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!
Pauline Haughton says
I would like to publish this article. I think it is so true and very important for people to know just how important the implications of stress is and the many problems it can cause. A research recently done tells us that 90% of our illness and diseases are bought on by stress. Some people may say, ‘easy said than done’ but this is one of the reasons why exercising and taking things like ‘massage’ are important and should be programmed into our daily and weekly routine. It allows us another focus point and a channel to focus that type of energy into.
Fawne Hansen says
Absolutely! You’re welcome to reprint the article, please just include a link back to the original URL 🙂
This is a great article. My immune system at the moment seems to be very weak. I have not had a wart in years and now they are breaking out on my face neck, chest hands and I know it is because of trauma I am dealing with. Or not dealing very well with. I am taking extra zinc supplier daily, but to no avail. How do I stop my hourly worries?
Elsa Rodriguez says
Put your trust in God and totally relay on him . That’s helped me a lot ! Also prayer works just has well ..
Thanks for the article. It opened my eyes to why im constantly sick
‘research tells us that up to 90% of our illness and diseases are bought on by stress. ‘
Can any provide what and where this study was done, it would be useful to reference for a coaching client I am working with?
Fawne Hansen says
It could be this from the Harvard Mind/Body Institute:
“We now know that roughly 60% to 90% of doctor visits are for conditions related to stress.”
If I have my way, I would plea with the people of our world to change their attitudes towards love and relationship. People should stay true to their promise of love, be honest in relationships. Abuse of trust and affection in relationships causes a lot more stress than any other issue like work. Let’s stay true to love and be honest!
For two years now, I have been in emotional stress over someone I love that left me. It started with loss of appetite, then some months later, chronic fatigue, then tiny flat shiny rashes (dark skin) on my lower arms and legs. Lately, constant rumbling stomach, constipation (this have continued for more than 5 months now), chills, bubble noise in my nostril.
Please, I need an advice on how to ease this conditions.
Fawne Hansen says
Hi John, the best thing you can do is talk about it. Whether it’s with a psychologist or a trusted friend, discussing and sharing your emotional trauma will make it feel much more manageable.
This article was a great help with research I had to do for a Anatomy course. I learned things I never knew about the human body.
Aladekoye Kehinde says
Thanks for this article, it kind of answered my questions to how stress weakens the immune system. I love it.
Hi, can long term stress cause itchy rashes that come and go?
I’ve just had shingles and the first thing my doctor said was ‘get an HIV test’! Now I lost my very good job in January then my beloved mum in April. As if that wasn’t punishment enough, her sister followed her two months after. Being a single mum who just relocated back to Zambia after a twenty year stunt in England, the stress has been unbearable. Could stress have caused the shingles to flare up?
Fawne Hansen says
Yes absolutely. Stress doesn’t cause shingles directly, but it weakens the immune system and leaves you at a much higher risk of it flaring up.
Do you think it is possible to make our immune system strong again after close to 7 years of constant stress and PTSD.
I feel as though my body is totally down. N
Not able to fight off a virus.
Caregivers, like myself, are subjected to long term chronic stress, sometimes for decades. There often is nothing we can do to take care of ourselves, because of the crushing bureaucracy of our nation and its healthcare system. As the only family member & only POA for my parents, who both had Alzheimer’s, I struggled to find 4 hours/day to sleep. I missed all of my medical appointments for 2 years. Even when I finally ended up in the hospital, my dad’s nursing home called and insisted I needed to attend a medical appointment with him. There isn’t much I can do to help myself, but I still believe that knowledge is one or our best defenses against crisis and tragedy. I found myself looking for even 5 minutes of time to meditate or massage my dog. Articles like this one can literally be life savers.
Fawne Hansen says
Hi Calysta, you’re absolutely right that caregivers can be under tremendous amounts of physical and emotional stress. Here are a few tips that might be helpful – http://adrenalfatiguesolution.com/caregiver-stress/
Hi calysta…I took care of my father for years. He was blind, dementia, disabled etc…I also worked full time all those years. Then he passed and I was the trustree of his estate. It has been a year and 2 mos and the hardest thing I ever did, all while continuing to work full time. I finally fell completely apart, I had lost about 30 lbs..but not a good weight loss. Lost all my muscle mass, am week, depressed,have anxiety and many other issues. I have been off work for 2 mos now and hoping I will get better.
Finally going to doc after about 6 yrs and all kinds of health issues are arising. I hope you take care of your self and please do whatever you can do to get sleep. That is when your body heals…please don’t end up like me.
To all you care takers out there please take care of yourselves…
This article is really a life saver. I am under severe anxiety who is having panic attacks every day on long term about 3months by now just because of thinking too much about infection of hiv. 84 days after my exposure i have found a mild shingles under my chest. I am extremely worried that these shingles are hiv symptoms. According to long term anxiety can make the immune system weak and the body can’t really response to the viruses. So, should i stop worrying about hiv symptom like rashes on the body and the shingles are definitely caused by long term anxiety only? Thanks for understanding. Appreciate your concerns
Fawne Hansen says
Stress can definitely lead to shingles. In your case it sounds fairly likely, but if you’re worried you should speak to your doctor to eliminate other possible causes.
Thanks Fawne, I actually came across this article doing research on my shingles. I wanted to know the physiology of stress weakening the immune system. This is my 2nd time having shingles in 1 year and I haven’t tested positive to any immunodeficiency disorders. I try to live a healthy lifestyle oh and I’ve also lost 20 lbs without trying this past year. I also had maybe 5 cold sores! Hsv1. I think it’s peculiar, really I know I have stress but I’ve been through worse… Also I’m a woman and I’m 23. I will value your opinion, thanks again!
Jo Roy says
Hi Sarah – I just found this article and reading the responses – I hope you have found some solutions to your problems – is not, I would suggest looking into the Epstein Barr Virus – it’s a human herpes virus – same family as the glandular fever / cold sore etc, most of us ‘have’ the virus but if your immune system goes down the virus will take the opportunity and ramp up. Its cyclic over 4 weeks, when it gets going there is swelling in the lymph, fatigue etc (can be confused with PMS for women). The EBV has been linked to many autoimmune diseases and cancers – so really good to check for it and get in under control – homeopathic nosodes are very effective at shutting it down.
I came across this article while trying to find/search for causes of my ill health which I have yet to get answers or diagnosed from my GP. Having experienced nearly every stressful life situations in such a short period of time, bereavement of both parents within 7mths, moving house under duress, lost my job, major house renovations, emergency surgery which led to infected wounds which required further surgery. I now find myself suffering every day with arthritis from my neck down to my feet, my mobility has dramatically reduced, depression, anxiety etc it feels like my body is falling apart, all within the last 2 yrs. It’s as if I’ve been asleep for years and my body has aged so much. It’s like every few weeks something else ‘breaks down’ most recently it’s been my salivary glands, which after investigation shows narrowing of the ducts due to inflammation. I’m now wondering all what is and has happened to my body is a result of the long term stresses that I experienced for over a long period of time. If so is it too late to amend or to stop before any more damage occurs.
Melody Ward says
Thanks for printing this article. I would like to share with my roommate so they can understand that my PTSD depression and anxiety are making Ill and greatly affecting my physical health as well. My white count stays high but it seems I’m always sick or catching something easier and keeping it longer than most.
I have been diagnosed with adrenal gland insufficiency by my endocrinologist after a special test which found I have a very low cortisol level. I had 9 sinus infections last year and parotid gland infections for two years. . I found this web site when I was trying to determine if the low cortisol level could cause my infections.
Johann Damasen Ntwali says
I have liked the information because it has enhanced my understanding of stress inline with immunological perception.
Dr. Mukesh D Jain says
Thanks Fawne, I actually came across this article doing search of info on Immunity and stress which is becoming most common health issues the world over. I feel lymphocytes are the heart of our immune apparatus and we must protect them at all cost and with all possible methods including immunity friendly diet and eliminating toxins/ antigens. Currently I am working on “auto-toxins” which are produced by our own metabolism, oxidative damage or stressful mental activity. We can explore plant based resources like Curcumin and withanoloids and combine it with Yogic breathing for lasting relief from immunological health issues.
I have ptsd and it has affected my immune system my wbc count remains high as a result of trama and abuaes at work and religious covered up slandered and when I got upset over this call me mental it happened at lutheran facility san simeon in southold and they refuse to amit to this so got no medical help so distresssing I tried to sue get no help and religious and tiwn retailated against me police will not allow me to write criminal complaint about those who did this to me it like a nigtmare
Brittany Katrina Makela says
Hey, I have a few questions relating stress causing your immune system to weaken. I know in the article it does express that being overly stressed causes the immune system to weaken. But I was wondering if the immune system weakening from that if it can develop back to being a healthy immune system? I have heard of some people getting monthly shots I believe, for their immune system. Is that true? What do these shots do?
Olusola Ayanniyi says
This is a great eye opener chronic stress must be avoided if we want to live a healthy life. We must learn to do the needful and work out the rest in way that will not be injurious to our health. Thank you very much for your article on stress and the immune system.
Thankyou , everyone, your words are most positive . X
Your words are most encouraging …. thought it was only me. X