Stress And Immune System Health
We all know how stress feels but what does it really mean for the body? Let’s look at the effects of stress on the body, how it impacts the immune system and some steps you can take to help manage stress.
Who is affected by stress?
A 2015 survey of over 1,500 Australian adults, found that their reported stress levels were higher than in 2011 with 35% reporting that they experienced distress. The causes of stress 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. So, let’s consider how stress affects our bodies, and particularly the relationship between stress and the immune system.
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 the release of fats and sugars into the blood stream. This puts the body in the perfect position for a fast response should it be necessary. This stress response, often known as ‘fight or flight’, is helpful in the short-term as it enables you to face a difficult situation and keep you safe.
Problems arise however if the stress response is maintained over longer periods of time, as it puts a strain on the functioning of the body and has a negative impact on overall health.
How does stress affect the immune system?
Stress impacts all systems of the body. The immune system is affected by stress in a number of ways. Following stress, an inflammation response is triggered, resulting in the release of cortisol (known as the stress hormone), which supresses inflammation. If however the stress is maintained, it can lead to “fatigue” of this process which decreases the release of cortisol and impacts the immune response. In addition, as stress over-activates the immune system, it can disrupt the balance between inflammatory and anti-inflammatory processes within the body.. Again, chronic stress seems to affect this process. The effects of stress on the immune system aren’t something to be ignored and it’s worth taking steps to address this when we feel stress-induced symptoms kick in.
How can I boost my immune system when stressed?
If chronic stress is harmful to our bodies, is there a way to minimise the impact of stress, especially in light of the relationship between stress and immunity? Unfortunately, we can’t just turn stress off like a tap but there is evidence to suggest 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. 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, its 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 mindfulness practice.
Movement and exercise are also beneficial for stress-reduction, even if that looks like a stroll around the block. Aim for around 30 to 40 minutes of moderate exercise daily, 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 and support immune function.
- Australian Psychological Society. Stress and wellbeing in Australia survey 2015 https://psychology.org.au/getmedia/ae32e645-a4f0-4f7c-b3ce-dfd83237c281/stress-wellbeing-survey.pdf
- Hänsel A, Hong S, Cámara RJ, von Känel R. Inflammation as a psychophysiological biomarker in chronic psychosocial stress. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2010;35(1):115-121. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.12.012
- Pascoe MC, Thompson DR, Ski CF. Yoga, mindfulness-based stress reduction and stress-related physiological measures: A meta-analysis. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2017;86:152-168. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2017.08.008
- Pascoe MC, Thompson DR, Jenkins ZM, Ski CF. Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: Systematic review and meta-analysis. J Psychiatr Res. 2017;95:156-178. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2017.08.004
- Black DS, Slavich GM. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016;1373(1):13-24. doi:10.1111/nyas.12998
- Jackson, Erica M. Ph.D., FACSM. STRESS RELIEF: The Role of Exercise in Stress Management. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal 17(3):p 14-19, May/June 2013. | DOI: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e31828cb1c9