Fear can make you ill

The mind-body connection can produce significant effects on your health. A study shows that for many people, what they believe about the air they breathe can help or hurt their ability to inhale.

A study at the Monell Center in Philadelphia shows that if you have asthma and you think an odor is evidence that a harmful substance is in the air (even if it isn’t), harmful inflammation can surge and restrict your airways for a day or more.

“Asthmatics often are anxious about scents and fragrances. When we expect that an odor is harmful, our bodies react as if that odor is indeed harmful,” says researcher Cristina Jaén, a Monell physiologist. “Both patients and care providers need to understand how expectations about odors can influence symptoms of the disease.”

More than 25 million Americans suffer asthma. Their airways respond to airborne triggers that set off dangerous inflammation that make it hard to breathe. Potential triggering substances include a wide range of allergens, irritating chemicals, pollen and dust. Disturbing emotions and stress can also incite asthmatic attacks.

Public health groups have warned people with asthma about fragrances and scents that can trigger asthma. Consequently, many asthmatics fear the odors they encounter.

During the Monell study, people with asthma were exposed to an odor that is harmless. But the people who were told beforehand that the odor might cause breathing problems found the odor more annoying and irritating. Their breathing was also compromised even though the odoriferous chemical was free of irritants.

Their airways also became inflamed and the inflammation was still there 24 hours later.

“Introducing a negative bias led to a rapid change in airway inflammation,” says researcher Pamela Dalton, a cognitive psychologist at Monell. “What really surprised us was that this response lasted for over 24 hours. The increased inflammation during this period likely makes asthmatics more sensitive to other triggers.”

The researchers believe their result show that asthmatic reactions to odors may be linked to people’s expectations about the properties of the odors.

“It’s not just what you smell, but also what you think you smell,” says Jaén.

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Carl Lowe

By Carl Lowe

has written about health, fitness and nutrition for a wide range of publications including Prevention Magazine, Self Magazine and Time-Life Books. The author of more than a dozen books, he has been gluten-free since 2007.