Stress and Immune Function

In Blog, Health, Podcasts by Wendy Christien

Many people experience stress, but not all stress is bad. Chronic stress, however, can increase our risk for stress related diseases like heart disease, depression or anxiety. Stress also lowers our immunity making us more susceptible to infections.

Some stressful events that we face include:

  • Work pressure
  • Financial issues
  • Health concerns
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Poor nutrition
  • Media overload
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Death of loved ones
  • Isolation

Stress has a direct impact on how our immune systems cope with viral, bacterial, and other infections and can drastically influence how our bodies respond to disease.

Stress can even influence how sick we will get and how long it will take for our bodies to recover. 

Chronic stress creates a vicious cycle of survival. Usually, our good intentions to eat well go out of the window as we replace healthy foods with convenient or fast foods to accommodate our lifestyles, we spend more time vegging on the couch and not enough time outdoors moving our bodies, and we work longer hours in artificially lit buildings that don’t have a lot of fresh air circulating through them. We survive to work and not work to survive.

Our bodies can over-respond to stress, making us anxious, or we can be under-responsive which makes us tired. Many times, we can be a bit of both, but most people usually have one dominant default response.

The hypothalamus, which is situated in the brain, acts as a stress perceiver and is sensitive to stress, stimuli, and triggers in our environments. When a stressor comes along, the hypothalamus initiates a stress response, triggering the pituitary and adrenal glands to release stress hormones. This then triggers our fight or flight response which is necessary for us to be able to mobilize ourselves so that we can get away from the life-threatening event.

When all is calm again, the body goes back into its rest and digest phase where digestion, cell repair and other cellular functions take place.

If stress remains consistent, the body remains in the high alert fight or flight phase and so loses its ability to regulate inflammatory processes and immune function is decreased. This means we can find ourselves getting sick more often than we’d expect to. Recurrent bacterial infections are usually treated with antibiotics which can wipe out all the good bacteria in the gut along with the bad bacteria, which further compromises immune function.

It is vital that we learn to manage our stress levels better so that we can have stronger immune systems.

We can’t avoid all illnesses, but we can do our best to be as healthy as we can so that we have a fighting chance when we do get sick.

Healthy stress management tips include:

  • Getting regular exercise while you are healthy
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Eating a balanced, nourishing diet with lots of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, nuts and seeds, eggs, legumes, and healthy fats
  • Proper breathing. Deep breathing sends a message to the hypothalamus to say that all is ok and that the stress response does not need to be triggered, whereas shallow breathing sends a signal that the body is under stress
  • Spending time in nature
  • Laughing
  • Finding a creative outlet
  • Journaling
  • Reframing negative thoughts
  • Spending time with loved ones or special people
  • Creating boundaries – work, relationships, media etc.

Listen to my interview on Radio Cape Pulpit on 2 September 2021 to learn more. Listen to my next interview on Thursday at 7.45am