The Immune Effects of Stress and How You Can Increase Your Resilience
Updated: Jul 1
How does stress affect the immune system?
When you're stressed, your adrenals produce cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. This hormone and these neurotransmitters put your body into “fight or flight” mode. If you're in a truly dangerous situation, this is helpful because it makes you alert to your surroundings, increases your heart rate, gets blood to your brain and muscles, oxygenates your body, and pushes sugar into your bloodstream so your muscles have fuel.
The immune system has mechanisms to keep this balanced yet responsive. Stress increases immune system activity, getting more immune cells and inflammatory proteins out into your body in case you get hurt and need them. Cortisol acts as an anti-inflammatory and can be helpful in short bursts, but when you're under long term stress for days or months on end, it can wreak havoc on your body.
Our immune cells are influenced by cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine. Under prolonged stress, the infection fighting immune cells are decreased in number and have lowered activity, making you more susceptible to infection. Other immune compounds that help boost and sustain immune activity are also decreased. Over time, your immune system becomes resistant to being controlled and you can end up with more inflammation, lowered protection and higher risk of reactivated infections and chronic diseases.
What can you do to manage stress in a healthy way?
It’s not realistic to think that you need to entirely get rid of stress from your life. You're always going to have stressful situations in your life, but you do have control in how you deal with them and on the impact it has on your physical and mental wellbeing.
Here are some ways that you can manage stress in a healthy way.
Stay connected - Right now, as we socially distance ourselves, it can be easy to feel disconnected from society and loved ones. Chronic stress can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness. It’s important to stay connected to others in whatever way that means for you. Fortunately, we live in a time where we can stay connected virtually through our phones and computers. Utilize calling, texting, forums, message boards, video chat and social media!
Find healthier ways to cope - It’s really common for people to turn to things like alcohol and unhealthy foods when they’re stressed. Observe how you’re coping and if you find yourself choosing unhealthy options. Sugar and alcohol can depress the number and activity of immune cells for a few hours after ingesting them so try to avoid these or keep them to a minimum.
Get active - Exercise can have many immune enhancing benefits. Breathing heavily during a workout removes harmful pathogens from your lungs and increased body temperature acts like a fever to prevent bacteria from reproducing. Immune cell activity and surveillance is increased so your white blood cells are able to circulate throughout your body more effectively and are able to better detect infection. Exercise is also one way to decrease cortisol production.
Practice mindfulness - Starting a yoga, meditation, or deep breathing practice right now is a great way to increase your resilience to stress. When you’re in chronic stress mode, your nervous system gets “stuck,” making it harder for you to relax and shift into a calmer, parasympathetic state. Doing activities like these help your nervous system reset and relax. I've recorded a 10 minute guided relaxation here or see video below. Or try apps like Calm or Headspace or look for free videos online.
Sleep well - When you don’t get enough sleep, your body produces less virus fighting T-cells and antibodies. In order for these cells to attack viruses, they need to come into contact with pathogens and stick to them. High levels of stress hormones prevent the T-cells from doing this. When you sleep, stress hormone levels decrease, allowing T- cells to do their job. So, if you don’t already, aim to get 7-8 hours per night. If you're having trouble falling asleep check out my posts about how to get a better night's sleep and how to practice sleep hygiene.
When you're stressed, your adrenals produce cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. This hormone and these neurotransmitters put your body into “fight or flight” mode. Cortisol acts as an anti-inflammatory and can be helpful in short bursts, but when you're under long term stress for days or months on end, it can wreak havoc on your body. Under prolonged stress, the infection fighting immune cells are decreased in number and have lowered activity, making you more susceptible to infection. Other immune compounds that help boost and sustain immune activity are also decreased. Over time, your immune system becomes resistant to being controlled and you can end up with more inflammation, lowered protection and higher risk of reactivated infections and chronic diseases. Ways to increase your stress resilience include finding staying socially connected, finding healthy ways to cope, staying active, practicing mindfulness, and sleeping well.
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