How does stress affect the immune system?
The immune system is a complex system that is critical to keeping us alive. It involves many cells, tissues, processes, and proteins that help protect the body from injury and illness. The link between chronic stress and the immune system is widely understood but we wanted to further understand why this is and what we can do about it.
Stress and Health
One study for example looked at a group of students and took their blood serum levels of cortisol during a low-stress period of time and then again around their exams when they were under high stress. They checked the lymphocytes (which kill invaders such as viruses, bacteria and other pathogens) in the blood samples during both times and they found the immune response was weak during the exam period compared to the low-stress period. The students also reported more mental health issues including anxiety and depression during this time.
Chronic stress’s many negative effects on the body are well known including:
- Weakened immune system
- Irritable bowel syndrome and digestive issues
- Higher risk of mental health concerns
- Increased inflammation
- Higher risk of autoimmune disorders
- Bone and muscle breakdown
- Memory impairment
Chronic Stress and the Immune system
There are many ways that stress affects the immune system. The stress hormone cortisol initially reduces inflammation. This explains why corticosteroids such as Prednisone work so well to reduce inflammation short term. Inflammation is often vilified but it is actually an important part of the immune systems healing response. Initially, cortisol will turn down the inflammatory component of the immune system so that your body’s resources can be put to better use tackling the stressful scenario. Overtime however inflammation stops listening to cortisol. Inflammation gets out of control and this is why chronic stress can cause increased inflammation. This is also why corticosteroids can be problematic when taken long term.
Stress also dampens other aspects of the immune system. For example, chronic stress has been shown to reduce natural killer cell cytotoxicity (their ability to kill toxic cells), reduce the number of lymphocytes and blunts antibody response. Research shows that people who are chronically stressed have higher rates of disease because of these effects. Its also been shown that those stress hormones including epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol bind to specific receptors on white blood cells and affect their function as well.
Some research however suggests that stress doesn’t lower the entire immune response immediately. Acute stress may increase certain components of the immune system in an adaptive way. In the short term, T cells are redistributed to the skin to enhance the immune response. This makes sense in a dangerous scenario. If someone was running away from danger the risk for injury would be high. That means there is a good chance the skin could become infected and would need those T cells ready to fight off infection. In the case of chronic stress, however, the opposite occurs. T cells are eventually sent away from the skin and the overall immune response is lowered.
So although the immune system might ramp up certain aspects of the immune system in response to a short-term stressor, chronic stress weakens the entire immune system.
All this might sound rather discouraging since we live in a stressful world and often stressors cannot be controlled. Studies like this one however showed that there are other variables that determine whether stress has a negative effect on the immune system. The biggest two variables where mindset and overall health.
This might seem obvious, but people who already had existing health issues, who were older or who did not take good care of their health will have the most significant negative impact on their immune systems from chronic stress. People are already in good health, who take care of themselves and younger individuals will have comparatively much better resistance to illness, even with a slightly lowered immune response from stress. It really pays to take good care of your health. Sleep well, eat well, move your body, spend time outdoors and with loved ones.
The most exciting finding was the role of someone’s mindset towards stress. Peoples’ biological response to stressful circumstances depends on how they view the stress. There are actually different types of stress that describe how people view stress differently. Eustress is a type of stress that is viewed positively. It’s a useful feeling that someone experiences when challenged that motivates them to overcome the challenge. Distress is the opposite. It’s a feeling of anxiety, hopelessness and lack of concentration in response to a challenge.
People’s biological responses to stressful circumstances are heavily dependent on their appraisals of the situation and their emotional responses to it. How we respond to a stressor emotionally influences whether or not we will produce certain biochemicals that dampen the immune system and negatively impact our health.
Of course, there will be challenges in your life that will be distressing, such as the loss of a loved one. There are many challenges however where it is appropriate to respond with a Eustress mentality. Losing your job may be just the challenge you needed to finally start that business you’ve always wanted to. Or a harsh deadline might give you the motivation to push ahead and prove to yourself you can do it.
In other instances, it can be beneficial to be aware of your stress response to situations that don’t really need to be stressful. Getting stuck in traffic stresses a lot of people out. In this scenario, however, you could decide to change your response. Instead of feeling stressed out in a scenario, you cannot change, you could instead take the extra time in the car to enjoy your favourite audiobook or song. Flexing your awareness muscle over time can help you to reduce stress by deciding how you want to respond to the scenario rather than reacting and becoming stressed.
Herbal stress and immune support
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen meaning it helps the body adapt to stress. It will help to balances cortisol levels for improved recovery, memory, stamina, immune function and to help you feel calm but energized.
Panax Ginseng works very similarly to Ashwagandha as its also an adaptogen. It will help the body to resist both physical and mental stressors. It is thought to have more stimulating energy compared to Ashwagandha and is often talked about as possessing Yang energy. One of the great benefits of Panax Ginseng is that it boosts the immune system.
Reishi Blend contains Reishi mushroom, Echinacea and Astragalus. Taken daily this combination helps to keep the immune system healthy. As an immune modulator, it helps to stimulate an underactive immune system as well as calm an overactive one. As you now know stress and the immune system are closely linked so you’ll also see stress improvement benefits from this blend.
Blast stimulates the immune system and works best when taken at the very early stages of an illness, infection cold or flu.
This one is pretty straight forward but it can pay to keep those germs away. Our hand sanitizer is toxin-free and contains only 68% alcohol, aloe vera, hydroxyethyl cellulose or hydroxyproply methylcellulose, peppermint oil.