Many people don't realize that their immune system is very closely linked to their stress levels. Today we’ll be talking about why and how stress can have such an impact on your immune system, as well as how to reduce stress and support the immune system.
Why Stress is the Enemy of Your Immune System
The immune system is the body's defence mechanism for keeping us protected and safe from the bad bacteria, germs and viruses which we inadvertently ingest. Good health is dependent on its proper functioning, and like so many other systems in the body it is prone to the adverse effects of stress.
The immune system of our body is poised, like a police force, to deal with these threatening invaders, swiftly and efficiently, to prevent them from damaging our health.
How Does Stress Weaken the Immune System
Studies have shown how long-term stress plays havoc with the immune system, raising the odds of catching a cold. Whilst stress alone cannot make us catch a cold or flu virus, what it does is it weakens the ability of the immunity system to respond to invaders, leaving us more vulnerable to the infection. Recovery is also liable to be slower since the immune system is suppressed in favor of dealing with stress.
The body's stress-response system should be self-limiting. Once the perceived threat has passed, adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, the heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities. However, when stressors and 'feeling under attack' remain constant, the fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on, over-exposing the body to cortisol and other stress hormones. The cells of the immune system (and other body systems) are unable to respond normally and produce levels of inflammation which increase the risk of further health issues.
Stress can also have an indirect effect on the immune system as we tend to resort to unhealthy coping strategies, such as smoking or drinking too much alcohol and/or caffeine, eating too much sugar and processed foods, not sleeping properly and giving up on exercise and healthy social activities.
Stress and Illness
• Stress responses have an effect on our digestive system. During stress, digestion is inhibited. After stress or when stress free digestive activity increases. This may affect the health of digestive system and cause ulcers. Adrenaline released during a stress response may also cause ulcers.
• Stress responses increase strain upon circulatory system due to increased heart rate etc. Stress can also affect the immune system by raising blood pressure.
• Stress also produces an increase in blood cholesterol levels, through the action of adrenaline and noradrenaline on the release of free fatty acids. This produces a clumping together of cholesterol particles, leading to clots in the blood and in the artery walls and occlusion of the arteries.
• A raised heart rate due to stress, is related to a more rapid build-up of cholesterol on artery walls. High blood pressure results in small lesions on the artery walls, and cholesterol tends to get trapped in these lesions.
Stress Reduction and Supporting the Immune System
The health of the immune system of a person is greatly impacted by their emotional state, level of stress, lifestyle, dietary habits and nutritional status; therefore, support in all these areas needs to be considered.
• Reduce and eliminate stress from your life, especially chronic stress –
Mood and attitude have a tremendous impact on our immune system. When we are happy and optimistic our immune system functions well. When we are negative and low in mood our immune function tends to be low too.
• Eat healthy foods –
Choose whole and natural foods, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, seeds, and nuts. Three good rules of thumb are:
1. Can you recognize it as having grown from a plant or grazed in a field?
2. Eat a rainbow - in other words include fruits and vegetables of all colors to maximize nutritional value. For e.g. dark greens; yellow and orange squash, carrots, and sweet potatoes; and red peppers and tomatoes. Also important for proper immune function, is the inclusion of the brassica family (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, cauliflower, kale, and greens from mustard, radish and turnip), flavonoid rich berries and garlic.
3. Limit refined sugars (known to weaken immunity), caffeine, alcohol and processed foods.
• Exercise –
Exercise is known to improve immune system health whilst at the same time releasing feel good endorphins and combating stats. Ideally we should include 30 minutes of aerobic exercise and 5 to 10 minutes of passive stretching daily whilst not forgetting daily deep breathing and relaxation exercises. People who exercise 30 to 45 minutes a day experience a 40% to 50% reduction in the number of days they get sick
• Lifestyle –
Take time each day to play, follow your hobbies and enjoy the company of family and friends.