Stress Illness And The Immune System
By Dr. Saul McLeod updated 2010
The immune system is a collection of billions of cells that travel through the bloodstream. They move in and out of tissues and organs, defending the body against foreign bodies , such as bacteria, viruses and cancerous cells.
There are two types of lymphocytes:
B cells– produce antibodies which are released into the fluid surrounding the bodyâs cells to destroy the invading viruses and bacteria.
T cells – if the invader gets inside a cell, these lock on to the infected cell, multiply and destroy it.
The main types of immune cells are white blood cells. There are two types of white blood cells â lymphocytes and phagocytes.
When weâre stressed, the immune systemâs ability to fight off antigens is reduced. That is why we are more susceptible to infections.
The stress hormone corticosteroid can suppress the effectiveness of the immune system .
Stress can also have an indirect effect on the immune system as a person may use unhealthy behavioral coping strategies to reduce their stress, such as drinking and smoking.
Stress is linked to: headaches infectious illness cardiovascular disease diabetes, asthma and gastric ulcers.
What Impact Does Stress Have On You
Stress occurs when life events surpass your abilities to cope. It causes your body to produce greater levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
In short spurts, cortisol can boost your immunity by limiting inflammation. But over time, your body can get used to having too much cortisol in your blood. And this opens the door for more inflammation, Dr. Calabrese says.
In addition, stress decreases the bodys lymphocytes the white blood cells that help fight off infection. The lower your lymphocyte level, the more at risk you are for viruses, including the common cold and cold sores.
High stress levels also can cause depression and anxiety, again leading to higher levels of inflammation. In the long-term, sustained, high levels of inflammation point to an overworked, over-tired immune system that cant properly protect you.
Chronically Stressing A Caveman
What if the stress lasts for weeks, months or years? The stress adaptation response did not evolve to last for extended periods and, consequently, it cannot. This was first recognised in the 1930s by Hans Selye who described the three stages of the General Adaptation or Stress Syndrome. First there is the acute stress response in which the body prepares for fight or flight. But this level of excitement cannot be maintained so a second stage of adaptation occurs where the body becomes resistant to the stress. Finally, in chronic stress, the system enters a state of exhaustion and this fatigue of the immune system results in illness.
One theory in evolutionary psychology is that we have a Stone Age brain. This does not mean the brain has not evolved since the Stone Age, but that the brain has not evolved quickly enough for the modern world.
This may be true for the response to present-day stress. Many of todays life stressors that cause an emotion response in the amygdala do not require a physiological response to ensure survival of the individual. Considering this, it is not surprising that the stress adaptation response to chronic stress may not serve us well.
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Ways You May Not Have Realized Stress Affects Your Body
Whenever you start feeling not like your usual self, it can be maddening to figure out the root of the problem. Is it a viral infection? Is it a bug going around the community? Is it poor sleeping habits? Am I just getting old? These are some of the common issues that may ruminate in your mind.
Sometimes, none of those questions apply. Instead, stress is the culprit. Yes, the same stress you deal with when completing daily tasks can also affect your body in ways you never realized. Well highlight some common areas that stress can directly or indirectly impact, as well as how stress can affect your immune system.
Stress And Immune Function
Stress and Immune Function
Short term suppression of the immune system is not dangerous. However, chronic suppression leaves the body vulnerable to infection and disease.
A current example of this is AIDS . Here the immune system is suppressed leaving the vulnerable to illness. Stress would just lead to frequent illness and infections.
Stress responses increase strain upon circulatory system due to increased heart rate etc. This may increase a personâs risk of developing disorders of the heart and circulation e.g. coronary heart disease . Individuals with type A personality have a greater risk of developing CHD.
Stress responses have an effect on digestive system. During stress digestion is inhibited. After stress digestive activity increases. This may affect the health of digestive system and cause gastric ulcers
The executive monkey study by Brady seems to support this theory.
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Stress And Metabolic Disease
Type-2 diabetes mellitus is a chronic metabolic disorder that results from defects in insulin secretion and insulin action . Though limited, an emerging body of literature suggests that stress plays a role in the etiology of T2DM, both as a predictor of new-onset T2DM and as a prognostic factor in individuals with existing T2DM . Stress-related biological pathways, including chronic activation of the HPA axis, which can lead to dysregulated cortisol output and neuroendocrine dysfunction, have been conjectured to contribute to the pathogenesis of T2DM . For instance, insulin resistance frequently develops during acute or chronic stress . Moreover, obesity commonly co-occurs in patients with T2DM, and visceral adipose tissue is a major source of inflammation, including CRP, IL-1 and IL-6 , supporting a link between T2DM and inflammation.
Box: Guide To Some Immunological Parameters Related To Stress
Antibodies: Proteins produced by immune cells that can bind to pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Bound pathogens are inactivated or marked for killing by other immune cells.
Autoimmune disease: Caused when the immune system misidentifies self tissue as foreign and mounts an attack against it. Examples include rheumatoid arthritis , lupus, and multiple sclerosis .
C-reactive protein : A downstream product of pro-inflammatory signaling and marker of systemic inflammation.
Cell-mediated immunity: The arm of the immune system that protects against pathogens residing inside cells and other sick cells such as cancer cells.
Cortisol: A steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland with broad metabolic effects, including suppression of some facets of the immune system.
Cytokines: Proteins that coordinate immune responses. Examples include interleukins . Some cytokines, such as IL-5 and IL-10, primarily control and contain immune responses. Others, such as IL-6 and tumor necrosis factor- , induce inflammation.
Inflammation: Local inflammation is a part of the healing process that includes accumulation of immune cells, anti-pathogen activity, and initiation of tissue repair. Chronic, systemic inflammation, in contrast, can promote tissue damage across a number of systems.
Neutrophils: The first cells to infiltrate damaged or infected tissue and effect an inflammatory response.
Telomeres: The protective caps on the end of chromosomes that prevent deterioration.
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Immune System And Age
As we age, our immune response capability becomes reduced, which in turn contributes to more infections and more cancer. As life expectancy in developed countries has increased, so too has the incidence of age-related conditions.
While some people age healthily, the conclusion of many studies is that, compared with younger people, the elderly are more likely to contract infectious diseases and, even more importantly, more likely to die from them. Respiratory infections, including, influenza, the COVID-19 virus and particularly pneumonia are a leading cause of death in people over 65 worldwide. No one knows for sure why this happens, but some scientists observe that this increased risk correlates with a decrease in T cells, possibly from the thymus atrophying with age and producing fewer T cells to fight off infection. Whether this decrease in thymus function explains the drop in T cells or whether other changes play a role is not fully understood. Others are interested in whether the bone marrow becomes less efficient at producing the stem cells that give rise to the cells of the immune system.
How Can Stress Affect My Brain
Stress can play a huge role in affecting the brain. As studies have shown the brain is the primary organ to stress reactivity, coping, and the recovery process that the body went through. The brain is part of the central nervous system and it distributes a neural circuitry signal to determine what is threatening the body and how stressful is it to the individual. When this is happening constantly, repeated stress will affect brain function, especially on the hippocampus. With high concentrations of cortisol and NMDA receptors participating it can cause a problem to verbal memory and memory context, while also causing an impairment. This will decrease the reliability and accuracy of contextual memories. Other factors of how stress can affect the brain include:
- Damages may exacerbate stress by preventing access to the information that is needed to decide that a situation is not a threat
- Regulating the stress response and acts to inhibit the response of the HPA axis to stress
- The hippocampus alterations in both structure and function have been identified in long term stress
- Volume loss demonstrated in PTSD, depression, Cushings syndrome
- Functional changes include reduction in hippocampal excitability, long-term potentiation, and memory.
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Make Time For Relationships
During stressful times, you may feel the urge to step back and avoid socializing. However, this is the time reaching out to the people you love means the most. It is especially important to stay connected during the pandemic.
Your social support system can help you cope with life problems by improving your self-esteem. Take some time for a video-chat date with a friend, attend an online gathering or give a family member a call.
Stress And Immune System Function
Stress can reduce the number of natural killer cells or lymphocytes in the body, which are needed to fight viruses, according to the American Psychological Association.
A review of studies in Current Opinion in Psychology found that stress can cause the immune system to produce an inflammatory response, which can be temporarily beneficial for fighting germs. However, if inflammation is persistent and widespread, it can contribute to chronic diseases, including the buildup of plaque on your arterial walls. This is just one of the many factors at play in the complex relationship between stress and your heart.
Chronic stress can produce higher-than-normal levels of the hormonecortisol. This can hamper the bodys anti-inflammatory response and cause continual infections, according to recent immunology research studies.
If youre dealing with stress you cant seem to shake, take time to identify the sources and find ways to avoid or cope with them. Youll be doing your immune system and healtha favor.
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From Cancer To Colds Were Better Able To Fight Disease When We Arent Constantly Worried
When were stressed out, our bodys internal chemistry changes. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone alongside adrenaline and norepinephrine, surges. As a result, blood sugar levels increase and more of that glucose is allocated to the brain.
Thats good the chain reaction helps our bodies in the so-called fight-or-flight response, which has a deep evolutionary history and dwells within us even today. When potential predators were around, our ancient ancestors needed that extra boost to figure out whether to take them on or run away. Nowadays, the same biochemical responses spring into action to help us react quickly when were under pressure.
Our bodies, however, no longer only do this when were seriously threatened.The same processes are triggered when were late for work or arguing with family members. And after dealing with a pandemic for over a year, many more Americans are becoming acquainted with prolonged psychological stress, according to the American Psychological Association’s latest Stress in America poll. Often times, our response to this stress can be more harmful than helpful.
We know that the immune system is capable of looking at these proteins and reacting, says Willem van Eden, an immunologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Protracted exposure to higher levels of stress hormones comes along with myriad side effects within the immune system.
Natural Remedies For Lowering Stress
There are many ways to lower stress levels that are affecting the body naturally. Some individuals find hobbies that they want to partake in. Others would go exercise to relieve the stress by going hard and feeling relief after a good session. Or for those that are suffering from mental stress, mediation is great to make the mind clear and relax the body. Some of the natural remedies that can help lower stress are certain vitamins and minerals that can not only dampen the effects of stress but also boost the bodys own immunity so that way the body can feel good. These include some of the following:
- Vitamin C
- Improves cardiac contractibility which alleviates oxygenation of the heart
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And This Is The Point
Too much cortisol courses through your system putting pressure on virtually every cell in your body. Whatever your genetic weaknesses are and your bad habits over a lifetime have been will determine which part of you starts to break down first. Contemporary stress is mostly mental, not physical, requiring mental solutions not physical attacks or retreats. â
Since its inappropriate to punch someone out or to run away from them you have to slam on the brakes of your fight/flight energy. We dont use up our stress energy by fighting or fleeing as our ancestors did. We sit and stew with stress hormones circulating throughout our bodies. And we add insult to injury by not exercising on a regular basis. Drip, drip, drip.Its the ongoing nature of chronic stress when stress keeps your body on high alert month after month thats the main cause of stress-related health problems.
Which stressors are you spending your vital energy on? A difficult boss? Financial stress? Coping with change? Who pushes your buttons? Certainly, some of these are worth your energy, while others are not so its vital to pick and choose your battles.â
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Can Sleep Deprivation Make You Sick
Sleep deprivation has wide-ranging health effects, and mounting evidence indicates that it can disrupt the immune system and make it easier for you to get sick.
A lack of nightly sleep has been connected to both short-term illnesses and the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart problems. Researchers increasingly believe that this is tied to how sleep deprivation interferes with the normal functioning of the immune system.
In the short-term, the risk of infections has been found to be higher in people who sleep less than six or seven hours per night. Studies have found that insufficient sleep makes it more likely to catch the common cold or the flu. In addition, people in intensive care units who have acute recovery needs may have their healing hampered by a lack of sleep.
Lack of sleep has been connected to multiple long-term health problems, and this is believed to be related to the negative effects of sleep deprivation on the immune system. In people with healthy sleep, inflammation during the night recedes back to a normal level before waking up. In people who dont get enough sleep, though, this normally self-regulating system fails, and inflammation persists.
Unfortunately, while some people manage to get through the day on limited sleep, studies indicate that the immune system does not learn how to get used to insufficient sleep. Instead, this low-grade inflammation can become chronic, further worsening long-term health.
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How Stress Affects Your Physical Health
Stress has no shortage of effects on your physical health too. What are the common physical signs of stress? Some of the most common are lack of sleep, weight gain, and drug, alcohol, or tobacco abuse. But they can also range all the way to less noticeable issues like effects on the heart, immune system, metabolism, and your bodys hormones. So its important to notice these effects and take action as soon as possible.
Recognize Your Power To Choose
You may not be able to control everything that happens in your world, but you can choose how you respond. Re-framing your perception of problems or perceived threats into challenges you have to ability to overcome makes a big difference.
Knowing I can choose which thoughts stay in my heador which environments I put myself inmakes me feel powerful rather than helpless.
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Healthy Ways To Strengthen Your Immune System
Your first line of defense is to choose a healthy lifestyle. Following general good-health guidelines is the single best step you can take toward naturally keeping your immune system working properly. Every part of your body, including your immune system, functions better when protected from environmental assaults and bolstered by healthy-living strategies such as these:
- Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables.
- Exercise regularly.
- If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation.
- Get adequate sleep.
- Take steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently and cooking meats thoroughly.
- Try to minimize stress.
- Keep current with all recommended vaccines. Vaccines prime your immune system to fight off infections before they take hold in your body.
How Can You Better Manage Your Stress Levels
Stress reduction strategies not only give your mind a break, but they can also relieve the pressure on your immune system. You can take steps to reduce short-term and long-term stress, Dr. Calabrese says. Two tactics are most effective:
Stress in acute situations, however, can be healthful and protective, so its not all bad for us. Remember: its chronic stress that we seek to control.
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