Why stress is the enemy of your immune system

How does stress affect your immune system?

Stress and sleep | Cold and Flu

Sonia Chartier

20 February 2018

The immune system is the body’s defence mechanism: it keeps us protected and safe from the bacteria and viruses we inadvertently ingest. Good health depends on a properly functioning immune system, and like so many other systems in the body it is prone to the adverse effects of stress.

Much like a police force, the immune system is poised to deal with these threatening invaders swiftly and efficiently to prevent them from damaging our health.

Did you know?

Offices are perfect locations for the transmission of viruses. Cold viruses can survive on pens, computer keyboards, coffee mugs and other objects for hours, so it’s easy to come into contact with such viruses during daily life. Because we touch our noses approximately five times an hour, infected office workers tend to coat up to 40% of a room’s surface with viruses.

Every day, billions of banknotes are exchanged worldwide, making them a perfect vector for transmission. Influenza viruses can stay infectious on banknotes for up to 17 days!

How stress weakens the immune system

While stress alone doesn’t make us catch a cold or flu virus, it does weaken the immune system’s ability to respond to invaders, leaving us more vulnerable to infections. Recovery is also likely to be slower since the immune system is suppressed because it is dealing with stress.

The body’s stress-response system should be self-limiting. Once the perceived threat has passed, adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.

However, when stressors and “feeling under attack” remain constant, the fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on, overexposing the body to cortisol and other stress hormones. The cells of the immune system (and other body systems) are unable to respond normally and produce levels of inflammation which increase the risk of further health issues.

Stress can also have an indirect effect on the immune system as we tend to resort to unhealthy coping strategies, such as smoking or drinking too much caffeine and alcohol, eating too much sugar and processed foods, not sleeping properly and giving up on exercise and healthy social activities.

Clinical study

A study has shown how long-term stress wreaks havoc with the immune system, raising the odds of your catching a cold. Scientists in the U.S. questioned 176 men and women about difficult experiences they had been through in the past 12 months. Drops containing the common cold virus were then dripped into their nose, after which scientists checked if they caught the virus. Those who had been under stress were twice as likely to develop a cold. A second experiment confirmed that the inflammatory response feeds off stress.

How do I know if I have low immunity?

What do we mean by low immunity? Low immunity describes an immune system that is underactive and performing poorly and is therefore unable to protect us sufficiently against infection and disease. Signs that may indicate low immunity:

  • Do you catch colds easily?
  • Do you get more than two colds a year?
  • Are you suffering from chronic infection?
  • Do you get frequent cold sores?
  • Are your lymph glands sometimes sore and swollen?

Recurrent or chronic infections, even very mild colds, occur only when the immune system is weakened. Once immunity is weakened, a repetitive cycle is established, making it difficult to overcome the tendency to get infections: a weakened immune system allows the infection to take hold, the infection damages the immune system, which further weakens resistance.
Reducing stress and supporting the immune system are therefore key to reducing susceptibility to colds, flu and more serious diseases.

Stress reduction and supporting the immune system

Immune system health is greatly impacted by a person’s emotional state, stress levels, lifestyle, dietary habits and nutritional status. Consequently, support in all these areas needs to be considered.

Reduce and eliminate stress from your life, especially chronic stress. Mood and attitude have a tremendous impact on our immune system. When we are happy and optimistic our immune system functions well. When we are negative and feeling down, our immune function tends to be low too.

Wash your hands. Transferring germs from our hands to our mouth and nose is the quickest and easiest way for bugs to spread. To keep germs from even getting near your immune system, wash your hands regularly and try to avoid touching lots of public surfaces and shaking hands with bug-ridden companions!

Eat healthy foods. Choose whole, natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds and nuts. Two good questions to always ask are:

  1. Did it grow from a plant or graze in a field?
  2. Have I eaten my daily rainbow? In other words, make sure to include fruits and vegetables of all colours to maximize nutritional value, e.g. dark greens, yellow and orange squash, carrots and sweet potatoes, and red peppers and tomatoes. Also important for proper immune function is the inclusion of the brassica family (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale, as well as mustard, radish and turnip greens) and flavonoid-rich berries and garlic.

Limit refined sugars (known to weaken immunity), caffeine, alcohol and processed foods.

Exercise. Exercise is known to improve immune system health while also releasing feel-good endorphins and combating stress. Ideally, you should include 30 minutes of aerobic exercise and 5 to 10 minutes of passive stretching daily, remembering to do daily deep breathing and relaxation exercises.

“People who exercise 30 to 45 minutes a day experience a 40% to 50% reduction in the number of sick days,” says Dr. David C. Nieman, director of the Appalachian State University Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus.

Within minutes of starting your exercise routine, the levels of circulating white blood cells, natural killer cells and other sickness-fighting agents in your body increase, Nieman says. Likening them to the military’s special operations forces, he says these immune system warriors seek out and attack invading viruses and bacteria. The more active you are, the more active your immune system tends to be.

The key is to exercise regularly but not to overdo it, since too much intensity without adequate breaks will suppress immune function and increase stress. “In the week or two after running a marathon, we see infection rates doubling or even rising sixfold,” Nieman says.

Lifestyle. Take time each day to play, engage in your hobbies and enjoy the company of family and friends. Strange as this may seem, laughter is great for your immune function, boosting infection-fighting white blood cells and reducing the levels of stress hormones in the blood stream.

Echinacea. With hoards of sniffling people around us, it’s probably not surprising how easily germs can spread! Echinacea sore throat spray is your best ally: as an immediate antibacterial and antiviral fix, the spreay is the quickest way to get it into your body and so it can get to work on your immune system.

As because we use only our own organically grown, fresh Echinacea herb and root in all our Echinaforce products, infectious agents are 50% less likely to get you! The fresh whole herb preparation contains at least three times the active ingredients of the dried equivalent, so it’s a great way to maximize your chances of staying well!

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