How does stress affect our immune system?
6 ways to manage stress and strengthen our immune system during this health crisis
Our immune system is the body’s first line of defense against pathogens, viruses, bacteria, parasites, fungi and other germs. Now, more than ever, we need to make sure that our immunity is geared up to ward off illness.
It is with no sense of irony that at a time when we are most worried about getting sick, we are experiencing the most stressful health crisis in modern history. This is certainly a double-whammy since prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization has been quoted as designating stress as the “health epidemic of the 21st Century.”
A recent international study in Globalization and Health found that 29.6% of the population experienced stress due to the coronavirus. The study concluded that not only does COVID-19 cause physical health concerns, it can also result in a number of psychological disorders.
A coronavirus-related survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that nearly half of parents (46%) rated their stress level as high (between 8 and 10 on a 10-point scale, where 10 means “a great deal of stress”).
Why should we care so much about stress?
According to the APA, long-term or chronic stress can ravage the immune system. So, of course, we want to be proactive in building resistance against chronic stress. But, before we dive into chronic stress, let’s look at healthy versus unhealthy stress, as described by the APA. In the big picture, people experience three types of stress:
- Episodic acute stress: This is a regular mini-crisis in which we live in a state of tension. The symptoms are similar to acute stress, but occur more often and accumulate. If mismanaged, episodic acute stress can contribute to serious illnesses, such as clinical depression or heart disease. This type of stress includes feeling overtaxed at work for a finite period, enduring ongoing pressure during final-exam week or experiencing a family crisis.
- Acute stress: This pressure appears for a short time, usually in response to a real or perceived immediate threat, and subsides when the stress eases. Instances of these situations include being late for an important meeting, encountering a dangerous animal during a hike or having a fight with a partner.
- Chronic stress: The grinding stress that wears us down over time, chronic stress is the most harmful. The APA warns that if chronic stress is left untreated, it can significantly and often irreversibly damage physical health and deteriorate mental health. The stress of performing in a high-pressure job, the intense nervousness about extended health problems and emotional distress about long-term family issues are all examples of chronic stress.
Cortisol: the “good, the bad and the ugly” stress hormone
When we are stressed, our bodies naturally produce the hormone cortisol to activate our stress response to help us cope with the situation. However, with chronic stress, our systems stay revved up and on high alert. When chronic stress makes us unable to balance cortisol and put the brakes on other responses, stress can contribute to health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. And, stress lowers the functioning of the immune system by suppressing the body’s production of protective cells and antibodies, leaving the body more vulnerable.
Therefore, reducing high chronic stress, maintaining healthy habits and taking supplements for stress management may contribute to a stronger immune system. This is also key because a 3-year stress study found that when a stressor becomes more chronic, more components of the immune system are affected in a potentially detrimental way.
6 tips to decrease stress to support the immune system
The APA says that emerging evidence traces the pathways of the mind-body interaction, emphasizing that people’s health can benefit from conscientious stress management.
Here are six ways to lower the pressure during anxious times, as curated from numerous sources:
- Maintain social ties: Getting creative to keep relationships strong may indirectly strengthen immunity because friends can encourage good health behaviors and good friends help buffer the stress of negative events.
- Practice relaxation techniques: These methods have been shown to significantly improve students’ immune function during exams.
- Get plenty of sleep: Sleep is vital to health and well-being. A 2018 study showed that professional workers need adequate sleep to manage stress. Lack of sleep is associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression, reduced cognitive performance and deterioration in judgement capacity, as reported in PLoS One.
- Remain physically active: The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says, “Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins—chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers.” Physical activity also boosts brain health.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet: If you’re stuck at home, explore new nutritious recipes or choose healthier options from the take-out menu. Find the balance between overindulgence and deprivation.
- Take the right supplements: If your body is deficient in nutrients, revitalize it with vitamins. Take a supplement for stress management that helps normalize cortisol levels and has been clinically proven to reduce high social and psychological stress. The medical journal, Stress, highlights a brain-health formula that takes action on the body’s core stress system to lower the physiological stress response to mental and emotional stressors. When stress is neutralized, it can promote immune function and lower anxiety, among other benefits.
It’s not just the immune system that suffers from effects related to stress
Stress manifests itself in many forms, and the Mayo Clinic has identified its most prevalent effects. Stress can cause headaches, muscle tension/pain, chest pain, fatigue, change in sex drive, upset stomach or sleep problems. People under stress can see the impact on their mood, causing anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation or focus, feelings of being overwhelmed, irritability, anger, sadness or depression. Stress can change behavior, with telltale signs being overeating, angry outbursts, drug or alcohol misuse, tobacco use, social withdrawal or exercise reduction.
Put a halt to stress to help keep physical defenses high
There are numerous ways to keep stress in check to support your immune system. Designating time for personal hobbies, maintaining a routine, staying mentally focused and especially, keeping a sense of humor, can help you navigate out of a stress cycle.
The last thing we need right now is to risk vulnerability to illness. So, tone down the stress to help tune up your immune system.