How Does Stress Affect the Immune System?
Understanding the Connection Between Stress and Immunity
If you’re into immune health, chances are you’ve heard that stress weakens the immune system. However, the truth is that the relationship between stress and the immune system is complicated — there’s good stress and there’s bad stress. Knowing the difference and how to respond is crucial to your immune health.
In order to fully understand the impacts of stress on the immune system, as well as how to manage stress in ways that support your immunity, we turned to immunologist and IMMUSE™ educational expert, Dr. Moday’s chapter on “Optimizing Your Stress” in her latest book, The Immunotype Breakthrough (2021).
The Body’s Stress Response
We’ve all experienced moments of “fight-or-flight” when your heartbeat quickens, palms sweat and muscles tense, giving you that anxious butterfly feeling in your stomach. As uncomfortable as it is, the body’s stress response is a survival mechanism that enables you to react quickly to life-threatening situations.
The instant your brain perceives danger, whether it be environmental or psychological, your sympathetic nervous system activates, triggering a cascade of hormonal changes and physiological responses in preparation to either fight or flee. When the threat goes away, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, activating a “relaxation response” that brings you and your hormone levels back into balance.
As Dr. Moday states in her book, the tricky part is that our body registers all stressors, including work, financial and family stress (just to name a few), in the same way as a real physical threat. “And when you add up all of these small stressors that are constantly triggering our fight-or-flight response, it leads to changes in our immune system and disease state.”
How Stress Affects the Immune System
According to the American Psychological Association, acute stress actually strengthens the immune system short-term, revving up your body’s natural defenses in case of injury or infection. Chronic stress, on the other hand, can cause too much wear and tear, weaking your immune system overtime.
“The reality is that the way stress affects our body comes down to how we perceive the stress, how intense it is, and how long we’ve been dealing with it. Unfortunately, our modern lives are the perfect recipe for constant activation of the stress response,” writes Dr. Moday. “If you think about it, it’s probably not really the stressor itself that’s doing the damage to our body; it’s our body’s sustained physical and hormonal reaction that causes changes to our immune system.”
When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands pump out cortisol, which can be helpful short-term, especially if you need a burst of energy to flee a dangerous situation. Cortisol, believe it or not, is also an anti-inflammatory, activating the body’s anti-inflammation response. Problems arise when the stress response is sustained for long periods of time, leading to higher-than-normal cortisol levels that can disrupt the immune system’s ability to respond to its own anti-inflammatory signals. In other words, chronic stress can result in too much inflammation, ultimately suppressing your immune system (chronic, systemic inflammation being a known precursor and agitator to many diseases).
Combat Stress for Stronger Immunity
“We can’t say stress is all ‘bad,’ because in certain situations it’s adaptive, necessary, and even positive. It all comes down to the chronicity, timing, and intensity of the stressor. And the way our brain perceives stress can change our biological response,” Dr. Moday explains in The Immunotype Breakthrough. “Some of us are genetically wired to withstand and deal with stress better, but it’s a skill that the rest of us can hone with practice.”
How you ask? By working to build resilience. Dr. Moday explains that there are a number of ways to build resilience (the ability to adapt well to challenges and adversities) and manage your body’s reaction to stressful events. Along with prioritizing sleep, Dr. Moday offers a number of interventions to help you handle stress and become more resilient.
(1) Create a daily mindfulness practice.
Research shows that regular mindfulness meditation reduces inflammation and strengthens immunity. Dr. Moday suggests starting with a simple body-scan, where you progressively relax each part of the body while lying down. Or try listening to a guided meditation from any number of meditation apps. If neither of those work, you might enjoy a walking meditation.
(2) Take a digital detox once a month.
One of Dr. Moday’s favorite was to decrease stress is to take a digital detox day once a month. Turn off all access to social media, news, emails and TV, and spend the day outside, reading a book, visiting a friend, cooking or anything else you might enjoy that doesn’t involve a screen.
(3) Monitor your thoughts.
Monitoring your thoughts can help reshape your reactions to various stressors. Dr. Moday suggests using a helpful cognitive behavioral therapy exercise called the Think-Feel-Act Cycle to interrupt those knee-jerk reactions in moments of high stress and think about and feel your emotions before acting.
(4) Get outside.
Studies have shown that spending time outdoors in nature not only lowers your stress levels, it also lowers your cortisol and increases joy. “Immersing yourself in nature has also been found to improve immune function,” Dr. Moday points out. “There are many ways to do this. You can take a walk in your local park, go to the beach, meander through a garden, or hike in a state park — focus on going anywhere you can escape from technology, traffic, and noise for a while and see something green!”
(5) Move your body daily.
Exercise is one of the best ways to turn down stress and build resilience. “Studies show that regular light and moderate aerobic exercise can decrease cortisol and adrenaline levels over time while increasing the release of pleasurable endorphins in the brain,” writes Dr. Moday. Start by taking a daily walk and see how you feel.
For more helpful, in-depth tips for managing stress, building resiliency and strengthening your immune system, check out Dr. Moday’s book, The Immunotype Breakthrough: Your Personalized Plan to Balance Your Immune System, Optimize Health, and Build Lifelong Resilience.
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