Are you constantly struck down by colds, flu and other infections – no matter how well you look after yourself?
If yes, then perhaps your stress levels are to blame.
Getting sick after a stressful event isn’t just a coincidence. Your brain and immune system are in constant communication with one another, which means that psychological upsets can result in physical symptoms. Your immune system is intrinsically linked to your stress levels.
Stress is sometimes defined as a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work and other areas. It’s also a very real cause of many health problems.
The chemical reactions triggered by stressful situations result in an onslaught of stress hormones being pumped around the body. While these hormones are useful in acute situations, their ability to interfere with the immune system can result in inflammation, reduced white blood cells, and a higher susceptibility to infection and tissue damage.
When The Stress Response Is Necessary
Strange as it may sound, our ability to become stressed is actually a prehistoric survival mechanism known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. This chemical reaction is your body’s way of switching on its alarm system: a built-in characteristic that hails from our hunter-gatherer times. Back then, a “stressor” might have been the very real danger of coming face-to-face with a sabre-tooth tiger. The sight of the tiger would cause your hypothalamus to stimulate your adrenal glands, which would then start pumping out adrenaline. The adrenaline provided your body with the energy it needed to run away from the tiger. As you can see, this type of stress was very beneficial indeed!
Another type of “good stress” is that which can occur before an important (but nerve-wracking) event, such as an exam or a job interview. You may feel an intense but temporary burst of tension or anxiety. This type of stress provides you with an extra boost of energy or alertness, which may actually improve your performance.
When The Stress Response Is Harmful
When stress is chronic – that is, prolonged or unrelenting – it can do far more harm than good. In some cases, chronic stress can be severely detrimental to mental and physical health.
Chronic stress often accompanies our constant worrying about things out of our control – such as family or work problems. Unfortunately, chronic stress is a common feature of modern life, and has been linked to numerous health issues.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is another form of chronic stress. PTSD may occur following a traumatic life event, such as an accident or natural disaster. Those suffering from PTSD may be ‘stuck’ in chronic stress mode. Their mind believes that the threat is still present, which means their ‘fight or flight’ response stays switched on. Their body is therefore bombarded with the hormones associated with fight or flight response, which can be both physically and mentally draining.
How Is The Immune System Affected By Stress?
Your immune system is your body’s first line of defense against invading bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. Your organs, tissues, cells and cell products that all work together to fight harmful substances and protect you from getting sick.
Stress can affect your immune system in two ways:
- By creating chronic inflammation that harms tissues
- By suppressing immune cells needed to fight infection
How Stress Weakens The Immune System
Research has shown that those exposed to chronic social conflict experience high levels of stress and subsequent dysregulation of the immune system. This increases their vulnerability to infectious and autoimmune disease.
It appears that chronic stress can reduce our immune system’s ability to fight off antigens, the harmful invaders that can make us ill. This can make us more vulnerable to infections and disease.
Immune System Suppression
When you are stressed – that is, in ‘fight or flight’ mode – your body begins producing more of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol works to prepare your body to run away from the threat it thinks you’re facing. To do this, it suppresses the immune system by lowering amounts of a protein required for signaling other immune cells. This in turn results in a reduced number of immune cells known as lymphocytes (B cells and T cells).
Lymphocytes are a major component of the immune system, working to recognize harmful invaders and kill off antigens that would can cause disease. With fewer lymphocytes, the body is at increased risk of infection and disease, and more susceptible to contracting acute illnesses. The body also takes longer to heal from wounds and illnesses.
Ultimately, the immune system is considerably weakened, resulting in not only more infections but also potentially headaches, cardiovascular disease; diabetes, asthma, and gastric ulcers.
Cortisol is necessary to reduce inflammation in the body. This is a good thing – but only in the short-term. Over long periods of time, the body’s efforts to reduce inflammation end up suppressing the immune system. Chronic stress causes cortisol levels to keep rising, but over time it becomes much less effective in managing inflammation. Immune cells become insensitive to cortisol, allowing the immune system to become dysregulated and enabling runaway inflammation.
This unabated inflammation weakens the body’s defenses, increasing susceptibility to colds, flu, chronic disease, and even food allergies. Because much of the immune system is in the gut, the health of the gastrointestinal system also suffers, which in turn can increase the risk of autoimmune conditions such as Celiac Disease.
Remember, stress hormones are designed to provide short, intense chemical reactions in the body. They work to send the heart into overdrive, causing it to pump out blood two or three times faster than normal. Our pupils dilate, our breathing quickens and our whole mind is focused on getting away from the threat. At the same time, all other bodily process that aren’t needed to help us “run away” are temporarily shut down – digestion, sex drive and our immune system.
Long-term excess cortisol can therefore result in serious mental and physical damage. As well as increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and digestive problems, those suffering from chronic stress may experience anxiety, depression, and sleep problems.
Worse still are the ‘coping strategies’ someone may use to deal with the anxiety and depression they experience due to ongoing stress. Unhealthy behaviors such as drinking, drug use, and smoking are not uncommon.
How to Beat Stress and Restore Your Immune System
Overcoming stress is the first step in getting your immune system back in balance. While none of us can completely eliminate stress from our lives, there are lots of ways to minimize its impact on our mind and body.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that live in the gut and play a critical role in supporting your immune system. In fact, your gut is home to more than 70 percent your immune system cells. Different species work to activate the pathways involved with controlling both the innate and adaptive immunity in the gut. Research now shows that probiotics can enhance the immune response by activating important immune cells (macrophages, natural killer cells and T-cells) and helping with the release of strain-specific cytokines.
Improving the gut microbiota may be the key to building resistance to disease. The probiotic species best associated with boosting the immune system include Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, and Bifidobacterium animalis, among others.
The diaphragm is a big dome-shaped flap of muscle below the lungs. We’re supposed to use our diaphragm every time we breathe, but few of us do. Deep breathing exercises can help you to do that.
Using our diaphragm to breathe not only allows full oxygen exchange in the lungs, it pulls the brakes on the ‘fight or flight’ response. The hypothalamus realizes the threat has passed, and returns to ‘rest and digest’ mode. Taking time to focus on breathing from your diaphragm for just 20 minutes a day helps to enhance the heart, brain and immune system.
A regular exercise routine may be the simplest and most effective way to get your stress levels back in check. Whether you walk, run or lift weights, simply taking time out of your daily routine to do something physical can have numerous benefits for your adrenal glands. The stress hormones coursing through your bloodstream are diverted to helping you work out, reducing the burden on your body.
Exercise improves your ability to cope with stress, boosts resistance to infection, strengthens physical condition, and helps in fighting disease.
Less Stress Means Fewer Infections
It may seem easier said than done, but actively trying to reduce your stress levels could be the ‘health tonic’ your body needs. Many people find that chronic stress is the one thing that stands between them and optimal health, no matter how well they look after other areas of their lives.
Remember, the stress response often can’t be avoided: it’s an evolutionary mechanism that we simply have to manage. Chronic stress, however, can be managed! Instead of allowing it to wreak havoc on your body and deplete your immune system, you can take steps to minimize the time your body spends in ‘fight or flight’ mode. And while you’re at it, give your immune system a helping hand with a daily dose of probiotics!