively slow internal processes of ageing, like oxidative stress in the skin, muscles, arteries, immune system. Some research, for example, has shown a substantial reduction in oxidative stress in muscles and skin when there’s plenty of oxytocin around.

And here’s the thing: you can’t get oxytocin from diet. You can’t eat it nor drink it. The only way to get it is to make it internally, and we make it through how we think, feel and behave. When our thinking, our feelings, and our behaviour towards others and towards animals is kind (yes!… kindness to animals boosts oxytocin) then it’s like we turn on an oxytocin tap inside our bodies, giving us much of these ‘side effects’.

You don’t need to do something huge for it to qualify as a kind act. Simple gestures count too. Even a kind thought about someone that results in a smile on your own face is you being kind.

You don’t even need to give it much thought at all.

Just be kind!

By David R Hamilton, PhD

Author of ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’

References: Research quoted above cited in ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’

The table below summarises the effects of stress vs kindness

How kindness can reduce wrinkles

mother showing kindness to daughterYes, you read correctly!

Have you ever cut an apple in half and left it on the table? If so, you’ll have noticed it quickly goes brown. This is oxidation, or oxidative stress, as scientists prefer to call it.

Oxidation occurs in skin too, and it can be a side-effect of lifestyle, diet, stress, even sunlight. It doesn’t happen as quickly in our skin as it does in a sliced apple left on a table, so don’t worry, but it happens nevertheless. It’s caused by what are known as free radicals.

Here’s a simple way to think of free radicals. Think of what Harry Potter’s spectacles look like: two ‘O’s and a little bridge between them. His spectacles are actually the exact shape of oxygen, the stuff we breathe. Oxygen – O2 – has two ‘O’ atoms and a bond (bridge) connecting them as in, O-O.

Now imagine Harry gets hit by one of Draco Malfoy’s spells and it snaps the bridge of his spectacles. So now he has two single lenses that are no longer bonded to one another. When this happens to oxygen, not due to one of Draco’s spells but to some kind of stress, the two ‘O’s are said to be free radicals.

Once bonded, they are now separate. Instead of being in a relationship, they are single. And they simply hate being single. They’ll do anything to be back in a relationship.

Unfortunately, such is the strength of a free radical’s desire to bond that it will happily covet its neighbour’s wife, so to speak: it will pinch any nearby atom. This isn’t so great for the body, especially if the atom pinched is part of the cells of our skin, or even the cells that line our arteries, or our immune system, or even a brain cell. Once the free radical has taken an atom, these cells can begin to fall apart.

The body has natural ways of dealing with free radicals, though. It uses anti-oxidants. An anti-oxidant is anti (against) oxidation. It is a willing partner for a free radical, thereby eliminating any further damage to cells.

We get anti-oxidants from many fruits and vegetables, salads, teas, olive oil, cinnamon, dark chocolate, and many other foods. It’s one of the reasons why doctors encourage us to eat those foods. We also have natural anti-oxidants in the body.

But when free radicals are produced more abundantly than the body is able to mop them up, that’s when we get oxidation / oxidative stress.

In the skin, it contributes to the formation of wrinkles.

So, what has kindness got to do with it?

It’s probably easier to think of it the other way around. You’ve probably noticed that stress speeds up ageing. This is partly because stress increases free radicals.

On the other hand, kindness generates the hormone, ‘oxytocin’ (see ‘Molecules of Kindness’), which reduces free radicals.

Scientists publishing in the journal, Experimental Dermatology, were studying two types of skin cells: keratinocytes, which make up 90 per cent of the outer layer of skin, and fibroblasts, which are the cells that make collagen.

They found that free radical levels are much lower in both the keratinocytes and the fibroblasts when there’s plenty of oxytocin present, and higher when there’s not much oxytocin present. In other words, oxytocin actively reduces free radicals.

Now, you cannot get oxytocin from your diet. You cannot eat it or drink it. The only way to get oxytocin into your skin is to produce it naturally. And the way to do that is through your behaviour!

Oxytocin production is a side effect of kindness (see ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness‘). Just as feeling stressed produces stress hormones, the feelings of warmth or connection that accompany acts of kindness generate oxytocin in the body.

This oxytocin reduces free radicals all throughout the body. Not only does it reduce free radicals in skin but studies show it reduces them in the arteries too, producing a ‘cardioprotective’ effect; that is, protecting the heart and arteries.

So, you want to reduce wrinkles? Be kind.

Someone once said to me, “That can’t be right because I am kind and I have wrinkles.”

Of course, being kind doesn’t mean you won’t age. But it does mean that being kind can slow the process down … just as stress speeds it up.

It simply comes down to the feelings that kindness and stress produce because these feelings generate substances in the body.

As I mentioned above, feeling stress generates stress hormones, and they contribute to the production of free radicals.

Feelings of warmth, connection, affection, gratitude – feelings that accompany kindness – generate oxytocin and oxytocin reduces free radicals.

In other words, stress speeds up ageing, kindness slows it down.

So, yes, as unlikely as it might sound on first reading, kindness really can reduce wrinkles.

 

Want to learn more?

There has been a great deal of recent research into the internal physiological products of being kind and compassionate. I have collated much of this research, including the different ways that kindness impacts cells, the immune system, nervous system, arteries, and brain in my book, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’. Available from all major booksellers. Here’s a few Amazon links. Amazon.co.uk  Amazon.com  Amazon.com.au  Amazon.ca  Audiobook