How Stress Affects the Immune System

Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

IN BRIEF

You have probably heard that stress can permeate every part of your life, and it's a likely bet that you have experienced it firsthand. Here is exactly what it does to your immune system.

Our day to day life is full of events that increase our stress, often to the point of affecting our health. There is a direct link between chronic stress and the immune system. Getting caught in traffic, a project due at work, and providing for our family are all stressors that impact our mental and physical well-being. 

Long ago, when we humans were hunter-gatherers, we dealt with daily stresses. Which berries are good to eat, which ones will kill you? Is that lion stalking or sleeping? Is that other human a potential mate or a threat? Can I fight this intruder or should I run away? These were life or death situations, but our brains were built to deal with the stress. Humans dealt with the roaring lion, and the struggles and challenges of life to come out of the events stronger, wiser, and better. 

Ironically, the types of stress we deal with today aren’t remotely as life-or-death focused as our ancestors faced, but it has a much more profound impact on our lives. How come more life-threatening stressors made us stronger in the prehistoric age, but modern stress leads to more dangerous consequences– illness, health issues, weakened immune system, and even death? 

Stress is all around us. There are good stressors, like exercise and pushing outside our comfort zones, and there is chronic stress which impacts our bodies and immune system in a negative way. 

This article helps us differentiate good and “bad” stress, how stress impacts our health, and ways we can reduce chronic stress and bring balance to the immune system.

Stress and the Immune System

The immune system helps defend us from illnesses caused by bacteria and viruses. It produces lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that either produces antibodies in the form of B cells to destroy viruses as they enter the body or T cells, which aid in eliminating infected cells. There are many ways we can assist the body in balancing the immune system to maintain optimal health. One of the best methods is balancing our stress and practicing healthy behavioral coping strategies. (1)

Research shows just how connected stress and the immune system are. As early as the 1980s, studies on college students showed immunity to illnesses were dramatically weakened during highly stressful times (such as final exams, or having projects and presentations due). Blood tests taken a month before final exams and then during finals week showed a dramatic difference in the production and efficiency of T cells. The students actually produced fewer lymphocytes during these events, and T cells weakened, unable to ward off infections. (1, 2)

Further research shows that the longer we are subjected to chronic stress, the more compromised and weaker our immune systems become. Other studies indicate that factors known to increase stress, such as lack of sleep, low social interactions, or depression also contribute to weaker immunity. (2)

Good Stress and Bad Stress

Not all stress is bad. In fact, some stress improves the overall health of the body and improves immune function. Even uncomfortable situations, such as the stress experienced while performing moderate exercise can be beneficial. It helps teach the body to respond to life events more appropriately. In these “good” stressful situations, the body releases hormones that increase the heart and breathing rates and prepare muscles to react. (3)

A 2012 study also showed how beneficial stress can be, even for the immune system, in small doses. Stress stimulates immune activity, like calling in the troops during a crisis, mobilizing all the body’s resources to respond to immediate threats. It’s biology’s way of helping us survive. (4) 

However, too much of a good thing is not always better. Without proper recovery time, overtraining can lead to chronic stress, which is problematic for anyone’s mental and physical well-being. This comes from an ever-vigilant stress response, when the stress level stays elevated for a long period of time. (3)

The very behavior that leads to better sleep, improved moods, and a balanced immune system can also lead to poor quality sleep, depression, and irritability, which impacts immune function. While the body and the brain are wonderful at adapting and using stress to mobilize healthy functions in the short-term (such as a lion roaring at us), they aren’t equipped to dealing with the stresses we encounter day in and day out, which is akin to the whole jungle roaring, screaming and shrieking at us all day every day. (5)

Chronic Stress and the Immune System

While small amounts of moderate stress help the immune system, over extended periods of time, the stress overstays its welcome and begins to weaken the body’s response to invasive viruses and bacteria. Chronic stress, which people define as prolonged or constant feeling of stress, causes more susceptibility to viral illnesses and other infections. The body doesn’t receive a signal that it’s clear to resume normal functions, so those lifesaving reactions disturb our livelihood– sleep, digestion, and of course, immune functions. This makes it difficult to fight off illness and recovery can take longer. (3, 5)

The continued strain on the body from stress can lead to further health problems, including cardiovascular illness, high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety. This also leads to the cycle of stress and the immune system function continuing in a downward spiral. (5)

Balancing the Immune System in an Age of High Stress

Stress isn’t something that happens to us, it’s the physical and mental reaction to events. One person caught in a traffic jam will respond differently than someone caught in the exact same situation. So, how can we take the jungle shrieking at us all day every day, and turn it into just one lion roaring at us at a time? (3)

Simple behaviors and habits can greatly improve our response to stress and balance our immune system. Getting enough rest, whether from nightly sleep or recovery from daily activities is paramount. If you struggle to find balance in your life, supplementation with a product such as Be Serene may greatly benefit you. It can do this in shifting how your mind perceives stress, allowing you to relax and unwind in a healthy and positive way, and aid your immune system in the process. Moderate exercise and eating a balanced diet can both improve stress levels too, and allow us to better respond to stressful situations. (5, 6)

Take back your health, physically and mentally. Deal with stress in a healthy and positive way, and create a healthy, positive balance in the body. Conquer the roaring lion along with every other aspect of your day and your life.

Sources

  1. https://www.simplypsychology.org/stress-immune.html
  2. https://www.apa.org/research/action/immune
  3. https://www.healthline.com/health/stress/effects-on-body#1
  4. https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2012/06/study-explains-how-stress-can-boost-immune-system.html
  5. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/publichealthissue/copingwith-stresstips.html

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About Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

Dr. Morgan is an expert in Functional and Integrative Medicine with a Strong Emphasis in stress related illnesses like anxiety and insomnia. In addition to his 20 years of work in Functional Medicine, he has expanded his practice to include work on the deeper aspects of our being that point to the root cause of our illnesses working with Mind Body Wellness, Energy Medicine, and Healing with Consciousness.
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