In a new review study, researchers found that psychological and behavioral therapies may be effective non-drug treatments for reducing disease-causing inflammation in the body.
They found that cognitive behavior therapy, or CBT, was superior to other psychotherapies at boosting the immune system.
The research was conducted by a team at UCLA and elsewhere.
People automatically go to medication first to reduce chronic inflammation, but medications can be expensive and sometimes have adverse side effects.
In this review, the team 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.
They looked at whether interventions typically used for treating mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, might also boost biological processes involved in physical health.
They further analyzed the duration and types of psychotherapy received, including group versus non-group therapy.
Finally, they examined how the treatments affected different markers of inflammation and other immune system processes in the body.
The researchers analyzed randomized clinical trials that investigated the effects of several different types of interventions, including CBT, CBT plus medication, grief and bereavement support, a combination of two or more psychotherapies, and psychoeducation, among others.
The team says 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.
Through their analyses, the researchers sought to better understand how the body reacts to non-drug treatments for chronic inflammation, which increases the risk of developing several deadly diseases and can lead to premature death.
They looked at several different immune outcomes. Of those outcomes, pro-inflammatory cytokines were most strongly affected by psychotherapy in general and CBT in particular.
Pro-inflammatory cytokines are notable because they help the immune system heal physical wounds and battle infections.
If these proteins remain persistently elevated, though, they can lead to chronic inflammation, which increases the risk of physical illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as mental health problems, including anxiety disorders, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, self-harm, and suicide.
The team said that these findings provide strong evidence that psychotherapy may be helpful in this regard.
One author of the study is Dr. George Slavich, the director of the UCLA Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research.
The study is published in JAMA Psychiatry.
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