Is Stress Making You Sick?: How Stress Affects Your Immune System
Stress is discussed so vaguely and frequently with respect to negative health experiences that it can seem like a lazy answer to any “why is this happening?” health question. But it’s not. Stress is a consistent and significant player in your health.
The reason stress comes up so frequently is that nearly every cell in your body has receptors for stress hormones (chemicals released in response to stress – eg. epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol). When these chemicals are released in response to a stressor, either a physical or emotional threat, the cells of the body respond to activate different pathways and up- or down-regulate various functions. All this to say, stress produces many many different health effects.
One system that’s sensitive to stress hormones is the immune system, your body’s defense and repair system. Interestingly, your body’s immune response to stress depends largely on the duration of the stress.
Short term stress (lasting only minutes to hours) typically boosts immune function. And long term stress (lasting hours to months) typically down-regulates immune function and disrupts immune regulation.
Short term stress activates and mobilizes immune cells to be ready for potential “attacks” eg. wounds, infections, surgical procedures. Long term stress induces low-grade chronic inflammation, decreases immune cell numbers and readiness, and disrupts the safety mechanisms that prevent overactive immune reactions (eg. autoimmune conditions such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, or inappropriate responses like asthma or allergies). This means that chronic stress can make you more susceptible to infections, prolong wound healing timelines, and exacerbate autoimmune or allergic reactions. In addition, chronic stress results in shortened telomeres and impaired telomere repair, which is a fancy way of saying cells age faster and this predisposes you to chronic disease (eg. heart disease).
So, all stress can’t be lumped together as strictly “good” or “bad”. This is a great thing, because no one (no one!) has a stress-free life!
Good stresses have a short-duration with a rapid bodily response that resolves quickly and completely when the stressor has been dealt with. Bad stresses have a long duration (“chronic”) or occur repeatedly, and the bodily response persists long after the stressor has been dealt with. The amount of time between stressors is also important. “Resting Zones” during which there is little to no stress are beneficial and allow the body to recuperate between bouts of stress. The longer these resting zones are and the lower the stress during them, the better.
So, chronic stress has negative consequences for your immune health. How do you minimize those negative effects?
My approach is two-fold. It’s important to support the immune system itself, but it’s even more important to put the original fire out - minimizing your experience of stress and supporting your body’s stress responses is foundational.
This is certainly easier said than done. And it’s always a work in progress as your circumstances change day-to-day.
One of the best things you can do to limit or minimize stress is set clear boundaries in your work, social, and emotional life.
Outlets, or activities that refresh and rejuvenate you, are also tremendously important. Examples include: time spent in nature, meditation, yoga, fishing, art, deep breathing, and exercise. These increase the time you spend in the “resting zones”.
Fostering a strong support system of people you love and trust can also relieve feelings of overwhelm and stress, as well as help you feel connected. Sadly, loneliness is a common stressor.
SUPPORTING YOUR BODY’S STRESS RESPONSES
There are many different ways you can support your body’s stress response systems. Using multiple ways typically adds to the benefit.
Ensure adequate restful sleep. Ideally, you should sleep for approximately 8 hours per night and wake rested. If this isn’t happening, your reserves will quickly become depleted and the adrenal glands (which are big players in the stress response) really suffer.
Eat a diet rich in a variety of real whole foodsand low in sugar. This provides your body with the building blocks it needs to function at its best. Two specific nutrients that support both the immune system and your adrenals include:
Vitamin C – found in: leafy greens, sprouts, kiwis, tomatoes, citrus
Magnesium – found in: whole grains (oats, quinoa, brown rice), leafy greens, apricots, nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds)
Tonify your adrenal glands through high quality vitamin and mineral supplements or adrenal supporting (adaptogenic) herbs. Some of my favourite adrenal-supporting herbs are: Withania somnifera (Ashwagahdha), Rhodiola rosea (Rhodiola), Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice), and Schisandra chinensis (Schisandra). Remember, just because a product is “natural” doesn’t mean it comes without risk. It’s best to consult your healthcare provider about any health care products or major changes you are interested in making to ensure it’s safe for you.
Other treatment sessions such as: acupuncture or counsellingcan be fabulous tools as well.
For some tips on immune boosting, check out my post from a few months ago - here.
Dhabar, F. (2014). Effects of Stress on Immune Function: The Good, The Bad, and the Beautiful. Immunol Res 58: 193-210.
Gaby, AR. (2011). Nutritional Medicine. New Hampshire: Fritz Perlberg Publishing.
Morey et al. (2015). Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function. Curr Opin Pyschol. 5:13-17.
Yaribeygi et al. (2017). The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review. EXCLI Journal 16:1057-1072.