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How Does Stress Impact Our Immune Systems?

A woman closes her eyes and clutches her forehead in stress.

In 2018, 55% of American adults reported feeling significant stress in their recent daily lives, compared to an average of 35% of adults throughout the rest of the world. Stress is not always a bad thing; it can serve an important function in the sense that it can help motivate you to finish tasks. However, when stress becomes so severe that it is a hindrance rather than a help, it is a problem that needs to be addressed. If not managed properly, long-term stress can have serious effects on our physical health, our mental health, and our immune system.

How Stress Works

Stress is often considered a purely psychological phenomenon, however, it can also have significant physiological effects. The stress response is triggered by your nervous system as a means of getting you through a difficult or high-stakes situation. The resulting activation of your nervous system triggers the release of hormones (notably adrenaline and cortisol), which, in turn, causes a wide array of physical effects, such as:

  • Faster heart rate;
  • Higher blood pressure;
  • Muscle tension.

When stress is chronic, these heightened bodily functions begin to take a toll on the body, causing everything from headaches to heart disease. One particularly concerning effect that stress can cause over time is a weakened immune system. 

How Does Stress Weaken the Immune System?

Stress raises your cortisol level and lowers your lymphocyte levels. Lymphocytes are white blood cells that play a key role in battling infections. Therefore, lower lymphocyte levels have a very direct, negative effect on the immune system. Cortisol, meanwhile, has many important functions in the immune system, but the important function in this context is its role in reducing inflammation.

The Effects of Cortisol on the Immune System

As stated, stress releases extra cortisol into your system. In the short-term, heightened levels of cortisol reduce inflammation and boost your immune system as a result. However, if you suffer from chronic stress your body may become accustomed to the additional cortisol and adjust. As a result, when your body is operating on normal levels of cortisol, you may suffer from inflammation, which can weaken your immune system. 

Stress-Related Diseases of the Immune System

A weakened immune system can make you more susceptible to sickness and disease in general. However, there are some long-term illnesses that are particularly associated with stress-based inflammation and immunodeficiency. These illnesses include:

  • Arthritis;
  • Lupus;
  • Psoriasis;
  • IBS;
  • Fibromyalgia or other forms of chronic pain.

Indirect Effects of Stress

In addition to the physical maladies discussed above, stress can prompt destructive coping behaviors, such as drug abuse. These coping mechanisms in turn can have their own negative psychological, social, and physical effects. For example, alcohol abuse can worsen depression, further weaken the immune system, and even cause several life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer and cirrhosis.

Stress can also interfere with your relationships and your daily life. Symptoms of chronic stress that may be cause for concern, include:

  • Irritability;
  • Agitation;
  • Mood swings;
  • Fatigue;
  • Insomnia;
  • Forgetfulness;
  • Poor judgment.

Signs of Low Immunity

A visit to the doctor will be necessary to conclusively determine whether or not your immune system is weakened. However, there are some tell-tale signs which may tip you off to the problem. Some signs of compromised immunity may include:

  • Chronic infections;
  • Frequent cold sores;
  • Persistent sickness;
  • Sore lymph glands.

How to Support Your Immune System

There are many ways you can manage anxiety and stress, including through life changes, therapy, medication, and/or using supplements to relieve anxiety.

Exercise

There is no hard data on how exercise may be linked to a strong immune system. However, the general assumption is that exercise supports the immune system by promoting overall health. Some more specific ideas about how exercise bolsters the immune system include the following theories, as listed by MedlinePlus.gov:

  • Exercise flushes bacteria out of your airways;
  • Accelerated circulation of antibodies boosts the immune system;
  • Higher temperatures create an inhospitable environment for bacteria;
  • Exercise boosts the immune system by reducing stress. 

Eat Healthy Foods

At the most basic level, healthy foods help support your immune system because they provide energy for your bodily functions to run on, and those functions include activities related to your immune system. Healthy eating may also improve the function of your immune system by reducing fat. 

Stay Hydrated

According to a report from the University of California, Irvine, proper hydration supports the immune system by facilitating the transport of nutrients through the bloodstream. And, as previously established, the immune system requires proper fuel from nutrients in order to function optimally. 

Take Anti-Inflammatory Supplements

As we have also covered, inflammation can inhibit your immune system. According to some users, anti-inflammatory supplements such as CBD oil or edibles may improve the function of the immune system. It is important to talk to your doctor when considering using supplements or other alternative/complementary remedies. 

While there are many steps you can take in your day-to-day life to improve your immune system, such as those discussed above, if you experience symptoms consistent with a weakened immune system, you should also discuss your concerns with your doctor.

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