Stress, Anxiety, & Poor Immunity: How to Avoid Getting Sick
Stress is one of the most common causes of low immunity.
One of the many roles of the body’s stress hormone, cortisol, is to inhibit the immune system.
The idea is that by turning off systems that are not immediately necessary for dealing with the stressful situation (such as the immune system), we can divert energy to other parts of the body that we need at the moment (like our muscles or brain).
Periodic bursts of stress are not a problem. Once the stress is over, the immune system returns to normal before we have a chance to get sick.
But when we’re stressed for long periods of time, our immune system may not come back online soon enough to deal with an invading virus or bacteria.
In this article, we’ll cover how stress affects immunity, and what you can do to keep stress levels at a minimum.
What Happens When We’re “Stressed”?
Stress begins with a trigger — such as coming face to face with a hungry animal, experiencing pressure at work to perform at a higher level, or getting rear-ended on your way to work.
All of these triggers activate a region in the brain called the hypothalamus — which acts as the control centre for the body.
The hypothalamus perceives the stress trigger, and with the help of the pituitary gland, it sends a message to the adrenal glands to start releasing cortisol into the blood.
Cortisol (and related corticosteroids) are what cause the reaction we feel when we’re stressed.
Cortisol causes heart rate to increase and blood vessels to tighten (increasing blood pressure). It also tells the liver to release more sugar into the blood (from glycogen) and forces body systems that are considered “non-essential” to temporarily shut down until the crisis is averted.
All of these changes are intended to give the body a boost to get through the stressful event successfully. It helps us either fight off danger or run away to safety.
When Stress Becomes Unhealthy
In today’s world, the type of stress triggers we experience can’t always be fixed by fighting or running away. Financial distress, relationship struggles, or work pressure continue to activate this response long term.
As a result, we remain in an activated “stressed” state for much longer periods of time.
Heart rate and blood pressure remain high, blood glucose levels become imbalanced, digestive processes slow, and our immune system remains inhibited.
Chronic Stress & Immunity
Short-term stress has little effect on the immune system — but long-term, persistent stress and anxiety can have a dramatic impact on our ability to resist infection.
Key immune cells tasked with identifying and attacking infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, or other antigens include the T-cells, Natural Killer (NK) cells, and B-cells.
All three of these key hormones are inhibited by the effects of cortisol and other corticosteroids.
T-cells are like the soldiers of the immune system. They’re constantly searching for particles in the blood that have been identified as “the enemy” and attack them relentlessly.
The B-cells work to gather “intel” for the immune system. They produce antibodies that are specifically made to find and attach themselves to infectious agents. When they attach themselves to the target, they can either flag down the T-cells or NK cells, or destroy it directly.
The NK cells are like the assassins. They search for cells that have been infected with a virus or abnormal cells like cancer. Once found they lock on target and destroy these cells on the spot.
If these immune cells are inhibited or slowed down in any way, it can make it much more difficult to resist infection.
If a virus or bacteria begin infecting the body, it’s important for the immune system to react quickly. If the infectious agents are destroyed right away, we likely won’t even know we were infected, to begin with.
However, if the immune system is sluggish or slow to respond as a result of chronic stress — the infectious agents are given enough time to grow and develop into a much bigger problem. By the time the immune system is notified, the problem could already be too large, and we’ll end up getting sick.
Four Stress-Relief Supplements To Support Immune Health
Health supplements are a great way to resist chronic stress and keep immune function at its prime. These supplements work best when combined with other lifestyle and dietary changes.
This includes taking measures to avoid the underlying cause of your stress (such as finding a new job or visiting a counsellor), eating a well-balanced diet (avoid high-sugar or processed foods), exercising regularly, and practising de-stressing techniques like yoga or meditation.
When it comes to taking health supplements, here are a few great options to consider:
Rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb found growing in some of the most inhospitable environments on earth.
An adaptogen is a class of herb or nutrient that works to improve the body’s ability to resist and respond to stress. Rhodiola achieves this by increasing the sensitivity of the hypothalamus to cortisol.
This helps the hypothalamus maintain more control over the amount of cortisol released by the adrenals and leads to an overall reduction in stress levels.
This supplement is popular among students who use it to reduce stress and anxiety while studying for exams.
L-theanine is very safe and can be used on a daily basis over long periods of time.
Pterostilbene works to reduce stress by indirectly triggering a stress response. This process is called “hormesis”.
Reducing stress by causing stress may sound counterintuitive, but there’s a lot of research to back it up. Other supplements, such as resveratrol, use the same mechanism to exert its benefits.
Hormesis involves a type of trigger that results in a much bigger “anti-stress” response by the body. Stress levels go up initially, but the body’s response to the stress quickly results in a reversal of these effects.
This supplement is best used on a daily basis, first thing in the morning.
Ashwagandha is a traditional adrenal tonic herb most commonly used in the ayurvedic medical system. Over the last few years, ashwagandha has become popular in the West for its ability to resist stress and promote a more relaxed state.
Like rhodiola, ashwagandha is classified as an adaptogen, useful for buffering the stress response and making it easier to resist the negative effects stress has on the body.
Final Thoughts: Why Keeping Stress Levels Down Can Reduce Your Chances of Infection
Stress can dramatically affect your ability to identify and resist infection from viruses, bacteria, or fungi. Learning to keep your stress levels at a minimum can go a long way towards staying healthy.
Taking steps to mitigate the source of your stress, practising stress-reduction techniques like meditation or yoga, exercising daily, eating a healthy diet, and using supplements to help with stress levels are all helpful for avoiding the consequences of chronic stress.