The video of young Dutch adults lying barefoot and bare chested in the snow, swimming in frozen ponds, and purposely hyperventilating looks more like "Jackass" than legitimate biomedical research. But the findings emerging from their efforts may suggest new treatments for millions of Americans suffering from autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis.
If you place the human body under enough stress, this new study finds, the immune system will stand down. And that, in turn, may calm the systemic inflammation and relieve the pain and disability that comes with a chronically overactive immune response.
If the odd training that Dutch subjects undertook can be translated into a safe behavioral regimen for patients with autoimmune disorders, the result could be an alternative to the costly medicines now used to treat those diseases.
The new research challenges two long-held beliefs about human health: that the autonomic nervous system -- often called the "involuntary nervous system" -- is not subject to training in ways that would override its control of functions such as as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, perspiration and digestion; and that no behavioral intervention (short of, say, going to the doctor's office and getting a vaccination) can influence the immune system to spin up or stand down.
In this experiment, reported Monday in the journal PNAS, a small group of healthy Dutch subjects was taught to follow a bizarre regimen of cold exposure, meditation and breathing patterns that alternated between hyperventilation and breath-holding. They continued to practice the routine of extreme physical stressors in the days and hours before exposure to a toxin that reliably causes flu-like symptoms.
Compared with a control group, the subjects that followed the bizarre practices saw their epinephrine levels rise higher than those reported by bungee jumpers in a separate study. Their production of the anti-inflammatory substance IL-10 shot up with exposure to an infused toxin, and the innate immune response, which would have sent forth a host of inflammatory signals to fight the invader, was suppressed.
The Dutch researchers who conducted the study called their experiment a "proof of principle," and acknowledged that "it remains to be determined" whether patients with chronic autoimmune diseases could safely practice any version of the bizarre body-stressing routine that tamped down immune response in healthy volunteers. But if some behavioral interventions could bring temporary relief from symptoms -- or if the physiological reactions induced here could be brought about by more easily tolerated means -- those suffering the effects of chronic inflammation could have some new, non-pharmaceutical ways to ease their suffering.