Stress and Immune Health
We all know how stress feels but what does it really mean for the body? Let’s take a look at what stress actually does to your body, how it affects the immune system and some steps you can take to help manage stress.
Who is affected by stress?
A 2015 survey of over 1500 Australian adults, found that their reported stress levels were higher than in 2011 with 35% reporting that they experienced distress. The causes included finances, health and even trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Importantly nearly three quarters of people reported that stress was having an impact on their physical health.1 So, let’s consider if and how stress affects our bodies.
What is stress?
Stress is our physiological reaction to a perceived threat. When the brain senses a threat, it alerts the adrenal glands to release stress hormones. These hormones have a number of actions. They cause the heart to beat more rapidly, blood pressure to increase, and blood vessels to constrict sending more blood to the brain and muscles.
To increase our energy, stress also causes faster breathing which increases oxygen delivery to the muscles, and fats and sugars are released into the blood stream. This puts the body in a perfect position for a fast response should it be necessary. This stress response is helpful in the short-term as it enables you to face a difficult situation and keep you safe, you might have heard of it as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Problems arise though if the stress response is maintained over longer periods of time. Then it starts to pose a strain on the functioning of the body and can have a negative impact on overall health.
How does stress affect the immune system?
One of the systems that stress can impact is the immune system. This happens in a number of ways. Following stress, an inflammation response is triggered2, resulting in the release of a stress hormone, cortisol, which is anti-inflammatory. If the stress is maintained, it can lead to “fatigue” of this process decreasing the release of stress hormones and impacting the immune response.2 In addition, acute stress can influence the release of stress hormones that contribute to the increase of circulating immune cells (leukocytes) that counteract foreign substances as well as being anti-inflammatory. Again, chronic stress seems to affect this process. 2
Stress management to support immune health
If chronic stress is harmful to our bodies, is there a way to minimize the impact of stress? Unfortunately, we can’t just turn stress off like a tap but there is evidence that stress management strategies do have a positive impact on our stress response.
Incorporating a gentle yoga practice into your routine is a lovely way to promote relaxation.3 There is a myriad of different yoga practices to choose from that vary in style, form and intensity. Hatha or yin yoga may be particularly beneficial for stress management but find the method that works for you.
While yoga appears to be about the body, it’s mental counterpart, mindfulness, is fundamentally for relaxing the mind.4,5 Meditation and mindfulness practices can be used anywhere and at any time. Meditation doesn’t need to be a 20-minute practice; it can be as simple as closing your eyes and taking ten deep and intentional breaths to calm nerves. To reap the full benefits, we recommend a daily practice.
Movement and exercise are beneficial for stress-reduction, even if that looks like a stroll around the block.6 Aim for around 30 for 40 minutes of moderate exercise a day, or 15 to 20 minutes of high-intensity movement.
Of course, different techniques work for different individuals but trying to improve how we address stress can have a positive impact on our overall health.
2 Hansel, A et al (2010). Neurosci Biobehav Rev 2010; 35(1): 115-121
5 Black, D. S., & Slavich, G. M. Ann N Y Acad Sci 2016;1373(1):13-24