Feeling Thankful Can Help Prevent These 7 Major Diseases, Says Research
Real science shows that people who focus on feeling thankful experience lower incidence of these illnesses.
Ethan Bradshaw, 30, is a North Carolina state trooper in peak physical condition, even working as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor in his spare time. But in the early part of 2022, he was overcome with chest pain during a training session—and made it to the hospital just as he was in massive cardiac arrest.
Bradshaw was in cardiac arrest and had to be revived via CPR and multiple shocks from a defibrillator. After three weeks in the hospital, Ethan returned home just in time to be with his wife for the birth of their first baby. Since he recovered, he says one thing that he says has stuck with him is a profound sense of gratitude—for his body, the doctors, medical science, his family and his life—and he’s making a daily effort to notice and be grateful for things he previously took for granted.
In a beautiful twist, Bradshaw’s new daily gratitude may actually be protective against heart disease and reduce his risk of future heart attacks, says Nicole Van Groningen, MD, an internal medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.
How gratitude prevents disease
While it’s tough for researchers to prove a true cause-and-effect relationship between gratitude and a particular disease, practicing gratitude has been shown in hundreds of studies to have many health benefits, including:
- reducing heart rate
- lowering blood pressure
- speeding recovery time
- reducing respiratory rate
- increasing immune function
- improving cognition
- boosting mood
- improving sleep
- reducing chronic pain
- lowering inflammation
Another factor is that when you’re grateful, that releases a flood of “happy hormones” in your brain which then help you make better lifestyle choices that have been shown to prevent many diseases—things like what you eat, how much you exercise, and your sleep habits, says Haley Perlus, PhD, a psychologist in Canada.
All of this means that gratitude can be powerful in helping to prevent a wide variety of illnesses head-to-toe, says Dave Rabin, MD, PhD, a neuroscientist who studies lifestyle diseases and is the founder of Apollo Neuro.
Keep reading to learn which ones.
Gratitude prevents heart disease
A 2021 analysis of dozens of cardiovascular health studies found that people at risk of a heart attack who had some sort of gratitude practice, showed improved heart health and a lower risk of heart disease. They found the grateful people had increased heart rate variability (a marker that predicts decreased death from cardiac disease), lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers, improved function in the arteries, and were more likely to stick with healthy habits. “It’s become clear to me that gratitude isn’t just good for the soul, it’s specifically good for the heart, too,” says Dr. Van Groningen.
Gratitude prevents type II diabetes
Over time, lifestyle choices like poor diet and lack of exercise can mess up the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar properly, resulting in diabetes.
One way doctors measure blood sugar is by measuring hemoglobin A1c in people’s blood. A 2017 study found that people who consciously chose to be grateful daily saw 9 to 13 percent lower levels of A1C.
In addition, says Dr. Perlus, research has shown that grateful people are more likely to exercise, eat a nutritious diet and engage in other healthy behaviors that can reduce or prevent type II diabetes.
Gratitude prevents cancer
Many types of cancer are correlated with inflammation—both because inflammation can contribute to some cancers, and having cancer increases inflammation—so reducing inflammation can provide some protection against certain cancers, says Dr. Rabin.
But you can lower inflammation in the body through the practice of gratitude, he explains. In fact, a 2019 study found that people who were prompted to write something they were grateful for every day were more likely to engage in service to others. These behaviors were linked to lower levels of inflammatory cytokines that have been linked to cancer.
Gratitude can prevent the flu
It’s not just chronic diseases that gratitude can help prevent. Thanks to its immune-strengthening and mood-boosting properties, being consciously grateful can help prevent you from catching seasonal viruses, like the flu.
Stress is known to lower the immune system, but Dr. Rabin says gratitude counteracts that stress by increasing feelings of confidence and wellbeing, reduces depression, and even suppresses the negative effects of cortisol.
Gratitude might help prevent dementia
Practicing gratitude impacts the way your brain and nervous system function, allowing for increased neural connections, better cognition, and improved emotional regulation, says Dr. Rabin.
A 2022 study found that elderly people with higher levels of gratitude showed better cognitive function (including memory), were less isolated, and less depressed—three risk factors associated with dementia.
Gratitude prevents chronic pain
Perhaps one of the most exciting areas of gratitude research is the evidence that it can reduce an individual’s perception of pain, improve chronic pain, and even prevent pain from increasing, says Dr. Van Groningen.
A 2005 study found that people with back pain experienced an improved sense of well-being, as well as a reduction in pain, on the day they completed a gratitude exercise—and that the effect became more pronounced the more days the people practiced gratitude.
Gratitude prevents insomnia
Sleep is one of the foundations of your health. Not being able to fall asleep, or having problems staying asleep, can have cascading effects on everything from your mood (which we all know!) to even heart disease.
Thankfully, one simple way to help reduce insomnia is practicing gratitude, says Dr. Perlus. A study of over 400 adults with clinically impaired sleep or sleep disorders found that people who focused on thinking grateful thoughts as they were falling asleep, slept longer and experienced higher quality sleep—possibly because they weren’t dwelling on thoughts that stimulate the system by causing upset and anxiety.
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Dave Rabin, MD, PhD, a neuroscientist who studies lifestyle disease and is the founder of Apollo Neuro.
Nicole Van Groningen, MD, an internal medicine physician and assistant professor of Medicine at Cedars-Sinai.
Haley Perlus, PhD, a psychologist in Canada
Emotion: "Exploring the role of gratitude and support-giving on inflammatory outcomes"
Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics: "Association between gratitude, the brain and cognitive function in older adults: Results from the NEIGE study"
American Holistic Nurses Association: "Loving-Kindness Meditation for Chronic Low Back Pain: Results From a Pilot Trial"
The Journal of Positive Psychology: "General feelings of gratitude, gratitude to god, and hemoglobin A1c: Exploring variations by gender"Journal of Psychosomatic Research: "Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions"