Stress and Your Immune System

Why stress is harming your immune system (and what you can do about it).

Feeling any stress of late?

If you’re human and living on the planet Earth, you likely are.

Whether it be from the challenges of figuring out how to find your new routine with working from home, negotiating the logistics of work with child care or education, worrying over finances, or wondering if you’re going to get sick or not – and if you do, how bad will it be…… These are a few of the many potential causes of stress in your life right now.

Stress can take many forms as well. There can be an acute stress, usually due to a specific event such as the death of a loved one or loss of a job or marriage. And there can be chronic stress that can go on over months and even years, such as an illness, work problems, relationship problems, or any of the acute stressors that don’t get dealt with.

Did you know that stress can impact your immune system’s ability to function properly?

This is not brand-new information. Over the last several decades, the field of Psychoneuroimmunology has been focused on understanding the relationship and interplay between our behavior and our nervous system, endocrine system, and immune system. In fact, it has catalyzed a whole area of medical practice known as “mind-body medicine”.

Here’s what happens when we experience stress:

A stress event occurs and it causes our brain to signal for the release “stuff” (hormones, neurotransmitters, and chemicals called neuropeptides) that can affect all the tissues and systems of our body. This helps us react appropriately to the stress. Then, in theory, when the stressor goes away, those substances get broken down and their levels go back to normal, allowing our systems return to balance. When we are under chronic stress or with repeated exposures to stressors, it can result in chronically elevated levels of these substances. Essentially, we lose that balance and the things that are designed to protect us can start to have negative effects.

One of the key players in this system is the steroid hormone cortisol, which comes from the adrenal glands that sit atop of the kidneys.

When we are under chronic stress or with repeated exposures to stressors, it can result in chronically elevated levels of cortisol and this can lead to many issues, including – raising our blood sugar, elevating our blood pressure, disrupting how our body utilizes protein, carbohydrates, and fat from our diet, creating weight gain, increasing inflammation, disrupting our sleep/wake cycle, creating menstrual problems in women and hormone imbalance in men, creating problems with digestion, and creating anxiety/depression and memory and concentration problems.

And excess cortisol can also impact our immune system’s ability to function effectively. This in turn can potentially leave us vulnerable to outside threats such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites, but also internal threats such as the initiation of cancer cell growth and replication.

Any of this sound familiar?

Now for some good news…… While these health issues can and do arise due to stress, they do not inevitably have to be the result we experience.

It is unavoidable that we are going to experience stress in our lives. They key is how we deal with it when it occurs – and to do our best to not allow it to become a chronic problem.

How do we accomplish this?

It starts with a simple thought – become aware that you are under stress when you are under stress. From there, you can make a choice to do something about it.

Here are some ideas:

  • Eat a healthy diet – avoid excess sugar, salt, caffeine, and alcohol and eat a balance of protein, low glycemic carbohydrates, and healthy fats
  • Exercise regularly – moving your body helps to dissipate the elevated cortisol that is in your system
  • Get out into nature – a recent study from Sweden found that parks and forests (and not urban environments) provided significant stress reduction for people. Interestingly, the best responses were tied to olfactory and not visual stimuli. This is because smell has a direct effect on the hypothalamus and in turn our adrenal glands. So, get out and smell some nature
  • Meditate – this helps to bring our body into a relaxed parasympathetic nervous state – the opposite of the sympathetic “fight or flight” response that kicks in when we are stressed.
  • Get adequate sleep – this is the time when your body rejuvenates and repairs itself from the wear and tear of daily life. If you aren’t sleeping well, do something about it, because not dealing with it will just compound the stress response and further challenge your ability to return to balance. There are many options available to address sleep dysfunction – please, get help if you need it
  • Consider increasing your intake of nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin B5, and magnesium to support adrenal function and healthy cortisol levels
  • Consider the use of “adaptogenic” herbs to help your body deal with stress and normalize and support adrenal function. There are many options of herbs that can help here, including Siberian Ginseng, Holy Basil, Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Schisandra, Maca, Cordyceps, Magnolia, and Reishi mushrooms. I highly recommend consulting with a knowledgeable practitioner when it comes to choosing herbs for this purpose, as they each have their own indications and nuances that would make them either appropriate or not for any given individual.

And here’s something else to consider – did you know that positive thoughts can support the immune system while negative ones can disrupt its function?

The adage “laughter is the best medicine” is absolutely true. Laughter activates the release of neurotransmitters, hormones, and neuropeptides than can be calming and relaxing. And, laughter is contagious – so it can help everyone around you to better manage their stress responses if they are laughing too.

No less an authority than The Mayo Clinic, in their article: “Stress relief from laughter? It’s no joke” sums up the long- and short-term physiological effects of laughter on the body.

So, while it might on the surface seem frivolous, I encourage you to read funny articles and books, watch funny movies and television shows or videos, make jokes – and share all of it with your loved ones. Do things that bring you joy and put a smile on your face. Your immune system will thank you for it!

Now more than ever, it’s become apparent that our existing medical system is simply not able to do much for us beyond taking care of symptoms and disease. And even then, doctors encounter things that they can’t adequately manage – such as what we are seeing right now with COVID-19.

It’s time for us to start focusing on WELLNESS and the things we can do to help IMPROVE our health so we don’t get sick in the first place. Recognizing what stress can do to our bodies and taking steps to mitigate those effects is a critical piece on the path to creating long term good health.

Would you like to know more about the effects of stress on your immune system and how that might be impacting your health? I’m offering remote telemedicine visits for new as well as established patients as well as 15-minute Discovery phone calls if you are new to the practice to help you learn more about how I might be able to help you.

CLICK HERE to contact me. I’d be happy to help get you started on your path to optimum health and wellness!

Dr. Steven Milkis

Green Lake Natural Medicine
5413 Meridian Ave N, Suite A
Seattle, WA 98103
Phone: (206) 550-7539
Fax: (206) 462-4320