Aug. 7, 2023 – You know healthy eating and exercise can promote a longer, healthier life. But growing evidence backs another powerful strategy, one that’s less known: Helping others.
Take a recent study in Annals of Behavioral Medicine that showed that giving support to family and friends, as well as formal volunteering, are linked to lower levels of interleukin 6, a marker of inflammation.
And there's more. Multiple studies suggest that acts of kindness dampen chronic inflammation, potentially staving off serious ailments.
“Inflammation is this really important pathway linking most social experience with disease," said Tristen Inagaki, PhD, a social psychologist at San Diego State University.
Unlike acute inflammation – the kind that helps heal a cut finger or a scraped knee, often marked by redness, swelling, and warmth – chronic inflammation lasts months or years and can lead to serious damage.
“It's a predictor for a lot of chronic diseases later in life,” says Tao Jiang, PhD, a social psychologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.
Obesity is one likely culprit driving chronic inflammation, since as much as 30% of interleukin 6 may be produced by fat tissue. Also linked to chronic inflammation are poor diet, pollution, stress, and smoking.
To lower chronic inflammation, you can try staying at a healthy weight, improving gut health, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and exercising regularly.
Or get out there and volunteer. Help others to help your health.
For the study in Annals of Behavioral Medicine, researchers looked at data from more than 1,000 middle-aged adults from two groups.
The first group filled out questionnaires on how much they volunteer in the community, as well as how much they help their family and close friends – by, say, listening to problems or lending a hand with chores.
The second group answered a more formal survey that measured altruism. It included such items as “I have donated goods or clothes to a charity” or "I have helped carry a stranger’s belongings.”
In both cases, being more helpful was linked to lower levels of interleukin 6, no matter the person’s weight, age, or gender. Giving support to others predicted chronic inflammation “to a similar degree” as did body mass index (BMI), according to Inagaki, who was among the study’s authors.
This wasn’t shocking. Several studies have linked “social integration” — the extent to which a person takes part in their community — with the body’s immune response. People who have many close family and friends, for example, are less likely to succumb to cold viruses and tend to produce more antibodies in response to vaccination. Those who spend more time with their romantic partners have lower levels of C-reactive protein (another cytokine that promotes inflammation).
But there’s a caveat. How giving we are in our relationships may lessen the helpful effects of a strong social life, according to a 2022 study by researchers at Ohio State University. People who don't provide much support to those they’re close to tend to have higher interleukin 6 levels – even if they’re surrounded by family and friends.
In other words, those who benefit the most from social integration are not only takers but also givers.
“There’s something above and beyond just being integrated,” Inagaki said.
This kind of research hints at a link between kindness and chronic inflammation. For clearer proof, researchers turn to other studies.
For a study published in 2020, scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, divided dozens of older women into two groups: Some were asked to keep a journal about “neutral” topics – for example, what food they ate for lunch – while the second group had to write life advice for younger generations. After 6 weeks, the benefits for the advice-givers could be seen all the way down to the women’s blood cells: They had reduced expression of pro-inflammatory genes in their leukocytes. The women writing about their lunches did not see similar benefits.
Such interventions seem to work for younger people, too. At one public high school in western Canada, students were split into two groups. The first group volunteered to help elementary kids in after-school programs. The second group was wait-listed. When blood samples from all the teenagers were compared, those who’d volunteered had significantly lower levels of interleukin 6.
Putting Meaning Into Your Life
Common wisdom suggests we should practice self-care to improve well-being. But a 2022 study showed that we may be better off pampering others instead.
In that trial, 63 people were instructed to perform random acts of kindness for 4 weeks, like opening doors for others or carrying shopping bags for a neighbor. Another group was instructed to do nice things for themselves, like going to a spa, eating something special, or taking a nap. A control group, meanwhile, was simply told to keep track of their daily activities.
Guess who the best inflammation fighters were? You got it: Once again, helping others led to a more favorable gene expression related to chronic inflammation. Kindness, it seems, gives people more meaning.
"It's more than just feeling good in the moment,” said study author Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside. “You actually have a feeling that what you're doing matters.”
Other research confirms that people who perceive their life as meaningful have reduced levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and a better inflammatory gene expression.
Stress reductions may be the key to the kindness-health connection.
“Stress is one important predictor for chronic inflammation,” Jiang said. To effectively tend to their offspring, mammals have evolved a “caregiving system”: ways to reduce stress, which in turn allows the animals to handle the challenges of raising their young.
On a biological level, this means that when we care for others, the brain’s septal area, which plays a role in reward and reinforcement, increases in activity, while activity in the amygdala (the fear center) goes down.
“Some of those regions have anatomical connections to the peripheral inflammatory response,” Inagaki said.
In a 2015 study, Inagaki and her colleagues measured saliva levels of alpha-amylase, a biomarker of activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which controls our "fight or flight" response. People who were stressed after giving support to others had lower levels than people who didn't engage in kindness ahead of the stressful event. The sympathetic nervous system regulates many of the body's involuntary functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion. What's more, reduced activity of the sympathetic nervous system has been linked to dampened inflammation.
It’s a balancing act, though. Lyubomirsky warns not to overdo it on self-sacrifice.
“If you are too giving to others and you neglect yourself, then that could actually detract from your well-being,” she said.
Indeed, one classic study showed that caregivers who were overwhelmed by their responsibilities had a 63% higher risk of dying during the 4-year follow-up period than those who didn’t have to care for a disabled spouse.
"There clearly is a Goldilocks-like optimal dosage of kindness,” Lyubomirsky said.
But as long as you don’t sacrifice yourself, volunteering and helping others may reduce chronic inflammation, potentially warding off sickness. That's why Inagaki tells her stressed-out students to try focusing more on other people.
“We are a social species,” she said. “We've evolved to care.”