Is Happiness the New Vital Sign?

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The building blocks for healthy living are well established and include proper nutrition, physical activity, adequate sleep, stress management, and robust social connections. When we think about disease processes, inflammation and inflammatory responses are often an early component of the etiology.

When we also consider the global burden of mental health which suggests over 350 million people are dealing with depression at any given time and the troubling increased prevalence of depression and anxiety in Millennials and Gen Zs, understanding the negative impact on health and ways to combat the implications are imperative. Conversely, deriving pleasure, happiness, and joy from the social connection is an integral part of subjective well-being. The growing evidence base on the protective effects of positive emotions or positive affect suggests having more positive affect supports health and longevity. Could it be that being happier can blunt disease pathways? Can acute stress have long term impacts on health?

A new paper by Laura Panagi from University College London published in the current Annals of Behavioral Medicine looks at happiness and inflammatory responses to acute stress in people with Type Two Diabetes. Tracking inflammatory markers has become more common in healthcare as elevated marker levels may signal infections, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. What happens these markers when someone is exposed to an acute stress event? Is there a direct pathway between inflammatory markers and positive affect? One hypothesis Panagi and colleagues present is positive affect may be a potential mediator to lowering inflammatory markers. To test this, the enrolled 140 people in their study, all had a diagnosis of Type 2 Diabetes and were aged 50 to 70 years. People who had a documented mood disorder or coronary heart disease were excluded from the study. The stress testing was in a laboratory, and the acute event was created by administering two mental stress tests; each five minutes in duration. The participants also submitted 7-day diaries and rated their levels of happiness. Blood samples were drawn using a venus canula throughout lab-based study which included pre-test baseline rest inflammatory marker assessment followed by additional samples immediately after the test and 45 and 75 minutes post-test.

Findings suggest that people who reported higher levels of happiness had lower plasma levels of inflammatory marker IL-6 across all time-points of the study. Two additional markers, IL-1Ra and MCP-1, were also assessed but didn’t show significant increases on any time-point, the authors suggest that the type of task and the timing of the blood sampling may not be calibrated to determine a response. In other studies, stress responses could take as long as 120 minutes to be reflected in blood samples. Many prior studies looked at inflammatory markers at rest so inducing acute stress allowed the authors to look at markers behavior over time, and perhaps new studies with extended testing time-frame are warranted given the null findings.

The main takeaway from this study is that baseline levels of happiness were predictive of lower IL-6 levels across the board and also lower levels of MCP-1. What might this mean for those with diabetes? The authors suggest that overall higher happiness levels may play a role in slowing down the disease progression of diabetes as it relates to insulin resistance and dyslipidemia. Higher levels of IL-6 have been shown to down-regulate gene expression that is engaged in glucose transport and lipid uptake in adipose tissue and also lower activation of proteins involved in fatty acid oxidation, important processes to slow down in the sequelae of diabetes. Higher levels of IL-6 are also predictive of coronary artery disease as shown in the ADVANCE trial. Opportunities to pair the treatment of diabetes with positive psychology interventions seem prudent as a mechanism to slow down disease progression of diabetes.

And now I will have the earworm of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry, be happy” playing on a loop in my mind all day! He was onto something…

Thanks for reading – Trina
(Opinions are my own)



Happiness and Inflammatory responses to acute stress in people with Type 2 Diabetes

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