The First Installment

The First Installment

Welcome to the first installment of Extra Credit! This section is written for the lay person that has an interest in human biology, biochemistry, physiology and disease prevention. Basically, you have a curiosity for all things scientific. Welcome brothers and sisters! Step right up and punch your ‘nerd card’ here!

There are some really fascinating things going on in the research community and my hope is to provide access to those findings to people unfamiliar with scientific jargon! Basically, I am just a translator; translating ‘research-ese’ into plain English.

The article I read this week confirmed a lot of suspicions for me. You probably have the same suspicions if you have watched or studied human behavior for any length of time. The upshot of the article was that people who exhibit higher levels of self-compassion express lower levels of an inflammatory molecule called, interleukin-6 (IL-6)

Citation : Breines JG, Thoma MV, Gianferante D, Hanlin L, Chen X, Rohleder N. Self-compassion as a predictor of interleukin-6 response to acute psychosocial stress. Brain Behav Immun. 2014 Mar;37:109-14. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2013.11.006. Epub 2013 Nov 14. PubMed PMID: 24239953; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4311753.


Methods

This team devised a way to determine an individual’s level of ‘self-compassion’. They defined self-compassion as the active ability to observe oneself with honesty and seeing negative traits (like shame or embarrassment) while still feeling warmth and love toward the self.

They gathered 41 participants and via questionnaires determined their level of self-compassion. Using these specially designed questionnaires, they were able to distinguish between self-compassion, mindfulness and self-esteem and control for everything but self-compassion.

The subjects participated in two days of testing. On day one, each participant had blood drawn to determine a baseline level of IL-6. Then, each was asked to give a five minute presentation and perform a mental math problem in front of a panel of two judges wearing lab coats and holding a neutral expression on their faces. Subjects were told that the judges were evaluating their verbal and non-verbal behavior and that the whole thing was being video-taped. Yes, friends…that would be stressful! Their blood was drawn again to determine the level of IL-6 being produced in response to the psychoemotional stress.

The subjects that exhibited higher levels of self-compassion had significantly lower levels of IL-6 on both days. As well, the baseline level of IL-6 on day 2 of the study was still elevated for those that had lower self-compassion. One potential reason is that lack of self-compassion may prolong the inflammatory response to a stressor.


The Takeaway

IL-6 is a chemical your body produces that causes inflammation. That means that during times of physical or emotional stress, your body produces this compound. The body does not distinguish between physical (running from a bear) or emotional/mental stress (marital strife or rush-hour traffic); when either occur, IL-6 is produced. Long-term elevation of IL-6 levels has been linked to all manner of chronic illness.

Those subjects that exhibited higher levels of self-compassion produced significantly lower levels of IL-6 when subjected to activities that caused emotional/mental stress.


Interesting Bits
  • They cited another paper that found that the trait of ‘shame’ was associated with not only higher production of IL-6 but also blocked a compound that inhibits IL-6. It would appear that shame causes a double-whammy of inflammation!
  • This study made a clear distinction between self-compassion and other, similar traits of mindfulness and self-esteem. Basically, self-esteem is often an unwarranted esteeming of oneself. It can lead to defensiveness and self-aggrandizement. But self-compassion is the practice of looking honestly at oneself, flaws and all, and having warm, positive feelings. Self-compassion is a more honest self-appraisal than self-esteem. Mindfulness is merely an observational process by which the individual simply observes him or herself and actively suppresses judgment on thoughts or actions.

Why Do I Care?

This is fairly obvious, but how about going a little easier on yourself? We all know those people who are chronically ‘uptight’ and get so disgusted and ashamed of themselves when they do something wrong. Typically, these are also the folks that seem constitutively unable to laugh at themselves. They are potentially feeding a cycle of inflammation that could later manifest as chronic disease. So if you are one of these people, spend some time thinking about gratitude and about the fleeting nature of life. Try to remember that everyone has flaws and shortcomings just like you. Work on those things but when you screw up, take a deep breath and remember something that is really good in your life. Finally, practice laughing at yourself! And don’t get so angry with others when they want to join you…they may even start first 🙂

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