Stress & Your Immune System

Stressful events are a normal part of everyday life, however the type of stress response each individual experiences is unique. Both genetics and life experience play a part in determining the degree to which you are affected by stress, which can present itself in many forms and affect us in a variety of ways. Stress can develop from short-term challenges or become prolonged tension from either internal or external stressors. Either way, stress is experienced when life events or environmental demands exceed a person’s ability to cope. The emotional effects of stress are often obvious, but we are not always aware of the physical impact stress can have. When we experience stress, our bodies respond accordingly.

So, how does stress affect the body and immune response?

Experts suggest stress can have a positive effect on immunity. The body’s natural stress response to perceived threats causes the heart rate to increase, blood flow to improve and additional oxygen intake into the lungs. The brain releases key hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol in an effort to bolster immune readiness for short-term challenges.

A study spearheaded by Stanford University’s School of Medicine has found that the hormones triggered by short-term stressors are beneficial to the body through heightening responsiveness and thereby mobilizing the body’s resources. The fight-or-flight response to mild stress activates the release of hormones from the adrenal glands at different times and in varying amounts, resulting in a massive migration of immune cells to destinations such as the skin and other tissues. Adrenaline causes the heart rate to increase, elevates blood pressure and bolsters the body’s supply of energy while cortisol increases the level of glucose in the bloodstream and escalates the availability of chemicals that repair body tissue. The body’s stress response also suppresses non-essential functions, or those that are detrimental to a fight-or-flight situation.

The authors of the study suggest that the redistribution of cells stimulates and boosts the immune system and is crucial to preventing and fighting infection as well as healing wounds. This complex natural alarm in the body is usually self-limiting, with hormones returning to baseline levels and the overall system resuming its regular activities once a perceived threat has disappeared.

But, what happens when the immune system is on high alert all the time, and stressors are triggered too often?

The negative effects of chronic stress and its impact on the immune system are well-documented. Unrelenting stress can lead to continuous activation of the stress-response multiple times a day, resulting in perpetual heightened response and the persistent release of cortisol into the bloodstream. When stress becomes chronic, an unremitting suppression of immune system activity occurs and the body becomes less sensitive to cortisol, heightening inflammatory response, which decreases the body’s ability to fight pathogens and in turn promotes disease.

Because our immune system plays an important role in guarding the body against threats such as bacteria and viruses, any change in immune response which inhibits the body from undertaking essential functions can have a detrimental effect on health. Over time, ongoing suppression can leave us vulnerable to illnesses from common colds and flu, and more likely to develop chronic disease. Sufferers of chronic stress are at an increased risk of developing health problems including raised blood pressure, diabetes, vulnerability to anxiety and depression, and heart disease. Physical manifestations of stress may also appear as back pain, headaches, fatigue, weight gain, changes in sleep patterns, digestive issues and impairment of memory and concentration, to name a few.

So, how can we lessen the effects of stress?

How we handle stress matters. Learning healthy ways to cope and manage the impact of stress can be highly beneficial. Research suggests that exercise, talk therapy and relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga are effective measures for reducing stress and lessening mental load to calm the body.

During times of stress, we often defer healthy choices; forgoing sleep, a healthy diet or regular exercise. Better lifestyle choices every day and techniques such as journal writing, engaging in laughter and even deep breathing have been found to lessen the effects of stress.

Listening to or playing music reduces the level of cortisol secreted in the body and also aids the management of stress, according to researchers from McGill University, who have documented compelling evidence about the neurochemistry of music and its role in improving the body’s immune system function as well as promoting the reduction of stress.

Fostering healthy relationships and maintaining a supportive social network have also been found to boost immunity and facilitate management of life’s stressors.

Stress is cumulative. A range of environmental stressors coupled with emotional stress factors all conspire to weaken and compromise our immunity. Any additional morbid factor may tip the scales from a state of health to a state of disease. Electromagnetic radiation is an environmental stress factor that may significantly affect our immune system. Therefore, reducing electromagnetic radiation (EMR) exposure is essential especially in times heightened stress levels from other sources.

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